It’s been a lot this year…an understatement, especially for musicians and live performances.
My writing here is work that I’m proud of, in terms of being able to support other musicians. However, this year, I’ve had to slow down and focus on a manuscript, in addition to thinking about how I’d like to reconfigure my approach to this website in the upcoming months. I’m not there yet, as I’ve had to roll with many of the intensities delivered by this year, but that’s where some of the inspiration comes from so it’s all good.
I received a number of albums, if not at least news of their release, for review and article consideration. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to write about them as fully as they might deserve, but the least I can do is bring them to your attention as last-minute holiday gifts.
These items are written of in the order received.
Benjamin Verdery’s Scenes from Ellis Island (Panoramic Recordings) I received a copy some time during the March lockdown. That his liner notes question the hallowed school history book version of Ellis Island as a cultural and racial “melting pot” and welcoming port, as the U.S. is still a “work in progress,” turned out to be a particularly prescient theme this year.
The album features contemporary instrumental guitar music written by Verdery and is mostly performed by him with cameos from other players, starting with duet partner Simon Powis on the first lively, gospel call-and-response-inspired track, “What He Said.”
The 4-movement “From Aristotle,” is a musical collaboration between Verdery on guitar with mixed vocals from Mark Martin based on text taken from Aristotle’s theory of linguistics. It is described as a work performed attacca, which does not mean any guest appearance by Al Pacino as much as it implies a piece delivered musically in the frat house drinking game manner of chug-chug-chug, with all movements performed without pause.
I’m not sure how we segue-way from Aristotle to Ellis Island, but the kicker of a last piece, “Scenes from Ellis Island,” is worth the entire album’s price of admission. It audibly draws a listener into what feels like sitting amidst the cacophony of random strangers babbling at the back of a pub before the plucky resonance of classical guitar emerges, and the piece caroms and carouses into a delightfully manic dervish of classical, bass and steel string guitars, ascending into a elegiacal, heartfelt vocals by Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté.
Among other albums that crossed my plate this year included a contemporary tango project, Astor 2020 – La Historia Continúa (Epsa Music), as an update and addition to Astor Piazzolla’s “The History of Tango” summation of the 20th century tango from 1900-1990. Aptly, 2020 needs its own chapter.
Produced and composed by Adam Tully, Ramiro Gallo, Agustín Guerrero, Los Púa Abajo, Exequiel Mantega, Bernardo Monk, Pablo Murgier, Shino Ohnaga, Fernando Otero, Adrián Ruggiero and Martín Sued, each musician composed and recorded an original piece earlier this February in Buenos Aires, and the album hauls your ear to the dance floor when it comes to the latest in tango music, albeit from the comfort of your own cosy pandemic veal pen. Get up and dance! If you listen through this Youtube version without riding hawk on the tracks, you might start to wonder how the rhythms and melodies came to include mellifluous, English-speaking voiceovers. Attacca Youtube adverts! Be warned! Do the artists a favor and go buy the album.
Otero’s Amarilla and Manifestacion are both eloquent, head-spinning tour-de-forces. Tully’s Trilonga 2020 is beautifully lush, sophisticated and filled with delightfully surprising snap-and-verve flourishes. Manija by Los Púa Abajo conveys particularly down-and-dirty Django-esque sass. Ruggiero Targo’s Adiós Ástor delivers an unabashed tango stomp. Shino Ohnaga & Emilio Lungo’s La Tomajena offers a slithering pizzicato upright bass’s interplay with jazzy piano.
I’ve only mentioned but a few pieces here, but given that my current hour of writing is 5:00 PM hour plummeted into 11:59 PM’s worth of northern hemisphere darkness with 33F temps oozing a chill during the first week of December, right when when the collective angst of the day’s evening news starts flooding in by summarized notifications, trust me when I say that Astor 2020 is a mood-boosting album.
Juan Martín’s Guitarra Solista books (Mel Bay). I don’t receive music books too often so Christmas arrived early! Offered in both notation and tablature versions with accompanying online audio, these beautiful publications include 8 Concert Flamenco compositions, including Martín’s Guernica (Tarantas), inspired by Picasso’s biographer, Sir Roland Penrose, in addition to Alegría de Pablo, Farruca Martín, El deseo atrapado for la cola, Noche en los Jardines de Granada, Con Rumbo al Carnaval, El Tajo de Ronda and Taconeos.
The symbols and notations are laid out very clearly, in both English and Spanish, and the transcription by Angela Centola is printed in nice, easy-to-read pica with suggested left-hand fingering and numbered staves for reference. The audio is a downloadable file so you’re essentially getting an additional CD of Martín’s performance of these pieces.
The download includes a .PDF file to what’s marked as video. I’d wondered if this might offer some instructional tips on technique or a discussion of piece, but rather, it leads to a Youtube video that features a photo of Picasso’s Guernica painting accompanied by the same tracks. Don’t be fooled by this, as the second link features an interview with Martín on the UK’s Breakfast TV program before he plays the piece so you get the joy of seeing him playing the music up close and in action. And this is true of the other links included.
I can think of nothing better than landing a gift-wrapped new album or piece of music under the tree, and when I was ten years old, it was a then-limited offering by Bream, Segovia, Parkening or Boyd. Each album cover shimmers indelibly in my mind. Rarely did I ever get a set of music books as a gift. When I stop to think about it, new music books were something earned and trotted out to indicate arrival at a new achievement level rather than seen as an exploratory opportunity, at least not until I grew older.
Martín’s Guitarra Solista books are emphatically for the player who can easily handle half and full bar chords. If you know of a guitarist who is enthralled with playing flamenco and looking to change-up their standard 19th Century Spanish composer repertoire for works by a contemporary flamenco master, I highly recommend this as a gift. Readers, please note this book exists in editions for both notation and tablature. Guitarra Solista on (instant gratification) Kindle, music notation version as well as a print version.
Last but not least, if you have a Jeff Buckley fan on your list, I recommend The Complete Jeff Buckley and Gary Lucas Songbook (featuring Gary Lucas) on the Esordisco label. In spite of its name, this is an album and not a book. The Niro is a Rome-based band featuring the lead singer Davide Combusti, who sings five Buckley songs that have never been released, as they derive from twelve songs produced within ten manic months from Buckley’s early 1990 sessions with guitarist and songwriter Gary Lucas, originally intended for Gary’s Gods & Monsters band. Combusti’s incandescent voice may share similarities to Buckley’s, but he carries his own weight without intent to imitate. These twelve songs were performed once in concert in 1992 before Jeff went solo and chose “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” for his 1994 Grace album so the unreleased five haven’t seen the light of day since Jeff’s untimely death in 1997. Nearly thirty years later, Lucas recorded the complete set of songs with The Niro for this release. The five new releases are, specifically, “No One Must Find You Here,” “Story Without Words,” “In the Cantina,” “Distortion” and “Bluebird Blues.”
Give it a listen and feel pleasantly haunted.