GoGo Penguin Latest Album A Humdrum Star – A Totally Subjective Review

What is Jazz?

The question of what actually constitutes Jazz is as old as the music itself. In the 1970s, Jazz tried to cross-over into rock creating subgenera such as Jazz-rock and Fusion, and also some singer-songwriter pop music in the style of Norah Jones or Katie Melua could often be found in the “Jazz” boxes of your average record store.

And obviously, one of the most important movements of the last 3 decades, electronic music in all its ways, has had an influence on Jazz as well. The late Esbjörn Svensson was one of the first to bring electronic elements into the Jazz trio, and many have followed since, blurring the lines even further.

GoGo Penguin

Gogo Penguin is a young Jazz trio from Manchester, that, while using the traditional piano / bass / drums combination, is influenced very heavily by electronic music in the style of Massive Attack, especially on the rythmic side, but at the same time clearly draws inspiration from the minimalist movement.

I’ve praised their previous album, Man Made Object (their first release on BlueNote), here, even naming it as one of my top 5 Jazz albums of 2016, after having seen them live at Moods Zurich in 2016.

So I had really high expectations when they recently released their latest album.

A Humdrum Star (BlueNote 2018)

I purchased A Humdrum Star blindly the moment it came out, and was expecting to write a review pretty soon afterwards. However, its now been out for 2 weeks and I still hadn’t written the review.

Gogo Penguin A Humdrum Star BlueNote 2018 24/88

Why?

Basically, I wasn’t very impressed after the first couple of listening sessions, but was really hoping this album would grow on me. Now I can unfortunately safely report, it didn’t. Let me make it clear, this is very good music from very talented musicians.

However, it simply doesn’t work for me. Is it the even increasing influence of minimalism, or electronica? Is it maybe a decreasing focus on the melodic vs. the rhythmic elements? Some songs feel a bit more stuck in loops and patterns than before.

So in a nutshell, this is not my album of choice from them. I recently revisited their earlier albums Fanfares and v2.0, just to double check, and A Humdrum Star is personally my least favorite of their discography.

I still very much suggest you check this out, your conclusion may be very much different to mine.

I´ll make sure revisit this occasionally, and maybe it will grow on me over a longer period, but so far I´ll rather go back to Man Made Object.

My rating: 3 stars (objectively and musically speaking, this is at least 4 stars, but as mentioned, it doesn’t “stick” for me, hence this more neutral rating)

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)

 

 

 

Murray Perahia Plays Beethoven Sonatas – Could This Be The Best “Moonlight” Ever?

Murray Perahia

Did I mention that I love Murray Perahia? Yes, actually, I did. He’s mentioned in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, his recent Bach Album made my Top 5 Classical Music albums of 2016.

So when a new Beethoven album from the great master came out on Deutsche Grammophon, I bought it pretty much immediately, without checking out the version via streaming as I’d typically do otherwise. His latest Beethoven sonata recording dates back to 2008, since then he’s been much more focused on Bach.

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 – Murray Perahia (Deutsche Grammophon 2018)

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Perahia attacks two of the most famous Beethoven sonatas here. No. 29, Hammerklavier, and the one that even non-classical listeners would recognize, the Moonlight.

Let me start by saying you immediately hear that Perahia has been playing a lot of Bach recently. If I had to summarize this album in one word, it would be “Clarity”, or “Transparency”. The counterpoint complexity of Bach certainly shines through on this album. Nothing is ever “too much”, even for these two sonatas that both mark the transition from the “classical” period to the starting “romantic” era.

Let’s start, as Perahia does, with the Hammerklavier heavyweight. This is one of the most pianistically challenging piano pieces out there. Especially if you’re trying to follow Beethoven’s original metronome marks, which some have considered unplayable. Perahia starts with a quite ambitious speed, but at no point this ever feels forced.

You get plenty of nuances especially in the beautiful Adagio, and the highlight could be the last movement, which stars seemingly simple with a little Largo, but then builds into a compex fuga type Allegro & Presto, where you can clearly hear that Beethoven knew his Bach, so Perahia really shines here.

I have yet to find my “perfect” Hammerklavier. Recently, the impressive version of Ronald Brautigam (played on an actual Hammerklavier-type historic instrument), or Igor Levit’s beautiful recording of the late sonatas, or you can obviously go back to the classics and pick your Serkin, Brendel, or Arrau. Actually, the complexity of this masterpiece is such that no one version will ever be “perfect”, you’ll always need more than one interpretation of this jewel.

Going to the Mondschein sonata, I’m going to contradict myself immediately: This could well be “the” perfect version of the Moonlight sonata, at least of the world famous Adagio sostenuto. 

Let me explain: He takes the movement relatively fast, with 5:16 I have only 3 versions in my library that take less time (my fastest version is Schnabel by the way, with 4:51).

What is so outstanding about this version goes back to the word I used earlier, “clarity”. This is played in a very plain, no-nonsense style. With such an overloaded romantic piece, there often is a tendency of just doing a bit too much, too much rubato, too much dynamic variation, etc. etc.

But honestly, this outstanding beauty of masterwork doesn’t need any of this. This apparent simplicity is just what makes this music truly shine. I can’t get enough of it. This could well become my new personal reference for No. 14.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)

 

UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: For once, we have an album where all critics agree. In their respective March editions, both Gramophone (Editor´s Choice & Recording Of The Month) and Classica (CHOC) give this album their highest rating.

 

Shai Maestro: The Stone Skipper – Not Really A Review

Shai Maestro

Let me start by saying that I think that Shai Maestro is one of the most talented Jazz pianists out there. I’ve been a fan since I saw him live for the first time some years ago for his debut album, which I’ve reviewed here with 5 stars, and I’ve also listed him in Musicophile’s 25 Essential Jazz Albums.

With this introduction, it is very clear that there will be a “But” coming. And yes, unfortunately there is.

Artists Want To Evolve

I understand that artists want to evolve, explore new territories, be creative. This is why they are great artists. Think of Miles Davis dismissing his early stuff as old in the later years, he famously said “It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”. 

The same goes for painters, or any other creative force. If you look at the different periods of Picasso, you’d hardly guess it was always the same artist. Similarly, I was very much surprised how unexciting Van Gogh’s early work was, and how much of his most admired paintings are from the last few years of this live. If these artists hadn’t evolved, humanity would have missed a lot.

However, what about the people who like a certain style of the artist? Sometimes this can be probably extremely frustrating for the artist, for example can you imagine an Eagles concert without Hotel California?  Other artists just move on and probably lose some of their initial audience when they evolve to a new style.

The Stone Skipper (Sound Surveyor Music 2016)

After this long introduction, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not too happy with the evolution that Shai Maestro, together with his core trio of Jorge Roeder et Ziv Ravitz, has taken on this album.

Shai Maestro Trio The Stone Skipper 24 96

This review has been in the making for several weeks now, as it pains me to write something negative about a great artist.

You still get the occasional Jazz trio, but quite a lot of the songs are going beyond Jazz. You’ll find a lot of elements inspired by Lo-Fi music, some more ethnic singing, some choral parts, the occasional synthesizer, etc. etc. etc.

Honestly, I’m probably (or actually most assuredly) a bit conservative, but most of this is not my cup of tea.

And this is in spite of the great musicians that Shai has been working here, including the fantastic singers Theo Bleckmann and Gretchen Parlato.

Let me give you some examples. The opening track A Man, Morning, Street, Rain has some typical lo-fi elements, sounding a bit like played from an old Gramophone, including even the cracks of the record. I don’t really sense a direction here.

You’ll find some choral elements in Without Words”, but again, I’m lacking structure, melody here. Or take Kunda kuchka, where you get the ethnic elements. I’m sorry, but I personally find myself skipping through those tracks very quickly.

So unfortunately, I probably really don’t get this album. Note that I’ve read several reviews in France that love this album (Jazz News has called it “Indispensable“), so really take my very personal opinion here with a huge grain of salt. Again, artists need to evolve, whether we like it or not.

My rating: 3 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz), apparently it is not yet formally released in the US (the artist says “coming soon” on his facebook page).

 

Update March 18: I’ve now seen Shai Maestro live playing the songs from this album, and here the music gets it’s true meaning! It really was an amazing concert.

Do You Have To Be Italian To Conduct Haydn?

Haydn’s Symphonies

I’ve said it before, I’m generally not a big fan of Haydn’s symphonies. I’m sorry, but quite often they just bore me.

However, these days we see a renaissance of Haydn’s symphonies. I’ve previously written about Ottavio Dantone’s beautiful album on Decca, which I liked a lot. In that blog post I’ve already mentioned that another Italian conductor, Giovanni Antonini, is doing an entire cycle of Haydn symphonies, called Haydn2032.

So let’s have a look at their latest release, vol. 3 in the series.

Haydn 2032 Vol. 3 – Solo e Pensoso – Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico (Alpha Classics 2016)

Giovanni Antonini Il Giardino Armonico Haydn 2032 No. 3 Solo e pensoso Alpha Classics 2016

In this volume, we get a colorful mix of symphonies, from very early (4) to the Sturm und Drang era of no. 64. I have absolutely no clue how Antonini decided on the order of his complete cycle, but I appreciate the variety. An album only with very early symphonies would probably not be extremely exciting.

Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico, very much like Ottavio Dantone and his Accademia, come from baroque music.

And maybe this is really what “Papa Haydn” needs, the lightness and energy of the historically informed baroque playing style. I guess Haydn has suffered from too many years being played by orchestras that were more used to playing Beethoven and Brahms.

But when you get the Giardino Armonico’s joyful playing, an entire new planet opens up.

Not that this is the first historically informed recording of Haydn, but really this cycle promises to be outstanding.

The playing is top notch. The energy is palpable. And the relatively small size of the Giardino Armonico really lets you rediscover Haydn in a new way.

I’ll make sure to follow future releases of this cycle, and so should you. It is really worth it.

My rating: 4 stars (this is not a rating on the playing, which is 5 stars, but I’m waiting for some of the later symphonies to give the full 5 star rating).

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters).