Sunday, November 30, 2014
Seems like just a few days ago I was celebrating my 100th column for Perfect Sound Forever, and now column #101 is already up! This one is my 16th annual year-end wrap-up, where I choose the best vinyl releases, turntables, cartridges and accessories of the year. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Monday, November 24, 2014
I really, really like this album a lot. Period. End of review.
I think a few other reviewers have made this joke at least once or twice, and it usually comes after they've heard an album that they like so much that they simply don't want to write about it. It's just too difficult, too personal, to put all those feelings and emotions into mere words and sometimes it takes some time and distance to make sense of what you've just experienced. It's easy to write about something you dislike, especially if you're being paid to critique it. The good stuff, however, is a real challenge because you're not responding to objective elements of the music, you're just making the right synaptic connections in the pleasure center of your brain and now you gotta meet some deadline. But I'll still attempt to tell you why Lark Jakob Ensemble's Clockwork is so up my alley.
When I think about the music I truly, truly love, it's not made up of ornate flourishes and virtuoso performances. It's made up of precise yet beautiful melodies, carefully measured yet constantly in a state of flux. (Think Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but less repetitive.) While this music can be gorgeous and lush in a mainstream way, there still has to be something there to challenge me, to remind me that I'm not listening to elevator music or another mindless Top 40 hit. It can be dissonant as long as it evokes some sort of fluid imagery for me--if you're going to make noise, it has to take me somewhere. But ultimately it has to create an emotional bond in my brain. I know most people could probably care less about my idea of perfect music, especially since there's really no such thing, but at least I'm on the record.
Little did I know this modest perfection could be contained within a unique trio that consists of a piano, a cello and a double bass. I almost said jazz trio, which wouldn't be necessarily incorrect because pianist Lars Jakob Rudford, cellist Katrine Schiott and bassist Adrian Fiskum Myhr bill themselves as such. Perhaps they're focusing on the improvisational aspect of jazz, but my take is that these ten fascinating song-length pieces are closer to classical impromptus, and to go one step further I'd mention that the aforementioned precision of the songs are not really improvisations or impromptu at all. Perhaps the final word is the album's single-word title, which is far more aligned with the moods presented here.
Rudjord does weigh in on his website, expressing that while his roots are in jazz, his music is also part of "The Nordic Sound," something exemplified by recordings such as The Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night on 2L Recordings. He states that "I grew up on the windswept Lista peninsula on the southwest coast of Norway, and in many of the songs you can probably feel a whisper of wind, a strip of light or a glimpse of the landscape here." Lars even sent me a postcard from Lista to emphasize the point.
Here's another synaptic connection I've made while listening to Clockwork; I've often that that if I'd been a musician, I would have been the kind who would always insert disparate and surprising elements, such as exotic instrumentation, in order for each song to rise above the ordinary. In many ways this album follows that template--just when things get a little too pretty and familiar, something appears to break it all down and assemble a new whole, a new perspective. That new element can be something as simple as a bow, nervous and heavy against string, making those surreal and cinematic swirling noises that prompted a guest to ask me, "Why are we listening to horror film music?" Or it can be something relatively complex, such as a couple of autoharps being strummed in unison, along with the piano, into an earthy harmonic structure not unlike Meryl Streep's simulated "dial tone" in the film Adaptation. You're not going to necessarily recognize the sounds coming from these three gifted musicians, but they are achieved with honesty.
The story of how I stumbled onto this wonderful, wonderful recording is also interesting. My Norwegian friend Trond Torgnesskar, who sent me the beautiful Ingvild Koksvik LP I reviewed last July, told me he'd be sending me more great-sounding contemporary Norwegian music since I enjoyed Nattapent so much. "It is by Lars Jakob Rudjord, Ingvild's boyfriend, and the guy playing piano on her record," Trond told me. Clockwork, like Nattapent before it, was released by Fyrlyd Records, a label with a reputation for great sound. Indeed, this album was recorded "at IsitArt Studios in the deep Swedish forests." Don't you want to hear Clockwork for that reason alone?
I'll tell you what--I'm probably going to bring this CD with me to every trade show I attend. It's just that great of a demo disc, with amazing sonics and intriguing music. I'll be at CES in Vegas next month, so just ask me to play it for you. It's already late November, so I'm sure I'll be asked for my top ten favorites of 2014 for the Perfect Sound Forever year-end round-up. Unless something even more amazing appears in my mailbox in the next couple of weeks, this is my pick for the best thing I've heard this year.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
A few weeks ago I received an email from a publicist, Jazz Promo Services, concerning the LP release of Out Loud by the Frank Lowe Quartet. These days I've been quickly reading and deleting these emails for one particular reason: they're usually offering MP3 downloads instead of actual physical media. As I stated in this blog entry from late last month, I've decided not to respond to any publicists or record label employees who insist on sending me music to review without actually sending me any actual music, you know, in physical formats. As I've already said, when I do music reviews I tend to judge according to sound quality. MP3 files, to me, sound horrible.
This email blast from Triple Points Records caught my attention, however, because the actual product was very intriguing. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Frank Lowe was one of those free jazz stalwarts who emerged in the early '70s, a musician who didn't quite make the big name for himself yet still managed to influence an entire generation of jazz musicians who wanted to push the envelope. In 1974 he enlisted trombonist Joseph Bowie, bassist William Parker and drummer Steve Reid for two recording sessions in two separate New York City recording studios, Survival Studio and Studio Rivbea. Basically, every single track ever performed and recorded by these four gentleman is contained in these two LPs.
Also included in this 2-LP set is a 38-page booklet, previously unpublished photos and a link to a 40 minute video from Rivbea. The whole release is limited to just 550 copies, and it was transferred by the mastering team--Ben Young and Joe Lizzi--who were responsible for two of Triple Point's Grammy-nominated releases over the last few years. I said to myself wow, this would probably be a cool thing to have. With a pressing of just 550 copies, however, it seemed very unlikely that I would receive one for review, and I figured that my only chance to hear these rare recordings was through some marginally satisfactory MP3 download. So I passed on the opportunity to review Out Loud and I deleted the email.
A couple of weeks later I received a package in the mail. It was my favorite kind of package, about twelve inches square and very thin. I opened it and lo and behold, I had a copy of Out Loud in my hands. JPS sent it anyway, as if they had read my mind. It took me a while to figure it all out, but I'd received something called a promotional copy. I'm being sarcastic here, but quite honestly it was the first time I'd received one, even though I have a few "promotional copy/not for resale" CDs in my collection courtesy of a less-than-ethical used record store in Northern Virginia that I used to frequent 20 years ago. So my copy didn't include the rare photos and the helpful booklet or the link to the 40 minute video. All I had was these two beautifully pressed slabs of vinyl and the extraordinary music contained in the grooves, which was still a thousand times better than an MP3 download code.
I'm not sure how you feel about free jazz--Colleen generally forbids me to play it in her presence--but in college I had a thing for Ornette Coleman. My brain, for some reason or another, can make sense out of what sounds like measured chaos to the vast majority of jazz fans, and I can allow myself to drift in between the cracks and find the flow and turn it into something trance-like. Frank Lowe's music is slightly more challenging than that--it jumps and it screeches and it doesn't let up for a second. This quartet was on the edge of taking free jazz to the next level where it would sound more exotic, more saturated by percussion, more junkyard dog. Unfortunately this amazing album captures just a fleeting glimpse of that spark; the four members moved on after these recordings were made, and if you weren't hanging out in some of those famous NYC lofts in 1974 you missed it completely. All of these recordings were shelved indefinitely, and it forty years to dig them up, wipe them off and present them in this undoubtedly reverent manner.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this album is the genuinely fantastic sound quality. This pressing is extremely quiet, allowing the musicians to remain separate and distinct and deliberately place in a spotlight with the soundstage. That quality alone makes this dense, noisy celebration more palatable to the uninitiated--there's such a human feel to these performances, all the warts and flaws and spontaneity remind you that Out Loud represents a lost moment in time, a moment only accessible to a lucky 550 people--plus a few humble music reviewers such as myself. Highly recommended for adventurous jazz fans.
Friday, November 14, 2014
My First Article for Part-Time Audiophile/The Audio Traveler: 3 Simple Rules for High-End Audio Show Attendees
Wow! My first article for The Audio Traveler/Part-Time Audiophile is up! This is sort of a companion piece for Scot's article on our room that appeared yesterday I may piss off a few people with this article, but I think these things needed to be said. You can read it here.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
I'm in a pretty good mood today. Minutes after waking up this morning I discovered that Scot Hull, the Part-Time Audiophile, had published an article on our all-analog PureAudio/Opera/Unison Research/Transfiguration/Furutech room at the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. You can read it here. Don't let the whole The Audio Traveler thing confuse you--it's a new companion website Scot started just to cover all the US audio trade shows like CES and RMAF and AXPONA and T.H.E. Show and Dagogo and all the rest. The Part-Time Audiophile will just focus on equipment reviews, opinion pieces and whatever else comes along.
I say that last part because it's clear that Scot Hull is a rising star among audio journalists. He's expanding, hiring really good writers like Malachi Kenney and Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney (yes, they're married, but they each have very unique writing styles and perspectives). For me, that's what it comes down to--the quality of the writing on the part of Scot Hull and his staff and how they really seem to be the future of audio journalism. The first time I read one of Scot's articles, I said to myself, "Uh oh, this guy's doing what I'm doing, only a hundred times better." I almost deleted this blog that day. When I told that to Scot during the epic 2014 Denver Whiskey and Cigar Fest he describes in his current article, he told me "No dude, you're the one who inspired me to do the Part-Time Audiophile," or something like that. My eyes were spinning pinwheels by then, and cartoon hearts floated above my scalp. "No, my writing sucks compared to yours!" "You're crazy--you're so much better than me!" This went on all night, and then Colleen grounded me for a month for being out too late.
Anyway, Scot is far too kind in this article, and Colleen and I, as well as all the manufacturers involved, appreciate what he wrote. Like I said on Facebook this morning, I smell a Pulitzer. While looking at Scot's photos of the my analog rig, however, I realized I haven't announced that that wonderful, exquisite Transfiguration Axia cartridge is now mine, all mine. I couldn't bear to send it back to Dan Muzquiz--it's just such a wonderful match with the Unison Research Giro 'table and arm, as well as the stupendous PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier, and I told Colleen during the show, "I don't want to send this back." Bob Clarke, who distributes Transfiguration in the USA through his company Profundo (which also represents some of my personal faves such as Trenner & Friedl, Heed and VivA) got involved. We're all good friends and have a lot of respect for each others' brands, and we do a lot of business together--especially during trade shows like RMAF where we often share rooms. In other words, no shenanigans were involved--by now everyone should know I love a lot of brands I don't represent, and I'm more than happy to tell the world about it. Suffice it to say that I'm deliriously happy with this cartridge on my turntable, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Bob, Dan and Colleen.
One reason why I got a great deal was because this isn't the latest Axia--apparently some improvements were made to the design last year. This was Dan's low-mileage demo Axia for Blackbird Audio Gallery, one that I'd heard previously on a Funk Firm table/arm combo. I remember how fantastic this cartridge sounded then, and I've known ever since that I wanted one. I had the great pleasure of breaking in Transfiguration's middle model, the $4200 Phoenix, for RMAF two years ago. That was two months of heaven, and I really wanted to keep that one, too. I'm intrigued with the idea that the new Axia is somehow better than this one, but at the same time I'm totally in love with the way this cartridge allows the music to flow much more freely into my head. I used to pride myself on being a "Koetsu Man," but Transfigurations have all that lush beauty with more detail, presence and energy.
I guess I'm a "Transfiguration Man" now. And that sounds super cool.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
It's tough to review atonal, dissonant music in general because I feel there's a fine line between appealing to those more adventurous classical fans and throwing up your arms and saying, "Look, this is a difficult listen and you might think I'm crazy for recommending it so highly." You start talking about other aspects of the music, such as the recording quality or even the bleak moods and images that are summoned from the deepest recesses of your soul while you're listening. That's why it's such a delight to come across a recording like Bjorn Bolstad Skjelbred's Wave & Interruptions.
Sure this is challenging music, cast in that Scandinavian bleakness that comes from a culture that is characterized by somber emotions and a routine attitude about the value of perseverance. But this new Blu-ray audio disc is a huge surprise because the music is performed by such unlikely combinations of instruments--marimba and viola on the opening "Movements," for instance, or vibraphones, crotales, flutes and guitar on "Lines in Motion, Entwined." That sounds superficial, judging a recording great because you appreciate the exposure to more exotic arrangements with equally exotic musical instruments, but Waves & Interruptions opens a window into unique musical experiences, such as hearing the lowest registers of the marimba and hearing how deep the notes can reach, and how these thunderous flourishes, such as on the closing title track, can shake the floor and bounce off the walls of the recording venue. This is a marimba, after all, not a tympani.
That makes this recording such a wonderful demo disc, to be sure. As usual, Morten Lindberg of 2L has successfully mated unusual and complex music with a recording quality that underlines how instruments such as the marimba and the vibraphone and the bass flute sound in a very real space. How often do you hear these instruments out in the real world? These instruments are often used as embellishments, otherwordly touches that distinguish a piece as unusual and far from the mainstream, and to hear them spotlighted is a rare treat.
The story behind Waves & Interruptions, as is the norm for 2L, is as interesting as the music itself. Composer Skjelbred produced all of these pieces for melodic percussion--a term I really like--from 2001 to 2013, and it's a considerable coup to have enlisted the services of noted Norwegian percussionist Eirik Raude to interpret these gems. The liner notes point out the introspective tone of this music and note how they capture the shy persona of the composer, and that's perhaps why it's easier to digest the more calming aspects of this poetic music than it is to go on an all-night bender of Berg, Bartok and Schoenberg. You can crawl between the quiet spaces of the music and curl up into a fetal position, knowing that you won't jumping at sudden crashes and crescendos. It's strange music, indeed, full of tension and a weird arcane magic that still manages to be soothing in a way you might not have felt before.
This quiet, of course, escorts you deep into the recording where you will easily hear the uncommon physical links between musicians and their instruments--breathing, positioning and the tandem resonances of wood, metal and flesh. I've listened to this disc a few times now on my new headphone rig (Unison Research SH headphone amplifier, ADL H128 headphones and a simple Blu-ray player, all linked with Cardas Clear cabling and power cords), and it's quite wonderful allowing these remarkable sounds into your head. At the same time, it's even more thrilling to play this disc on my reference system just to hear these musicians exist in such an intimate yet isolated spot on the stage.
So it's another amazing sonic experience courtesy of 2L. I will go further and say that Waves & Interruptions goes one step beyond this--of all the fascinating yet difficult recordings I've heard from this Norwegian label, this one is the most accessible and pleasing, all while maintaining its place in the vanguard.