Keith Jarrett’s My Song – I Really Shouldn’t Be Liking This Album

Keith Jarrett again

Time for another post on Keith Jarrett, given that he prominently figures in my blog’s subtitle. I’ve also mentioned My Song is my recent Songs That Give Me Goose Bumps post .

Jarrett is obviously one of the most brilliant artists in the Jazz world. So why do I say I shouldn’t like this album? Well, two things: a) I love most of Jarrett’s solo albums from the 1970s (the obvious Köln Concert, the Sun Bear Concerts, Bremen/Lausanne), but I find his regular 1970s Jazz albums, very much hit and miss to my taste (with significantly more misses than hits). This is not a particular Keith Jarrett problem, but more my personal problem with the 1970 Jazz scene overall.

Furthermore, I’m not a big fan of Jan Garbarek . Most of the albums I’ve heard of him leave me rather cold and slightly bored. No judgment implied here, just personal taste. (A notable exception is the recently released 2009 Dresden live recording).

My Song

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So how come this 1977 album is among my absolute all-time favorites? Well, to be fair, one thing that plays in its favor is the fact that this was my first ever Jazz album. Before buying this at the age of 18 or so, Jazz was weird people playing weird music in my mind.

And then I heard this album: amazingly beautiful melodies, very simple and straightforward arrangements. I couldn’t really believe this was what Jazz was all about. So I copied the vinyl on compact cassette (quick history lesson for my younger readers, google it for your general education, this is what MP3s used to look like) and played it in the car radio over and over and over.

Usually, with stuff I used to listen to a lot during my youth I’ve outgrown it by now. Not this album though. There is a timeless beauty in the melodies. All original compositions by Keith by the way.

My preferred song is the eponymous title song, which is one of my preferred melodies of all times (you can hear the crowd cheering when Jarrett plays this as an encore on the Carnegie Hall solo concert, see also the above mentioned post for a Youtube clip).

The other favorite is the relatively short Country, where Jarrett introduces the theme, before Garbarek get’s to take it over. The rest of the album is very nice as well, with the exception of the slightly random (to my ears) Mandala. All the rest, after all these years, I can still listen to over and over and over again. A rare achievement.

My rating: 5 stars

If you want to buy it, the recent 2015 remaster available in 24/96 and 24/192 is of astounding quality. It’s rather expensive, but you could never guess listening to it that this recording is nearly 40 years old. This was originally recorded and mastered in Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, a true recording magician.

You can find it here and here.

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (5): Wayne Shorter – Adam’s Apple

Wayne Shorter

Why did I wait so long, you may ask? Why write about 4 other guys before Wayne Shorter, the absolute heavyweight among the Jazz Messengers Alumni, the only one (to my knowledge) that is still alive and playing?

The guy who got a letter of recommendation by saxophone god John Coltrane to join the Jazz’ Jupiter (big boss of the gods) Miles Davis. Who helped kick off (sadly to my mind, but who am I to judge) the Jazz-Rock and Fusion movement with the group Weather Report he co-founded, and even played with the Stones at some point?

Well, don’t know really. Two issues come to mind: a) respect: what can I still say about such a genius that hasn’t been said before (didn’t stop me in the other posts you may argue, and you’re right). b) choice: So far in my little series on the Jazz Messengers I’ve always picked one, the most enjoyable album, only. That was still kind of doable with the other 4 guys I’ve mentioned here, but which one do you choose for Wayne? At least 3 albums spring to mind that need to be mentioned!

You know what, I’ll just take the liberty (it’s my blog after all, I can do what I want, ain’t it nice?) and do several posts about Wayne, each one with one of my favorite albums.

Adam’s Apple

Wayne Shorter Adam's Apple

Why start with Adam’s Apple? Well, alphabetically it comes first.

No, just kidding, even easier: It is simply the album that got the most plays of all Shorter albums in the last five years. Computer audio is amazing, I not only know what you did last summer (sorry for the stupid movie pun), but thanks to iTunes I can be my own personal NSA and check what I was listening on November 4th, 2011, 8pm for example (Ton Koopman’s Bach cantatas vol. 6, if you’re interested).

Back to Adam’s Apple. I mean, look at the rhythm section, there’s another genius, Herbie Hancock on piano. He’s probably the key reason why I like this album so much. Also, in spite of being released in 1966 (usually a bit “late” for me), it is still very much a proper hard bop album, no fusion or other on here.

And then there are two songs that are worth highlighting as I can’t get enough of them. First there is the title track, it is just swinging and grooving as hard bop should be. Even the guys a blue note tell me on this album Shorter “finds the Groove”, check out this link, it’s got interesting background info on the album.

And then there is the magical (to me) Footprints. Apparently it is not a Jazz waltz (the experts tell me, as this is 6/8 and not 3/4, plus the song keeps changing meter), but still I’d put in one line with the great Jazz Waltzes I really appreciate (probably I need to write another top ten list here). On top of that, Herbie Hancock’s playing here reminds me a lot of Maiden Voyage. 

In short: I really hesitate between 4 and 5 stars here. On one hand it’s Shorter, and has two outstanding songs, on the other hand some of the other songs are not at the same level.

Well if I have to decide: 4 stars in total. 

You can find it here and here. I strongly suggest you go for the recent 24/96 remaster if you care about sound quality (skip the more expensive 24/192), as it is significantly better than the RVG remaster CD released in the 2000’s.

May The Wind Be Gentle – Nézet-Séguin’s Cosi Fan Tutte

Three HUGE gaps to fill on my blog: haven’t yet written about Mozart, haven’t talked about a single opera, and haven’t yet mentioned one of my favorite young conductors, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. How convenient is it that I can fill all three gaps in one go, with Nézet-Séguin’s 2013 recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe of Cosi Fan Tutte.

Nezet Seguin Cosi Fan Tutte

Me and Opera

Some introductory words first: my background is certainly much more in instrumental classical music than in opera. I can “blame” my parents in a way, they constantly listened to classical music at home, so I grew up with pretty much the entire classical spectrum in my young ears. However, both don’t like opera, so I had to acquire that taste myself much later. To this day, the first thing I’ll notice on an opera recording, is the orchestral playing. So my judgment is heavily biased to this part. I’m much more tolerant to individual slightly weaker singers. I know true opera buffs are singers first, orchestra second.

Nézet-Séguin and Mozart

These days, there are hardly any new opera recordings released. You can’t blame the music industry, the cost of an opera production is huge obviously, and the returns in the shrinking classical market are not what they were in the heydays of “Perfect Sound Forever” when everybody re-bought everything on CD; or even in the great 50s-60s, when all the great operas were all recorded for the first time in Stereo on LP, and many of these recordings are still of reference quality. Luckily, the young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin got a deal with Deutsche Gramophon to record 7 Mozart operas. DG is piggy-backing here on existing performances at the Baden-Baden festival. So far, they have released 3, Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus den Serail (to be released these days), next will be Le Nozze di Figaro (can’t wait) which is being recorded these days.

Thus Do All Women (no shitstorm please, it’s just the English translation of the title)

I just love Mozart’s operas. They are among the most beautiful things he’s ever written, and to me THE best operas out there. Cosi has a very special place in my heart. The story is obviously a bit silly and potentially slightly sexist, but who cares with this kind of music. And luckily my Italian is bad enough that I can switch it of and don’t have to follow the lyrics if I don’t concentrate on it. There are so many beautiful parts, I can’t even list them all. So let me just stick to my favorite part of all, the Terzettino “Soave Sia Il Vento”, gentle be the wind. where the two female protagonist wish their male companions smooth sailing in their fake trip to war. This could easily be among my top10 most beautiful musical pieces ever (actually I’ve just written a post about just that here).

Nézet’s Cosi

What is there to say about this particular recording? Well first of all, the orchestral playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is outstanding. So as said above, this already gives me 80% of what I’m looking for in Opera. Nézet is consistent with his typical style, which can be summarized as “reasonably fast” and most of all “tight” (not sure if I’m making sense here), in a nutshell, he’s always in control, and there is always great tension. Personally I like all the protagonists singer here, although I’ve seen several reviews criticizing  Roberto Villazon especially. That said, Gramophone had this album shortlisted for the Gramophone Awards.

Overall rating: 5 stars

You can download the album here (I recommend the 24/96 high-res version) or buy the physical CD here.

David Fray’s elegant and intimate Schubert

Franz Schubert and the piano

I’ve been writing quite a bit about Schubert recently (see here and here). I’ve said before that one area where this amazing composer really excelled was chamber music. This is to be expected given that he grew up learning the violin. However, soon after that instrument (started at the age of five), he also got his first lessons on the organ, and he became a decent player of the piano as well (although never to the professional standard of other composers, and he rarely performed in public).

Many of his piano works (let’s keep “late in perspective, the guy died at the age of 31…) are nearly as outstanding as his chamber compositions. Namely, the late piano sonatas, the Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux and the Wanderer-Fantasie. I’ll be writing about all of these later.

And finally, his third category of musical excellence was the Lied or song obviously. I’ve only recently started to fully discover the riches of this repertoire, and will also come back to this.

Side note: If you want a great overview of his piano works, played at the highest level and very well recorded, there is, besides the obvious Alfred Brendel, mainly Mitsuko Uchidas’ great box on Decca, which can sometimes be found very cheaply (e.g here and here)

David Fray playing Schubert

So, with all these great recordings already existing (and you could easily add Paul Lewis, Radu Lupu, Paul Badura-Skoda etc. etc.) recordings, why bother buying another version in 2015?

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David Fray is a young French pianist. He got his lucky break when he was asked to jump in for Hélène Grimaud (they shared the same piano teacher) at some concerts. He has some other musical background: his father in law is the famous conductor Riccardo Muti. He already recorded several Schubert albums earlier, but this is the first time I noticed him.

He plays the lesser known Sonata D894 (nicknamed “Fantasie“), and some smaller works, including two for four hands with Jacques Rouvier. What is so special about his Schubert? Two words come to mind: elegance and fragility. In some parts this Schubert sounds more like Bach than a composer who was at the beginning of the romantic period. With this comes an outstanding transparency, but also a really intense intimacy. Very very touching.

Critics for once seem to like this album as well, Gramophone named it Editors choice, Classica gave it the “Choc”, 5 stars from Diapason, the only review I saw that didn’t like it was the BBC, calling it “Beautiful, certainly, in its way; but static.”. Sorry, dear old BBC; but I don’t hear anything static in here.

Erato is a label that usually cares about sound quality, this one is quite well recorded as well, much better than the sometimes a bit harsh sound of some of Brendel’s old recordings, so one more argument to get this new recording (if you need one more).

My rating: 4 stars (the playing only would be 5 stars, but this sonata is not as essential to have for me, albeit very nice to have)

Get it here as download (the 24/96 version is worth it), or here for a physical album

Schubert’s amazing chamber music (2) – Rosamunde played by the Takacs Quartet

My second post on the Schubert’s chamber music.  Rosamunde this time, his String Quartet no. 13.

You could ask why I’m not really talking about the famous Death and the Maiden? Is there anything wrong with it? The simple answer is: absolutely not. I just don’t know how to decide on the best version here. The Pavel Haas Quartet’s recording of the String Quintet I discussed last week already has a near perfect version on there, and coupled with the Rosamunde I’ll recommend today you’ll get another really good recording of “Der Tod und das Mädchen“.

Rosamunde

This quartet was written pretty much at the same time as the more famous Death and the Maiden, and it is equally beautiful. It is named Rosamunde after the incidental music Schubert wrote for this play on a princess from Cyprus, which is by now pretty much forgotten. YOu’ll find elements from this music in the 2nd movement.

Schubert’s quartets 13-15 are really a league on its own compared to his earlier works. I keep repeating myself, but this is chamber music at its absolute peak. I discovered these works in earlier versions, played by the Quartetto Italiano and the Alban Berg quartet. While these versions are still good, the more recent Pavel Haas and Takacs quartet recordings are even better to my ears.

Takacs Quartet

The Takacs quartet has been around for 40 years, so obviously the personnel has changed over time. The quality hasn’t. Their early 2000 Beethoven cycle on Decca is very good, and an even earlier cycle on Bartòk is also highly recommended. By the way, don’t be fooled by the name, while the Quartet was founded in Hungary, it has moved to Boulder, Colorado ages ago.

Given the age of the quartet, they’ve recorded the coupling of Schubert’s 13 and 14 twice. The first one in 1993 on Decca was already good, the newer one (2006) I’m referring to here on Hyperion is even better.

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I wanted to be original in my review, but it is hard to find better words than Gramophone in this particular case, so let me quote from their review here: “‘The Takács have the ability to make you believe that there’s no other possible way the music should go”. Let me just sign this statement here and now for no. 13, Rosamunde.

Der Tod und das Mädchen

To be fair, at least for the Death and the Maiden, if you take the version by the Pavel Haas quartet I mentioned earlier, you realize that there is a possible other way the music could go. Now which one is better? I’m really struggling to make up my mind. You’re probably best of having two versions. It’s like chosing between a Meursaut Premier Cru and a Riesling Grosses Gewächs. Both are different, but both are excellent.

My rating: 5 stars (yes I know, my ratings seem to feel a bit inflationary now, I’ve been giving quite a number of 5 stars recently. This is however not a coincidence as I just like to share those particularly great albums first).

Best way to buy it is to simply download it directly from Hyperion here.

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (4): Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

Part 4 now of my mini-series on the Jazz Messengers’ spin-offs.

Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan was famous even before the Jazz Messengers, as he’d already played with Dizzie Gillespie. But his stardom even rose further after playing on the famous Moanin‘ album from the Messengers, which I still need to write about.

The Sidewinder

I was a bit hesitant at first whether I should really write about this particular 1963 album, which obviously is by far his largest commercial success as a leader. Doesn’t he have many other great albums, like The GigoloDelightfulee, Vol. 3, Tom Cat, The Cooker, or Cornbread, all of which I’d highly recommend.

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Well even though I wanted to be creative, and not recommend an album that made it into the Billboard pop charts (heresy!) I gave up in the end. There is something just magical about the bluesy groove of The Sidewinder’s 10:28 title track, that I just had to recommend this first. It may not be the most creative album, nor the most artistically developed, but hey, it is just addictive.

A great rhythm section

Obviously, a great deal of this addictiveness stems from the rhythm section (especially Harris, but also Crenshaw, Higgins), but we also get another taste of Joe Henderson (although his solo on the title track is not very memorable, he get’s better on Totem Pole).

And then there is Lee himself, his playing is fantastic, and he actually wrote all the songs himself. A little bit of trivia on Morgan: he died a rather unusual death for a Jazz musician of the time (i.e. not of drugs or alcohol), but was shot by his long-term girlfriend of the time in 1971 for unclear reasons.

Luckily, this is not a “one-hit-wonder” album, all the other tracks of the album are very good, I particularly like Gary’s Notebook.

Overall rating: Groovy, Baby! (formerly known as 5 stars)

Addendum: Reader Bob Ryan kindly commented here that I omitted to mention “Search For The New Land” as one of the must have albums for Lee Morgan. I absolutely concur with his opinion.

Vilde Frang’s Outstanding Version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

Let me start a bit off-topic: Why do I write about Sibelius right now?

If you’ve watched this blog for a bit, or if you’ve bothered to scroll down my main page, you’ll see that my blog topic selection look rather arbitrary and randomly selected and doesn’t follow a clear pattern. And to be fair, this is pretty much exactly how I chose my topics, by inspiration. It is very similar to how i decide to which album to listen next, whatever inspires me. The only connecting factor is that I only write about music or related topics that I really care about.

Diskothek im 2 / Disques en lice

So back to the question: Why Sibelius right now? The simple answer is: I just listened to a great podcast about it. Or actually 2. Let me clarify: My adopted country, Switzerland, has rather average public television, but two great classical music radio stations, one German (SRF2) one French (Espace 2) speaking. Both get to produce their own proprietary content, including a show that is based on the principle of inviting a couple of experts, and listening to a select number of recordings of a certain classical work, and have the expert discuss them blindly, and chose a “winner”. This show is called “Diskothek im 2” for the German, and “Disques en lice” for the French version.

Both recently decided to review Sibelius violin concerto, with a slightly different selection of versions. There was one overlap however, the winner, which is the album I’ll be talking about in a minute. And while I don’t always agree with the experts (in the end, it is all also a question of taste), listening blindly is really a good way of seeing if you REALLY like a version or you’re just preferring it because of the great name of the artist.

Sibelius’ violin concerto

Again, I don’t want to be Wikipedia, if you want to find more about the violin concerto, go here or here. Let me just say that the violin concerto is the only piece from Sibelius i really love. I still need to “get used” to the symphonies and symphonic poems he wrote. I fell in love with the violin concerto early on as it was coupled with the Beethoven violin concert on this low-price Sony release from the 1990s. I was lucky, because it included the Sibelius in a version by the great David Oistrakh which is recommended in the second link above, so by chance I ended up having a very good version.

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So feel free to check this version out, it is still very much recommended.

However, today I want to talk about the recording that won both Disques en Lice and Diskothek im 2: the 2009 recording with Vilde Frang

Vilde Frang

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This was Frang‘s first major commercial record at the age of 22. And what a performance it is. It has both the cold/ghostly nordic impressions of what I imagine Finland must look like (I’ve never been) but also at the right moments has all the fire and energy this late romantic concerto needs. She’s from Norway by the way, so geographically not very far from Finland. No idea if this helps or if this is just a cliché. The conductor, that I wasn’t otherwise familiar with, Thomas Søndergård, is as you can see from the Ø’s and å’s in the name also from Scandinavia, Denmark in this case. Only the orchestra being from the nice town of Cologne, doesn’t qualify as Scandinavian at all.

A side note on German radio orchestras (recognizable by the WDR/NDR/HR or whatever abbreviation, the R meaning radio) are usually quite good, albeit not at the level of a Berlin Philharmonic. However, some of them can be really great, like this one. The Orchestra and Søndergård are doing a great job here as well, and soloist and orchestra are really well-integrated.

This being an “album”, a concept which was forced on us by the LP, and later CD, but doesn’t make a lot of sense for classical music, we not only get the Sibelius, which would have been perfectly fine by me, but you also get a violin concerto by Prokofiev, and some minor “Humoresques” by Sibelius. While I like some of Prokofievs piano music and his “classical” symphony, I cannot find a lot of interest in his violin concerto (no judgment on quality here, just personal preference), and the Humoresques are nice fillers.

Overall rating: 5 stars (applies to the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the album I cannot be bothered with)

A nice alternative recording which I also really like, with another young rising star on the violin, is the version with Lisa Batiashvili (We are living in great times with so many fantastic violin players around). On this recording, you even get a Finnish orchestra with it.

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