Music Reviews – July, 2008

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: January • ECM CD: BPP10818-02

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Exquisite is a word I once reserved for the subtle beauties of classical song. Then I began to listen to ECM Grammy Award-winning producer Manfred Eicher’s jazz recordings, and my perspective changed. I can’t vouch for yours, but I feel confident that the rarefied atmosphere of opening five trackson this CD may very well take your breath away. And that includes the trio’s cover of Prince’s 1991 “Diamonds and Pearls,” as well as sublime renditions of music by Gary Peacock, Ennio Morricone, contemporary trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, and pianist / trio founder Marcin Wasilewski.

Wasilewski, who was 32 when the trio recorded January in New York in April 2007, began playing jazz with double-bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz at age 15, when both attended the same high school. Drummer Michal Miskiewicz joined them soon thereafter, in 1993. Naming themselves the Simple Acoustic Trio, they won a number of awards before going international in 2004, when their debut release on ECM won the Quarterly Prize of the German Record Critics.

Now, under their new name, the trio moves to the forefront of intelligent, subtle jazz. The touch is light, the mastery of color and trust in space between notes supreme. Even when the trio gets a move on, as it begins to do in Carla Bley’s “King Korn” and a few other tracks, the lightness and grace remain. Every choice bespeaks genius and transcendent beauty.


Pamela Thorby and Andrew Lawrence-King: Garden of Early Delights • Linn SACD CKD 291

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Recorder player Pamela Thorby and harp and psaltery virtuoso Andrew Lawrence-King’s wonderfully recorded disc of renaissance and baroque music is a delight. The consistently entrancing program also scores points for its state-of-the-art, high-resolution SACD (super audio compact disc) format and DSD (direct stream digital) recording process. Together, DSD and SACD yield remarkable clarity on regular CD players and create a realistic surround environment on multi-channel systems.

Thorby plays renaissance or “ganassi” versions of soprano, alto, and tenor recorders. Lawrence-King chooses copies of Italian baroque triple harp, Zurberan’s double harp, and renaissance psaltery. The instrumental composers are less strict with authenticity, with the English following Italian fashion, and the French incorporating elements of Neapolitan and Venetian style. Many were pioneers, attempting to touch listeners on emotional levels previously thought possible only through vocal music liberally spiced with dramatic recitation.

The music is thus new in every sense, and includes early examples of what we would now call “walking bass.” Diego Ortiz, Dario Castello, Johann Schop, Giovanni Bassano, Giovanni Battista Fontana, and Biagio Marini may not be known outside early music circles, but their efforts bring great pleasure. From the droll, faux naïveté of Jacob Van Eyck’s “Wat zal men op den Avond doen” to the characteristically mournful tone of John Dowland’s “Sorrow, sorrow stay” and “Weep you no more,” Thorby and Lawrence-King approach their virtuosic repertoire with consummate ease and joyful hearts.

Lara Jai: Unlock the Mystery • Light Heart LH0701

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I was well on my way to reviewing Sacred Blessings, a fine New Age compilation assembled by Anthony Robbins replete with tracks by name artists. Then I took a deeper listen to independent artist Lara Jai’s lovely freshman CD, Unlock The Mystery. Immediately I was hooked. Gifted with an extremely fine, captivating soprano whose vibration bespeaks sincerity and devotion, LaraJai sings seven original compositions, a New Age version of a traditional Spanish song, and a Sanskrit chant. She also plays Celtic harp, synthesizer, tamboura, and finger cymbals, enlisting support from other fine musicians who play a wide assortment of instruments that includes tabla, gadulka, flute, 12-string guitar, and cello.

Based in Colorado, Lara Jai grew up among horses in Wyoming. Actively involved in wildlife conservation for much of her life, she found inspiration for this album while spending seven years in semi-isolation in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. Given the purity and love she shares through her music, it comes as no surprise that the CD is dedicated to Amma, a divine teacher and healer whose “sole mission is to serve one and all.” After you check out the soundclips at, you too are likely to want to bathe in the bliss of Unlock the Mystery.There’s a special integrity to this music that makes for joyful listening.

Aruna Sairam: Divine Inspiration • World Village 468074

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There’s no better way to gain perspective than to listen to the real thing. For Westerners accustomed to thinking that the vocal avatar ofthe New Age is an air brushed young woman with blue eyes, pink skin, and a limited harmonic vocabulary (which perviously reviewed artist Lara Jai is not), this album is a revelation.

Aruna Sairam is a renowned exponent of the Karnatic tradition of south Indian spiritual song, a style less known in the West than northern Indian classical music. Sairam invokes love with a vibrato-less, slightly hoarse, nasal style of Sanskrit vocalization that bespeaks a life of devotion. An amazing artist, whose virtuosity inspires wonder, her low-pitched instrument seems to possess infinite flexibility. She not only traverses microtonal runs at the same impossibly fast tempi that the amazing J. Vaidyanathan plays the double-headed mridanagam (drum), but does so with a vitality that reflects her unshakable faith in the spiritual tradition at the heart of hersong.

“When you trust reason to me,” says Arjuna, “I soon arise to rescue you from the ocean of death and rebirth. Focus your mind on me, let your understanding enter me; then you will dwell in me without doubt.” For those raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the notion of meditative surrender resonates. So does the voice of Aruna Sairam, whose singing encompasses repertoire thatdates back to the 8th century AD.


Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem (Ein DeutschesRequiem) • Telarc CD and forthcoming SACD-80701

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Is it any wonder that so many recordings of Brahms’ choral masterpiece abound? Written for the concert hall rather than a church setting, the work is far more about light than darkness. The requiem’s biblical texts concern themselves, not with salvation from sin, but with the comfort, peace, and joy that spring from transcendence (aka “deliverance”) of the pain and tribulations of death. Hence the ecstatic, thrilling choral crescendos of “joy and rapture” that conclude the second movement; the transcendent beauty of the calm center movement (“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How lovely is thy dwelling place)) – a favorite with high school and college glee clubs; and the sweet transport of the great soprano solo, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”, which ends with the words, “I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforts.”

Although this new CD of the German Requiem may not displace the classic recording by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus do a marvelous job with the work. The ASO Chorus, many of whose members sang under the late, great Robert Shaw, sings as though inspired. As might be expected, Telarc delivers excellent although less colorful than usual sound. Optionally available is a high-resolution SACD surround which adds to the thrill of the works great dynamic shifts and climaxes. Twyla Robinson’s delivery may be too grand for the soprano solo; both Laura Claycomb, who recently triumphed in MTT’s San Francisco Symphony performance of the work, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for Klemperer are ideal. The gorgeously voiced baritone soloist, Mariusz Kwiecien, ranks with the best. Those who have never heard this heavenly music may find their lives transformed.

The Orlando Consort and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir: Scattered Rhymes • Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807469

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This marvelous disc of ancient and modern music, much of its acred, takes its name from contemporary composer Tarik O’Regan’s Scattered Rhymes. O’Regan completed his harmonically complex yet tonally accessible 16-minute work for unaccompanied male vocal quartet and choir in 2006, when he was 28. He composed the work after receiving inspiration from Guillaume de Machaut’s astonishingly modern-sounding Messe de Nostre Dame, which is also included on the CD. Probably composed in the 1360s, Machaut’s mass is not only the first complete mass setting we know of, but also one of the earliest examples of polyphony (independent lines of music that weave around and through each other to create a unified sonic fabric).

In addition to two compositions by O’Regan and the works by Machaut that inspired them, the CD also contains a recent work by England’s Gavin Bryars. Continuing the recording’s theme, it is paired with the 15thcentury composition from which it springs, a piece by Guillaume Dufay.

Singing and music are of the highest order. The superb UK-based Orlando Consort (a countertenor, two tenors, and baritone), founded in 1988, is paired with the straight-faced Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The latter is especially known for its recordings of the spiritual music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis. Now under the direction of Paul Hillier, founder ofthe renowned Hilliard Ensemble, choir members sing with a soaring, innocent resonance that inspires the deepest respect. This disc will likely be in the running for multiple awards later in the year. It’s that good.