Welcome to SFCV’s 2021 year-end roundup of recordings released this year by Bay Area artists. Every year we’re amazed at the musical riches in our own back yard, and this year more so than ever. Despite the strictures of the lockdown, artists managed to create a lot of brand-new music and find creative ways to record it, while many organizations scoured their archives for great, unreleased music that deserved a fresh release.
Our list isn’t limited to classical music: We have a little bit of everything to offer. We can’t claim that our roster is comprehensive, but we tried to provide a solid sample of the area’s musical wealth. There is so much great music here that we aren’t able to hear or review over the year, and this is one way for us to catch up.
We offer this listing with no editorializing or reviews: Blurbs are drawn primarily from artist and label promotional materials. Album titles and cover images are linked to sites with more information and purchasing options. We hope you find something new and interesting as you peruse the listing. Take a chance and enjoy the diversity of sounds available here. Feel free to add your comments and suggestions via Disqus (below) or on our Facebook page, and please share this with your musical friends.
Agave Baroque and Reginald L. Mobley
Agave Baroque, a Bay Area string chamber music group featuring collaborated with countertenor Reginald Mobley on American Originals: A New World, A New Canon. The recording celebrates the overlooked works of American composers of color in an effort to rectify the racial imbalance that has existed within classical music over the last four centuries. Some of the composers included on the album are Florence Price, Esteban Salas y Castro, Scott Joplin, Manuel de Zumaya, José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia, and Justin Holland.
Marin County singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Alden’s latest release is a collection of 11 original songs. He recorded the often poetic, sometimes topical and, at times, funny rock, pop, and Americana tunes in his basement studio during the enforced isolation of the pandemic. Alden handles lead vocals and plays guitars and most of the other instruments on the record. He’s joined on some tracks by the versatile Marin drummer Rob Hooper, former Frank Zappa bassist Scott Thunes, and Eamon Flynn, once a member of Ireland’s the Commitments, on piano, organ, and backing vocals.
Alexander String Quartet
The San Francisco-based Alexander String Quartet has completed a “Brahms Compendium” with its release of Brahms String Quartets. Previous recordings in the series include Brahms’s Clarinet Quintets (with Eli Eban) and Piano Quintets (with Joyce Yang), both named MusicWeb International recordings of the year; and Brahms’s String Quintets and Sextets (with Toby Appel and David Requiro), hailed as a “life-enhancing set” by The Arts Desk. The new release includes Brahms’s Intermezzo, transcribed for string quartet by ASQ's Zakarias Grafilo. InfoDad’s review of the quartets notes the group’s “subtlety and mutuality of purpose ... there is purity, warmth, richness and elegance throughout.” Visit the ASQ website for upcoming performances (Herbst Theater, Mondavi Center, Gualala Arts Center).
Charles Amirkanian’s latest comprises four previously unreleased electroacoustic works investigating the composer’s Armenian heritage — central to his identity but until now unexplored in his discography. The CD begins with a minimalist text-sound composition “Dzarin Bess Ga Khorim” (I think like the tree), based on an Armenian language text recited by the composer. The centerpiece of the album is the 30-minute title track, “Miatsoom” which means “Reunion” in Armenian. A long form radio play of sorts, the work’s source material comes from recordings made during the course of a trip the composer took to Armenia with his father. “Three Armenians” has its roots in Amirkhanian’s childhood: The composer uses two 78rpm records his father brought home as the piece’s only source material.
Recorded at a live performance at Berkeley's Hillside Club, this CD captures the first time Art Lande’s “West Coast” Trio was joined by trumpeter/composer Erik Jekabson. Playing to a packed house, the group rises to the occasion, playing adventurously and with great subtlety. The first set features music brought in by Jekabson, the second set features music brought in by Lande.
Yang Bao and Kenneth Renshaw
Yang Bao plays the piano. Kenneth Renshaw plays the violin. According to them, “The three pieces of music featured on this album were written a couple of centuries ago, in a very different world from our current one. Yet in playing them we felt a deeply personal connection to the sense of struggle, reckoning with the forces of light and dark within ourselves, and search for cathartic expression that each piece conveys, independent from any time or place.”
From the Jazz Is Dead Label: “The shadow that Gary Bartz casts over the last six decades of progressive Black music, and his continued dedication to same, makes him a logical and very welcome contributor to the Jazz Is Dead label. An alto saxophonist steeped in the history and tradition of his instrument who is also restlessly experimental and not prone to purism of any kind, he enjoys both the respect and admiration of his peers and the hero worship of several generations after him – including Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, which inevitably led to Gary Bartz JID 006.”
Leading with clarity of purpose from the drumkit, Keshav Batish hones a personal, multifaceted sound as a player and composer on his debut album, which features alto saxophonist Shay Salhov, pianist Lucas Hahn, and bassist Aron Caceres. When the group gathered to record Binaries in Cycle at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, in Batish’s current home city of Santa Cruz, the beloved performance space was empty. The recording features stirring performances of five original pieces, plus inventive readings of Ornette Coleman’s “Police People” and Thelonious Monk’s “We See.”
Guitarist Steve Baughman is one of the leading fingerstyle guitarists on the scene. With chops to spare and a commanding grasp of traditional American and Irish tunes and songs, Baughman crafts beautiful solo arrangement for the steel-string acoustic guitar. His latest outing is a deep dive into the classic repertory of the blind Celtic harper and composer Turlough O’Carolan.
Trained in both jazz and classical music, West Coast-based pianist Davheed Behroozi is the uncommon musician to earn endorsements from icons in both disciplines. The best presentation yet of Behroozi’s artistry as a jazz musician now comes with this sophomore album. Showcasing Behroozi’s richly atmospheric, even hypnotic compositions, the new disc features Behroozi in league with two of New York’s finest: bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Billy Mintz, both master improvisers known for their subtle, individual sounds. They are an ideal complement to Behroozi’s rhapsodic, wide-screen pianism.
Best-known for gracing the pedal steel chair in Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep at the Wheel, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Bobby Black is one of the greats at his chosen instrument and one of the last members of the first generation of players to introduce it to American music. And he is definitely the only member of that club who spent most of his life in Northern California — San Mateo to be specific. This new sampler was culled from a large collection of Black’s unreleased tapes, cassettes, and CDs that studio wizard Myles Boisen cleaned up and compiled into a retrospective of the beloved steel guitarist’s career.
Solar One is an EP of two archival works from Bay Area composer Charles Boone. Both pieces take their inspiration and titles from man-made landmarks across California, a collection of sonic landscapes that are simultaneously static and dynamic. The title track comes from a monumental power station near the desert city of Barstow, The Watts Towers from Simon Rodia’s outsider art masterpiece in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Performers include Janet Ketchum on flute, Mario Guarneri on trumpet, and Louis Siu on drums.
Brothers Miles and Teo Quale are joined by bassist Andrew Osborn and guitarist John Gooding on this latest offering. As they describe it, “Like everyone else, we spent our pandemic days indoors and quarantined, but managed to write a few tunes because of it.” The EP includes four originals recorded during live performances in the Quale’s backyard, which became their makeshift stage during the lockdown. Red-hot picking and singing from some of the most gifted kids playing bluegrass today.
Ten new songs from Throttle Elevator Music with Kamasi Washington members Erik Jekabson and Gregory Howe. Taking off from Throttle’s Final Floor released in 2020, Daggerboard’s Last Days of Studio A lands closer to a main vein of jazz. The album includes many of the same players as Throttle Elevator Music featuring Kamasi Washington: Mike Hughes on drums, Mike Blankenship on keys and featuring Roger Glenn on vibes and Kasey Knudsen on saxophone. Recorded at Fantasy Studios Studio A one week before it closed, the music has a dreamy landscaped that wanders down eerie back streets.
Del Sol Quartet
The Del Sol Quartet’s world-premiere recording of Huang Ruo’s A Dust in Time traces a meditative journey inspired by Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas. The album-length palindromic passacaglia grows toward ecstasy from silence before returning to its source. The physical copies come with Felicia Lee’s hand-drawn coloring book, which invites the listener to create their own mandalas in real-time along with Del Sol's euphoric performance.
On Chaparral, the tenth studio recording from genre-queer songwriter Dillbilly, soulful countryfied rock, mournful resonant ballads, and Rust-Belt bluegrass join hands and waltz around the bonfire. Dillbilly crafts songs laden with lyrics that investigate gender, queerness, class, privilege, and shame, taking a deep dive into the complexity and responsibility of being a white working-class queer from a red state. Winding tenderly through these introspective tales is an elegant voice that warbles like a jay, world-weary and vulnerable, yet glowing gently with a palpable inner strength. Featuring performances by a coterie of gifted artists, Chaparral is masterfully arranged and recorded; pristine, soft-edged, and utterly enchanting.
Rebecca DuMaine and the Dave Miller Trio
Singer Rebecca DuMaine is accompanied by her father, Dave Miller, and his trio. DuMaine says the pandemic period has been a hard slog. “I found myself gravitating more toward singing melancholy songs and I also started writing. We decided to do an album that deviated a little from our typical sunny upbeat and hopeful mood and looked into songs that were a little bit darker but still ultimately hopeful. It was a cathartic experience for us.”
A veteran of acappella music for over 30 years, Bryan Dyer is a performer and educator who has worked in all aspects of the business from stage to film, and radio to recording. He describes his latest outing as “a collection of songs and arrangements designed to show the possibilities of the human voice. The power of one voice.”
Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
The latest from the dynamic Scottish fiddle-and-cello duo features 15 brand-new tracks. The title means “the joining of any two entities without losing the individual characteristics of either one,” which is an apt description of their music. As they describe it, “This album showcases our continuing compositional direction toward the ultimate combination of minimalism and richness, seeking moments of both sophistication and vigor while relishing the ancient and modern.”
Free Dive has been performing and recording together since 2003. All the band members contribute original compositions and collaborate on arrangements. The absence of a chordal instrument gives Free Dive their evocative sound — open, transparent, cinematic. The band’s broad musical backgrounds allow Free Dive to explore many styles including jazz, popular song, and Latin American and African-influenced musics. This is their first release. Members are Jeff Cressman (trombone, percussion), Bryan Dyer (voice, percussion), Cecilia Engelhart (voice, percussion), Steve Hogan (bass, beat box), and Keith Terry (drums, percussion).
Melodies in Silence is a pandemic project. In a time of overwhelming unknown, Garabedian started recording solo improvisations wherever he felt safe — outside among redwood trees in the Oakland Hills, or under fluorescent lights at his music studio in West Berkeley. The end result is a manifestation of dreams and melodies from a place where everything felt distant and nothing felt possible. It is a meditation on the surrealism of time, day, and night. It is a reflection on grief, loneliness, fear, anger, and hope.
Aaron Germain is best know as a bassist, but on this album he arranged the 17 pieces guitar quartet, and he played all four parts. Germain says his interest was in creating a compositional challenge: “I was downloading tons of classical guitar quartet music, sorting through all of it and listening to it like crazy, looking for holes in the repertoire.” he recalls. When he had trouble finding guitarists to play the parts, he did it himself, using a variety of instruments, including acoustic, soprano and bass guitar, electric and upright bass. He also enlisted a 15 musicians to embellish his work throughout the album.
The Goggle Saxophone Quartet is four accomplished composer/performers — Chris Jones, Dan Plonsey, Randy McKean, and Cory Wright — who have worked together for years, inspiring and challenging one another deeply in terms of innovation of compositional structure, and instrumental technique. The resulting music is unique, heartfelt, quirky and complex, drawing from a wide array of musical styles and ideas.
Nine new compositions from Ben Goldberg along with a tune from William Monk. Goldberg plays the clarinet, joined by Mary Halvorson (electric guitar), Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone), Michael Formanek (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums).
Grammy-nominated guitarist Mak Grgic (GER-gich) brings three beloved solo masterworks to a classical guitar refretted in Baroque well-temperament, where each key has its own unique character or affect. Alternating with exquisite chorale arrangements, these works gain a depth and vibrancy that has been missing for over 200 years, and will thrill audiences that were so captivated by his recording of the Bach on MAKrotonal. Composer/critic Kyle Gann has said, “Playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in today's equal temperament is like exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them.” The same may well be said of Bach played on the modern equal-tempered guitar.
Tenor Othello Jefferson is featured in performances recorded live at African American Composer Initiative concerts. The CD includes historic and contemporary spiritual settings, art songs, and concert and jazz ensemble pieces. Jefferson is accompanied by pianists LaDoris Cordell and Josephine Gandolfi, and joined by other Bay Area musicians: Susan C. Brown, Tod Dickow, Victoria Ehrlich, Jim Kassis, Stephanie McNab, John Monroe, Rufus Olivier III, Oscar Pangilinan, Eithne Pardini, Yolanda Rhodes, Carol Somersille, Deanne Tucker, and John Worley.
Grammy-nominated pianist Aron Kallay plays music by Robert Carl, Veronika Krausas, Eric Moe, and others on a state-of-the-art physically modeled piano where left to right doesn’t necessarily equal low to high, and 12 equal steps per octave no longer applies. Fanfare wrote about the artist, “Kallay is a multiple threat: a great pianist, brainy tech wizard, and visionary promoter of a new musical practice. Beyond highly recommended.”
Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, a transcendent work described by the critic Alex Ross as “the most ethereally beautiful music of the 20th century,” was written while the composer was in a WWII prisoner of war camp. Its eight movements are mesmerizing, with their sounds of bird song, angels, love, God, despair, and dread. Kurt Rohde’s beguiling one wing, for violin and piano, was inspired by Messiaen and complements the quartet. This release on the Avie label features four members of the LCCE: clarinetist Jerome Simas, violinist Anna Presler, cellist Tanya Tomkins, and pianist Eric Zivian.
Norma and Richard Mayer
Norma and Richard Mayer play a fiery brand of chamber music not often associated with their rare musical blend - music for unaccompanied voice and flute. Their operatic arrangements have been acclaimed as a groundbreaking direction in modern music. The Mayers have performed to great acclaim from Russia to Germany to France to California, and points in between, with a vast repertory encompassing early music, classical music, African-American spirituals, show tunes, and jazz.
Facets is saxophonist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh’s latest radical entreaty against the cultural hegemony of the Western notion of equal temperament and his argument that musicians should be free to explore a variety of tonal possibilities, even on piano. On his new release, Modirzadeh performs in duets with three towering musicians in contemporary improvised music: Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Craig Taborn, each interrogating the piano’s new possibilities with imagination and ingenuity. Modirzadeh himself utilizes alternate fingerings and embouchure adjustments on his instrument to achieve intervals between major and minor, and the pieces sway with an elasticity reminiscent of Persian poetic meter. With eight keys re-tuned and the remainder left in equal temperament, the music explores the coexistence of familiar with unfamiliar, and in the process, discovers new logic and mysterious beauty within.
Acclaimed jazz vocalist and songwriter Naylor’s 11th album, The Long Game, is filled with both original and timeless love songs. The recording highlights the singer’s magnificent songwriting and deeply rich and soulful voice on thoughtfully arranged songs, all selected by Naylor’s fans via ballots distributed at her performances, a process she used for her prior four albums. The title of the album was born from one of Naylor’s philosophies of life: “Keep going, stay hopeful and enjoy your life. If you continue to make positive efforts, happiness is sure to emerge. We have to play life for the long game, never give up, and win in life and in love.”
Marla Fibish and Bruce Victor are Noctambule. They play traditional and original music in a variety of forms — traditional Irish tunes and songs, their own tunes written in traditional forms, and compelling musical settings of a broad array of poetry. Their music is rendered with lush beauty, sensitivity, and humor on an unusual array of strings: guitars in varied tunings, mandola, mandolin, bouzouki, cittern, tenor guitar, along with their blended voices. As they describe the new recording, “All the music on the album depicts, celebrates, or mourns for those who are in life-altering transit: vagabonds of all sorts, migrants, refugees, those newly born, those departing this life.”
The 10th release by the Bay Area guitarist and composer, this project is a collection of Obiedo’s original Latin jazz compositions, along with one jazz standard by arranger Gerald Wilson. Obiedo enlisted some of the music industry’s top musicians and longtime cohorts, including Yellowjackets’ reed man Bob Mintzer, percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E., flutist Norbert Stachel, trumpeter Mike Olmos, and percussionist Peter Michael Escovedo. Santana members David K. Mathews (keyboards), trombonist and arranger Jeff Cressman, and percussionist Karl Perazzo also contribute their expertise.
Larry Ochs and Donald Robinson
According to Ochs and Robinson, this latest duet project features pieces “honed over many years from multiple free and structured improvisations, as well as time taken for composing, rehearsing and conversations. The new CD has been released on ESP-Disk’ — the legendary free jazz label where Albert Ayler released his breakthrough recording in 1964, the first jazz recording on ESP. A lot has changed since 1964, but a lot — and perhaps too much — remains virtually the same. So our ‘free-jazz’ music, while influenced by many musical discoveries and sociological developments that have become part of the firmament over the past 60-plus years, still celebrates and revels in the spirit of ’60s free jazz.”
San Francisco Symphony
Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony illuminate the gorgeously evocative world of Alban Berg in the newest release from the Grammy Award-winning SFS Media label. Hear the heartbreaking pathos of Berg’s Violin Concerto brought to life by brilliant violinist Gil Shaham; the soaring, multicolored Seven Early Songs performed by acclaimed soprano Susanna Phillips; and the spellbinding Three Pieces for Orchestra, in which the composer solidified his reputation as a master of spacious expression. Read our review.
Stephen Schultz and Jory Vinikour with Alexa Haynes-Pilon and Mindy Rosenfeld
Following on the success of their widely acclaimed Music & Arts release J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord, Stephen Schultz (Baroque flute) and Jory Vinikour (harpsichord) are joined by Alexa Haynes-Pilon (viola da gamba), and Mindy Rosenfeld (Baroque flute) in superlative performances of François Couperin’s four Concerts Royaux, works which stand among the pinnacles of the golden age that was French music during the reign of Louis XIV. This state-of-the-art recording was produced and engineered at Skywalker Sound by two-time Grammy Award winner Jack Vad (2012, 2021).
San Francisco Bay Area roots-music luminaries Elise Engelberg and Matt Knoth, aka Skillet Licorice, have created a new type of “old-time” album with their first disc on Tiki Parlour Recordings. It focuses on the lush, beautiful side of traditional American repertory. They are joined by a veritable orchestra that includes some of the West Coast’s finest old time musicians including string legends Suzy Thompson, Meredith Axelrod, Craig Ventresco, and the Kentucky-born and raised folk music wunderkind Clinton Ross Davis. Half the album is a fantastic deep dive into the revered pre-war string band the East Texas Serenaders, whose penchant for dreamy waltzes and buttery-smooth fiddle rags are perfect fodder for the Skillet Licorice gang. The rest of the album is full of surprises lovingly reimagined for today’s listeners.
A Quiet Madness features violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, pianist Francesco Di Fiore, flutist Patricia Zuber and, Bayan accordionist Stas Venglevski performing music by William Susman. The recording unfolds across six pieces that were composed between 2006 and 2013. Susman assembled the order of these pieces on the album into a unified sonic trajectory that builds from its serene opening, the violin/piano duo Aria, to the propulsive Zydeco Madness and the driving chords of the concluding piece Quiet Rhythms No. 7. Spellbinding Music described the album as “an astute and contemporary sonic expression of the quiet madness playing out on 24-hour news TV channels or as an infinite scroll on our smartphone screens.”
This album of guitar concertos from the Americas features pieces composed for David Tanenbaum. Building on a tradition of prominent guitarists generating repertoire through new commissions, these works present the guitar in a variety of settings. Aaron Jay Kernis’s concerto dips with ease into the world of pop music, whereas his Lullaby and Soliloquy are reflective, lyrical and romantic. Roberto Sierra’s concerto asserts a rhythmic and percussive character, while Astor Piazzolla’s dark and sentimental double concerto is one of his least-known works.
Valley of the Moon Music Festival
At the height of the pandemic in 2020-21, VMMF produced many high-quality audio and video recordings for a remote audience. The Fauré Piano Quartet was recorded in May 2021 and presented virtually in video format during our July 2021 Festival. The video was awarded Best Streaming Instrumental Ensemble Performance in the 2021 SFCV Audience Choice Awards. The high-definition audio recording will be released on December 25, 2021. The artists are Lisa Lee, violin; Liana Bérubé, viola; Tanya Tomkins, cello; Eric Zivian, piano. All the performers are local Bay Area musicians playing on gut strings and a period piano.
Valley of the Moon Music Festival
At the height of the pandemic in 2020–2021, VMMF produced many high-quality audio and video recordings for a remote audience. The Mendelssohn String Quartet was recorded in June 2021 and presented virtually in video format during the July 2021 Festival. The high-definition audio recording will be released on December 25, 2021. The artists are Anna Presler and Liana Bérubé, violins; Phyllis Kamrin, viola; Tanya Tomkins, cello. All the performers are local Bay Area musicians playing on gut strings.
The film Homeroom powerfully documents the tenacity of Oakland High’s class of 2020 as they confront an unprecedented year derailed by COVID-19 while also rocked by the national trauma of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Nine tracks featuring Oakland artists such as Goapele, Rexx Life Raj, Dame D.O.L.L.A., White Dave, DJ D Sharp and more contribute to the soundtrack. “Youth power” is the core theme of this collection of powerful music destined to reflect and inspire today’s generation of young people.
This 2021 Brass Tonic Records release features Sarah Wilson (trumpet/vocals), Charles Burnham (violin), John Schott (guitar), Myra Melford (piano), Jerome Harris (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums). The music reflects the people who lifted and inspired Sarah to be an artist. She envisions their web of support like a kaleidoscope, awakening the eye and inspiring joy.
Ariana Wyatt, Brian Thorsett, and Tracy Cowden
Rapture and Regret is a collection of music for soprano, tenor, and piano by Daron Hagen, one of America’s most prolific composers, boasting a distinguished body of work that includes more than 300 songs. Commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Seattle Opera, Curtis, and other musical institutions highlight a catalog that also includes symphonies, concertos, chamber music, opera, and music for ballet and film. The featured artists are Ariana Wyatt, Brian Thorsett, and Tracy Cowden, highly accomplished artists who unite in a sum greater than that of its parts. The performances are inspired, refined, and convincing. Hagen’s attractive, thought-provoking music could not receive advocacy greater than what is heard here, captured in demonstration class audio by David Bowles.
The release is actually a reissue of Pamela Z’s debut recording. Written and recorded over three years, and self-released and distributed on cassette in 1988, Echolocation is a genre-defying document of Z’s earliest experiments with live voice and delay, and the impetus of an artist’s three-decade search for sounds yet unfelt. The recording documents the earliest efforts of an artist’s lifelong commitment to an exploration of sound, and the individualism inherent within.
Everyday experience is never far from Pamela Z’s musical world. Whether it be a typewriter, birdcall, checking in at the airport, or a mess on the street, her creatively quirky imagination transforms it into a moment of profound questioning and wonder. From sonic trifles to complex numbers, the works on A Secret Code — only her third solo album after Echolocation (1988), and A Delay is Better (2004) — span two decades of redefining song. Including works made for dance, for Kronos Quartet, as well as for Z’s own live-sampled concert performance with bel canto, bubblewrap, and tuning fork options, A Secret Code is not as esoteric as it may sound. Besides, as the ever-philosophical TSA so often asks, “What is the purpose of your travel?”
Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh
True improvisers always seek new avenues and vehicles to inspire themselves in their art. Keyboard master Denny Zeitlin and percussion guru George Marsh have continued to push their musical dialogs to near telepathic levels utilizing their long-honed rapport and technological advancements to propel their music into new, enlivening places. Their new recording continues their journey into the endless world of improvisation. The two have worked alongside of each other since the 1960s, and have explored the farthest reaches of numerous musical styles, from jazz and classical to rock, electronics, and free improvisation. These decades of working together have cemented a bond and musical language that is unbreakable, but also one that continues to evolve.