Music Review

Song of the Week: Gil Scott-Heron - "Pieces of a Man"

Gil Scott-Heron's Nothing New is a stripped down vocal and piano version of songs from his back catalog recorded in New York with producer Richard Russell between 2005 and 2009. The track "Pieces of a Man" appeared on that album originally released as a limited edition vinyl-only LP for Record Store Day 2014. The music was finally made available digitally for the first time earlier this week. iTunes also released the documentary Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, a film by BAFTA nominated film makers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Check out the 10 minute sizzle reel of the film – along with Richard Russell’s full album sleeve notes and exclusive photography at Screenings of the film will take place in select cities, including New York and Washington D.C, in spring, with full details to be announced soon.

ANNIVERSARIES: Johann Sebastian Bach Born 330 Years Ago on March 21, 1685

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) never left Germany but became internationally respected by his peers during his lifetime and a symbol of pure musicianship for future generations. A virtuoso organist, harpsichordist, and violinist/violist who may have also played lute, as a composer his mastery of counterpoint and fugal writing remain unmatched, yet he was also open to the influences of contemporary Italian and French composers.

Born into a highly musical family in Eisenach, Germany, Bach became organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt in 1703 at the age of 18. His first major appointment was as court organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, in 1708; six years later the Duke made him Concertmaster. In 1717 Bach became Kapellmeister and music director to the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt in Cöthen, where Bach wrote much of his greatest secular music. Bach's duties switched to writing choral and organ music for use in church services and training the choirs of several churches when he took the position of Cantor of Leipzig in 1723, where he spent the rest of his life. Suffering from failing vision due to cataracts in his later years, he went blind in 1749 after a crude operation and died the following year, having left an unparalleled legacy. Read more »

Video of the Week: Antix - "Come Home"

UK hip-hop artist Antix releases his heartfelt new single "Come Home" on 16 March 2015. Already gathering steam from his remarkable 2014 year, this stunning track will be released in conjunction with Mind, the mental health charity, as the track deals with the difficulties and stigma of mental health, a subject that that he knows all too well. This is my favorite song of the year, so far. 

Martha Argerich & Claudio Abbado: Complete Concerto Recordings

One can't help but assume that this five-CD compilation is a tribute to its conductor, Claudio Abbado, who passed away last year. Certainly his collaborations with thankfully-still-with-us pianist Martha Argerich reveal music-making of brilliant spontaneity and imagination. Consider, for instance, their two recordings of Ravel's G major concerto. Their 1967 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic won immediate acclaim as one of the most sparkling and lively renditions the work had ever had. What good could come of re-doing it in 1984 with the London Symphony Orchestra? How often we have heard artists return to repertoire in which they'd made landmark recordings only to fail to reach their previous levels of achievement. Yet Argerich and Abbado came up with a new yet equally valid and compelling interpretation in 1984: darker, more detailed (and in better sound), and more emotionally profound. Read more »

Jazz Review Roundup

I didn't have enough free time in 2014 to review nearly as many of last year's prolific output of fine jazz albums as I wanted to. Here's a small step toward catching up, plus two 2015 releases (Ligeti/McDonas, The Side Project Saxophone 4tet).

Tom Varner: Nine Surprises (Tom Varner Music)

Composer and French horn player Tom Varner is indeed full of surprises, and they are not confined to the suite of that name (which, surprisingly, has 15 movements). I was most surprised by the outburst of New Orleans jazz in the last piece on the CD, "Mele," which Varner calls "a Gil Evans-influenced variation on the harmonic structure of a pop Hawaiian Christmas song." In general the music here seems highly composed -- these are not heads with strings of solos -- but still allowing for improvisation. The soloists who make the biggest impression are trombonist David Marriott and, no surprise here, Varner himself, but everybody in his nonet acquits himself admirably. Occasional aberrations aside, the style is "inside-outside," advanced harmony with a fair amount of dissonance, most often during solos. Many of the sections of the suite are quite short (eight are under a minute each, most of them with just one player), seemingly character sketches, but the longer sections are thematically compelling. Read more »

ANNIVERSARIES: William Boyce Died February 7, 1779

In a time when the most famous composers in England were -- for example, Handel, and J.C. Bach -- relocated Germans, William Boyce (1711-1779) was arguably the premiere English-born composer. In 1736 the former choirboy turned organist (he studied with Maurice Greene at St. Paul's Cathedral) was named composer to the Chapel Royal; in 1759 he was made Master of the King's Musick. By 1769 deafness had largely ended his official musical duties. Read more »

Happy Birthday, Bob Marley

Had cancer not taken him at age 36, Bob Marley (1945-1981) could have turned 70 today. The man who did more than anyone to make the reggae sound of his native Jamaica popular in the United States had made his first recordings at the age of 17 in 1962, so despite his early demise, he left a large and rich legacy of recordings. Fortunately, his popularity also led to a few of his concert appearances being filmed; here's a classic one.

Aldo Cicciolini R.I.P.

The great pianist Aldo Cicciolini died on Sunday, February 1 at his home in Paris. He was 89. Cicciolini was best known for his expertise in French music, and especially for twice recording the complete piano music of Eric Satie for EMI. But he had a broad repertoire and was also, for instance, a superb Beethoven pianist. Read more »

Video of the Week: José González - “Leaf Off/The Cave”

“Leaf Off/The Cave” is the brilliant second single from the new José González album Vestiges & Claws to be released on February 17th, 2015. Play it often and share it, too. Well, pay for it, of course.

Song of the Week: The Charlatans - "Come Home Baby"

The baggy rock grooves of The Charlatans are back! Tim Burgess and the lads have released one wicked new album Modern Nature. Here's their outstanding new single "Come Home Baby" for your weekend tuneage. 

A Comeback Continues, a Career Ascends

Maxim Vengerov/New York Philharmonic/Long Yu
Avery Fisher Hall, January 22, 2015

This week, Chinese conductor Long Yu is leading the New York Philharmonic in subscription concerts for the first time (his previous appearances at the orchestra's helm were non-subscription Lunar New Year celebrations). Meanwhile, Maxim Vengerov, once the most spectacular violinist on the scene, continues his comeback from an injury. Thursday night their paths intersected at Avery Fisher Hall in a Russian program that indicated each is on the right path. Read more »

The Black Crowes Have Flown The Coop!

The Black Crowes have broken up. Too bad, too. Looks like the riff between vocalist Chris Robinson and his guitar playing brother Rich Robinson has shaken some feathers from the Crowes' roost. Apparently Chris wanted a greater stake in the ownership of the band. Brother Rich had this to say: "I love my brother and respect his talent, but his present demand that I must give up my equal share of the band and that our drummer for 28 years and original partner, Steve Gorman, relinquish 100 percent of his share, reducing him to a salaried employee, is not something I could agree to." Shades of the Rolling Stones "hired gun" practices or a calculated tactic to afford them one final tour in the very near future? Either way, any upcoming Spring/Summer 2015 tours will be missed. In the interim, we've posted this wonderful concert from 2013.

Song of the Week: First Aid Kit - "Master Pretender"

One of our favorite Americana acts, Swedish duo First Aid Kit has just released an animated video for their song "Master Pretender" from their album Stay Gold.

Best New Jazz Album of 2014

Because explaining the glories of a project like this requires a length unsuited for a listicle, my favorite jazz album of 2014 gets an article all to itself.

Allen Lowe: Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora (Constant Sorrow)

Allen Lowe has (at least) a double identity: jazz composer/saxophonist, and scholar of early American jazz and pop. This four-CD set combines those identities even more than usual as it contains a whopping 62 original compositions, many -- perhaps even most; I didn't do the math, but it feels that way -- inspired by the sounds and personalities of early jazz and pre-jazz (both kinds of ragtime, etc.), as detailed vividly in his accompanying notes: Bunk Johnson (we get many movements from a Bunk Johnson Suite), Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman, Ernest Hogan, James Reese Europe, Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, and a few more obscure figures. Later jazz legends are also cited as inspiration for some specific tracks, repeatedly Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but also Lennie Tristano, Al Haig, Edgard Varese, Henry Mancini, Ran Blake, George Gershwin, gospel pianist Arizona Dranes, Zora Neale Hurston, Anthony Braxton, B-movie actress Barbara Payne, Jaki Byard, and Duke Ellington. Read more »

Steve's Favorite New Rock, R&B, and Electronic Albums of 2014

The mainstream drew me back in a little this year, though mostly by looking back several decades to the same things I love and incorporating them into music that doesn't especially sound like 2014.

1. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything (Constellation)

I think of Silver Mt. Zion as the post-rock Pogues. They have the drunken singing and the scratchy fiddling and the punky energy, but in a sort of gritty yet sophisticated Godspeed! You Black Emperor musical context (and in fact founder/singer/guitarist Efrim Manuel Menuck used to be in Godspeed!). On their eighth album, the added intensity that appeared on their previous album is increased; this may be their best yet. My favorite track is "What We Loved Was Not Enough," where at first it seems like he's singing "The days come when we no longer fail," but then when the women chime in with the same line minus his accent, it turns out "fail" is actually "feel"; across over 11 minutes, this becomes mantra-like. But really the whole album is stunning. (This review originally appeared in the print version of The Big Takeover.) Read more »

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