Haydn Violin Concertos and Mendelssohn Octet performed by Gil Shaham and Sejong Soloists (Canary Classics). The ebullient Gil Shaham was a tremendous hit at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's last opening gala. On this disc he is a kind of Pied Piper, leading the Sejong Soloists, a gifted young American-based ensemble, through Mendelssohn's irresistible Octet and a pair of Haydn violin concertos. The Mendelssohn is the biggest delight, because its manic personality matches Shaham's. It is graceful of Shaham to play such a collaborative piece. You cannot always sense his voice, but you sense his leadership. The Haydn, while not as gripping, brings out the beauty and vulnerability of Shaham's tone. And there are memorable interludes, such as the slow movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1 -- a sensuous aria over pizzicato accompaniment and, clearly, a violinist's dream. 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Elena Ruehr, How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr performed by Cypress String Quartet (Cypress). Here is the fine young Cypress Quartet's cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explaining to Saint Paul Sunday's Bill McGlaughlin how the San Francisco Quartet's close relationship to 46-year-old MIT composer Elena Ruehr came about: "A few years ago we decided to champion the composers whose music we like -- by playing their music a lot and playing a lot of their music. We commission and recommission them and really get into their world, that's become something that's very important to us -- Elena's become a real part of our musical lives." Her music is "infectious," says the ensemble's violist, Ethan Filner. You can say that again many times over after hearing the Cypress Quartet's recordings of Ruehr's Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 4. The result of the quartet's immersion in Ruehr's musical world is one of the most appealing contemporary quartet discs in a very long time. The disc's title, "How She Danced," (Ruehr is a trained dancer as well as musician and composer) comes from the allegro third movement of Ruehr's Third Quartet and, as with so much of this, it sounds like the strongly tonal meeting point of Philip Glass' minimalism and the pan-ethnic folk-influenced music of the great early 20th century experimentalist Henry Cowell. In other words, it's where country reels and hoedowns and Hindu ritual and Balinese gamelan all somehow come together with the restless unison ostinatos of what was once "downtown" new music. A beautiful disc. 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)
Ben Goldberg, Go Home (Bag) and 3ology with Ron Miles (Tapestry). You have to love Ron Miles' tone on trumpet -- soft and fat and lyrical and expressive rather than sharp and declamatory and brassy. He's the modern trumpet player, then, in the tradition of Miles Davis and Chet Baker rather than the young Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown and Woody Shaw. On these, two of the more stunning jazz records in a while, he is featured with groups no one, in the modern phrase, could have seen coming. On clarinetist Ben Goldberg's quartet disc sans bass "Go Home," the opening tune "Tgo" has the kind of ensemble counterpoint you might have heard a half century ago on the West Coast with Jimmy Giuffre and Shorty Rogers, but with neo-New Orleans second line drumming from Scott Amendola and, strangest and best of all, the minimalist rockish burn of Charlie Hunter on seven-string guitar. If it sounds as if it's too much to put into the blender, it all comes out deliciously. The whole disc turns into so much contrapuntal invention that it's almost a statement on counterpoint's return to jazz. 3ology is an experimental trio from Colorado that turns into a quartet with the addition of Miles. So you've got Miles on trumpet, Doug Carmichael on alto saxophone, Tim Carmichael on bass and Jon Powers on drums. There's a good deal of counterpoint on 3ology's disc, too, but without a piano, the group has the same foundation as Ornette Coleman's original quartet and the Chicago cooperative Air, i.e. booming basslines from Tim Carmichael -- who is, alas, no Charlie Haden or Fred Hopkins. (Nor is Doug Carmichael Kenny Garrett, whom his tone somewhat resembles.) Still, it's an interesting exercise in jazz lines, their unspooling, intertwining and counterpoint. Ratings: 3 1/2 stars for "Go Home," 3 stars for 3ology. (J.S.)
Jason and the Scorchers, "Halcyon Times" (Courageous Chicken/Nash Vegas Flash). With its pioneering blend of twang and rock helping to set the Americana template in the early '80s, Jason and the Scorchers were one of those bands whose influence exceeded their own fortunes. Now, 14 years after the group's last album of original material, front man Jason Ringenberg and guitarist Warner E. Hodges are back with a new rhythm section and the old fire. Most of "Halcyon Times" rocks hard. It's great to hear Hodges flashing his six-string fireworks again alongside Ringenberg's nasal tenor. The two founding Scorchers get some songwriting help from like-minded fellow Nashvillians, including Tommy Womack and Dan Baird, who also plays rhythm guitar throughout and sings lead on one track. The result is quintessential Scorchers, with attitude and intensity on such raveups as "Mona Lee" and "Gettin' Nowhere Fast," and an old-soul sensibility on more country-flavored tales such as "Beat on the Mountain" and "Mother of Greed." Like "Golden Days" and the album itself, the final song has a title that could refer to Jason and the Scorchers' rebirth, and the fact the band is as good as ever, if not better. It's called "We've Got It Going On." Do they ever. 3 1/2 stars (Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Joanna Newsom, "Have One on Me" (Drag City). Get off the Internet. Put the iPhone down. Joanna Newsom demands your time and undivided attention. And she rewards it. Sure, the 28-year-old unlikely indie-darling harp virtuoso and pianist has a small, pinched soprano that often grates, and she's guilty of being prone to eight-minute-plus, no-chorus story songs that opt for a big word where a little one would do. Yes, her impressively nuanced narratives sometimes work better as poems on paper than as musically pleasing songs. And on her third album, the Nevada City, Calif., native rarely picks up the pace, settling into a static mid-tempo mode that can be lulling in the extreme. If you want to appreciate what she does, you're going to have to work and digest her music in small doses. But if you're not averse to putting in the effort to listen to the three-CD (or LP) opus that, at 120 minutes, could have easily fit on two discs, plenty of payoff awaits you. Compared with 2006's proggy "Ys," which featured orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks, "Have One on Me" is filled with uncluttered songs that navigate emotional terrain of longing and regret with considerable elan.
On the rare occasion when Newsom manages to really keep herself to the point -- like on the brittle and beautiful one-minute-and-49-second "On a Good Day" -- she hints (I hope) that she's someday going to realize that more is not always more. In the meantime, her music is frequently bewitching and increasingly engrossing with repeated listening. And in a no-attention world, she's an archaic-school artist who's like those old ads from Camel Filters: She's not for everybody. But then, she doesn't try to be. 3 stars (Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Fyfe Dangerfield, "Fly Yellow Moon" (self-release). With his band, the Guillemots, Fyfe Dangerfield zeroed in on that moment of the musical day between the darkness of Morrissey's melancholy night and the dawn of Brian Wilson's sunny early confectionary pop. On this delightfully scrappy, self-released solo debut, the emotional weight shifts toward the light, while retaining the shoestring sophistication that makes the Guillemots so appealing. The leadoff track, "When You Walk in the Room," is a pure-pop delight, 21st century style, with scratchy synth sounds setting the tone and infectious beat for his declaration of what it feels to be so deliriously in love that he can admit, "I can't help it if I'm happy not to be sad." He and producer Adam Noble have delivered a set of stylistically disparate tracks that's almost a sampler, from the wall-of-noise pop of "Faster Than the Setting Sun" to the acoustic folk of "Livewire," from the Philly-soul-soaked "She Needs Me" to the shoegaze philosophizing of "Don't Be Shy." It might splinter into anarchy if not for the connectivity of Dangerfield's unrelenting tunefulness and endearing vulnerability of his vocals. When he sings "This could go in any direction, any direction at all," on the closing cut, he makes the wide-open musical space surrounding him tangibly real. 3 stars (Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times)