Like kindness, holiday shopping should begin at home. And since the area is rich with musicians, writers, and historians, a gift straight from our place in the Garden State could help lighten up a shopping list — and brighten up an artist or organization’s future.
Westminster Choir College —considered one of the finest vocal musical institutions in the nation — has several CDs available, including three for the holidays. First, there is “Christmas with the Westminster Choir,” a compendium of traditional Christmas songs. The chorus under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt is rich and full. Organist Daniel Beckwith and the members of the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia add to the solid and satisfying sound.
“Christmas Masterpieces and Familiar Carols” features the Westminster Choir accompanied by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia. The masterpieces, again conducted by Flummerfelt, include a selection from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, two pieces from Mendelssohn’s “Christus,” and three sections from Handel’s “Messiah.” And while the carol sections are familiar, there are a few surprises, such as Berlioz’s “Shepherds’ Farewell” from his 1850 oratorio “L’enface du Christ.”
A Westminster Choir of another type rings in the holiday, literally, with the Westminster Concert Bell Choir’s “An English Christmas.” Under the direction of conductor Kathleen Ebling Shaw, the bell choir’s expertise is amply displayed in this collection of 14 arrangements of many familiar works — yet with an Old World appeal — such as the12th century Irish “Wexford Carol,” the 16th century “Coventry Carol,” and the 17th Century “Sussex Carol.” Yet the inclusion of 20th century composer Gustav Holst brings the works up to more contemporary time, and 19th century British composer J. Baptiste Calkin’s “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” gives a nod to America — the lyrics are by New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Despite the CD’s title, it was recorded at Westminster’s Bristol Chapel and printed in Pennsauken, making it a Jersey Fresh product.
Non-holiday Westminster CDs may actually be a good small holiday gift for individuals interested in New Jersey art or classical and choral music. “The Heart’s Reflection” features the music of Daniel Elder — a current composer known for combining sacred and contemporary music. The title comes from the proverb, “Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another.” Westminster’s Joe Miller — known for promoting new works and approaches to presenting — conducts.
$18 on Amazon.com.
Agudos Clef, a Trenton-based Latino hip-hop duo, recently released its debut album, “Teoria” (Theory). It’s the fruit of the collaboration by Dominican-born musicians Josue Lora and Nota G (aka Peter Rodriguez). The recording mixes 1990s hip-hop and jazz. Its bright tone is established fast with the “Raices” (Estate), featuring the buoyant sound of Puerto Rican flautist Hector Mario. The vocals — at first only in Spanish and mixing in English in other tracks — are rooted in spoken word poetry, emphasizing rhythm, rhyme, and sound.
The CD also captures the now in Trenton: Samuel Kanig, the director of Galeria Casa Cultura, founded in partnership with Lora, lends his commanding voice to the work “Outro” and noted area artist Will Kasso provides the cover art. So there’s art to spare.
$9.99. josuelora.com. www.agudosclef.com.
Dave Orban & Mojo Gypsies’ debut album is “I Heard You Twice the First Time.” The quartet has been a steady central New Jersey presence since 1998 and includes guitarist and vocalist Orban (Hamilton), saxophonist Mike Scott (Langhorne), bassist Jeff Michael (aka Flourtown Fats), and percussionist Mark Shewchuk (Philadelphia). International Blues Hall of Fame inductee Orban stays close to the blues core with the 14 original new blues tunes he wrote and sings.
“These songs are hardly what would be considered ‘traditional’ blues,” confesses Orban in his liner notes. And while the sound does give more than a nod to early rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t matter. The structure, tone, and soul of the blues are all there. For those who have heard the Mojo Gypsies live, you know they’re serious about sound, about fun, and about Jersey-styled blues.
The Deaner Album, as Rolling Stone noted online in October, is Dean Ween’s “Trippy, Diverse Solo Debut LP.” Dean is one half of the former Ween, the alt rock duo of New Hope founded in 1992 by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, aka Gene and Dean Ween. Gene departed in 2012, and Dean continued performing on his own — and played as part of the 2015 Levitt Pavilion concerts in Trenton. His new and first “Dean” CD features 14 works, mainly his own compositions. He also plays guitar, sings, and is supported by a mix of guest musicians that includes Meat Puppets guitarist and singer Curt Kirkwood.
While not a CD, “Danielia Cotton: Merry Christmas and Little Drummer Boy” is something to give the holidays a New Jersey sound. National Public Radio summed up the Hopewell-raised artist as a “singer and songwriter who can sound like a blues balladeer on one track, and a hard-rock wailer on the next.”
In this two-piece offering the daughter of jazz, blues, and gospel singer Wenonah Brooks revisits a classic and launches a new work. Her “Little Drummer Boy” gets a gospel pace and tone while the new work. “Merry Christmas (I’m With You),” is a soulful wish from a strong and lonely heart.
$0.99 on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and danieliacotton.com.
Princeton-based composer (and native) Sarah Kirkland Snyder is also one of the founders of New Amsterdam Records, a company devoted to “artistic quality and emotional directness over adherence to current stylistic trends.” Its 2016 releases include two with Princeton connections. The first is the release of Roomful of Teeth’s “Partita for 8 Voices Remixes.”
The work is by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, who also studies composition at Princeton University, occasionally performs with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and is a member of the contemporary vocal group Roomful of Teeth. While her partita has been previously available, the remixes have not and includes presentations of the piece with other contemporary musicians.
The second is pianist Michael Mizrahi’s solo piano CD “Currents” featuring a Kirkland’s own haunting and driving composition “The Currents.”
$10. newamrecords.com or sarahkirklandsnider.com.
While composers and musicians have been arranging sounds for the ear, area writers have been assembling silent words on the page and creating books ranging from history to fantasy to the heartfelt.
“Envisioning New Jersey: An Illustrated History of the Garden State” by Maxine Lurie and Richard Veit is Rutgers University Press’ newest edition in its Rivergate Regionals series — books solely “focusing on New Jersey and the surrounding area.” And it packs a lot of pedigree power. Lurie is professor emerita of history at Seton Hall University and co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of New Jersey.” Viet is a chair of Monmouth University’s history and anthropology department, coordinator of important state archaeological investigations, including Pointe Breeze in Bordentown, and author of “Digging New Jersey’s Past.”
They also collaborated on the Rutgers publication “New Jersey: A History of the Garden State” It was during their research on the former that the two got “a glimpse of some of the incredible images tucked away in museums, libraries, archives, and historical societies across the state” and “continued discussions with the Press about a visual history that would make a good companion piece,” they write in the new book’s preface. And the 324-page volume fills the bill and fills the eye with New Jersey from then to now.
Since the book is arranged in eras, even a casual reader can scan history and recognize the familiar places and people (Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and politicians both honest and corrupt) and then find something unexpected and unusual.
For example, in the section “New Jersey in the Early Republic,” there’s prominent American artist Howard Pyle’s 1880 Harper’s Weekly illustration “Women at the Polls in New Jersey in the Good Old Times,” with the writers’ note that “under the terms of New Jersey’s 1776 constitution, all residents worth (50 British Pounds) could vote. As a result, some women and freed blacks voted until the legislature specified in 1807 that voters must be white, male, and aged 21 or above.” It’s a book that makes a New Jerseyan say, “There is no place like home.” $39.95.
“ArtSpace at HomeFront: New Ways of Seeing My World” is the nonprofit social service agency HomeFront’s new 80-page book “dedicated to all of the artists who have entered the door of ArtSpace and for all of those yet to come.”
ArtSpace is the organization’s program that “promotes healing through self-expression.” The artists are women who through a variety of circumstances found themselves homeless and in need of HomeFront services. As an anonymous artist notes at the opening, “I let my paintbrush tell my story.”
Other artists are willing to show their faces in photo, share a name, and bare themselves. As Jamie C writes next to her painting of a singer, “I scream my dreams, belt out my song, bleed my pain.” And Samantha R. creates an image of a brown-skin woman laden with bags labeled “fear,” “Hurt,” “Guilt,” “Abuse,” “No Love,” and so on as she trudges over an abstract landscape towards an egg-shaped figure with a cross figure inside. “Art is my link to life,” reads the sentence on the accompanying page.
$50. Proceeds benefit ArtSpace.
“Enter —The Persona” is the new novel by Trenton’s Michael Housel. It’s published by Airship 27 Productions, a Colorado publisher that specializes in pulp fiction. The new work’s central figure is part of a tradition established on radio and print with the Shadow and the Green Hornet, and reflects Housel’s “yearning for the past and the morality that characterizes it.”
Housel, who works for the New Jersey Department of Education, places the story in a fictional New Jersey town in the 1930s where a man with some offbeat interests (ventriloquism and novelty gadgets) is given a mask with mysterious powers to confront a demonic force threatening the town. Although predictable, Housel’s point is in the telling and maintaining a genre. The morality-type tale is enhanced by Canadian artist Art Cooper’s black and white illustrations — transporting the reader to a long time ago in a place that never was.
$16.99 on Amazon, $3 PDF format. airship27.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-persona.html.
Ragged Sky Press, the small nonprofit press in Princeton established and published by poet and Princeton University Press production editor Ellen Foos, released three books in 2016. First is “Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee & Chocolate Poems,” an anthology featuring works by many regionally known, including poets Carlos Hernandez-Pena, Vasiliki Katsarou (who works with the Princeton Council on the Humanities), James Richardson (creative writing professor at Princeton University), and numerous others.
It was followed by “City Bird” by Princeton-based artist Arlene Weiner and feature nearly 70 poems, with some previously appearing in the Paterson Literary Review, Run, Coal Hill Review, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and more. Her subject matter ranges from the mundane to the lofty.” And the title? A repetitive phrase in a poem mixing longing, power, and beauty: “City bird, dance for us, who keep our heads low.”
The remaining book of the year is Foos’ “The Remaining Ingredients,” 45 highly personal reflections of her family, relationships, and life. The book — which takes its name from the last line of a poem about feeding fish — has an additional family touch: Foos’ artist sister, Jean, designed the book and cover.
$15 each. www.raggedsky.com.
“The President is Dead!” is Hamilton native Louis Picone’s 404-page exploration of, as the rest of the title says, “The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond” (Skyhorse Publishing). Now a resident of Succasunna in North Jersey and an information technology professional by trade, Picone has turned a passion for history and scholarship into two fact-filled books on American presidents (the first was “Where the Presidents Were Born: The History & Preservation of the Presidential Birthplaces”). And while most people’s interest in dead presidents is confined mainly to wallet-sized commemorations, history and trivia lovers will find treasures in this well researched yet fun-to-read book.
“My guiding principle was ‘follow the body,’ from their last breaths to the grave and everything in between,” notes Picone in his introduction. But what about beyond? “Burial is sometimes not the end of the journey,” he continues, “More than a third of the presidents have been reinterred, and handful more than once.” And while Picone is dead serious — further testified by ongoing travels to all places presidential (with even a photo of the author at the site where President Garfield was shot) — there is also some occasional wit bubbling through. The book is designed for both the historian who wants to know and the traveler seeking out places of historic interest — such as the New York City Indian restaurant that was the former home of President Chester A. Arthur.
Area readers will find plenty of central New Jersey presidential connections — in addition to Washington fighting in Trenton and Princeton and living in Rockingham. Monroe and Madison also fought in Trenton, and John Adams lived there for a time, Grant purchased a home in Burlington, Garfield died near Long Branch, and Wilson served as both as Princeton University president and governor of New Jersey. But the regional presidential star is the New Jersey-born President Grover Cleveland, who died and was buried in Princeton in 1908.
Picone recounts Cleveland’s final hours and funeral and then brings readers along during the annual memorial service at Princeton Cemetery and provides a glimpse of his own sensibilities. “After the ceremony concluded, I approached the tombstone and a small swath of blue in the green grass caught my eye — a petal from one of the flowers had fallen off the wreath. Without thinking, I reached down and picked it up, slipping it into my pocket.”
Incidentally the book is a family affair and again connects to the region. His wife, former Trenton resident Francesca Leipzig Picone, is credited with some photographs. And her father, Trenton artist Mel Leipzig, provided the illustrations seen in Picone’s cover photo.