Friday, May 18, 2018

The New England Jazz Ensemble's Peter and the Wolf


"Its latest release includes [Walt] Gwardyak's 2018 arrangement of 'Peter and the Wolf,' the first new big band re-imagination of Prokofiev's masterpiece in more than 50 years."

What? Did I miss something? I love Prokofiev, and as I recently mentioned in my review of Bjorn Morten Christophersen's Woven Brass from 2L Recordings, Peter and the Wolf was my earliest introduction to the world of classical music. I've owned numerous copies of this work over the years, with narration by everyone from Sebastian Cabot to David Bowie, but I've never heard this, a jazz version of this piece. A perfunctory search on the internets reveals several performances by David Tennant and the Amazing Keystone Big Band ranging from 2012 to 2015. That undermines the previous claim from the press release of this new performance from the New England Jazz Ensemble, although the wording in the above pull quote is very specific. I have found a classic 1966 recording from Jimmy Smith using Oliver Nelson's big band--something I should know about but don't--a perhaps that explains the "more than 50 years" comment.

Still, I'm surprised by this idea and when I first received this CD in the mail (the day after I reviewed Woven Brass, by the way) I rolled it around in my head for a while before declaring that yeah, I'm sure it works great. When I finally got around to listening to this version a few weeks ago, I immediately smiled as soon as the musical introductions began. It does work. It's a fantastic concept. I should have expected this measure of success after we've seen such amazing mash-ups of jazz and classical such as the legendary Bach series from the Jacques Loussier Trio. But wow.


Those familiar musical themes aren't just suited to jazz--they're suitable for all kinds of jazz. Arranger Gwardyak provides each character in the story with its own distinct cadence and style including blues, salsa, New Orleans jazz, waltz and more. This mimics, of course, the drastic changes in moods and tones in the original versions. Another first for this recording is the new libretto from famed vocalist Giacomo Gates. He doesn't sing the narration, which might have been interesting as well, but he has added a new "beatnik" edge to the words that's amusing despite being somewhat anachronistic--people who are old enough to appreciate that time in pop culture will find it funnier than younger jazz fans. ("That's all, y'all!" he exclaims at the very end.)

But wait, there's more! As you know, most versions of Peter and the Wolf last for around a half an hour, so the NEJE puts its jazz imprint two more loose Prokofiev adaptations--"Serge's Birds" and "Power Serge"--and one more original piece with a lupine theme called, of course, "Wolves." These are mostly improvisations on the themes found in the main work, but the musicians are allowed to explore further without detracting from the story. The magic of this album is the smooth, crisp and fully-realized musical performance from the NEJE. You can tell from the results that everyone had a wonderful time during the recording. As for me, I have to track down that 1966 Jimmy Smith version. I bet that's the cat's pajamas as well.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Installation of The Wand Master Series Tonearm


I've just made another change to my review system--I've installed The Wand tonearm from New Zealand on my trusty Unison Research Giro turntable. As the US distributor I've installed a couple of these tonearms in the past, but this is the first arm from the new Master Series and we bought one so I could both familiarize with the installation and, well, up the ante when it came to my analog rig. (The stock tonearm on the Giro is a modded version of the Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm, which is a fine tonearm and has been a steady team player over the last few years.) The current MSRP of the 9.5" Master Series tonearm is $2250...there are also 10.3" and 12" versions available.

The Wand Master Series has the following improvements over the Classic and Plus Series tonearms: easily adjustable-on-the-fly VTA, a vibration shunt/damper (which comes in the form of an oil-filled trough), silver-coated copper wiring and a silver carbon fiber arm tube. You can easily tell the difference between the Master and the others in the line--the Master has a silver arm tube while the Plus and the Classic have black arm tubes. The armrest assembly on the Master is also much more complex.


When I first unpacked the Master from its compact wooden box I was surprised by all the pieces, especially compared to the Plus arms I've installed. My first impression was how daunting it all looked, but once I sorted everything I out I realized that there were several versions of many parts so that the Master could be installed on a wide range of turntables. This is a feature for many premium tonearms--I remember my SME V tonearm and how many extra parts and hardware remained in the box after I was done. Most of these extra parts revolved around the two-piece mounting plates for the arm--different plates work on different turntable plinths, with different screws for different plinth thicknesses.


Finding the right mounting plate for the Giro was the reason why I had to install and uninstall the Master three times. The mounting plate for the Satisfy arm actually has more than one piece, and I had to remove more than I anticipated to set the height of the arm so it would line up with the platter. This is the Giro sans arm, as clean and disassembled as I've seen it. The Wand tonearm can be mounted with any turntable with the right size arm hole in the plinth--23mm to 25mm are ideal, but the mounting plates will work with holes up to 28mm in diameter. If the hole in your turntable is bigger--up to 48mm--Simon Brown, the designer, will send you a fitting. Simon offers a wide range of additional accessories that will help you install this tonearm on a wide range of turntables.


This was the mounting assembly I wound up using. I had tried a couple of the others, but they didn't quite fit. Then I noticed this plate, which had a tiny purple post-it note stuck to it. The note was from Simon, who told me that he designed this particular plate for the Giro. D'oh. (Simon is a stickler for reading instruction manuals FIRST.)


This is what the mounting plate looks like after it has been installed. Notice that Phillips-head screw that keeps the two plates together? Turns out it's very important later. I'm jumping ahead, but when you loosen that screw, it allows the plate to move around in the hole. That's how you set overhang on the cartridge! I like this much more than constantly fiddling with the tiny mounting screws on the cartridge, and those tiny bolts that like to fall into the carpet, never to be seen again.


This is how you position the arm assembly so that the effective length of the arm is correct. You install the spindle (The Wand is a unipivot, which means the arm tube rests on a single point), set the correct height using a notch on the side of the supplied jig (that funky-looking metal thing), and then you place the jig between both spindles to get the distance correct. This jig was so accurate that when it came time to adjust the overhang on the cartridge, it was already close to correct. The jig itself is fantastic--you can set everything but tracking force with it (which is why Simon includes an Ortofon manual stylus force gauge with every arm he sells). You can set overhang and azimuth with it as well.


Whoops, I forget something. The first step in Simon's manual is mounting the cartridge on the arm before it is installed on the turntable. I'm not going to on and on about this, other than it's very easy to do with The Wand--my main problem, as usual, is with the antique mounting hardware required by the Denon DL-103. (My Transfiguration Axia will be mounted after it gets a re-tip, and it will be much easier to mount.) Notice that the holes for the mounting screws are fixed--overhang is set at the mounting plate, which is unique in my experience. Also, Simon includes a couple of small plates that can be installed between the cartridge and the headshell to add weight--a feature needed for lightweight cartridges.


Next, it's time for the armrest assembly, which comes almost completely assembled. You just have to install the cuing level (easy), hook up the anti-skate (the traditional tiny weight/monofilament style) and set the right height of the armrest on the spindle. There's a trick to the angle of the armrest so that it doesn't collide with the arm as it tracks across the record, so that the vibration shunt is aligned, and so the anti-tracking weight hangs loose. Then you route the tonearm cabling through the clip so that the wire makes a nice arc that doesn't touch anything on the arm.


This is what everything looks like after the armrest is in place. That tall tower is the VTA setting, which can be adjusted on the fly. You can also see the vibration damper and its trough, which is filled with oil. Simon gives you three different bottles of oil with different viscosity so you can experiment with the results--or you can choose not to use the oil at all. You can also see the armlock, which hooks onto the same post on the bottom of the arm tube that drags through the oil in the trough.


Here's one more photo of the alignment jig, and how easy it is to set overhang. For me, that's one of the most time-consuming parts of mounting a cartridge--fiddling with the tiny screws, checking the tip of the stylus with a protractor and a lighted magnifying glass, going back and forth until you get it right. Getting the overhang right took much less time than usual. From there it was just a matter of getting the tracking force right (Simon includes a number of plates that can be added to the back of the counterweight, with fine adjustments done with a large, knurled bolt--again, simple.) Azimuth is also adjusted by adjusting the counterweight--a notch on the jig helps with that as well.


Next thing you know, I was finished. It took several attempts because, as I explained, I wanted to try all of the parts to find the right combination to match with this particular turntable. But once I dialed it in, I could probably take this arm apart and put it back together in a relatively short amount of time.

And the sound? Yes, I noticed an immediate improvement in the overall sound of the system--everything sounded more full, with better bass control. I do have experience with this arm and my Transfiguration Axia--that's the combo we used at AXPONA a couple of years ago--so I know I will hear incredible gains in detail once that's back in the system. But for now, I'm content to know I tackled this super-arm, and this will make my music reviews ever more fun than before!





Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Misha Piatigorsky Trio's Stained Glass and Technicolor Grooves


Imagine a jazz event, one that's called something like "Jazz at the GRJC." So far, so good. You find out that it's the "first annual" occasion for the event, and you think of Themistocles and maybe how great things have small beginnings. Then you find out that GRJC stands for the Glen Rock Jewish Center, straight out of Glen Rock, New Jersey, and perhaps you start thinking that this is going to be a much smaller event than anticipated. Then you actually listen to this recording of the Misha Piatigorsky Trio, performed live at yes, the first annual "Jazz at the GRJC," and suddenly you have a whole new perspective.

Why the change of heart? In a word, the MPT is magnificent, and this performance sounds like a great undiscovered recording from fifty or sixty years ago. Misha Piatigorsky's piano is a marvel--one minute it is as smooth and lush and gorgeous of a piano sound that one can achieve playing jazz, and then he shifts into a wild, jagged improvisation full of new and dissonant ideas that all circle back to that lushness like a perfectly thrown boomerang. Misha is known for straddling these two modes, and it's breathtaking to listen to him swing like a pendulum from a warm affinity for melodies to a singular sense of adventure.


His trio consists of bassist Charlie Dougherty and drummer Sam Fishman, and on the last three tracks the trio becomes a quartet when Sam's brother Jeremy joins in on sax. Sam is the guiding force here, surprisingly enough--he is the one who started the "Jazz at the GRJC" and he wanted Misha to play because considers him to be "one of the best pianists in the jazz scene." Dougherty is longtime friend of Sam's, so the ensemble definitely has chemistry as well as history.

What makes the gathering so special is Misha's unique arrangements of such classics Cannonball Adderley's "Inside Straight," Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and even a deeply dug interpretation of "Pure Imagination," yep, the one right out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Mixed with several Piatigorsky originals, these ten tracks are epic in structure. This trio never takes the easy way out, thriving instead on "the spark of spontaneity," as Sam Fishman says. This is one piano trio that sounds like no other, and hopefully they will return to the second annual "Jazz at the GRJC" concert. If they don't, the smallish crowd who attended the first gig will probably remember this performance for many years to come.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Edward Simon's Sorrows and Triumphs


While reviewing Juan Andres Ospina's Tramontana last week, I fixated a bit on geography. Ospina is a Colombian writing music about Spain, yet I kept hearing Brazilian jazz influences in his arrangements. I finally settled on a vague South American definition of his music based mostly on the breezy vocals and the dense instrumentation. With Edward Simon's new Sorrows and Triumphs I get those same feelings from these complex and multi-layered arrangements, that same breeziness where you feel as if you're standing on a shore in some exotic country halfway around the world, and you're using all of your senses to define all the differences from the way things are at home.

Edward Simon is a jazz pianist, bandleader and composer/arranger who played in the US for decades. He's a native Venezuelan who currently lives in the Bay Area, and perhaps that's why his music takes on that nebulous South American quality of sounding big like a flowing river that's impervious to the activity along the banks. That same sense of scale can be applied to the music itself--Sorrows and Triumphs consists of two suites that were commissioned by the Chamber Music of America's New Jazz Works program. These two pieces--a title track and "House of Numbers"--were meant to be absorbed as a whole. These pieces have three and four movements, respectively, so they have the same structure more common in classical music--something that registers in the back of your mind while listening.


If this sounds like an ambitious work, it is. Simon creates a core jazz ensemble with his piano, David Binney's alto sax, Scott Colley's bass and Brian Blade's drum kit, and then he surrounds himself with guitars and additional percussion and Gretchen Parlato's soft and warm vocals. These physical boundaries are once again expanded through the use of the Imani Winds, an additional ensemble that employs flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets and a French horn. The final ingredient is what transports the music from jazz into a more universal sound, something that is ultimately more hypnotic than you would expect.

What's so surprising in this music is the constant improvisation, done in a way where the soloist never detaches completely from the whole. There are times when more than one improvisation is being performed simultaneously, which sounds disorganized but comes off as more congealed layers of sound that make perfect sense. It's vibrant feel, seldom agitated, smooth and effortless when viewed from a reasonable distance. Simon has created a music that is joyous without being frantic--it possesses a smooth and content manner, very at peace with itself despite its ominous title.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Rondi Marsh's The Pink Room


I often approach new albums from female jazz singers with some caution. I've been burned many times, you see, with chanteuses who are more concerned with vocal "stylings" than real singing. Ah, you've heard me start off like this before. It usually leads to me talking about a female vocal album that has surprised me in some way. You're so on to me.

I've never heard of Rondi Marsh before, even though she released a couple of albums more than a decade ago. It took me some time to slap this CD into my machine because, well, you know, female jazz singer. But once I did, I felt happy. Rondi's a lovely singer with a rich and sultry delivery that has something I really like...gravitas. I usually hate that word, nearly as much as I hate the word stylings. But when it comes to female singers, I enjoy a little bit of extra weight. So many of these new jazz singers, both male and female, want to be so light on their toes that they feel like they're rushing through the song. They avoid holding notes for too long--they don't want to be caught not living up to that note's potential.

Rondi Marsh is different. She's relaxed. She's not trying too hard to impress you with her interpretations of old standards such as "Misty," "Boy on a Dolphin", "Angel Eyes" and even "Mambo Italiano." She knows she's good, she know she's an able singer. She's not trying to knock you off your feet--she just wants to have a good time. If you're in the same room at the same time and you're having fun, then win-win, baby.


Rondi's almost opulent delivery only gets me half of the way there. The other half is supplied, of course, by a group of musicians who know how to accompany her and align with her strengths. There's nothing minimalist about these arrangements which often include accordions, strings, guitars, mandolins and plenty of horns. This is the kind of jazz singer albums they used to make back in the '50s and '60s, where a versatile and professional band might be given a seemingly impossible task and the only reply is "What key?" That observation makes me realize why I like this album so much--it is decidedly old-fashioned, and in the best possible ways.

Then there's a touch of the modern. Rondi is hip enough to mash-up Meaghan Trainor's "All About the Bass" with Ira Gershwin's "Slap That Bass," and it's respectful toward both worlds. She's also generous with David Lange's accordion, which suggests that she's right on top of the current hot Parisian jazz trends. (She calls it "gypsy jazz," a term I haven't heard in a while.) The sound quality is also modern--it's clean and clear with minimal reverb. You need that transparent sound in order to explore the hills and valleys of that lovely voice. Highly recommended.

Bill O'Connell's Jazz Latin


Man, I tell you...all this big band jazz has fried my brain. I'm not complaining by any means, since much of this music has been surprisingly great. It just seems as if my ears and my brain have become so used to the sound of big band jazz that this new release from keyboardist Bill O'Connell, Jazz Latin, sounds almost alien. This is the simple, intimate jazz I prefer in most cases--I love crawling up inside of the handful of instruments on stage and really digging out the details. You can't do that with big band jazz. It's all about riding that big sonic wave. This, however, is more my speed on a rainy day.

The word I'm looking for is refreshing. O'Connell plays his piano and Fender Rhodes in an unusually clear-headed way. He's on point with the melodies and he has a crisp and precise manner of improvising. You're not constantly wondering where he's going since he's a competent and affable guide. You can hear a little of Bill Evans in the way he glides up and down the keys. When he switches to his electric piano, he injects just the right amount of funk into the Latin-tinged excursions without spending too much time paying tribute to the past.


The core of this ensemble is a trio--O'Connell is joined by bassist Lincoln Goines and drummer Robby Ameen, who provide strong supports for the many guest stars including flugelhorn player Randy Brecker, sax player Craig Handy, trombone player Conrad Herwig, flutist Andrea Brachfeld and guitarist Dan Carillo. Goines' electric bass casts a unique sound for the trio and helps O'Connell to swing just a little harder, while Ameen is a madman and creates an ocean of percussive sounds that are essential to the conjuring of the necessary Latin connections.

I have reviewed Bill O'Connell before. I reviewed Monk's Cha Cha almost exactly one year ago. That was a solo piano album, recorded live, and yet I had almost the same responses to his performance--the Bill Evans comparison, the way he moves across the keyboard. I even used the same photo of him from the Google archives. That means just one thing, and it's a compliment about O'Connell's easily recognizable style. In jazz, that's an almost sure sign of greatness.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer


Here's a little synchronicity for you. The other night I was driving down the New York Thruway and was listening to an NPR interview where the guest was a British author who had a new book out on precision engineering and its effect on modern society. One of his central ideas focused on our need for ultra-precise designs--his example involved the tiny transistors inside our cell phones--and how we are more susceptible to catastrophic failures in designs because the tolerances in manufacturing have become so small. He stressed the continuing need for craftsmanship and how the human element is often required to make precision designs work flawlessly.

After the interview was over, I switched to my car CD player and was instantly treated to "Crazy, Classic, Life" from Janelle Monae's new album Dirty Computer. Janelle was singing about the simple joys of life and how we have shied away from them in our quest for a perfect tech-based society--running around naked at luaus, loving the smell of trees as you drive down the road, basically being accepted for being an imperfect yet fun-loving person. Then I realized this entire album has the same theme, that we should stop stressing out about meaningless things. We should enjoy ourselves more. Sounds like a party album, right?

Wrong. Well, sorta.

By now it should be obvious that I'm a huge fan of Ms. Robinson. She spent the first decade of her amazing career following the adventures of Cindy Mayweather, a time-traveling android from the future who falls in love and winds up sparking a revolution. From the 2007 EP Metropolis (Suite I) to the ground-breaking masterpiece that is 2010's The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) to 2013's The Electric Lady (Suites IV and V), Monae has shown the world that she has imagination and talent that stands out from the rest of pop music. Her complex themes about coming to terms with the onset of powerful human emotions is an inspiring and breathtaking blast of Afrofuturism, science fiction and an easy mastering of multiple musical genres. Plus, her singing voice is powerful and limitless and as perfect as I can imagine. You have your favorites, and I have mine.


Dirty Computer sounds like the title of Suites VI and VII, but it's not. Janelle Monae is no longer speaking through Cindy Mayweather. She's speaking for Janelle Monae, the now 32-year-old who's been the face for Cover Girl for some time now, and the same woman whose first two movies (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture (one of them, obviously, took that award). She's obviously been through a lot of the things we've all been through over the last decade, and she has something to say about that--as Janelle Monae.

As you might imagine, Dirty Computer has a very different feel than the other albums. On its surface, it seems like a fun pop record, one that has a clear '80s R&B feel that jumps back and forth between Madonna and Prince and maybe even Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. If that doesn't sound like your thing, just hold on. The deeper you dig into this album, the more you'll realize that Monae's views of the world aren't seen through rose-colored glasses. She's angry, first of all, so angry that there's one of those parental warning stickers on the cover. Cindy Mayweather's adventures were mostly suitable for general audiences, but Dirty Computer definitely earns an R-rating for its numerous f-bombs, not to mention its sexual frankness. That, of course, is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. It means that Janelle Monae is speaking from the heart, and that heart is heavy and open and passionate. Stand back and let her speak.


"If you want to grab my pussy, this pussy'll grab you back" in "I Got the Juice" is a warning, not a come-on. It's clear that Monae is not fine with the current leadership of our country, but she's also not fine with the need to fight for basic human rights. Her songs are rich with references to #MeToo, same-sex marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement. Going back to my first point--stressing out about meaningless things and enjoying life--having these concerns does not take away from these goals. She seems to be saying "Let's get all this stupid fear-based BS behind us, and we'll all be much happier." No song better summarizes this idea than "Screwed," which is delightful since it's the catchiest tune, ripe for airplay--except for the unfettered parade of profanity, joyously realized. (Then again, CeeLo Green managed to have a hit with "Forget You!") But her ultimate idea is this:

See, if everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
You screw me and I'll screw you too
Everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
Now ask yourself who's screwing you


Now set this all to a bouncy Madonna groove straight out of 1985, finish up with a truthful, somber rap from Zoe Kravitz and you'll have an idea of just how deep Monae intends to go beyond those slick, danceable beats. If you think anger and pessimism are Monae's only offerings this time around, however, just hold on again. She's always been gifted when it comes to pure love songs, the ones that are honest and realistic and yet delivered with a heart-melting ease. "Don't Judge Me" is the greatest example of this here--Monae tells her lover that she can be a little weird, a little crazy, but none of that matters when it comes to loving someone for who they are. It's one of her most gorgeous and sexy songs, all wrapped up in velvet.


As usual, Monae collaborates with the best. In addition to Kravitz, she also works with Brian Wilson on the title track and Pharrell Williams on "I Got the Juice." She also enlists the help of Jon Brion, Nate "Rocket" Wonder, Matt Jardine and Chuck Lightning. Monae also lists her inspirations for each track: Wakanda, Gloria Steinem, Paul Simonon and Barack Obama. Perhaps the most important influence is Prince--he worked on The Electric Lady and was helping Monae with this album when he passed away. There are times when you can easily imagine Prince singing these songs after swapping the gender in the lyrics. Prince and Monae have a lot in common--both of them are comfortable with rock, pop, funk, R&B and whatever else you got, and they can also blend them all together and make it sound like no one else. The spirit of Prince is everywhere.

If I had a single criticism of Dirty Computer, it's that it doesn't have the overwhelming impact of The ArchAndroid--but perhaps that bolt of lightning will never be repeated. (Just a few weeks ago I treated someone to her first listen of that album--after the first couple of songs she complained about my musical choice because she was too rock and roll, but by the end of it she couldn't stop talking about its greatness.) The new album is closer to The Electric Lady, where repeated listens show off all the hidden treasures. If you know nothing about Janelle Monae and you listen to this album first, you might not see what the fuss is about. But I love her because she's wildly talented, almost unfairly so. She is a force of nature.