Stuff That Stocking

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Beethoven always makes a great gift, more reliable than anything else. And as the greatest artist of the human spirit, there’s no time like now to give Beethoven. Here’s some suggestions that are superb musically and real values money-wise:

Symphonies

This cycle from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the very best, and the price makes it the best value of all the symphony cycles in print.

Piano Sonatas

Much tougher to make one choice here. Kempff is the ideal first choice, and his first, mono recordings are the finest set available. But his stereo versions are also excellent and cheaper.

Those are analog recordings. If you want digital (and well-recorded), Paul Lewis’ set is very good, beautiful played and sane all the way through, though not as deep or dramatic as some others. The price gives it high value.

 

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String Quartets

The final leg of the essential Beethoven tripod (itself fundamental to the Western art music tradition). Like the Piano Sonatas, there’s no clear single choice in terms of musical quality and low cost. This is compounded in that many of the best cycles seem to constantly go in and out of print, leaving the consumer at the mercy of the secondary market.

The early Tokyo String Quartet cycle is a bargain, and is fine, but not in the top rank of recordings. Their later one is superior, one of the best, but the prices are all over the place on the secondary market. The Quartet Italiano cycle is superb, one of the very best, and available at a moderate price.

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As for the rest, there are a lot of good ones that are expensive, and a lot of inexpensive ones that aren’t as good. Caveat emptor.

Stuff That Stocking

 

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I’ve been reading through apocalyptic fiction since summer 2015, inspired in no small part by the stream of reissued material from the great experimental collective Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. If the 2016 political year has got you feeling like you need an inoculation against dread, you can’t do better than to read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

As a companion and a link between this remarkable novel and the remarkable sounds from FAMP, read my article “Sounds of Futures’ Past” at NewMusicBox; a contemplation on what our future sonic archeology might be, and exactly what of civilization we might leave behind to be pieced together by a future Order of St. Leibowitz.

Stuff That Stocking

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Are you a musician, or do you know any musicians?

My Moleskine music notebook is one of the two most valuable tools I have. I’ve got a bunch of different music notebooks, but this is the only one I carry around with me—the hard cover protects the interior, and the paper inside is nicely printed with light, thin ledger lines. Indispensable. The one above fits into a bag or backpack, there’s also a pocket size version that you can carry in a jacket, or cargo pants.

Of course, you need a writing instrument. I use and strongly recommend the Tornado Stealth mechanical pencil.

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I’ve been using one for over three years, and I’ve used nothing but this in all that time. Very sturdy and well-made (it’s metal, not like so many plastic ones) with a nice thick, soft lead that does everything. I love this and have given it as a gift, and will keep doing so. If you don’t like the basic black, you can get various colors and designs, including one with Einstein’s formulas for getting to the equation that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Best Reanimations 2016

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The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.

The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.

(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)

(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)

For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:

Classical

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There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.

Jazz

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  • Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
  • The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
  • Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
  • UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this): Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
  • Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition/Lenox Avenue Breakdown/Illusions/Blythe Spirit. Four albums on two CDs, for $20. Lenox and Illusions are two of the greatest albums of the post-fusion era, testaments to the beautifully creative and vital music made on the Loft Jazz scene.
  • Searching for You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (1958–1974). On Resonance, Zev Feldman produced two important archival releases this year, covering Larry Young and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had his hand in this one too, and there’s little this year I enjoyed as much.

Everything Else

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  • Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
  • Machine Gun: Jimi Hendrix: The Filmore East First Show 12/31/1969. The complete first set of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. An amazing performance and unintended culmination of Jimi’s musical world: blues, soul, funk, and rock.
  • Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
  • Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.

Stuff That Stocking

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For anyone who listens to music through smartphone or tablet, these Bluetooth headphones are an exponential upgrade over earbuds. The sound is excellent, close to that of my Sony studio monitor cans, and you can’t quite imagine how wonderful it is to be free of those danlings wire until you actually try it. Pairs with my iPhone immediately just by turning them on (no fussing with the system application) and they recharge via included USB cable. Once you have them, you will have a hard time imaging how you did without them.

Tip Jar

A gentle reminder, there is an ongoing fundraiser here at the Big City. Every little bit helps, even tiny donations.

If you can give more, I have many of what the public broadcasters call “premiums.” Since I’m below even subsistence level, your donation means a lot more to me, and if you can’t give any more to NPR since they got rid of jazz coverage, consider helping out here.

Hitting Amazon links for purchases helps, a few pennies go to me instead of their company. You can also buy my excellent book!

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Even more, treat yourself or a loved one to a signed, personalized copy. A donation of $20 (add $5 for expedited mailing if you need this in time for Christmas) gets you a copy with the inscription of your choice. It’s a way to give and get.

Thanks.

2016 Notes and Tones

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After listening to what is now close to 500 recordings with a 2016 release date, I feel like I’ve discovered some themes. Some of this is the elusive zeitgeist, what is on the minds of musical artists; some is longer term trends having to do with technology and pop culture; some may just be coincidence. But all were noticeable and satisfied my arbitrary criteria for a sample size.

Jeff Parker

Nothing sub rosa here, Parker has been around for a while and has been one of most interesting guitarists on the scene, creating his own niche in between jazz, rock, neo-soul, and improvised music. He’s living testament that there’s no real line between the popular and the avant-garde in African-American music, it’s all on a spectrum, and a pretty compact one at that.

His album The New Breed (International Anthem) made the most noise this year, and it is solid. I don’t love it though; the intentionally fragmented nature, while interesting, doesn’t really satisfy—the record wants to be both experimental and neatly controlled, and those are contradictory goals.

But there are two other recordings to his credit that are fine. One is a seemingly modest but actually deep solo record, Slight Freedom (Eremite), which has Parker exploring his own fascinating art. The other is drummer Matt Mayhall’s Tropes (Skirl), a tight, strong debut based around the trio of Mayhall, bassist Paul Bryan, and Parker (with various guests). Parker’s contributions are integral to the success of the disc, which is the best jazz debut of the year, and my regrets that I did not get this out of the pile for listening until after the deadline for Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll. Both these are strongly recommended and on my extended list for best new releases.

Guitars

There’s been a longer term trend in the proliferation of terrific guitarists—and please don’t think of just jazz. Many of them play jazz, but they are playing in every sort of style and tradition Some are relatively new on the scene, others are established, and they keep putting out one solid record after another (or, like Parker, are important sidemen on other musicians’ records). Here are recordings from guitarists that I enjoyed this year and recommend:

Ask me on a different day, and any and all of these could be on my list of 52.

Singers

First, I want to express some disappointment. As someone with a man-crush on Kurt Elling, his appearance on Branford Marsalis’ Upward Spiral never captured my attention, and I find his Christmas disc hard going. But there were other fine releases from singers that had the balance of artistry and creativity that I seek—I want my singers to be good musicians! Try these, they are all terrific:

Seriously swinging, musical singing from all the above. Everyone should hear Bertault sing “The Peacocks“ in French.

Labels

This was a strong year for Sunnyside records. I have several of their releases in my top 52, and you’ll find a couple of the vocalists there. Other keepers are Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry’s duet album, Proximity, Dan Blake’s tough-as-nails The Digging, and two records with a south of the Trump wall flavor, Edward Simon’s Latin American Songbook, and Argentum from Carlos Franzetti.

ECM is by default one of the major labels, but their output this year took nothing for granted and was impressive even by their consistent standards. I do go against some of the consensus favorites, like Michael Formanek’s The Distance, which I found wan, but they had a run of fine records in that typical ECM style that carved out a space between improvisation and contemporary classical control. Along with the release on my best of list:

ECM also had several excellent classical and new music releases, those you will find in a forthcoming post.