Before I Shelve These CDs…

It’s winter, so I’ve spent more time indoors than out. And that means weekend afternoons listening to lots of fine music. Before these CDs get lost on the shelves, allow me to share some recommendations:

Fahey Takoma

(Yes, I know this is vinyl, not a CD. Please read on…)

John Fahey was an acoustic guitar player with a nearly mythical story. He lived from 1939 until 2001. Beginning in the mid-1960s and until the early 1970s, Fahey recorded a remarkable series of acoustic guitar albums, each firmly rooted in the 1920s acoustic blues of the south, and yet, in their own way, contemporary and wholly original. For some time, these records were hard to find, but nowadays, there isn’t much music that’s hard to find. And in Fahey’s case, there is now a series of wonderful CDs available at popular prices. Two of my favorites are The Legend of Blind Joe Death and America. In time, I will make it my business to listen to most or all of his work. And, along the way, I intend to track down a film produced about Fahey in 2010. It’s called In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, and it’s the source of the image at the top of this paragraph. Click on the picture and you’ll see the trailer.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

When I was visiting the UK this past year, I stopped by Blackwell’s Music in Oxford and requested listening recommendations. I left the store with several Oxford choral CDs, and with a three-CD box by composer Karl Jenkins entitled The Platinum Collection. According to his website, he is “the most performed living composer in the world.” Who knew? I missed him completely, and again, I’m only now getting up to date. Jenkins came up as a jazz guy, playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in London, then forming the popular jazz group Nucleus with Ian Carr, and then, as part of one of my then-favorite British progressive bands, Soft Machine. After a period of writing music for commercials, he composed Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary which is included in my box set. Like the other two discs, Adiemus combines a contemporary approach to choral music, a wide range of instruments (classical, jazz, rock, whatever works best), and a wonderful range of energy from contemplative to soaring. At first, I’ll admit that I listened to Jenkins as background music (bad idea). This is music that requires full-throttle listening, preferably on a top-notch sound system with the widest possible dynamic range, accuracy, and superior reproduction of vocal parts. Jenkins can be a crowd-pleaser in the sense of, say, music composed for the Olympics, but I found more nourishment when I listened carefully, and allowed myself the time to pay attention to these works in their complete form.

I’m equally intrigued by the Kronos Quartet, a forward-thinking classical ensemble I’ve been following for decades. I missed out on their 2009 2test-600x0release, Floodplain, and now that I’ve got a copy, I’ve been playing it a lot. It’s an album of music from various nations and cultures located in and near the Middle East, mostly instrumentals, some traditional, played with the deep knowledge that this music was composed in the part of the world where “human civilization was born and first flourished.” There is respect and beauty. Respect because this is not Middle Eastern music. Instead, there is “Lullaby,” which is Black Iranian but affected by other cultures, and there is “Wa Habini” a Christian devotional song sung on Good Friday, part of the sacred tradition of Lebanon. “Tew semagn hagere” (Listen to Me, My Fellow Countrymen) comes from Ethiopia, and it is played on instruments constructed for Kronos by their designer, Walter Kitundu, who hails from Tanzania. The album opens with a hit song, from the 1930s, from Egypt: “Ya Habibi Ta’ala.” In fact, many of the songs were hits long ago. This is music you’ll want to buy on CD: the liner notes add texture and important background to the listening experience.

Garth KnoxGarth Knox’s 2012 release, Saltarello, was released by ECM New Series in 2012, and it, too, has become a favorite. Knox performs on viola, viola d’amore, and fiddle. As he performs an interesting selection of old and very new music, he does so with the attentive accompaniment of Agnes Vesterman on cello and Sylvain Lemetre on percussion. The repetoire here begins with the early British composer Henry Purcell (“Music for a While”) and continues on the old track with Hildegarde von Bingen, and John Dowland. I like the idea that this music is contrasted with work by, for example, the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and that Knox manages to pull it all together as a cohesive whole. The Saariaho piece is challenging, extreme in its special effects. To be honest, I had to check the unfamiliar name–Guillaume de Machaut–to determine whether he was an old composer or a new one (he lived in the 1300s, and was equally famous as a poet whom Geoffrey Chaucer apparently admired).

300px-Machaut_1

Well, I found this tapestry on the Wikipedia site for Machaut. Clearly, he is not a contemporary composer.

Andy Sheppard

Andy Sheppard (click on the link for a bunch of neat pictures of Sheppard at play.)

Also on ECM, and also from 2012, Trio Libero is an album that I’ve enjoyed time and again. It’s one of those albums with a distinctive series of opening notes that sounds wonderfully familiar, and causes me to follow the lead line all the way through the first song (“Libertino”). Here, I’m listening to a terrific saxophone player named Andy Sheppard (he also plays soprano sax). Sheppard’s solo leads to a long, comfortable bass solo by Michel Benita (who is a major presence throughout, moreso than one typically finds on albums by a sax trio). As I said, I’ve listened to this album quite a few times, and now that I’m listening while writing about it, there’s a smile on my face. It’s just really good jazz. It’s quite varied. There’s a nice tender rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” on the third track, a Weather Report-like texture entitled “Space Walk, Part 1.” And, the more I listen, the more I come to realize how much I enjoy listening to a well-played soprano sax. This is one of those albums where everything comes together beautifully, and I encourage you to be among the (inevitable) few who come to enjoy it as much as I do.

Okay, everything on this list now gets placed on the shelves, making room for the new, or, at least, for music that’s new to me.

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