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Listening Post: A Thousand Horses, Robert Glasper, Billie Holiday, James Horner, The King’s Singers, Joachim Raff, Mahan Esfahani

Southern Rock

A Thousand Horses, “Southernality” (Republic Nashville). There’s nothing like jamming to good ol’ Southern rock driving home from work with the windows down. The air smells like summer and A Thousand Horses sounds like it too – with a serious country twang. I wouldn’t be the first person in line for Taste of Country tickets, but I definitely can get behind “Southernality,” A Thousand Horses’ second album. A Thousand Horses is reminiscent of The Black Crowes, with singer Michael Hobby giving a Kid Rock vibe in the vocals minus the hip-hop affect. Guitarists Zach Brown and Bill Satcher and bassist Graham Deloach provide a solid rock ’n’ roll foundation and aid in Hobby’s country flair. This is music for a summer BBQ no one really objects to. On first listen, I caught myself singing along to more than one song and doing the head bob and foot tap that happens when you can really get into music. As with most albums nowadays – Fall Out Boy’s 2013 “Save Rock and Roll” – comes to mind, the single released for “Southernality” was not the most impressive song. Notable tracks include “Tennessee Whiskey,” which serves as the discs’s I-miss-my-girl-so-I’m-going-to-drink song. (Do male artists need to produce a quota of these types of songs to be considered country?) Nevertheless, “Tennessee Whiskey” is catchy. “Trailer Trashed” describes a “hometown, throwdown party with some country class” that invites a campfire-party-with-friends nostalgia and lets listeners pretend to be a little country, even if they’re completely the city slickers that the song threatens to eject from the party. In short, “Trailer Trashed” made me want to buy cowboy boots and then stamp them in time with the music while wearing cut-off shorts. The album is littered with country staples: love, heartbreak, booze and a healthy dose of ’merica — in that order. It goes best with a cold beer, not an umbrella-decorated margarita. Three stars (Hannah Gordon)

Jazz

Robert Glasper, “Covered” (Blue Note). “I missed the piano,” admits Robert Glasper in explaining his return here to a piano trio CD after winning an R&B Grammy for “Black Radio.” “I didn’t want to go back to a trio and just play a bunch of standards or original jazz compositions, because then I would lose the big fan base I built from mainstream R&B. So I decided on a happy medium, returning to the piano trio but doing cover songs, which is something I’ve never done before. It’s something that can feed the appetites of both my R&B/hip-hop audience and my jazz audience at the same time.” Kudos to Robert Glasper for both the raw candor of that and its nonexistence of condescension in any musical direction. This is Glasper’s trio from his first two Blue Note CD’s – bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid. Glasper quotes all sorts of favorites here – Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” (which, of course, Miles Davis loved too; Glasper is doing the music for Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie), and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” He plays Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill” and “Stella By Starlight” straight-out here too. He’s playing a whole lot of acoustic piano here in this live performance disc and much of it is full of wit and delight. Just when you might think he’s taking his return to the acoustic piano less seriously than he ought to, he accompanied Harry Belafonte’s autobiographical monologue “Got Over.” “I told him just to talk about his life and what he did to overcome things,” says Glasper. “It was mind-blowing.” He ends the disc with a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst” in which his 6-year old son Riley and his friends recite the names of African-American victims of police shootings. There are, it seems, very serious reasons why Robert Glasper wants to maintain his large audience. Three stars (Jeff Simon)

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Billie Holiday, “Banned from New York City: Live 1948-1957” (Uptown, two discs). The February 1953 issue of Tan Magazine featured Billie Holiday on the cover. The cover piece’s title was “Can a Dope Addict Come Back?” She had, by then, served nine months at a federal prison in West Virginia. According to Kirk Silsbee’s notes here, it was her conviction that her 1947 arrest on a narcotics charge in Philadelphia was, at least in part, retribution for her record “Strange Fruit,” a milestone of American music and American cultural history, both. She lost her cabaret card, which meant she spent much of the final years of her life unable to perform in New York City. This two-disc set of final period Billie in live performance is a historic collection of important jazz history. “Some of it has been released piecemeal; some of it has never been issued.” The live concert performances are from Los Angeles in 1948 and 1956, Philadelphia in 1951, Brussels, Belgium, and Boston in 1954, “The Steve Allen Show” in 1956, and Chicago in 1957. The arc of her severe decline is unmistakable but, even so, she is surprisingly robust singing on “The Steve Allen Show,” no matter how diffident she is in the Allen “interview.” The Bobby Troup introduction to “My Man” may make you a little sick in its tribute to her “man” Louis McCay, whom the notes tell us “threw the phone at her and cut her head; he cheated on her, and he stole her money.” If you’ve never heard Billie Holiday live from this period, it’s all both tragic and miraculous in its way. A great reissue of what’s been heard before and an indispensable bit of what we’ve never heard on disc before. Four stars (Jeff Simon) Classical

James Horner, “Pas de Deux” performed by violinist Mari Samuelsen, cellist Hakon Samuelson, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and conductors Vasily Prenko and Clark Rundell (Mercury Classics). A strange but immensely appealing record. The James Horner Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra that occupies only half of the disc is also the only piece listed on its front cover, along with the names of the brother and sister string performers featured all the way through. Granted, the Norwegian siblings commissioned the piece from the man who, most famously, wrote the film music for James Cameron’s “Titanic” (“Avatar” too, along with countless other movies) but among the other works performed well here is Arvo Part’s “Fratres” one of the favorite pieces of all contemporary music in the 21st century. Horner, get this now, hadn’t heard the musicians play before, but on piloting his own private plane to a friend’s house in California, he heard enough to say “yes” to their request that he write them a concerto. It’s exactly the sort of gushing neo-Romantic Double Concerto you’d expect from the composer of all that much-loved film music. He says, flat-out, that he turned to film composing in the first place because of his lack of sympathy for the classical music being composed when he started out and now “I know from my own experience just how much I can push an audience out of its comfort zone.” A lush, attractive piece of course, even if it is a bit overmuch eventually. Thank heaven, then, the disc also includes “Fratres,” Giovanni Sollima’s 11-minute two cello piece “Violincelles, Vibrezi” with friend Alisa Weilerstein and Ludivico Einaudi’s “Divenire.” This is the debut disc of the sibling Norwegian musicians (whose youthful good looks are exploited in the disc’s photography) and it is cannily designed to make them a maximum of new friends among classical record buyers. Three stars (Jeff Simon)

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The King’s Singers, Il Trionfo di Dori, (Signum Classics). The King’s Singers have already turned out a performance of a madrigal collection compiled in 1602 in England, called “The Triumphs of Oriana.” This follow-up, “The Triumphs of Dori,” is a collection of madrigals published in Venice in 1592. There are 29, by 29 different composers. They were commissioned by a nobleman in honor of his wife, who is signified in the songs by Dori, who in mythology was a sea nymph, the daughter of Oceanus. The songs have various texts, brimming with nymphs, shepherds, fauns and satyrs and all culminating with the refrain “Viva la bella Dori” (“Long live the beautiful Dori”). This disc would make for great listening as you recline on your porch of a summer evening. The music falls down like a soft rain – so serene, and so delicately articulated by the reliable King’s Singers. It’s funny, but you can recognize quality when you hear it, at least I thought I could. A few of the madrigals were lovely but routine, and then one of them caught my attention. It was arresting, different somehow. The refrain echoed in layers that made you want to listen. I checked the notes and sure enough, while the preceding few pieces had been by obscure composers – the nobleman’s friends, the liner notes suggest – the one that made me listen up was by Giovanni Gabrieli. Other eras too had their Muzak, their formula music. The cream does rise to the top. The great masters in the collection, by the way, include not only Gabrieli but Giovanni Croce, Giacomo Gastoldi, Alessandro Striggio, Felice Anerio and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Three and a half stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Joachim Raff, Piano Works, Vol. 6 performed by pianist Tra Nguyen (Grand Piano). I like how Grand Piano discs explore the byways of the piano literature. They come out with fascinating discs. This is the last volume in an exploration of the piano music of Joachim Raff (1822-1882), who was a friend of Liszt. Liszt apparently saw something in him because he bailed him out of financial trouble. Raff went on to be a very respected figure in 19th Century German Romanticism. He since fell into obscurity, and listening to this volume – the first in the series, admittedly, that I have heard – I can see why. There is some lovely music here, and pianist Tra Nguyen plays it with admirable loveliness. And anyone who can write music at this level of competence clearly has a genius IQ. But the harmonies and ideas just don’t hit you the way the great masters’ do. Sometimes you hear teases of other composers – Schumann songs, for instance, in parts of the “Fantaisie.” Nguyen is passionate about the music but I am still not convinced that it is anywhere near the level of Brahms, Liszt, Schumann or any other composers whose music haunts your dreams. The good news is, other than his music, Raff sounds pretty interesting. He taught the conductor Hans von Bülow, employed Clara Schumann as a teacher in Frankfurt, and had a class especially for women composers, who at the time were not taken seriously. He has his fervent champions, not to mention a website, raff.com. Three stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Mahan Esfahani, “Time Present and Time Past,” (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv). The Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is becoming very celebrated and the nice thing is, he is achieving renown on his own terms. Esfahani flies in the face of the fussiness that afflicts much of the early music community. Beyond that, he has simply a real zest in his playing. This disc culminates Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, one of the great keyboard concertos of all time, and it’s a joy, how Esfahani throws himself into it. At times, the old sounds new: the percussive tone of the harpsichord sounds like something electronic. And he plays a cadenza by Johannes Brahms, which most pianists would consider against the rules: Bach is Bach, Brahms is Brahms, they would argue. The Concerto Köln, which Esfahani appears to be conducting from the keyboard, is with him all the way, making this a very taut and invigorating performance. This music lives! Also interesting is Henryk Gorecki’s 1980 Harpsichord Concerto. Though it is Bach-like with its the percussive harpsichord patterns, its hammering brutalism got to me. So did the crazy repetitions involved in Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase for Two Pianos.” It was like listening to bedspins. Just because something is ingenious does not make it good music. Cheers to Esfahani, though, for making his points, which he does with great energy and grace. Filling out the disc are lovely variations by Scarlatti and C.P.E. Bach, as well as a concerto by Geminiani after Arcangelo Corelli. Three stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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