1999 Records To Die For Page 3

John Atkinson

WAYNE MARSHALL: Bach, Liszt, Brahms
Bach: Fantasia & Fugue in g. Liszt: Fantasia & Fugue on "Ad nos, as salutarem undam." Brahms: Fugue in a-flat. Bruno: Fugue, Fantasy, & Chorale
Wayne Marshall, the organ of St. Mary's Church, Southampton, England
BBC Music Magazine MM71 (CD-Extra, with liner notes and CD-player software, Windows 3.1 & Windows 95 only). 1998. John Hadden, prod.; Malcolm Bruno, exec. prod. DDD. TT: 59:46

Available only from BBC Music's back-issue department---(800) 234-6706---this astonishing recording was included free with that magazine's July 1998 issue. The difficulty in recording an instrument that is literally part of a building's fabric is getting the optimal balance between the direct sound and the often long-lasting reverberation. Too close, and the sound becomes relentless; too distant, and the power of the "king of instruments" is dissipated into extra muddiness.

But on this outing into the organ repertoire, English organist, pianist, and conductor Wayne Marshall has been served by the engineers with a sound that is powerful and direct, yet lets you know that the instrument is working into a deliciously real acoustic. The Bach is sublime, if---considering the recording venue's three-second decay time---a little on the fast side when Marshall comes to the fugue. But the standout is the Liszt Fantasia & Fugue---theatrical, emotionally charged, and dynamics up the wazoo! Forget Puff Daddy remixes and other basshead fare. Fire up the system, set your subwoofer on Stun, insert this disc in your player, and let your neighbors hear what deep, clean bass is all about.

A high-end audio touch: The disc was sponsored by Naim Audio. When you load it in your CD-ROM drive, a working facsimile of a Naim CD player's front panel appears on your PC's screen. Nice.

JEAN-YVES THIBAUDET: Conversations with Bill Evans
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
London 455 512-2 (CD). 1997. Mike Woolcock, prod.; Eric Calvi, exec. prod.; Jonathan Stokes, Graham Meek, engs.; Matthew Hutchinson, ed. DDD. TT: 60:42

One result of the classical record market's state of consternation and confusion has been the uncovering of new repertoire and the exploring of musical byways, as companies try to find something, anything that will attract otherwise jaded customers. One such gem is this exploration of the music of the late jazz pianist Bill Evans, mainly in the form of transcriptions of Evans solos performed on a Hamburg Steinway D as though they were classical pieces. The sound, captured in the Lefrak Concert Hall in Queens, New York, is fairly close, yet with just enough ambient glow to place the listener in the acoustic. Thibaudet has an impressive empathy with Evans' impressionistic idiom. "Waltz for Debby," of course, is here, as is the overdubbed "Love Theme from Spartacus," with its flurries of 32nd notes. But the piece that speaks to me most intimately is "Peace Piece," where a falling-fifth ostinato sets up a Satie-esque mood of contemplative calm, punctuated and overlaid by gentle melodic essayings on the piano's higher registers.

Robert Baird

GRAM PARSONS: GP/Grievous Angel
Reprise 26108-2 (CD). 1973-74/1990. Gram Parsons, Rik Grech, orig prods.; Hugh Davies, Ed Barton, orig. engs.; Marley Brant, John Delgatto, reissue prods. AAD? TT: 72:50
As the man responsible for the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, not to mention the creation of the Flying Burrito Bros., the discovery of Emmylou Harris, and the education, honky-tonk-wise, of Keith and Mick, Gram Parsons, who OD'd before Grievous Angel was released, is the patron saint of all that is good and right about county rock.

But these days the cult of Gram can nauseate even the staunchest believer. Every issue of Mojo magazine carries at least one photo of him---even if they don't have a reason. And given the vibrant return of country rock (now known as "that No Depression stuff," or Alternative Country), Gram and his music---which, strangely enough, is rarely covered by this new generation of purported Gram fans---are now worshipped more than ever.

The cure for Gram overload is to listen again to these two solo discs. They're his most potent legacy, and remain ground zero for the country-rock genesis---the melding, if you will, of Bill Monroe and the Rolling Stones. This essential compilation combines both GP and Grievous Angel with two short essays and complete lyrics. The sound---which was always warm and inviting, thanks to Merle Haggard's engineer Hugh Davies---is slightly improved from the LPs. With very few exceptions, everything that Gram's now-towering reputation is built on is here. Covers like "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning," "Streets of Baltimore," "Cash on the Barrelhead," and "Love Hurts" (with Harris on duet vocals) mix with originals like "The New Soft Shoe," "Brass Buttons," "Hickory Wind," and "In My Hour of Darkness." (XIX-2)

BIX BEIDERBECKE: Volume 1: Singin' the Blues
Columbia CK 45450 (CD). 1990. Tommy Rockwell, orig. prod.; Michael Brooks, reissue prod.; Tim Geelan, reissue eng. AAD? TT: 34:15
Every jazz fan worth the weight of a cornet knows the Bix legend: middle-class Iowa native sees Louis Armstrong play when the Mississippi riverboats come north in the summer, becomes a brilliant cornet soloist, but---through a combination of his own undisciplined personality and the fact that he spends most of his years buried in Paul Whiteman's overly commercial band---meets an untimely end thanks to demon rum.

This volume collects the earliest and best of Bix's scant recorded output. Most of these early jazz recordings—which, like everything else then, used Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens as models—are with a small group that variously included C-melody saxman Frank Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang, and trombonist Miff Mole, among others. Bix's signature tune, "Singin' the Blues," which contains one of the most inspired improvisations in jazz history, is here, as are "Clarinet Marmalade," "I'm Comin' Virginia," and "Riverboat Shuffle." What makes these recordings so essential is that they show Bix at his most brilliant, most ambitious, most alive. On record, he would never again reach this deep within himself.

A word to the wise: There are now a raft of Bix compilations, usually on labels you've never heard of, featuring absolutely unlistenable sound. While the sound here doesn't rumble or twinkle—remember, we're talking 1927 mono recordings, many of which were taken from less-than-pristine metal or shellac parts—the remastering job, while showing all the usual signs of early digital remastering (too bright, a soundstage flattened for the sake of clarity), is the best so far.

Larry Birnbaum

OSCAR ALEMÁN: Swing Guitar Masterpieces
Acoustic Disc ACD-29 (2 CDs). 1998. Dave Grisman, prod. AAD. TT: 2:25:02
Argentine guitarist Oscar Alemán developed a "hot jazz" style as swinging, if not quite as stinging, as his friend Django Reinhardt's. But though he created a brief sensation in Europe, the outbreak of World War II sent him fleeing to Buenos Aires, where he died in relative obscurity 40 years later. Last year, mandolinist/producer Dave Grisman (who was turned on to Alemán by Jerry Garcia) released this double-CD compilation, introducing Americans to an unsung six-string wizard.

Following the guitar-violin format of Eddie Lang with Joe Venuti and Reinhardt with Stephane Grappelli, Alemán came up with a sound similar to Django's but without the biting tremolos. Two 1938 European solo guitar sides, "Nobody's Sweetheart" and "Whispering," established his reputation as a virtuoso; other early tracks feature American bassist Wilson Myers, whose vocals on "Russian Lullaby" and "Jeepers Creepers" lend a Louis Armstrong-like touch of Yankee authenticity.

Back in Argentina, Alemán, with a combo featuring fiddler Manuel Gavinovich, continued to cut Stateside standards like "Stardust" and "I Got Rhythm," but also tackled Latin pop classics like "Malagueña" and "Besame Mucho," infusing them with a swing feel and, sometimes, his own scatted vocals. Alemán's version of "Cherokee," counterpointed with a weird Andean-Indian flute theme, is priceless. His final, 1950s recordings with a large ensemble bring out his campier side, but the lightning sparkle of his finger-picked guitar never ceases to delight.

ROSCOE HOLCOMB: The High Lonesome Sound
Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40079 (CD). 1998. John Cohen, prod. AAD. TT: 73:54
The phrase "high lonesome sound," now applied promiscuously to virtually any bluegrass music, was actually coined by musician/folklorist John Cohen to describe the pre-bluegrass Appalachian groove of the late Roscoe Holcomb, whom Cohen discovered in the hills of Eastern Kentucky in 1959. Until then, Holcomb, a true folk singer, had never cut a record, earning a precarious living as a coal miner and lumberjack and performing only at local dances or on his front porch. Cohen began recording Holcomb, and took him to folk festivals around the US and Europe, winning him a small but devoted following that included Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.

Holcomb's music, sung in a raspy, straining tenor and accompanied—if at all—by jangly banjo or plangent guitar, is as bone-chillingly intense as Robert Johnson's. Drawing from a repertoire of British ballads, old Baptist hymns, blues, and commercial "hillbilly" recordings by the likes of Dock Boggs, Holcomb shapes every song to his own haunted, stoic personality, projecting a tightly wound passion that Dylan described as "an untamed sense of control." With his thick Kentucky accent and strange modal tunings, he makes familiar tunes like "On Top of Old Smoky" and "House of the Rising Sun" sound so fresh, they're almost frightening. And on the 10-minute "Little Bessie," a song about a dying girl's vision of Jesus, he builds the tension to a nearly unbearable level, leaving the listener emotionally exhausted.