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Disc reviews: Ghostface Killah, Vocalis, Joe Sample, Carolina Eyck and Christopher Tarnow

Hip-hop

Ghostface Killah

36 Seasons

[Tommy Boy]

∆∆∆

It would be a bit strange if Ghostface Killah was in direct competition with himself, his solo career perhaps drawing attention and potential cash away from his “day gig” as a member of the Wu Tang Clan collective. But Ghostface’s new “36 Seasons” is so superior to the Wu Tang’s concurrently released “A Better Tomorrow” that any comparison between the two albums is wholly arbitrary.

While the Wu Tang release reveals a collective that seems to have run dry of ideas, “36 Seasons” sounds inspired, is purposeful and smartly edited, and leans heavily against the comfortable corpus and supportive framework of classic late 1960s and ’70s soul.

It’s a concept album that carries forward the narrative commenced with Ghostface’s last release, “12 Reasons to Die,” but even though the rapper is wholly convincing and believable as a narrator, it’s not the stories that make “36 Seasons” so compelling. It’s the music that does the trick, and the way in which Ghostface and guests AZ, Kool G Rap, Pharaoh Monch, Trey Williams, Shawn Wigs, Rell and Nem find their place within it that provides the majority of the magic.

That music comes courtesy of co-producers the Revelations, who craft immaculate slabs of hot buttered soul for Ghostface to play with. As a result, “36 Seasons” boasts a natural, organic flow and a focus on pleasing, warm and ambient tones – not exactly par for the course in contemporary hip-hop, and more the norm for the ever-burgeoning neo-soul movement. Peers would be well advised to watch how Ghostface does it, and take plenty of notes.

Wu Tang shows every indication of having run out of steam, at least for the time being. But Ghostface Killah? He sounds like he’s just getting started.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz

Joe Sample and the NDR Big Band

Children of the Sun

[NDR/PRA]

◊◊◊

Composer/pianist Joe Sample died in September – one of the more significant jazz losses of 2014. If you can just remember how fresh and appealingly populist the Jazz Crusaders were when they first started out – and hadn’t yet dropped the “jazz” from their name out of commercial calculation – you’ll value this product of Sample’s final years as one of the best things he ever did.

He recorded it in 2011. He explains it this way: While exploring the Virgin Island St. Croix at the island’s Jazz Festival in 1995, “I hiked to a rather large rise, which was the highest point on the island. From there I looked out over the entire island. For as far as I could see, and no matter which direction I looked, there was nothing but blue water, except for the massive palomino-colored stone buildings that had fallen into ruin.”

They were the ruins of the processing plants that were the center of the island’s slave trade.

They “served to remind me of the brutal and evil institution of slavery. For the first time in my life, I felt the emotions that the slaves must have felt in those days. This seemingly idyllic place had been an island of suffering and torment, floating in a blue abyss. There was no place to escape to. I imagined the slaves dreaming of wings that would enable them to fly their babies to freedom. That time on St. Croix was an epiphany.”

A great inspiration for a music work, to be sure, When the NDR Big Band asked Sample for a composition with which to perform with the band, “I realized I had been writing this music since the spring of ’95, when I climbed that rise. African-American writers have for years referred to those early slaves as ‘Children of the Sun.’ This is my tribute to them.”

The music, unfortunately, isn’t a match for Sample’s verbal eloquence in explaining his inspiration. It is, nevertheless, well-crafted jazz orchestral music performed by one of those European jazz orchestras that is – far more so than in America – keeping the art of jazz orchestral music alive with some of the best possible performances of it.

It doesn’t quite do the same marvelous thing that European Jazz Orchestra performance was able to do for Joe Zawinul when he rearranged Weather Report classics for them, but it’s strong reminder of how much was lost in Sample’s September death.

– Jeff Simon

Classical

A Vocalis Christmas

Vocalis Chamber Choir

[Vocalis Chamber Choir]

∆∆∆z

The Vocalis Chamber Choir, an eminent Buffalo a cappella group, gives an annual Christmas concert at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, and it’s always a beautiful event. This disc, arriving just in time for Christmas Day, showcases performances from 2011, 2012 and 2013. The recording has a bit of a grass-roots feel, with pauses for sporadic applause and occasional gaps between tracks. But the sound is beautiful. The acoustics in the Karpeles Museum treat the singers well; you feel their pristine virtuosity, and the singers’ enunciation is such that most of the words are distinct.

Highlights include a haunting performance of “O magnum mysterium” by Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria; the French “Noel nouvelet”; an energetic English carol, new to me, called “Past Three O’Clock”; and another zesty novelty, Andrejs Jansons’ “Ai, nama mamina.” And I loved the group’s traditional takes on a host of carols. There is no need to reinvent this music. “The Holly and the Ivy” is charming, with a lot of solo lines and other vocal derring-do. John Rutter’s sunny touch is perfect for “Silent Night” and “Deck the Halls.” There’s a cute “Carol of the Bells,” and Arthur Warrell’s euphoric arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” makes you want to toast that old chestnut.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Avant-Garde Classical

Carolina Eyck and Christopher Tarnow

Improvisations for Theremin and Piano

[Butterscotch]

◊◊½

Buffalo-raised New York record producer Allen Farmelo became one of the heroes of Buffalo music when he and Brendan Bannon teamed up to record the improvisations of the ancient Buffalo jazz pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop.

That project was kid stuff compared to the idiosyncrasy of this disc produced by Farmelo.

The theremin is an electronic instrument probably best known for its liquid electric whoops on the Beach Boys’ record “Good Vibrations” and in the soundtrack to the original “Star Trek.”

Writes Farmelo here “today the sound of the theremin remains a nearly comical, retro-futuristic emblem of campy spectralness, a sonic tag that has even managed to seep into colloquial imitation much the way the themes from ‘Jaws’ or ‘The Twilight Zone’ have. Very few Americans associate the theremin with music, let alone serious or beautiful music.”

That is the point of this disc, in which thereminist Carolina Eyck improvises music with pianist Christopher Tarnow. While it may not entirely succeed in liberating the theremin as an everyday sound in the musical world, it certainly displays that a great deal can be done seriously with it by those who need only the will.

– J.S.

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