Category: Music

tapping out twenty three

Dynamic Maximum Tension – Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

I’ve written before about Argue’s group—his spectacular previous album Real Enemies mashed together conspiratorial paranoia and noir stylistics into something totally great. This new record profiles some singular characters like Buckminster Fuller and Alan Turing (instead of carrying one theme throughout). Cécile McLorin Salvant appears on the outstanding closing track, whose lyrics come from a sonnet using only letters from Mae West’s advice “Don’t be a noodle: be cool and collect.” Some tracks play neat tricks with time signatures and the longest on the album—”Tensile Curves,” clocking in at almost 35 minutes—pays homage to Duke Ellington’s own musical experiments. I was lucky to catch that last piece at the Jazz Gallery (I think?). These are adventurous works that push big-band music past whatever limits we thought it had.

Zodiac Suite – Aaron Diehl and the Knights

I was looking forward to this release for months. I knew Diehl was recording a new version of this suite from Mary Lou Williams, which was first written in the mid-1940s, performed just a couple times, and then largely forgotten. (I first stumbled across her own recording of the Zodiac Suite while reading up on Aratus’ Phaenomena ….) Diehl and the Knights keep Williams’ orchestration, so even if the recording is fresh and production value pristine, it still sounds a little like an unearthed archival recording. Some of the tracks are like miniature concerto pieces, and it’s a real monument of jazz-classical fusion, both then and now. Hopefully Williams continues to get more deserved recognition—as the closing track notes, “Life is a game whenever you come from behind.”

Ludwig Daser: Missa Pater Noster and Other Works – Cinquecento

Before this year, I had never heard of Ludwig Daser. He worked around the time of Orlando di Lasso, who himself succeeded Daser as Bavarian court composer in the middle of the 1500s. This is good polyphonic stuff, and I’m glad Daser is finally getting some play. In fact, another album of Daser masses came out in 2023 (?!), so perhaps this is just the beginning of his own Renaissance. Or maybe I’m just late to the party.

The Omnichord Real Book – Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello was on the radio when I was a kid, but now she’s on Blue Note. Nice. This album features some great instrumentalists like Jeff Parker, one of my favorite guitarists, and even tracks that feel more like interludes have a vocal and instrumental richness that can’t be skipped over. As the “Omnichord” of the title suggests (or maybe not), there’s a real range of songs here, and I found myself coming back to different tracks throughout the year. But there are little motifs, even in the first track, that reappear elsewhere on the album, making this sprawling album feel like one coherent set.

Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) – The Replacements

Even for a recent transplant to the Twin Cities like me, getting into this 2023 reissue was an actual civic obligation. I was a bit too young for to be a Replacements fan at the time (although I definitely saw Can’t Hardly Wait in the theater), so getting into this album was also a good excuse to dig through Paul Westerberg gems for a pre-millennial glimpse of my newly adopted city. The Ed Stasium mixes here are also a lesson in production values. The new version of “Swinging Party” brings out those Joni Mitchell-ish guitar chords, but the muddy original sounds just like distant strumming in a mine shaft. You definitely want the reissue to listen to on your next late-night bus ride up Hennepin Ave.

two zero two two tunes

tomas fujiwara’s triple double — march

Is “Life Only Gets More” a musical nod to “Everything happens so much“? Is the whole album? The hyper-bent guitar notes, the clacky, creaking percussion—this album is untamed from start to finish. Even when the temperature drops here and there like on “Silhouettes in Smoke,” the trumpets play around with runs and dissonances to avoid real lulls. I didn’t hear anything quite as fiercely engaging as this album all year, and I probably wouldn’t have with any more digging.

wolfram schmitt-leonardy — scarlatti sonatas

Definitely not the Scarlatti of your weekly piano lessons. The repeats receive tasteful ornamentation—never over-the-top showy—that keeps everything fresh the second time through, and (a bit like Simone Dinnerstein has done with her Bach recordings) there’s enough reverb in the production to transform pointy, Baroque notes on the page to something almost early Romantic in the ear. It’s a welcome invitation to think of and appreciate Scarlatti musically, not just pedagogically.

jóhann jóhannsson — drone mass

Inspired by the “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians,” this album sounds like something sacred-adjacent, with a dash of film score and a pinch of contemporary classical. The sustained “drone” sounds throughout (e.g., on the final track) glue the 45 minutes together, but the mix of glitchy electronics in tracks like “Take the Night Air” make the texture more interesting than just long notes and stable harmonies. I especially enjoyed revisiting this album in December when this oratorio and that mass were back on the radio waves.

danger mouse and black thought — cheat codes

A little reluctant to include this album on my list to avoid pulling a David Brooks, but when it’s good, it’s good. Cheat Codes could have come out of the “conscious hip-hop” of thirty years ago, but even so, it doesn’t force itself to be serious at every turn—has an album ever opened with a reference to Harry Potter? The middle tracks of the album include an appearance by Daniel Dumile who died in 2020, so it really does feel like this one dropped out of an earlier era.

tyshawn sorey trio — mesmerism + the off-off broadway guide to synergism

Cheating a bit here by including two albums, but I hear these two releases as two halves of a single project. Mesmerism includes Great American Songbook standards but all lightly rehearsed, so the tracks still incorporate stretches of adventurous improvisation. Pianist Aaron Diehl builds some really interesting architecture for several minutes on one four-note descent in “Detour Ahead,” a stand-out track. Things are more boldly improvisatory on Off-Off, but the three sets on the triple album nevertheless have a lot of coherence. (Does Sorey float “Jitterbug Waltz” back into several tracks?) String all four of these rich discs together and before you know it, you’ll be in 2023.

zoomtunes 2021

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra, Promises — By tossing an ambient producer, a storied jazz saxophonist, and the LSO into the musical Vitamix, this album runs the risk of becoming auditory sludge. But its nine “movements,” better understood as a single 46-minute track, avoid melting into sonic mush by keeping a tight structure around the same theme from start to finish. It’s a real feat of composition. This album has captured the attention of jazz reviewers, thanks to Sanders, but it mostly reminds me of piano solo works like Chopin’s Berceuse and this short piece by Reicha that explore, with virtuosic inventiveness, the possibilities of a minimal, unchanging foundation.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Elliott Carter: Ballets — I taught a Greek survey lecture course this fall, so perhaps my brain was already tuned to the Cretan Bull and the myth of Theseus. But these early ballets by Elliott Carter are gems of early 20th-century modernism: sometimes evoking Stravinsky’s jarring Rite of Spring, sometimes evoking Copland’s cinematic sweeps. They were entirely new to me, as was the in-house label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is worth checking out.

Jaubi, Nafs at Peace — Producers have been excavating samples from world music for decades. The Pakistani instrumental group Jaubi turns this relationship on its head, building on a North Indian core with foot-tapping percussion and slick synth chords. Sometimes it echoes the Ethiopiques series—not that all world music sounds the same, especially with the more modern production of Nafs at Peace. But for both, the integration of instruments and harmonies is simultaneously effortless and rich.

Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg — There was a microtrend of spoken-word music this year—or maybe just a microtrend in my listening—from driving lessons on the Henry Hudson to an anthem for millennial male friendship. But Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg is the standout, hands down. It layers Florence Shaw’s deadpan, droll lyrics—“Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?”—over instrumentals that are half Sonic Youth, half early B-52s. Shaw herself gets right to the point: “She’s definitely in a league of her own.”

Smirk, LP — The most insufferable thing about people who have lived in New York is their fanatical nostalgia for neighborhood establishments that no longer exist, but hear me out: this album is the Upper West Side’s Ding Dong Lounge, circa 2011. Guitars never tuned; speakers muffled; punkwave, leather-jacket hand claps. Now that so much of life is mediated via webcam, there’s a powerful draw to music (and its long-gone venues) that shuns glossy production. I mean, aren’t we all tired of checking “Touch Up My Appearance”?