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Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories by Alexander Armstrong, Orchestra of the Swan: Not Now, Bernard and Isabel’s Noisy Tummy are illustrated children’s books by David McKee that add a comic gloss to discomfiting childhood experiences. James Mayhew’s The Knight Who Took All Day adds amusingly quixotic, mildly PC kinks to a damsel-in-distress plot. And “Annabel Lee” is the Poe poem. Then there’s Thread!, a stroll through the Bayeux Tapestry. What these pieces have in common is the nimble narration of Alexander Armstrong and lively performances of orchestral compositions by Bernard Hughes (McKee and Mayhew), John Ireland (Poe), and Judith Weir (Thread!). Liveliest and least programmatic of all: Malcolm Arnold’s eight-minute Toy Symphony. File under “Ideal Alternatives to Drag Queen Story Hour.”
Folk Music of China, Vol. 4: Folk Songs of Guangxi by various artists: This latest installment in what’s slated to be a 19-volume series is the first to appear since the COVID-19 virus became the Story of the Year. So let it be said that the lung power evinced by these 17 singers (more if you count “Anonymous”) augers well for Guangxi’s continued resilience (only two deaths as of this writing). Vocalist after vocalist launches sustained, upwardly spiraling lines, never breaking for a breath until he or she has speared a final note that seems anything but obvious until it is. Of course, something similar could be said of the singers in the regions represented by Volumes 1-3. So what sets this one apart? A certain droning sound unique to the Mulao people.
The End of the Game 50th Anniversary Remastered & Expanded Edition by Peter Green: In a brief, semi-lucid period between leaving Fleetwood Mac (which he co-founded) and succumbing to schizophrenia (which he exacerbated with LSD), the electric-blues guitar hero Peter Green went into a studio with a four-man rhythm section and jammed away. The results, edited into discrete tracks and long disparaged by critics, have improved with age. Coming as they did at the end of the ’60s, their amorphousness signaled (echoed?) the unraveling of hippiedom’s cosmic pretensions. Coming as they now do at the end of rock ’n’ roll itself, their bursts of primal energy sound like rebukes to today’s over-computerized pop.
Black, Brown & Beige by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: “He understood what binds us,” said Wynton Marsalis of Duke Ellington in a recent interview on this landmark jazz symphony. “He had a spiritual insight … a depth of intellectual engagement with music and a virtuosity and an embrace of what a myriad of people could do. So his music is always friendly to all the sections: great trombone, great trumpets, great saxophones, rhythm section. He gives everybody something to play that is significant and meaningful.” You can’t ask for more than that, can you? Yet, if only in terms of a higher audio fidelity than what’s available on Ellington’s own recordings, more is exactly what this thrilling 2018 live performance delivers.
Miles Davis: Music From and Inspired by Birth of the Cool, a Film by Stanley Nelson (Legacy) is the audio companion to the Miles Davis documentary mentioned in the title and begins with an observation from Herbie Hancock: “Miles had a way of playing that sounded like a stone skipping across a pond.” The metaphor could also describe both Nelson’s two-hour documentary in relation to Davis’ 65-year life and this 80-minute soundtrack in relation to Nelson’s documentary.
One advantage that the CD has over the film is its inclusion of entire pieces, 14 in all. A disadvantage is that 14 pieces cannot convey Davis’ artistic range, development, and importance. The biggest difference, however, between the CD and the film is the inability of the former to convey what Davis’ first wife confirms in the latter: He beat women, often (maybe always) under the influence of drugs. Today, such behavior would end a career. The unspoken theme of both the film and the CD is that we should be glad it didn’t end Davis’.