2009 in the rearview: what’s to love in music, part 2

A continuation of the year-end, “things I listened to and loved in 2009” list:Amsterdam Klezmer Band: “Zaraza” – You do not have to be a klezmer afficionado to thoroughly enjoy this recording. You just have to be able to appreciate deft instrumental technique and music that will give you a smile and make you want to move. Klezmer styling is the delivery mechanism here, not by far the whole story. In the Band’s typical fusion approach, the influences in this energetic recording range from Balkan to Turkish, Macedonian, and Russian. Although I like klezmer music in general, I have heard criticisms that describe klezmer as “an acquired taste” and a sound that wears thin when listened to in successive-track album format. Can’t that be said about most anything? I find that even with something as sublime as Bach’s English Suites, a little can go a long way. So listen to a little of Zarasa and have a flirting date with their solid, brassy and  irreverent Gypsy-flavored originals (15 on this new CD) – or, listen to a lot and consider yourself a wholesale convert. Either way get ready to surrender your sensibilities to a really silly, good time. (Oh yes – Zaraza translates to ‘epidemic’ in Polish. Perfect summary for all of those infectious rhythms!)Allen Toussaint: “The Bright Mississippi” – How is it, in more than 40 years of playing and recording, we’ve heard so little of Allen Toussaint’s singing? I have that thought every time I hear him taking on Long Long Journey (the Leonard Feather original), one of Mississippi’s last tracks, in a melodic, deeply soulful voice befitting his 71 years. Outside of that rare vocal venture the piano is the thing here in an uncharacteristic lineup of standards by Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and Django Reinhardt. St. James Infirmary is given a light lilting touch, retaining the necessary dirge feel but reminding us that this is, after all, a N’awlins story wherein an untimely death surely means the strolling sunshine of a jazz funeral is sure to follow. We don’t ruminate in the dark for very long in this lovely, hymnal version of the classic tune. Toussaint pulled together a  classy ensemble for his first recording in more than a decade, including trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist David Piltch, guitarist Marc Ribot (whose bluesy strumming acts as a witness to the first-person piano narrative in St. James Infirmary – brilliant) and clarinetist Don Byron. The Bright Mississippi is the timeworn, sepia-stained pages of the great American songbook filtered through the steamy sunshine of a lazy bayou afternoon.Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata: “Monteverdi – Teatro d’Amore” – The swirling abdonment of the dancer on the cover says it all. Teatro‘s joyously inventive musical revelations may not be for early music purists, but let’s take a moment to define terms: how meaningful is the word ‘purist’, really, when we are talking about music made from what are often little more than partial pages of manuscript indicating a piece’s bass lines? With so little clearly articulated by the composer, the melody, ornamentation, phrasing, rhythm, dynamic and tempo of the music are frequently left to the performer to shape and define. That leaves a pretty wide margin for individual imprint and understanding. The allure of early music interpretations is that they are interpretive. The best, most thorough scholarship in the world can only go so far to provide insight into how any piece ‘should’ be played. We know more about some pieces than others, to be sure, but what makes Teatro d’Amore such a riveting exploration is despite the fact the music all comes from a single consistent source (Venetian master Claudio Monteverdi) L’Arpeggiata’s reading of these madrigals and love songs knows no creative boundaries. The performances are flawless, exciting, and fearless as they toss in an occasional blues note, swing a rhythm, or allow for a liberally jazzy cadenza. The famously colorful madrigal Zefiro Torna is a thrilling highlight on this unusual recording of many delights. Monteverdi may not have “intended” for his music to sound like this (who can say?), but I’d bet anything he would have appreciated it.

Debashish Bhattcharya: “O Shakuntala!” – I know Bhattcharya’s work from his recent two howling slide guitar releases on Riverboat Records (Calcutta Slide Guitar and Calcutta Chronicles). It’s simply unfathomable at times to conceive that one person is pulling off the cascades of blistering riffs heard on these virtuosic recordings. But it’s true, and that fact only adds to the intrigue of his 2009 release, O Shakuntala. This one is unlike the past two in several key points: O Shakuntala is a programmatic recording, its multiple tracks musically illustrate the progressive epic Sanskrit love story of King Dushyanta and the young woman Shakuntala. Bhattcharya’s instrument of choice here is also of his own design: he trades the slide guitar in for the chaturangui, a flexible, melodic sitar/lap slide hybrid to delicately capture the nuances of the story’s exoticism. And the resulting project is less notable for its surface pyrotechnical virtuosity, than for its ultimate beauty, deep tenderness, and artistic cohesion. Like the blushing petals of the lotus flower on the cover, O Shakuntala‘s many pleasures are realized in its multiple layers of irresistable loveliness. (This past September’s recital with the Bhattcharyas – Debashish and brother Subhasis – is also one of the past year’s live music highlights!)The Lost Fingers: “Lost in the ’80s” – There is nothing tender or lovely about this recording. (That is not a criticism.) Lost in the ’80s is a party, party, PARTY with funky and sassy Gypsy jazz renderings of ’80s hits like Pump Up The Jam (which sets the tone as the opening track!), Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, and Paula Abdul’s Straight Up. Repeated listening (highly recommended) leaves one reaching for the ‘repeat’ button with a guilty grin and the firm conviction there’s nothing this Québecois trio won’t take on, in their own slap-happy jaunty style. Vive Lost Fingers!    The Bad Plus: ” For All I Care” – Speaking of cutting-edge trios…when I think back to the first recordings from The Bad Plus I also remember the buzz they stirred up. “Are they jazz? Are they rock?” And, a comment from a friend at the time: “They’re not jazz. But I like them.” With the perspective of nearly ten years and several recordings later now, the trio has proven to be among the vanguard forces (along with other groups like EST, and Medeski Martin + Wood) that have reinvented expectations and marshalled jazz’s evolution into the new millennium. The Bad Plus’ latest release features the trio with vocalist Wendy Lewis in a blending of sensibilities that is seamless. Lewis’ commanding presence and style guides the effort, with highlights like the painful ballad Comfortably Numb. Like the increasingly deformed structure of the water rings spreading out around a rock dropped into a pond, the Pink Floyd classic unravels in rippling piano arpeggios that spin out of control even as the sedatives begin to course through the veins of the character singing the song. The effect is a spiraling sense of helplessness and desperation, a shapeless echo of the orderly structure that once existed. Aaaah, madness. An utterly haunting interpretation. There are other memorable moments as well, like the classical selections by Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti, and Milton Babbitt which initially seem like strange choices but are well suited to the group’s sound. So, is The Bad Plus ‘classical’? Nah. But I like them.         Oumou Sangare: “Seya” – For the record: a mere five months ago, Oumou Sangare was SINGING IN A HAY FIELD IN CABOT, VERMONT. I was there for the opening night of the annual Festivus (for the Restivus) World Music Festival, and Oumou was the reason why. It was right around this time last year when I found out she was a confirmed performer for the Festival and I knew I would go no matter what it took to get there. On Friday night, July 17th Oumou and her band took the stage at around 11pm as the soaking rain deluge showed no signs of abating. And it was glorious. I don’t know how else to describe the specialness of the scenario except like this: imagine one of America’s biggest-name musicians like Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson overseas on tour, where one of the stops is a concert in a farmer’s field, played to around 60 or so audience members. Oumou Sangare is Mali’s equivalent to those performers, in both her stature and ability to draw a crowd. But that’s how intimate and powerful the experience was that chilly, wet night. There she was! I had to keep reminding myself to remember the details! The music in that energized set all came from Seya, Oumou Sangare’s 2009 release of grooves and tunes on themes of happines, empowerment, survival, ancestry, and the harmfulness in the practice of child marriages. Oumou Sangare’s strong lead vocals and 10-piece band offer a memorable experience in person and in Seya as well. It’s quite a package either way.Mamane Barka: “Introducing Mamane Barka” – Just across the Eastern border of Mali is the Niger Republic, and that’s where Mamane Barka is from. Seven years ago he received a UNESCO scholarship to pursue his dream of learning how to play the biram, a harp-like instrument native to the fishing tribes that live near Lake Chad. (You can read the rest of his interesting story here.) This new recording marks Barka’s debut as a biram master. As an anthropological record alone it would have merit, but the music makes this an unforgettable listening experience as well. True to its architecture, the biram has a delicate sound with a lyricality and nimbleness somewhat similar to a kora. Its expressive capacity ranges from the heartbreakingly plaintive to lively, singing, and desert bluesy. We’re told that Barka is the world’s last player of the instrument. I hope this isn’t a novelty recording that marks the beginning and end of our encounters with the biram, and with master Barka. In his hands I believe the biram is an ancient instrument that’s just beginning to tell its stories, and the rich stories of its people.

That’s it, the list of the 15 (it turns out) recordings that defined 2009 musically for me. As always, music is best when someone else turns you on to it – please leave a comment here with your favorites from the past year if there was something special that struck you.

Cheers to 2010!

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