Best Music of 2009

The title says ‘best of,’ but this is more like favorite music of the year, recordings that sound great and excite and please first and last. No matter the analysis or exploration of meaning, this is my list of music that I went back to again and again, just to listen to and enjoy in 2009:

It was a good year for René Jacobs, with a notable recording of Idomeneo. What I love more, though, is his new release of Haydn’s The Creation. His partnership with the Freiburger Barockorchester is one of the most exciting things in classical music today. The sound they have developed together seems the point and culmination of decades of exploring the idea of how baroque and classical music was heard when it was brand new; the sinewy, tart ensemble seems a direct expression of both conductor and the music they perform. This set grabs the attention with the best imaginable conveyance of Haydn’s representation of order forming out of chaos; every other recording I have heard presents the music as a structure coming together out of smaller fragments, and to that Jacobs adds the very idea of sound cohering out of chaos. I’ve heard no other music like this, of any kind. As usual he adds a group of stellar singers, Julia Kleiter, Maximilian Schmitt and Johannes Weisser. A fantastic recording. Here’s a sample:

Naxos puts out a vast amount of high quality music, and even at the budget price still produces recordings that are as good as they come. The company would be welcome if all they were doing was recording the standard classical repertoire, but they are important because their ambitions are greater than that. Two of their current projects are the recording of the music of Anton von Webern under the eminent conductor Robert Craft, and their tremendous American Classics series, which seeks to present, in the broadest sense, the classical music history of this country – past, present and future – and is so far succeeding beyond expectations. The second volume of Webern’s music was released this year, and features Craft leading the composer’s crystalline orchestration of Bach’s Ricercata, the Op. 5 Five Movements for String Orchestra and the great Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 10) and Variations (Op. 30), along with vocal and choral music. Webern was a great composer, his atonality exceedingly lyrical and beguiling, and these performances are beautiful and expressive, demanding attention.

American music means, inevitably, Charles Ives, and Naxos have already produced an extensive body of recordings of the composer, featuring rare and previously unrecorded works. All of these have been good to excellent, and their new Ives recording is their best yet and one of the best CDs of the composer’s music I’ve encountered. James Sinclair leads the Malmo Symphony and Chamber Chorus in three of the four tones poems that later made up the Holidays Symphony, interspersed with shorter works, including an interesting Overture in G Minor from the days when Ives was enthralled to Brahms and The General Slocum, a Central Park In The Dark type piece based around ‘The Sidewalks of New York.’ The Holidays movements are the finest expressions of his ideas and work and these performances are tremendous, played with the combination of great tenderness and revelry in chaos which this music requires and which is so very hard to balance. From beginning to end the performances bring for the mystic chords of memory and the choral entry and singing on the last track, ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers Day,’ is stunning and incredibly moving.

More recent is a collection of music from Eric Moe, Strange Exclaiming Music, works for violin, saxophone and percussion. Moe has the sensibility and craft to write rigorous, serious music which communicates clearly to the listener with verve and fervor. The title piece is a violin sonata which acknowledges a tradition from Beethoven to John Adams, with an appealing gravity and rhythmic vitality. There’s an appreciation for the physical quality of rhythm that Stravinsky captured and a very American sense of lyricism coupled with a tough, determined stance. Everything sounds great, and this is not just an excellent introduction to the composer but a purely excellent disc in its own right.

In Mahler, the latest installment of David Zinman’s cycle, Symphony No. 7, was excellent in conception and playing. This symphony has been accumulating superb recordings over the last decade, and this is the equal of those from Michael Gielen and Michael Tilson Thomas. Two wonderful recordings of Symphony No. 8 also were highlights of the year, MTT’s (which finished his cycle), with the now familiar combination of focus, beautiful phrasing, extraordinary judgement of drama and form, wonderful singing and demonstration quality recording. This symphony is the highlight of the interesting download only cycle the New York Philharmonic brought out celebrating Loren Maazel’s tenure, with the most self-effacing expression from the conductor, wonderful playing and exceptional sound, truly amazing in that the mp3 files sound better than Avery Fischer Hall would seem to allow.

From the historical record came Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Recital at Ravinia, and the first moments of hearing her voice in Brahms’ ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ are a reminder of how much was lost to the world of music with her death. The beauty and human intensity of her singing are resonantly alive. Her power as a musician was truly uncanny, the sound of her voice and her musicianship are apparent, what is unquantifiable was her ability to communicate with clarity and a natural intensity, and this recording shows her power as well as any other and covers the range of her strengths, from Brahms to Handel and Debussy, and sincere, perfectly judged versions of ‘Deep River’ and ‘Baghdad Cafe: Calling You.’ From the more distant past, two fantastic early music recordings; a realization of Die Kunst Der Fuge from a period instrument group led by Vittorio and Lorenzo Ghielmi, with the innovation of arranging each Contrapunctus and Canon for a different set of instruments. There are many good recordings of this music, but this is the only one I now where one can hear the pure music making along with Bach’s didacticism at the same time, and the shifting instrumental timbres and textures are stimulating and fascinating to the ear. Jordi Savall’s Istanbul has some of the funkiest, grooviest music of the 18th or any century, the highlight so far of his explorations of the meeting and mixing of musics in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Scholar, administrator, conductor and gambist, Savall is also one of the finest and most exciting improvising musicians there is and this record is full of music that can honestly be called hip, funk and tuneful. There’s a vibrant, thrusting sense of rhythm and the sound of a band jamming as ferociously as the finest jazz groups.

Also, special mention for Andrew McKenna Lee’s amazing performance of Electric Counterpoint on his new EP, Missy Mazzoli and her band Victoire for making contemporary music and abstract pop music work better than anyone else on their EP, Judd Greenstein’s masterful composition ‘Escape’ from Nadia Sirota’s CD of viola music, the conception behind In C Remixed, and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic’s lustrous, powerful download only concert performance of The Firebird.

In pop music, there where great records from Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Sondre Lerche and Joe Henry. Add to those the end of the year release of a concert disc from Tom Waits, Glitter and Doom. Waits is a great and important American artist, fully formed from the roots of this country’s culture; Whitman, Ives, Armstrong. More than the phonies in Nashville and Sarah Palin, he’s the troubadour of the real America, the mongrel, rootless America, the kind that makes a wage, if anything, that drives a patched-together car, lives in a patched-together home and shambles through a patched-together life. Pretty much everything he does is notable and as the chances to see him perform live are exceedingly rare, a new live record is a real gift. The set list emphasizes his fecund and unique post Swordfishtrombones years and displays his extraordinary voice front and center. It’s not just a voice, it’s a force of nature, with a sense of enormous physical dimension even at the lowest volume, he’s singing out of the memory of 19th century mining disasters, New Orleans, the migration to California during the Depression and On The Road. Pretty much indescribably and completely amazing. There’s an odd and hilarious second disc of Tom rambling charmingly at the piano, presumably in-between songs.

In another aspect of American tradition, the fundamental story of African-Americans in the culture of this country is how they made so much of American culture by remaking the basically European elements they found when they were forcibly brought to this land. One of those was the brass-band (and the untold story of American music is the importance of the brass-band, from ragtime to New Orleans, Sousa, Ives, James Peace Europe and beyond), which has been a place where public performance, style and ceremony meet. Outside of the great black university bands, these ensembles are invisible in America. Lester Bowie formed a magical one, emphasizing the continuity of jazz, gospel, blues, funk and the ability to put on a polished show, and now a new, young, family-based brass band has put out one of the finest records of the year, the eponymous collection from Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. It’s all brass with an assist from drums and bass, and the music is in the intellectual tradition of Bowie and the AACM, where the popular, the creative and the avant-garde are all part of the same continuum of living history – which means it’s nothing but soul. This band emphasizes funk, and does so even more successfully than their forbear. Music like this doesn’t just set the foot to tapping, it goes after the hips and doesn’t let go; incredibly funky polyphonic horn lines, drumming as loose and hip as Chris Wood and the rich, bright, mellow sound of all those horns playing together. Simply great music and just a joy to hear, no record this year has given more pure pleasure. Look for all their recordings online, or on the street, direct from the source:

One that is an equal pleasure is the Tompkins Square compilation Fire In My Bones, Raw + Rare + Other-Worldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007). Here is more European culture – Protestantism, song-form – taken up by African-Americans and returned to us. It’s unlike the ersatz blue-eyed non-soul of contemporary Christian soft-pop pablum, and also very different from the jump-for-joy gospel choirs of the public imagination. Too much of that music comes out of materialistic comfort and has no understanding of disappointment, want, desire and despair. Fire In My Bones is ‘the good news’ music that recognizes hard times and comes through them fighting. Right near the beginning is Elder Beck’s admonishing “Rock and Roll Sermon,” about the evils of that music. The inside joke is that the collection as a whole is tremendously rocking, but in the gospel blues tradition of Blind Willie Johnson. The best Christian music, like Bruckner, expresses the frightening mystery of existence as well as the comfort of belief, and all the music on this record recognizes that inherently. Absolutely packed full of non-stop fascination, these CDs will make you put down whatever you are doing and listen hard.

It’s been a good year for the funk. Phenomenal guitarist Wayne Krantz issued a power-funk-trio CD, Krantz Carlock Lefebvre which is full of hip, tasty playing. This is funk with a rock flavor and the responsive, supple interplay of the finest jazz groups. Krantz’s tunes and playing seem to be made with familiar riffs, but they are put together in unexpected ways, with structural turns that don’t follow standard song-form logic. The soloing is deep inside the tunes themselves, deep inside the group cruising through the grooves like a muscle car purring down a city street; four bars of riff followed by two bars of tightly interpolated improvisation and back again. He’s a masterful player, laying down a rich texture of chords and rhythm while leading the music and tossing off solo lines – the playing is dense with musical information and the music is full of meat. The rhythm section of Keith Carlock and Tim Lefebvre are superior partners, and they are also half of the group Rudder, with Chris Cheek on saxophones and keyboard player Henry Hey. Their new record, Matorning, is heavier than Krantz’s record, more centered around the standard jazz idea of tune then solos, and just as deeply funky, sitting at the fine point of jazz, rock and funk. Call it thrash-jazz-funk if you need to call it something, but this is one of the most exciting bands around.

More recognizable as jazz, but no less interesting or progressive, were the excellent releases from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Frank Carlbeg, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Paul Motian. Each of these musicians is expanding the tradition of jazz and adding to it’s vocabulary and possibilities in interesting and important ways, and each of these CDs is an exceptionally rewarding listening experience and some of the very finest music of the year. Iyer and Lehman make up two-thirds of Fieldwork, the last leg is drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and his second CD, Koan, is uniquely fascinating. There’s a parallel with Tony Williams, both sparking a revolution in what can be done with the drums in a jazz group, and both going on to make their own records that are resolutely against type and expectations from their previous playing. This is a trio record, with Thomas Morgan and Todd Neufeld on guitar and bass, but the three play together only for short periods, much of the music is long, quiet solo playing from the strings, solo playing, but not necessarily soloing. This is deeply mysterious music, simultaneously seeming free and carefully composed, the playing almost rudimentary yet clearly being done by skilled musicians. It’s minimalist in that it emphasizes the repetition of short, simple material but has none of the process of someone like Steve Reich. In fact, it is almost inscrutable – the title is apt. It’s also insistently enthralling to the ear as it slowly reveals its stark beauty, like a sunrise over a desert. This is a great recording, and very much meant for the private listening that a CD or digital music allows, and one which promises to reveal many truths over many years of listening.

Finally, and in terms of universal truth, there is the digital reissue of a record that all taxpayers helped produce, the Symphonies of The Planets, a collection of sounds from space recorded by the Voyager missions. Strange, mysterious, ambient, compelling and utterly unusual, this is the sound of the universe.

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