CD/DVD Music Reviews for the Audiophile – May, 2010


Sarah Vaughan Masters of American Music series EuroArts DVD 2057128

  • Performance:
  • Picture and Sonics:

Whether you think of her as “Sassy,” which she certainly was, or “The Divine One,” which was true in virtually everything she sang, the fabulous Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) ranks as one of the finest jazz artists America has ever produced. This excellent 56-minute documentary, issued the year after her death and now digitally remastered and re-released in DVD format on EuroArts’ Masters of American Music series, abounds in irreplaceable footage and interviews that document the arc of her career.

Sarah Vaughan was only 19 when she won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in 1942.

The next spring, the Apollo asked her to open for Ella Fitzgerald. (Fittingly, Sarah’s very last recording, made the year before she died of lung cancer, gave her the first opportunity to record with Ella). The great vocalist Billy Eckstine, who heard her at the Apollp, recommended her to bandleader and pianist Earl Hines.

By April 4, 1943, one week after she turned 20, Vaughan’s career was launched as Hines’ lead singer. The next year, she joined Eckstine’s own band. By the end of 1944, she had not only cut her first record, but also performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bernie Green, and other greats. Already nicknamed Sassy, and equipped with the pipes and style to make it real, she soon left the Eckstine band to pursue her solo career.

By 1948, Vaughan had signed with Columbia. The next year brought the first of her many appearances with symphony orchestras, enabling to straddle the color gap between “negro” and pure jazz audiences and the basically white classical/pop market. And it went on from there.

The DVD’s nine chapters are filled with fabulous footage. From her beginnings, singing in church, we experience Sarah in the Eckstine Band, on the road, and in and out of love. We see her in youthful first bloom as a thin, increasingly stylish vocalist; in her maturity as a fleshed out, top-of-her-form performer, and sweating it out under the lights in live performance. The sound is quite good throughout.

No matter how hot the room, or how uncomfortable the conditions, what we see shows an artist working herself to the max, improvising in the moment, digging deep into her material. Although occasionally she can be accused of one too many embellishments, her intonation is true, and her voice incomparable. The range is almost three octaves, the highs increasingly dispensed in a manner that bridges classical and jazz styles. Later in the career, an edge that betrays her years of cigarette smoking creeps in, but the musicianship remains intact. I don’t know about you, but when I watch Sarah bite into a word, teething glaring as she chews into music like no one else, I simply want to bow at her feet.

Interviews with Eckstine and Sarah’s mother and adopted daughter help put this DVD over the top. Indispensible viewing, and a vital supplement to Sarah’s huge discography. Search out the audiophile CD pressings from original masters; the closer you can get to Sarah’s voice, the better life is.


Mindi Abair In Hi-Fi Stereo Heads Up HUI-31837-02

  • Performance:
  • Sonics:

It’s been a long time since I listened to a pop recording that was so much fun. After a decade of performing and songwriting, saxophonist Mindi Abair has stepped back into the so-called golden age of R&B, soul, and funk. It may not be the most mindful or inventive of steps – the music, universally upbeat and screaming “shake your boogie ‘til you drop,” is simple of purpose and even simpler of harmony, and several selections sound too much alike – but it’s so much fun that it’s hard to resist getting up off the couch and dancing up a storm.

Not all the album is mindless fun. The James Brown classic, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (got the point?), turns into a duet between the curiously male sounding Lalah Hathaway (nominated 2010 R&B Female Vocalist of the Year) and Abair. The back and forth between the two women suggests a collaborative partnership that too many men are afraid to dare with other members of their sex. The point is turned on its head.

The penultimate track, “Take Me Home,” does exactly that. Funky to the max, jiving and wailing like the best of them, it takes those old enough to remember back to when music of celebration predominated over music of anger. The final track, “The Alley,” was born in a rehearsal studio in LA called The Alley. “We all just jammed together until we came up with this song,” says Adair. The spontaneity pays off in spades.

Abiar has been recording since 1999, when her first album, Always and Never the Same, was released while she was touring with the Backstreet Boys. 2003 brought her first major label release on Verve, and 2008 her move to the Peak division of Concord. In other words, she’s a pro.

Her influences include Al Green, Alain Toussaint, Junior Walker, King Curtis, and Archie Bell and the Drells. “I wanted to move away from a more produced sound and just get into the studio and play,” says Abair. “It didn’t have to be perfect [although it is]. It didn’t have to be shiny and new. ” Well, maybe not. But it’s so fresh and free of artifice that it might as well be spring.

I challenge you to listen to the opening track, “Any Way You Wanna,” sitting still. Co-written by Abair and Stephen “Stevo” Theard, it’s a funky trip. Equally rousing is “All Star,” inspired by a mix of Motown and Ramsey Lewis. More party music. Balancing them out is the spirited and soulful ballad, “Be Beautiful,” sung by David Ryan Harris, that throws its support to women. Eleven tracks in all, available May 18, and loaded with energy and fun. A bit repetitious, perhaps. But when you’re dancing, all you’ll think about is how good you feel. Available May 18.


Florilegium Bolivian Baroque Vol. 3 Channel Classics Hybrid SACD B002Z8HVH0

  • Performance:
  • Sonics:

The following reviews originally appeared at, the website of San Francisco Classical Voice

If you’re looking for music to restore your faith in what’s good in life, look no farther. The three excellently recorded volumes of period instrument ensemble Florilegium’s pioneering Bolivian Baroque series contain some of the most delightful music I’ve heard in many a year.

Who might have expected that, in the midst of the Bolivian rainforest, exist more than 7000 musical documents from the old Jesuit missionary settlements and reductions (inhabited by 3000-5000 native Bolivians together with a very few members of religious orders)? What’s more, the music, at least the pieces performed by Florilegium and a choir of handpicked Bolivian singers on three superb Channel Classics SACDs, is a joy.

Not only do the melodies and harmonies reflect the simple piety and faith transmitted by the missionaries to their willing or unwilling converts, but the performances are also shorn of the sophisticated trappings that we have come to associate with Western classical excellence. That is not to suggest that the musicians are anything less than first rate. But the directness of their approach, and the purity of their sound, transmits a youthful freshness that never fails to captivate.

Following up Vol. 2, which received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice and BBC Music Magazine nomination for best choir recording, Vol. 3 showcases the Arakaendar Bolivia Choir. Founded in 2005 by Florilegium’s Director, Ashley Solomon, in order to work with Florilegium on the Bolivian Baroque projects, its 16 singers excel in vibrato-less, pure-toned singing. The choir first performed at the 6th International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque Music in Bolivia in April 2006, after which it recorded Vol. 2 with Florilegium and appeared on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes on Easter Sunday, 2007. They have since undertaken their first European tour with Florilegium, during which they recorded parts of Vol. 3.

The SACD showcases the restored 18th century Blockwerk organ located in the Mission Church of Santa Ana de Ciquitos deep in the rainforest. The organ’s sound, light, sweet, and entirely shorn of bombast, makes a fitting complement to the voices.

Most intriguing is the message of some of the selections. Roque Jacinto de Charvarria (1688-1719) may have written a delightful, bouncing melody for “Fuera, fuera! Háganles lugar!” (Get away from here!), but his words command the Spanish conquerors to respect the Bolivian natives as equal worshippers of Christ, and stop their mocking laughter. The title of Juan de Araujo’s “Al Llanto mas tierno” (The most tender lament) may sound like an intro to a long-suffering, minor key lament, but it instead sweetly requests flowers, birds, springs, and stars to stop their movement and experience the wonders of life and love on earth. Even Tomás de Torrejón y Valesco’s Missa Octavo Tono sounds less burdened with suffering than equivalent works sung by English and German choirs. The mp3 clips posted with this review only give a hint of the warm, full-range sound of this irresistible recording.


Ravel: Ballet and Dance Music Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Rotterdam Philharmonia Orchestra EMI Classics 66342

  • Performance:
  • Sonics:

The dance begins at sunrise, as French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra into the “Lever du jour” of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2. The journey is gorgeous and atmospheric, the sun fast rising over a hazy landscape until it bursts forth in full splendor (and top volume). It’s a far cry from Herbert von Karajan’s sunrise, in which every rustle and twitter is highlighted as though the sun prefers to shine on one blade of grass or flitting bird at a time. Nézet-Séguin dispenses with the magnifying glass, and dives in whole. For listeners who can let themselves go, and let it all wash over them, it’s a gorgeous romp.

From refinement we glide head first into Valses nobles et sentimentales, One minute we’re whirling around, the next minute lolling in sensual reverie. Nézet-Séguin seems as comfortable with the perfumed refinement of the third movement, “Modére,” as he is dancing up a storm in parts of “Moins vif.”

Concluding with Ravel at his diaphanous best, the work serves as a perfect prelude to the sinister, stealth-like opening of Nézet-Séguin’s whirlwind La Valse. We begin to feel tipsy, as the music grows topsy-turvy, off-kilter, saturated with color. Dragged around the floor yet never losing his balance, Nézet-Séguin has a ball. There’s more than a fair share of sly humor here, and just enough of sinister decadence to suggest that our dance partner has more than waltzing on his or her mind. It’s a performance that you feel no need to compare with anyone else’s; it satisfies fully just as it is.

Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) brings enchantment. The first bird chirps may be a little aggressive, but the landscape is as pastoral as they come. The orientalism of “Laideronnete, Impératrice des pagodes” is all joy and light, and a far cry from the frightening scenario of Puccini’s Turandot. The liner notes list many the five movements in the wrong order – they’re correct on the iTunes readout, should you be listening on your computer – but Nézet-Séguin knows where he’s going. The finale, aka “Apothéose: Le Jardin Féerique”, is beautiful, warm, and transporting. What a wonderful world composer and conductor lead us into. The ending is glorious, the orchestra ablaze with color and light.


Cecilia Bartoli Sacrificium Decca 001341202

  • Performance:
  • Sonics:

It’s a toss-up as to whether listening to mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s spectacular new Decca recording of music written for the star castrati of the 18th century is more exhilarating or exhausting. Many of Sacrificium’s 15 arias, which are stronger as virtuosic showpieces than conveyers of emotional truth, contain more trills, roulades, and impossibly difficult runs than any singer can be rightly expected to generate in the course of a day. It’s no wonder that Bartoli and the superb authentic instrument ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico, took two weeks to record this tribute to the castrati.

Bartoli is in sensational form. If you thought soprano Montserrat Caballé held the record for long-breathed lines, wait ‘til you hear Bartoli’s world premiere recording of Francesco Araia’s “Cadrò, ma qual si mir” (I shall fall, just as one sees fall). One of 11 world premieres in the set, this little ditty is a vocal freak show whose impossibly long runs seem intended as the ultimate showpiece. Assuming no digital slight of hand was employed, that Bartoli rages through coloratura passages of almost 30 bars in length without either pausing to breathe or fluffing a single note is an astounding feat.

She is, of course, Bartoli. The voice whirls like no other, whipping up torrents of tones, blazing with fire and brilliance on top. Just as some people complained that the vibrato of Conchita Supervia, the infinitely expressive Spanish mezzo coloratura of the early 20th century, sounded like a rattle, some may find Bartoli’s machine gun articulation of rapidly produced notes off-putting. To me, it adds to the emotional expression and excitement. When you compare her recording of Broschi’s “Son qual nave” (I am like a ship) to the rendition Derek Lee Ragin executed for the movie Farinelli, it sounds like a case of Wonder Woman vs. the Wimp. Alongside Bartoli, mezzo Vivica Genaux’s CD of castrato repertoire, Arias for Farinelli, almost seems tame.

Although Bartoli seems to value coloratura accuracy over enunciation, her voice is gorgeous. Time and again, the slow singing, as in Caldara’s “Profezie, di me diceste” (Prophecies, you told me), is heart-touching. The floated highs in Porpora’s “Parto, ti lascio, o cara” (I go, I leave you, o my love) border on the angelic, in contradistinction to her fabulous growl-like low utterance, in Graun’s “Misero pargoletto” (Unhappy child) on the word “terror. ” Is there another singer either alive or on record who can simulate the sound of a butterfly as magically she does in Leo’s “Qual farfalla innamorata” (Like a butterfly crazed with love)?

Emperor Joseph II must not have been paying attention to the music castrati were singing when he issued his now infamous accusation, “Too many notes, Mozart. ” Mozart’s coloratura is restrained compared to what these 18th century composers demanded of their artists. That Bartoli not only meets the demands with breath to spare, but also makes the best case imaginable for this music’s merit, is a phenomenal accomplishment. What an artist!