2010 in the rearview: what’s to love in music, part 2

The year-end survey continues – a few more of my favorite recordings from 2010:

Stile Antico: “Media vita” – This is the fourth recording from the young choir Stile Antico. They’re 14 members strong with a singular strong artistic vision that’s wasting no time establishing them in good company with groups like Anonymous 4. “Media vita” features choral music by the Tudor composer John Sheppard, a oft-overlooked contemporary of higher profile composers Thomas Tallis and (the somewhat younger) William Byrd. The real appeal of Sheppard’s outwardly austere harmonies reveals itself in washes (rather than flashes) of color, and the occasional dissonance and disharmony created with passing tones. The pure performance aesthetic of Stile Antico assures you hear every complexity and nuance in the various layers of music. This is one of two recordings from Stile Antico this year, the other is “Puer natus est” for Christmastime. I enjoyed both but prefer “Media vita” for its handling of the unusual repertoire.

Luisa Maita: “Lero-Lero” and “Maita Remixed” – This is actually two-in-one. Luisa Maíta’s debut album “Lero-Lero” was released in July, and it almost immediately spawned (in November) a remix treatment from notables like Maga Bo, Seiji, and DJ/rupture. Whether your tastes run to traditional Brazilian samba and bossa sounds (on “Lero-Lero”), or to the contemporized versions of the same material on the “Remixed” album, Maíta delivers her original songs with understated sultry flair. There is consistency of quality from track to track on these recordings, but not at the sacrifice of variety in tone and flavor. The message is clear: this is Brazil NOW.

Vijay Iyer: “Solo” – For an artist with a decade and a half experience it’s a little surprising it’s taken Vijay Iyer this long to offer the world a solo recording. I wasn’t sure what to expect with “Solo”, given Iyer’s artistic involvement with everything from hip-hop to improvisational collaborations and larger ensemble (orchestral) work. It’s worth the wait, and the question about all of those previous influences is answered by the fact that Iyer’s solo work is a rich blend of all of them. There’s the recording’s simple introduction with “Human Nature”, a song that digs deep into Iyer’s emotional abilities and reminds me of the supreme sensitivity and awareness heard with pianists like Bill Evans (always) and Keith Jarrett (in his best playing). And then you can hear Iyer’s spirited homage to Duke Ellington with “Black and Tan”, and his moving take on Monk’s “Epistrophy”. There is nothing about “Solo” that doesn’t ring true, from the standards (and not-so standard “standards”) to Iyer’s own forward-looking compositions. Look for more great things from this evolving young pianist.

Roland Tchakounté: “Blues Menessen” – What if John Lee Hooker had called his home West Africa? Cameroon’s Roland Tchakounté offers an answer to that thought – at least in part – with his searing bluesy guitar and deep, affecting vocals. And, he’s cool. But the John Lee Hooker comparison can’t be carried too far, Tchakounté is very much his own artist. He recorded two albums in Douala before he left Africa to live in France a few years ago. “Blues Menessen” was released this past May as his latest, most commercial recording. It is blues, but it’s not the West African/Sahara Touareg (think: Tinariwen) blues we’ve become familar with in recent years. This is fairly straightahead American Delta-style blues with an African accent, sung in Tchakounté’s native West Cameroonian language bamileke. It’s both unusual and familiar at the same time. The songs run a wide range of styles, from consistently rhythmic to more free-ranging and moodily interpretive. I love this recording.

Lobi Traoré: “Rainy Season Blues” – I couldn’t mention Roland Tchakounté without also talking about fellow Malian blues man Lobi Traoré. It was quite a shock this year to learn of his June 1st death. The circumstances aren’t completely clear (and of course, not especially important anyway). We do know that Traoré was 49 years old and had enjoyed great success in recent years. A year prior in the summer of 2009, he had met with producer Chris Eckman to lay down tracks for a new recording  featuring just his voice and guitar. What an ideal opportunity for an artist. The result is the new posthumous collection “Rainy Season Blues” – a quietly personal insight into Traoré’s art, featuring exclusively original material.  Traoré sings in Bambara on themes of peace, politics, and family. “Rainy Season Blues” is something like the ‘unplugged’ counterpart to the earlier “Mali Blues” album, and its rewards are equally sweet. Make that bittersweet, since this is also Traoré’s final musical statement. He will be greatly missed.

There are a LOT of other recordings I could mention…here’s a short list:

Mayte Martin: “Cantar a Manuel” – gorgeous flamenco singing from Spain.

Galactic: “Ya-ka-may” – down home SUPER funky sassy, brassy soul grooves from New Orleans…in fact, New Orleans gave the world several other hot releases this year too, including albums from Trombone Shorty (“Backatown”), Kermit Ruffins (“Happy Talk”), and Dr. Michael White (“Blue Crescent”).

Antonin Dvořák’s complete Symphonic Poems, with Charles Mackerras & the Czech Philharmonic (on Supraphon) – this is the contemporary recording of the Poems we’ve been waiting for.

Gil Scott-Heron: “‘I’m New Here” – gritty, original, real, with all the usual great observations about life and our society. Scott-Heron’s first recording in 15 years, and WHAT a return.

Joan Soriano: “El Duque de la Bachata” – singing, blistering guitar-driven melodies from the Dominican Republic.

Frederic Chopin’s late masterpieces with pianist Stephen Hough (on Hyperion) – a perfectly crafted recording to celebrate Chopin’s 200th anniversary year.

Oswin Chin Behilia: “Liber” – politically-infused, lyrically Caribbean songs from a soulful guitar master.

I guess it has to end somewhere, so that’s it for this year’s wrap-up. Cheers to another year of good listening in 2011!

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