Music is a gift — here are some holiday choices
Recently published photos of Proctor’s Theater in Troy reminded me of seeing Tom Rush play there in the early 1970s. He touted a new album: “It makes a wonderful gift” — which brings us to this Music Shopping Guide. Whether you hie yourself (in Carl Strock’s words) to your friendly neighborhood record store or online download emporium, keep these in mind.
Ryan Adams — “Ashes & Fire”
Recovering from the hearing disorder that sidelined him for years, Adams takes up where he left off, exploring country-rock roots all the way up to heaven. The mood is mellow, the pace relaxed, the beauty of the music very inviting and sweet.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw — “Cervantine”
Hybrids are hot this year, but this mostly instrumental collection may be the hottest around. They play Balkan-based jazz-rock way better, to my ears, than Gogol Bordello. Some of this is pretty fast and jittery, good for cleaning house or speeding tickets; other parts are serene and soft.
Ambrose Akinmusire — “When the Heart Emerges Glistening”
The ensemble blend, the suave solo energy and the clean, strong sound of this small-band jazz reminds me of the CTI Records style, and that’s a compliment. A young trumpeter from LA, Akinmusire knows when to hold back and when to play all in, and the songs are solid.
Bon Iver — “Bon Iver”
The name of the band (singer-songwriter Justin Vernon and sonic enablers) and of this, its second album, means “good winter.” This beautiful folk-pop is perfect for short days and deep, cold nights. Bigger in sound than the debut “For Emma, Forever Ago,” it’s still intimate and atmospheric, lovely, sincere.
Vinicius Cantuaria and Bill Frisell — “Lagrimas Mexicanas”
The title means “Mexican tears,” but this fleet, agile music — two guitars, voice and percussion — has more moods than sad. Cantuaria guested on Frisell’s “The Intercontinentals” a few years ago, but he’s a full partner here. Masters at play. You won’t care that it’s sung en espanol.
Miles Davis Quintet — “Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1”
Nobody has led more great bands than Miles, and this is one of the best jazz bands ever, playing at its too-brief peak. In his own favorite phrase, they all — Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Miles himself — play their asses off.
Bill Frisell — “All We are Saying . . .”
Guitarist Frisell with his usual killers (Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen) playing Beatles songs: What are you waiting for? Frisell goes deeper into the moods of some songs than the Beatles ever did, with thrilling results.
Keith Jarrett — “Rio”
Two CDs of live solo piano improvisations. Some of these 15 pieces feel like explorations, but very little seems tentative, others like songs he’s played for years. Some are modest, intimate; others majestic, ambitious. If a Martian asked about a piano, you’d say “It’s to make sounds and feelings, like this.”
More solo piano? Sure:
Brad Meldau — “Live in Marciac”
Improvisations, often based on songs you love, didn’t know you loved until Meldau got to them, or won’t initially recognize in his forceful, or tender, hands. (2 CDs and a DVD)
Still more? Sure, again: Fred Hersch — “Alone at the Vanguard”
His recovery from serious illness is serious good news for fans in love with his elegant expressions of timeless tunes.
Comparing and contrasting among these piano masters is tempting but difficult. Try this: Jarrett, cerebral; Meldau, muscular; Hersch, lyrical.
The Jayhawks — “Mockingbird Time”
This reunion of the original cast isn’t as consistently strong as fans wanted, and I’m one. Some songs are too solemn and when they try to lighten up, it doesn’t always work. But the high points are pretty high and it has the charm of experienced players who really mean it, rebuilding their chemistry.
Amos Lee — “Mission Bell”
What tremendous folk-rock and country-rock songs these are, and what terrific performances — confident, musically commanding and open-hearted with emotional generosity. Friend and former editor Dick Bennett urged me to listen, saying this is his favorite album of the year. He’s right about how fine it is.
My Morning Jacket — “Circuital”
This is the extra-large size, expansive rock of unashamed sonic ambition and knockout achievement. However, this music has a shrewd sense of proportion, so the songwriting retains its sense of welcome. The Arcade Fire’s Grammys showed it’s OK to reach widescreen; here’s the next big one.
Meshell Ndegeocello — “Weather”
A shared triumph by the singer-songwriter-bassist and her producer, Joe Henry. As sonically small-scale as “Circuital” is huge, this invites you to listen to the words and feelings in a different way, like someone who talks softly makes you lean in close. This music is close.
Radiohead — “The King of Limbs”
These kings of arty rock cook up a distinctively strong flavor, but their drone-based songs and jittery beats coalesce more often into grooves here on their eighth album than on their previous recent work, evoking “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.” It’s complex music to dream and puzzle over.
Raphael Saadiq — “Stone Rollin’ ”
Another skillful rocking blast of neo-soul/pop by the most devoted disciple of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. This turns back the calendar almost as well as its predecessor “The Way I See It.” Saadiq means this music; it’s not retro for him: It’s real.
Paul Simon — “So Beautiful or So What”
A star forever, maybe longer, Simon has peaks and valleys, like any artist; but his are higher than those of all but a few. This is his finest album since “Graceland,” with wisdom and wit in the writing, exceptional beauty in the music and surprising collaborators, expertly employed.
TV on the Radio — “Nine Kinds of Light”
Seriously beautiful, big-spirited rock by a band that lost bassist Gerard Smith this year, but not its mojo. Extra points for playing a titanic show here recently? No, no critical drift or discount for this great band. Brooklyn rocks and rocks some more.
Visqueen – “Message to Garcia”
Rachel Flotard and company rock out, in probably the happiest album of the year. There’s nothing easy, obvious or unearned about the lyrics. Instead, the lift-off comes from the melodies, the unanimous joy in the playing, and Flotard’s singing, which sounds like Neko Case at times, a good thing.
Wilco — “The Whole Love”
From the first outrageous explosion in “Art of Almost” to the pastoral bliss of “One Sunday Morning,” this may be the most accomplished unhyphenated rock album this year. There’s no category crossing here, no hybridization — though guitarist Nels Cline is truly a category all his own.
Longtime favorites at The Egg Jane Monheit and Mark O’Connor team up on Saturday in “Home for the Holidays.” They’ll jazz up holiday standards, Monheit singing and O’Connor playing violin, with pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neil Miner and drummer Rick Montalbano, Monheit’s husband.
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert are $29.50, but a pre-show reception with buffet will benefit The Egg, with tickets at $60, $90 and $120 (including concert admission). Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.