Less than 4 weeks until Christmas – Need another Christmas Jazz recommendation?

Stacey Kent

Stacey Kent is a Jazz singer that I believe to be more popular and better known in Europe than her native US.

I haven’t explicitly mentioned her on this blog (she does feature on Jazz Loves Disney that I reviewed previously). I quite like her, but these days I’m not listening to a lot of vocal jazz any more, with only few exceptions.

That said, she has done quite a lot of recordings you should definitely check out.

Including this one, if you start to be in the mood for more Christmas music.

Christmas In The Rockies (EP, Candid Productions 2020)

Stacey Kent Christmas In The Rockies 24/96

Don’t be scared off by the extremely cheesy cover (OMG; these fonts, the colours), this is actually a quite enjoyable performance of Christmas standards.

Note that this is only an EP, you get a total of four tracks.

You start with a very nice, if rather straightforward Sleigh Ride, going through the always beautiful Christmas Time Is Here, a really nice version of Winter Wonderland, and to wrap it all up, my favorite, The Christmas Song (see below)

Normally, I’d always recommend you buy albums, as on streaming revenues no regular artist can reasonably survive (particularly in Covid times when the live revenues are mostly gone).

However, my recommendation would be rather that you buy one of Kent’s other albums instead (check out Breakfast On The Morning Train for example), and add this album to your Spotify or Qobuz Christmas streaming playlist, as I find it a tad expensive for 4 tracks only.

Nevertheless, a solid recommendation for the next 4 weeks!

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

My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards – Part II – Choral, Instrumental & Orchestral

Usually, I try to do one blog post per section (Orchestral, Piano, etc.), at least for those that I do care about. This time unfortunately my day job is keeping me quite busy and I wasn’t able to listen to all albums shortlisted by Gramophone, so this will just be a “best of” of albums from some of the nominated albums from the different categories.

Note that this is the continuation from part I that I published last week, where I had a look at the “Concerto” category. Today I’ll cover “Choral”, “Instrumental”, and “Orchestral”.

I’m following the order that Gramophone uses in their Gramophone Awards shortlist special edition.

Let’s start with the Choral section, and two recent recordings of Bach’s masterpieces.

Bach: St John’s Passion – Philippe Herreweghe – Collegium Vocale Gent (Phi 2020)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

I must admit I only learned about this release from the Gramophone awards issue, although it was already released in February. What a miss! I do have already a favourite recording of the St John passion, as performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, I have praised Philippe Pierlot’s excellent reading here, I also have Herreweghe’s previous version from 2001, as well as versions from Suzuki, and Gardiner (the usual suspects for great baroque vocal works).

But this new release is truly outstanding, and could potentially become my favorite, a true 5 star recording.

Bach: St Matthew Passion – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 2020)

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

So, after the “smaller” passion, there’s also a new release of the majestic St Matthew Passion. I’ve already written about some other fantastic versions (again by the usual bunch of John Butt, one of my 25 Essential Classical Music albums, and the recent recording of John Eliot Gardiner that I was able to attend live), so it wasn’t obvious that I needed yet another version on top of the 7 or 8 others I have in my local library. But I bought it anyhow, given the recommendations by Gramophone, unfortunately without listening to it beforehand.

Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliantly performed, with excellent soloists. So why am just a bit hesitant about it? A simple fact, Suzuki starts the opening chorus “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is just significantly slower (8:20 compared to John Butt’s 6:38), and it startles me a bit every time. It makes it even more powerful, but it just loses a tiny bit of drive. Check it out before you buy, but it clearly is among the very top performances out there.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri – Philippe Ricercar Cosort (Mirare 2019)

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare 2019 (24/96)

I don’t know why this ended up being reviewed by Gramophone only in 2020, you’ll find my 4 star review of March 2019 here.

I really liked the album, and while I still would pick Bach over Buxtehude anytime, Buxtehude’s early baroque is growing on me. It is very much worth discovering.

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)

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

Yes, absolutely!

The more I discover Levit’s Beethoven cycle, the more I’m impressed. You’ll find my 5 star review here, but in the meantime I’ve again had the pleasure seeing Levit perform a part of the cycle live at the 2020 Lucerne festival (he played the Pathétique and Tempest among others), and have tickets for a live performance of the Hammerklavier that I’m very much looking forward to.

By the way, if you speak German, Levit has done a fantastic podcast, produced by German public radio, where he discusses in-depth every single sonata. Highly recommended.

Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces -Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

Another album that I fully agree with, as reviewed here (5 stars). This album is all the way up there for me with Volodos and Perahia. Very much worth having.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 – Kiril Petrenko (BPO’s own label, 2020)

Berlin Philharmonic Kirill Petrenko Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 24/96

Again, an album I already reviewed in 2019 and loved it (5 stars).

In fact, it is the one recording that made me reconsider whether I actually like Tchaikovsky (I’m still on the fence, but getting there).

Very much recommended.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the selection this year.

If you want to buy any of these albums (which I highly recommend you do), you can find the albums here (Qobuz & Hyperion):

Bach St John Passion – Herreweghe

Bach St Matthew Passion – Suzuki

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri – Pierlot

Beethoven Igor Levit

Brahms Stephen Hough