Musical Instrument Museum may be closed, but its curators are still finding inspiration in the music they love and study for a living.
Several of them took the time to share with us what they're listening to during this time, with selections ranging from bluegrass to Bach. Their playlists also reveal a little about who they are, the history of some of the instruments in their exhibits, and why being a curator at one of the best museums in the country is more than just a job for them.
Rich Walter, Ph.D
Curator for United States / Canada and Europe
Magraw Gap (1996), Magraw Gap
When I was going to college in Rockbridge County, Virginia, I was lucky to run into this incredible bluegrass band right at their peak. It was only later, and in comparison to more traditional bluegrass groups, that I realized how special they were. Not only are these some of the best “pickers” in Virginia, with wild improvisational skills, but their one album combined original songs and jazzy instrumentals, Bill Monroe material, gospel, Bob Marley, and even a Chinese folk song. These guys are proof that genres like bluegrass can always transcend stereotypes and draw inspiration from everywhere.
Eddie Condon’s Town Hall Concerts
A few months ago, I started listening through several volumes of Eddie Condon’s Town Hall Concerts. In 1944, this style of jazz was already nostalgic in contrast to the new bebop language, but there is such an energy and fun in these loose ensemble jam sessions. They cover the foundation of American popular music: Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, old New Orleans jazz standards, etc. Bobby Hackett was a featured soloist throughout these concerts, and we’re proud to display one of his personal cornets at the museum in the Jazz exhibit.
Not for nothing, recordings of these sessions were played at home and abroad at the height of World War II, and this is the music that kept people’s spirits up and provided a happy distraction from serious times.
Bach: Violin Sonatas and Partitas (1988): Itzhak Perlman
If we had to rely on one seed to regrow all of music, Itzhak Perlman playing Bach’s solo violin works would be a solid choice. This material has been challenging and inspiring the world’s greatest violinists for more than 200 years, and I catch new surprises and details each time I listen. I’m in awe of Perlman’s recordings, but it’s fascinating to compare others (Jascha Heifetz, Rachel Barton Pine, Midori) and realize how Bach’s genius can accommodate so many personalities and interpretations while retaining all of its magnificence.
Daniel Piper, Ph.D
Curator for Latin America and the Caribbean
La Rumba Soy Yo (2001): El All-Stars De La Rumba Cubana
If you can’t experience the intensity of rumba live on the streets of Havana or Matanzas, this Latin Grammy-winning album is the next best thing. Tracks from Cuba’s most celebrated traditional rumba ensembles (Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los Papines, Clave y Guaguancó, and Yoruba Andabo) are intermixed with dance-band arrangements featuring major guest vocalists (Issac Delgado, Mayito Rivera) and a riveting conga solo from Tata Güines. Listen without distractions, maybe on your patio with headphones and a beer in hand.
Refavela (1977): Gilberto Gil
Gilberto Gil was a crucial artist in Brazil’s Tropicália movement of the 1960s and went on to become a mighty figure in MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Refavela is the album that has stuck with me, and I particularly love to share the euphoric song “Ilê Ayê.” It’s Gil’s famous tribute to Brazil’s first afro-bloco, the famous Afro-centric carnival ensemble Ilê Ayê, founded in the 1970s. Back in 2005, I saw them and Olodum (who recorded for Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints). Last year for MIM, I returned to meet the founders and bring back original drums now displayed in our Brazil exhibit.
Van Van 40 (1969-2009), live concert CD and DVD
In the 60 years since the Cuban revolution, new styles and great artists have emerged that aren't well known in the United States. Since the 1970s, Los Van Van have continually reinvented Cuban “salsa,” or timba as it is known there, and captured the spirit of an entire nation. The band’s original and newer vocalists come together on this tremendous 40-year retrospective concert captured on CD and DVD.
Associate Curator for United States / Canada and Europe
Roomful of Teeth (2012): Roomful of Teeth
I first heard of Roomful of Teeth when a member of the group won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. At the time, I usually saw this award was a kind of lifetime achievement award for academics who have not had much mainstream impact but whose work was worthy of recognition. In this case, Caroline Shaw was just 30 years old and given the award for “Partita for 8 Voices.”
That piece is included on this Grammy Award-winning album, along with works by prominent living composers who straddle the line between the classical tradition and the sounds of popular and world music, including two pieces by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. Since then, Shaw has gone on to collaborate with Kanye West and received another Grammy Award earlier this year for an album of her string quartets.
If you enjoy the fascinating vocal sounds you’ll encounter here, I recommend two incredible ensembles from which Roomful of Teeth has surely drawn inspiration: Huun-Huur-Tu (throat-singing group from Tuva) and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (Bulgarian state female vocal choir).
Satin Doll (2020): Sam Gendel
The newest album by L.A.-based saxophonist Sam Gendel has been a perfect soundtrack for finding some relaxation and calm for me in recent days. Gendel’s work defies genre labels, with collaborations with some of today’s most interesting musicians in pop, jazz, and world music in his credits.
With a tracklist full of jazz standards, including one of my personal favorites, Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and classics by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, one might expect a traditional jazz record. However, Gendel’s arrangements deconstruct these familiar tunes, rebuilding them with imaginative electronic music production. The natural sound of the saxophone emerges and recedes in the textures, building each tune with a wide and winding palette of sounds. Recorded live over three days with bassist Gabe Noel and electronic percussionist Philippe Melanson, this album is simultaneously calming and provocative, and one of my favorites of the year so far.
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græ, Part 1 (2020), Moses Sumney
Of the many concerts I’ve attended at MIM’s Music Theater, Moses Sumney’s show in April 2018 stands out. A virtuosic voice unlike any other in pop music today, Sumney performs his gorgeous, personal, intricate tunes while navigating a multi-instrument setup, building textures and loops while his voice effortlessly flows from quiet, sensitive whispers, and climbs to great, intense heights. I’ve been anticipating Sumney’s next release ever since then. græ, Part 1 is the first half of a double album (Part 2 is scheduled to be released in May) that is sure to land on many Best of 2020 lists as Sumney continues his methodical and uncompromising rise to pop stardom.