A somewhat Christmassy, and overall very enjoyable, new Jamie Cullum album

Christmas Music

You may not have noticed with all the Covid business going on right now, that we’re only 4 weeks away from Christmas.

I know my readers in North America first have to figure out how to best manage Thanksgiving and family in a Global pandemic next week, we in Europe have the same dilemma some weeks later.

But that’s enough of Covid gloom, you are reading enough about this elsewhere. Let’s go to the fun part (at least to me) of the season: Christmas music.

Regular readers will know that I’m not religious, but I still love the season very much for the feel, the lights, and the atmosphere.

I’ve previously shared some Christmas albums on this blog, be it in classical music (see here, here and here for example, or click on “seasonal music” in the category menu of this blog), or if you prefer the Jazz side of things, check out the posts here and here).

Jamie Cullum

I haven’t written about Jamie Cullum yet on my blog (he’s featured on the Jazz Loves Disney album featured here), but this is mainly because I haven’t listened to him in a while.

I actually really enjoy his style. I was complaining in my review of the recent Diana Krall album that I found it a bit too easy listening.

Jamie Cullum is in many ways easy listening. He’s also very much borderline jazz. But nevertheless, I find his mix of original songs, some nice swing, the occasional pop ballad really quite enjoyable.

Jamie Cullum – The Pianoman at Christmas

Jamie Cullum The Pianoman at Christmas 24/48 Island Records

So, is this a Christmas or a Jazz album?

Actually, neither to my ears.

The Christmas element really comes mainly from the lyrics, and yes there’s the occasional “jingle bells” vibe. But mostly, this is well done songwriting. So if you’re looking for yet another version of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, look else where (here for example)

And Jazz? Well, some tracks sound somewhat jazzy. But mostly, this is classical “piano man” pop, presumably inspired by Billy Joel or Elton John. And some songs, like Turn On The Lights, could nearly come straight out of a new Coldplay album (did I really just write this? Sorry….)

But who cares, most of all this is enjoyable music, that you can play even right now, without having a Jingle Bells overdose by the time you actually get to Christmas.

My favorite song is probably the title track, The Pianoman at Christmas, a beautiful, quite sentimental ballad. Yes, it’s cheesy, but isn’t that kind of the whole point of contemporary seasonal music? I guess we all need a bit of (tasteful) schmaltziness after this somewhat crazy 2020, don’t we?

P.S. I really love the cover, with the grainy analog film-type picture, and the retro “stereo” logo. Just spot-on.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Melody Gardot’s New Album Sunset In The Blue – A Review (sort of)

Melody Gardot

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a big fan of Melody Gardot. She’s the kind of Jazz(ish) singer that is somewhat different to the many other singers. Let’s be clear, she’s no Cecile McLorin Salvant nor Lady Day, but she has a very particular style and voice, and I’ve praised a lot of her previous albums on this blog (see here and here among others).

So I was very excited when her latest album came out about a week ago.

Sunset In The Blue (Decca 2020)

Melody Gardot Sunset In The Blue Decca 2020 24 96

The cover this time is simply abstract, not even any text on there, and presumably less controversial than the cover of her last live album.

On her previous non-live album, Currency Of Man from 2015, Gardot went to a much more soul influenced style. This new album now is nearly in its entirety a long list of latin ballads, including strings (real ones, not the synthesizer variety). On several tracks Gardot even sings in what is presumably Portuguese.

By the way, given the current Covid situation, it seems that putting this album together was the logistical nightmare you’d imagine with musicians stuck in different parts on the planet. Nevertheless, they pulled it off.

Now I must admit I do like my occasional latin and string inspired ballad (it’s clearly better in my opinion than Diana Krall’s recent But Beautiful), but it is not something that I’m super passionate about. There is the occasional faster samba-type track like Ninguém, Ninguém, or more traditional ballads like From Paris With Love; but you get it, I’m not blown away.

Gardot’s beautiful voice, many original compositions, and the well done arrangements still make this a worthwhile album, but it wouldn’t be my preferred Gardot album by far.

Until we come to the penultimate track, Moon River. I’ve admitted previously that I love this song, it makes me sentimental every time I hear it. So far, Sarah McKenzie’s version was my preferred one, but this could really become my new favorite.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Keith Jarrett’s Last (?) Solo Album? The Budapest Concert

Keith Jarrett’s Solo Live Concerts

Keith Jarrett is without doubt the most important solo jazz pianist out there. $

He’s been touring the world for nearly 50 years now with his solo concerts, his 1975 Köln Concert still holds many records from a sales perspective, and I’ve already reviewed a number of his live solo albums on this blog (Munich, Paris, A Multitude Of Angels, Bregenz München, La Scala). I’ve even listed his Bremen Lausanne in My 25 Essential Jazz albums.

In fact, it was me attending a Jarrett solo live concert in Lucerne in 2015 that got me to start this blog in the first place, more than 5 years ago now.

So it was with great sadness that I recently saw in the New York Times that Keith Jarrett may never be able to play again due to severe health issues. What a loss, if true. I sincerely hope he recovers, as other pianists have after similar situations.

So, could this album that was just released today be his final live album ever?

Budapest Concert (ECM 2020)

Keith Jarrett Budapest Concert ECM 2020 24/96

This concert was recorded on July 3, 2016, in Budapest obviously, only some days after the previously released Munich 2016 album that was released last fall, and a bit more than a year after I saw him live myself.

The album lasts nearly 90 minutes, structured as often in his later albums in shorter “parts”, a total of 12 (in Roman numerals) this time, with two encores.

I’m not going to describe each part in detail here, I’m not sure that would make for a very enjoyable reading. I’m just going to flag some of my favorite parts, which are II, a slower improvisation, V, again a slower meandering around melodic impressions, and VII, the most dreaming part of the entire album.

That said, for me, the true highlights are the the two encores, Answer Me, that was previously released as a teaser (and was also part of his encores in Munich), and even more importantly, It’s a Lonesome Old Town (also performed in Munich). I could just spend entire days listening to these simple but very deep improvisations (I’m a simple guy, I like melodies).

Overall, to put things into context, this isn’t my preferred Jarrett live album, it is not an essential album if you’re not a hardcore Jarrett fan like me. I’ll obviously buy it anyhow.

And let’s all hope that this won’t be the last solo album he’ll ever record.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

The 2020 Gramophone Awards – A Quick Wrap Up

This is just going to be a short update on the recently held ceremony for the 2020 Gramophone awards and the winners that weren’t announced previously. If you want more detail on the individual category winners, check out this previous post.

Recording Of The Year

Weinberg Symphonies No. 2 & 21 - Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla - Gidon Kremer City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Kremerata Baltica Deutsche Grammophon 24 96 2020

Recording of the year is the Weinberg Symphonies. Probably well deserved, and I’m happy to see a female conductor win this award, but the music really doesn’t speak to me. If your tolerance/interest of 20th century music is more developed than mine, you should really check this out.

Artist Of The Year – Igor Levit

Absolutely. He really is an outstanding pianist. In this section, Gramophone particularly recommends his album Life (see my review here, I agree), and his complete Beethoven cycle really is a must have (or pretty much everything else he’s recorded for that matter).

Lifetime Achievement – Itzhak Perlman

I just checked my library and I actually have only 5 albums Perlman, so I’m really not an expert. That said, his Brahms and Beethoven violin sonatas with Vladimir Ashkenazy are really nice. I should probably check out more of his repertoire.

Orchestra of the Year – Philadelphia Orchestra

I agree, Yannick Nézet-Séguin really has helped to bring this grand old orchestras which fame dates from the Stokowki and Ormandy era back to life, e.g. with this great Rachmaninov album.

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Young Artist Of The Year – Natalya Romaniw

I must admit this is the first time my attention is drawn to this young Russian singer, but I’ll make sure I’ll keep out an eye for her.

Special Achievement – Robert von Bahr

Here’s another award that I 100% agree with. Robert von Bahr, founder and still the boss of the independent label BIS, has released so many recordings I adore, and always very well recorded. I’ve mentioned earlier that independent labels like Alpha (see below), BIS, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, or Naïve are these days in many ways even more significant to the advancement of classical music than the so-called majors.

The Beethoven 250 Award – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – Beethoven concertos No. 2 & 5

Fully agree again, this is a very nice album.

Label Of The Year – Alpha Classics

Another one that is spot on. I’ve hardly ever been disappointed by a release on this great independent French label.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with the choices?

GoGoPenguin’s Latest Album Is Just Outstanding

GoGo Penguin

I discovered Manchester-based Gogo Penguin about 4 years ago, and truly loved them when I saw them live.

I was getting a bit worried when I didn’t really like their 2018 studio album A Humdrum Star that much.

Luckily, things came back on track (at least for my personal taste) with the excellent movie soundtrack album Ocean In A Drop, that I listed in My Top 3 Jazz albums of 2019.

GoGo Penguin (BlueNote 2020)

GoGo Penguin 2020 Blue Note 24 96

I’m a bit late in reviewing this, as it came out already 3 months ago, but I bought it the day it came out.

The album is now simply called GoGo Penguin. Naming an album simply after the band name is a major step, as Marc Zisman notes in his album comments on Qobuz.

The album shows that they’ve now developed their truly owned style, the “GoGo Penguin style”, for lack of a better word, that’s clearly recognisable.

The combination of grooves inspired by electronic music, but played (mostly) on an acoustic jazz trio, is really fascinating.

There is something hypnotic about the groove and the repeating piano patterns of Atomised. Or take To the Nth, where Pianist Chris Illingworth plays with some reverb effects, or Don’t Go, that features bass player Rob Turner, supported by a (prepared) piano. Just beautiful.

I’m going to quote again Marc Zisman from Qobuz: With GoGo Penguin, GoGoPenguin goes to the essential. Couldn’t have said it better.

Go get it!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Diana Krall: The Dream Of You – Really Not My Cup Of Tea

Diana Krall

Let me start by saying that I really like Diana Krall. I’ve even listed her album The Girl In The Other Room in My 25 Essential Jazz Albums; her Christmas Album gets a regular rotation every December, and her early work like Live in Europe are sreally attractive to me, even if quite middle-of-the-road. And obviously, she has a fantastic, immediately recognizable voice.

Of her more recent albums, the only one I somewhat liked was Turn Up The Quiet, although it had a bit too much of a Cocktail Jazz background music vibe to me. However, I truly hated the T Bone Burnett produced album Glad Rag Doll.

Nevertheless, I was very much waiting for her latest release, and so I’m very sad to report that I’m unfortunately really underwhelmed.

This Dream Of You (Verve 2020)

Diana Krall This Dream Of You 24 96 Verve 2020

The album is named after a Bob Dylan song featured on the album.

Overall, you get three types of music here: You start with an overly cheesy But Beautiful (seriously, strings on Jazz albums really need to be handled with a lot of care, and hardly ever work), and get similar ballads, like More Than You Know, which is actually a bit better, due to the more sparing arrangement with piano only.

Then you get some country or folk music inspired songs, like the truly horrible (to me) Just You, Just Me, with an annoying fiddle that just forces me to hit the skip button immediately

And finally, you’ll get Krall-style Jazz standards, like Autumn in New York, or I Wished On The Moon. Unfortunately these just don’t really swing as much as her early straight jazz albums used to do. I really don’t get why, I wasn’t able to get a clear information on the rhythm section musicians, I’ve read on Qobuz that Jeff Hamilton and Christian McBride were on some of the tracks. But it really doesn’t sound like them, or they had a very bad day or were somewhat bored

In any case, this is an album I’d really suggest you check out before you buy. I for my side will pass.

My rating: 3 stars

2020 Gramophone Awards – And The Winners Are…

This is a follow-up to the two part article I’ve written discussing some of the albums that were nominated for the 2020 Gramophone awards, that you can find here and here.

You’ll find the latest edition of the Gramophone podcast (that is usually worth a listen in any case) here a very passionate discussion of the winning albums, check it out.

Chamber: Veress & Bartok

I didn’t have time to review any chamber works of the winning category, and I truly cannot relate to the winning album, by Sandor Veress, and Bartok. So sharing this winner truly just for your information. As mentioned previously, I’m typically lost with most of the music composed in the 20th century.

Choral: Suzuki’s St Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2020 24/96

While I’m still struggling a bit with the slow first movement, I gave this another complete listen the other day and must admit it is a spectacular performance.

Concerto: Chopin’s concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor

As written previously, I wholeheartedly agree with this choice. I’m a huge fan of Grosvenor, and this version is up there with the very top of Zimerman and Argerich.

Contemporary: Thomas Adès Piano Concerto & Totentanz

Again, mentioning this for completeness only, you can guess if I’m struggling with 20th century music how my brain is coping with contemporary stuff.

Early Music: Gesualdo Madrigali by Les Arts Florissants

Gesualdo Madrigali Libri Primo & Secondo Les Arts Florissants Paul Agnew Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

While I’m really lost in the 20th and 21st century, the 16th century music is something I really admire, just don’t get to listen to it that much.

But this is an album that I’ll definitely add to my collection, as I’m a big fan of Les Arts Florissants, and Gesualdo’s madrigals are truly beautiful. Recommended.

Instrumental: Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24/96 2019

A worthy winner. This complete cycle is insightful from no. 1 all the way to no. 32, and every classical music lover should check this out. Levit’s tempi are sometimes somewhat extreme, but never for the sake of it, always with a very clear sense of purpose.

This is probably my favorite of the entire list.

Opera: Händel’s Aggrippina – Joyce DiDonato

I had completely missed this album. My bad, just look at this lineup of fantastic baroque singers. I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection. You can really count on Erato to still produce fantastic opera recordings.

Orchestral: Weinberg Symphonies 2 & 21 – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla ​

Here comes my 20th century music dilemma again. I’m still barely getting my feet wet with Shostakovich (and again, only occasionally), so I’m not going to add any value with my opinion here. But if you’re into it, the same album also won the “Choc de l’année” by French magazine Classica, so Gražinytė-Tyla must have done something right.

Recital: Sandrine Piau – Si j’ai aimé

Another album I had missed. It is a collection of not that well known French songs with orchestra, mostly from the late 19th century.

Sandrine Piau is a fantastic singer, and this is definitely something I’ll add to my playlist. Not a must have, but a nice discovery off the beaten track.

Solo Vocal: Janacek: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared

Unfortunately, due to Hyperion’s strict no streaming policy I have no way of checking this out beyond the snippets I can check out on Hyperion’s website. So nothing to add from my side here, just mentioning it for completeness.

So, what do you think? Were the right winners selected?

And on an unrelated note, am I silly to ignore the 20th and 21st century music?