2009 Records To Die For Page 7


BEN ALLISON & MAN SIZE SAFE: Little Things Run the World
Ben Allison, bass, acoustic guitar; Michael Blake, tenor & soprano saxophones; Ron Horton, trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Cardenas, electric guitar; Michael Sarin, drums
Palmetto PM 2131 (CD). 2008. Ben Allison, prod.; Matt Balitsaris, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 53:21

Hands down, Little Things Run the World stands as bassist-composer Ben Allison's most adventurous CD, and is in the top echelon of 2008's jazz albums. It's lyrical, colorful, edgy, and teems with exuberance. Conceived with careful architectural attention, grounded in the tradition of alchemic improvisation, and infused with a richly textured myriad of styles—rock, pop, African, Americana, Latin—Allison's music has all the earmarks of jazz in motion toward a higher evolutionary plateau. Key to its success is Allison's new band, Man Size Safe, named after diabolical VP Dick Cheney's secret White House vault. The interplay of trumpeter Ron Horton and electric guitarist Steve Cardenas stands out, especially in their unison wails in the grooved opener, "Respiration." Highlights include Cardenas' melodic gem, "Language of Love," Allison's intriguing "Four Folk Songs," and a salient cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy."

JENNY SCHEINMAN: Crossing the Field
Jenny Scheinman, violin, piano; Doug Wieselman, clarinets; Ron Miles, cornet; Bill Frisell, guitar; Jason Moran, piano; Tim Luntzel, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums
Koch KOC-CD-4590 (CD, LP). 2008. Jenny Scheinman, prod.; Sascha Von Oertzen, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 59:47

2008 was a banner year for Jenny Scheinman. Although she'd already released four albums as a leader, she was best known for her violin support of a range of artists, from Lucinda Williams to Bill Frisell. In 2008, however, she released two disparate albums: her fine, self-titled vocal debut, and this lyrical gem. Crossing the Field traverses an expanse of territory, from Copland-esque melodies and wistful lyricism to funk-inflected grooves and upbeat improvised excursions, highlighted by the rowdy swinger "I Heart Eye Patch" and the rhythm-popping dancer "Hard Sole Shoe." Her sidemen deliver the goods. Scheinman's band features Frisell, pianist Jason Moran (who consistently sparks the proceedings), and, on six tracks, 25 strings led by members of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The CD is a feast of music through-composed by Scheinman, and buoyed by the improvisational genius of the front line of violin, horns, guitar, and piano inspirited by the crack rhythm section.


CANTUS: While You Are Alive
Works for a cappella male chorus by Bosch, Gawthrop, Hill, Nelson, Sametz, Takach, Tormis, Vasks, Whitacre
Cantus CTS-1208 (CD). 2008. Erick Lichte, prod.; John Atkinson, eng. DDD. TT: 73:29

Nominating a project engineered by my boss looks like apple-polishing, but dayum, Cantus's While You Are Alive is some good, as we say down south. Highlights include Edie Hill's fabulous A Sound Like This, Tim Takach's Things I Didn't Know I Loved, and Veljo Tormis's Kolm mul oli kaunist sõna—music you definitely don't already have. The sound is simply astonishing—aural teleportation. I know what Cantus sounds like in Goshen College's Sauder Hall, and WYAA reconstructs that unique acoustic in my listening room any time I want to go there. Magic is what Erick Lichte, JA, and Cantus do; music is how they do it.

Taking "Records To Die For" at its words, what I'd run into a burning building to save would be my NAS drive —and increasingly, I've been finding myself feeding it new hi-rez files from HDTracks.com. Apple's iTunes and Amazon.com have huge catalogs but offer only lossy compression. HDTracks is like an indie record store in comparison, but one that stocks all the good, quirky stuff. Best of all, no DRM and no lossy compression; even better, it has a small but growing section of 24-bit/96kHz files. "Better than Red Book" really is better!


Capitol 3 79808 2 (CD, LP, DVD-A). 2006. George Martin, Giles Martin, prods.; Paul Hicks, remix. ADD. TT: 78:53

George and Giles Martin's ingenious remix—actually, a reimagining—of 26 classic Beatles tracks to accompany a Cirque du Soleil production is so fresh, so meticulous, that this particular Beatles freak—who has memorized every note of every Beatles release—feels that Love qualifies as a new Beatles recording. Despite the tendency to layer instrumental and vocal lines from songs from different time periods, the recording never devolves into gimmick or cliché. The colorless and pristine sound quality transcends that of other Beatles recordings, which indicates to me that it's time to remaster the entire Fab Four catalog.

CANTUS: While You Are Alive
Works for a cappella male chorus by Bosch, Gawthrop, Hill, Nelson, Sametz, Takach, Tormis, Vasks, Whitacre
Cantus CTS-1208 (CD). 2008. Erick Lichte, prod.; John Atkinson, eng. DDD. TT: 73:29

This latest recording from the nine-voice male vocal ensemble from Minneapolis features works by composers Eric Whitacre, Peteris Vasks, and Veljo Tormis, as well as several new works commissioned by Cantus. On this CD, the versatile group is equally skilled at navigating dense harmonic textures or melting into the blooming glow of a low-register major triad. This diverse body of work highlights the ensemble's greatest strengths: a seamless sense of integrated phrasing and an uncompromised control of pitch and timbre. The recording's closely miked perspective results in an arresting sound that is at once captivating and intoxicating. Musically and sonically, this is my favorite John Atkinson recording. (Full disclosure: John Atkinson is my boss.)


DVORÁK: Cello Concerto, Piano Trio 4 ("Dumky")
Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello; Isabelle Faust, violin; Alexander Melnikov, piano; Prague Philharmonia, Jiri Belohlávek
Harmonia Mundi HMU 801867 (SACD). 2005. Martin Sauer, prod.; Philipp Knop, eng. DDD. TT: 69:47

The classical music lover needs no introduction to these popular works, which represent Dvorák's Czech heritage at its peak. Each has enjoyed the attention of great performers and is well represented on my CD shelves, but this is the disc I pull out first. The performance of the Cello Concerto, while it cannot supplant the classic performances of Casals or Rostropovich, is in every way their equal, and offers a marvelous balance of warmth and brilliance. Queyras's playing is faultless and, along with his Prague supporters, he interprets with stirring élan. The "Dumky" piano trio is equally delightful; Melnikov and Faust, the latter fast becoming one of my favorite violinists, join Queyras in a performance that is charming, invigorating, and, ultimately, satisfying. The sound balances are nigh perfect in both the orchestral and chamber settings.

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder
Yvonne Naef, Robert Dean Smith, Gerhard Siegel, Ralf Lukas, Melanie Diener, Andreas Schmidt, soloists; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig, SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor
Hänssler Classics 93.198 (2 SACDs). 2007. Helmut Hanusch, prod.; Norbert Vossen, eng. DDD. TT: 2:01:56

Schoenberg's massive, thrilling, post-Romantic oratorio is a series of emotionally charged scenes of beauty, love, and loss. Ranging from intimate scenes to huge orchestral tableaux, it seems to demand the immersive clarity of modern multichannel recording, and this, the first on SACD, is an outstanding performance in every way. It was recorded as part of a tour on the occasion of conductor Michael Gielen's 80th birthday, and I can think of no more appropriate celebration for this master of 20th-century orchestral music. The soloists are outstanding (although those on Chailly's Decca CDs may have the edge), but it is Gielen's focused and insightful direction that carries the day. The recording has all the requisite transparency, detail, and power to sweep the listener into Schoenberg's tragic and magical world.