Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Trenner & Friedl just received a rave review on their tiny Sun mini-monitors in Stereophile! I'm excited about this since I had a chance to play with the Suns a couple of years ago. (You can read up on my impressions here and here.) The reviewer was Ken Micallef, who gave a thorough and thoughtful review to our Unison Research Unico integrated amplifier last year. He evaluated the little Suns with the equally diminutive Heed Elixir integrated amplifier, which is also one of my favorite hi-fi products in the world. Together they were a satisfying, surprising and extremely musical combination.
Over the last year or so I've received a number of comments on this blog about the Suns. These comments seem to be divided into two camps--one group maintains that a tiny speaker you can pick up easily with one hand can't possibly offer such a big sound (they can), and the other group knows Trenner & Friedl products and want to hear more. The price for the Suns have been set at $3450/pair, which seems crazy when you see them. But alas, this is one of those hi-fi products where you have to shut up, sit down and listen and then decide whether or not they justify the price. The Suns pass that test effortlessly.
Congratulations to Bob Clarke of Profundo, the US distributor for Trenner & Friedl, as well as Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery (who also got a mention for helping out with the review). Kudos also go to Peter Trenner and Andreas Friedl, who make such incredible products. It's nice to see my audio buddies get some love in Stereophile!
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
My good buddy Rafe Arnott, who is a fellow scribe at Part-Time Audiophile, just published an article on Top 5 albums pics from a variety of audiophiles. He surveyed a few people--including me! I'll try to follow this up right here with a list of my Top
20 for 2016, soon to be published at Perfect Sound Forever.
You can read Rafe's article here.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
There's always a certain unique delight in receiving a new disc from 2L Recordings, a delight where you open the envelope from Norway and the disc falls out and you look at its name and wonder "What kind of music is this?" You can say that about a lot of recordings, I suppose, but 2L is always challenging in a way where the cover of the album is an invitation to a mystery. You might get a few clues here and there--a Norwegian string quartet listed on the cover here, a well-known composer in the title there--but every once in a while a title falls out of that padded shipping envelope and you say to yourself "I have no idea what this could be...let's put this in the CD player immediately so we can find out."
So it is with Sea of Names. This selection of music from composer Lasse Thoresen features minimalist art work on the cover that suggests calmness and tranquility; digging into the sparse notes on the back you'll discover that this is Thoresen's chamber music for flute and piano, so the peaceful motif continues. When the music starts, however, the mystery dissolves and the tranquil facade quickly fades away. The title piece, which starts the album, is "a meditation over the loss of a close member of [Thoresen's] family." Evidently these feelings are complex--the dynamic interplay between flautist Maiken Mathisen Schau and pianist Trond Schau covers such a wide range of emotions from anger to despair to eventual acceptance (following the classic Five Stages) in a tumultuous 17 minutes. Both performers push the physical structures of their respective instruments to an almost mechanical breaking point, all while infusing the music with a rolling and flowing rhythm that conjures Debussy's La Mer.
These two musicians invest so much pure effort into the performances that you can easily imagine the drops of perspiration flying into the air and landing on the soundboard of the piano and on the wooden floors of the Sofienberg Church in Norway. Maiken Mathisen Schau, in particular, uses her whole body to produce her fevered notes so that her voice often slips into the music like a ghost. This isn't showmanship a la Ian Anderson, it's complete commitment. Trond Schau's piano is also a sonic revelation--his notes are a seamless partnership of those churning maritime rhythms and unexpectedly sharp punctuation marks that perfectly reveal the inner chambers of his instrument.
As Sea of Names progresses, the palette expands and contracts so that each piece is embedded with a different level of emotional turmoil and excitement. Throughout the rest of the album, flautist and pianist generously take turns to explore the composer's reflections on interpersonal communication, the beauty of nature and conflicts within the inner self. One piece, "Solspill," offers a different take on the classic Pictures at an Exhibition by outlining Thoresen's individual reactions to a series of photographs taken by a friend. By the end of the album the two musicians have again joined together to produce the deliberate longing of "Interplay." It's a lovely and beautiful finale that ends the album on an optimistic note.
I've already mentioned the Sofienberg Church, the venue for this recording and so many others from 2L's Morten Lindberg. It's a superb space for projecting the strengths of individual performers and allowing their notes to bloom into the rafters. At the same time, Sea of Names projects an unusual sonic phantom. When Maiken and Trond perform together, you can tell they are standing so close together that the timbres of their instruments intertwine. During the solo performances, however, that unity is still there, that central focus in intact as if the other musicians is still there, on stage, for emotional support.
Is that a crazy observation? Perhaps. But so it is with 2L Recordings, where you often find yourself hearing seemingly impossible details in the music. They might be there, and they might not, but the magic is the merest suggestion that puts them there.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
I really have been listening to a lot of jazz these days, mostly from artists I've never heard of before 2016. As I've been submitting my year-end Top 10 lists to various associated sites, I've been able to include a couple of contemporary jazz entries from performers I know from previous reviews--Todd Hunter and Jane Ira Bloom--but a few of these new artists haven't made the cut for one reason or another. The biggest reason, of course, is that it was a stellar year for music and I'm usually confined to five, ten or twenty picks.
Al Strong's exclusion from my year end lists is merely an issue of timing--I started listening to Love Strong Vol. 1 a day or two after my deadlines. Would Al have made the list if I had waited a little longer? Would I even be mentioning this otherwise?
Strong is one of those young and promising musicians, in this case a composer and trumpeter, who has been paying his dues in the jazz world for many years. This album is sort of a calling card for Al, that he's been in the shadows for far too long, and now it's time to push him to the front of the stage into the spotlight because the world needs to sit up and take notice. That's certainly the theme of Love Strong, Vol. 1--the idea is that we should already making room on our shelves for Vol. 2--but that sounds a little cynical. Al's prodigious talents are, ahem, trumpeted on this album, and what a pleasurable debut it is. He deserves this showcase.
Vol. 1 is nothing too revolutionary. Al's playing a lot of standards such as "Blue Monk," "My Favorite Things" and Kenny Baron's "Voyage," with a distinct focus on songs with a strong emotional wallop. What stands out is his horn playing, which is full and smooth and dynamic. He's a romantic trumpeter, reveling in the softer passages that form a foundation for the occasional fireworks. Backed by a large revolving ensemble, Strong excels at being a generous leader--this is an album full of amazing solo improvisations from performers such as pianist Joey Calderazzo and guitarist JC Martin. If you listened to the entire album without any info about the performers, you might even be surprised that the trumpet player is the leader rather than just a featured performer. Strong is more crafty and subtle that than, however. He leads with a gentle touch and a superb sense of rhythm--something that isn't said that often about horn players.
I only have one reservation about Love Strong. It isn't the recording quality, which is absolute dynamite. It comes along early in the album, a cover of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" that leaves me feeling a little perplexed. The song begins (and ends) with a children's chorus reciting the nursery rhyme before the band kicks in and starts with the basic theme. I have to admit I winced a little the first time I listened to it. But after a minute or so the improvisation takes over and this is one great, propulsive jam. At that point, with the kids outside for recess, it makes sense. But for the first minute or so, you might get a little anxious. It's like eating half a Twinkie, moving onto a absolutely perfect filet mignon, and then finishing off the Twinkie.
Or perhaps it's just me being curmudgeonly during the holidays. So much of this LP is pure love and delight--a great horn player, a great band and some real production skills, and yeah, let me know when Love Strong Vol. 2 comes out. I'll be waiting.
It's been a few months, but another one of my cigar columns for Part-Time Audiophile has just gone live. This installment of The Smoking Jacket concerns flavored and infused cigars and why they're such big sellers. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Sometimes I get some strange stuff in for review. Sometimes I think people are just messing with me, sending me copies of The Emperor's New Clothes just to see if I break the fourth wall for a quick WTF. "We've got a box-set of Tibetan monks farting...let's see if Phillips gives it a good review!" Then again, to stroke my own ego, maybe I'm just one of the few people who can still listen to utter strangeness and cull the artistic merits. Or, people are just messing with me. Yeah, that's it.
From the cover, Brian Kastan's Roll the Dice on Life looks like a fairly straightforward jazz album. Brian, a perfectly normal-looking young man with a shaved head sits cross-legged on the ground holding his guitar in front of a pair of steel doors that feature a couple of stenciled-in dice. The cover also says that bassist Steve Rust, drummer Peter O'Brien and vocalist Miles Griffith are featured. Seems legit. So I popped this into my CD player and WTF? What's going on here? Is this for real?
What I heard, for about ten full seconds before I hit the stop button, was full-force free-jazz-rock-funk, not too distant from what you'd hear on some of Frank Zappa's more experimental releases, but with vocal improvisations that were, to say the least, very interesting. I'm not talking about Ella Fitzgerald scatting in that lovely little-girl voice of hers. I'm not talking about Liz Fraser and her ethereal and nonsensical vocalizations on old Cocteau Twins albums. I'm not talking about the involuntary humming and singing that comes from pure artistic expressions of someone like Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett. I'm talking vocal improvisations that sound like Dave Chappelle doing his Edgar G. Robinson impersonation. I'm talking about the Cookie Monster eating an entire jar of cookies while wearing a mic.
Ah, Miles Griffith. Who are you? The press release talks of his "rich provocative vocals," which are not the words I would use. Griffith turns out to be one of those guys who's been a part of the NYC jazz scene for a couple of decades and has quite the reputation as both a musician and a band leader. Kastan, Rust and O'Brien are also serious musicians with some serious chops. Kastan's also a licensed hypnotist--but I'll bet he doesn't play this album for clients.
But here's the thing. Ten seconds of Roll the Dice on Life can be off-putting and disconcerting. But if you hang in there, crawl into this particular crazy madman vibe, you start to relax and inhabit the space. Your shoulders start to lower. You start realizing that every minute or so, things really start to click between Miles' cartoonish ramblings. Then before you know it the CD is over and wait! Look! There's TWO CDs! Awesome! By the time you make it through to the end you'll have laughed quite a bit because this odd, odd music does have a logic to it that's above and beyond the "raw energy" of outlandish improvisation. Griffith even speaks actual words at certain points, providing an even heavier anchor to the swirling and chaotic mix, especially with the two closing cuts--"Black Lives Matter" and "Black Lives Matter 2" which addresses all the craziness we've had to endure in 2016.
It's a grounded way to end an album like this, one that makes its own rules as you go along. As for me, I liked it. As for you, well, there are two types of people--those who hear ten seconds of Roll the Dice on Life and say "WTF?" and hit the stop button, and those who hear the same ten seconds, say "WTF?" and then sit down and listen to the whole thing. Or maybe, like me, you're a little of both.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now online. This column, #112, is my annual wrap-up--the 18th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence.
You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
"A pipe organ and a choir is sometimes all I need," an audiophile friend told me recently. He's the type of person who has been caught more than once playing Christmas music in the middle of summer, so I take him at his word. He's kind of a nut this way, and I've rolled my eyes at him more than once for doing this.
Fortunately for him, I'd just received this 2L Recording from Norway, Himmelrand, which features new hymnals from the Church of Norway, performed by the Uranienborg Vokalensemble conducted by Elisabeth Holte, with Inger-Lise Ulsrud on the enormous pipe organ at the Uranienborg Church. He sat and listened to this recording straight through to the end with a silly smile on his face the whole time. It was also his first experience with a 2L Recording, and he just couldn't believe the warm, open and engaging sound. Honestly, I think he was in a deep hypnotic state by the end.
A few weeks later, I played Himmelrand at a high-end audio show. A man walked into the room and within ten seconds--SERIOUSLY, TEN SECONDS TOPS--he had pulled out a notepad and started asking me what was playing. I handed him the CD case and he started scribbling down all the information. This was his first experience with a 2L Recording as well, and after a twenty minute conversation I think I had convinced him to go home and order the entire catalog. "I've never made such an instant emotional connection to a recording before," he explained. I never quite shook the feeling that he was pulling my leg because seriously, ten seconds was all it took. That's it. But this show was in Canada, and Canadians are famously polite, so maybe he was just being nice. Or maybe he was just like the first guy, deeply conditioned to have this sort of response to sacred music.
So it's safe to say that if a pipe organ and a choir is all you need to feel fulfilled, start here.
As for me, I still ponder about the same exact things when I listen to sacred music. You can go through every other review I've done on this type of music and I'll make the same comments about why I'm so attracted to these recordings despite an adamant agnostic streak. I can still get a huge thrill sitting in a huge church and listening to either a thundering pipe organ or the soft ocean that is a large choir, as long as everyone understands that I'll be slipping out the back once someone gets up and starts talking. There's something so old and ancient and peaceful in hymnals like these, and I won't deny their effect on my disposition.
The idea behind Himmelrand is, as usual, intriguing. These 17 hymnals have been resurrected (pun not intended) by modern Norwegian composers such as Aage Samuelsen and 2L mainstay Ola Gjeilo. As the liner notes explain, "An old hymn in a fresh musical setting loses none of its power; it simply undergoes a change--sometimes small, sometimes more substantial--to its character." The result is a collection of hymnals that seem to occupy an intriguing place between the sheer beauty and joy of the classic versions with more adventurous interpretations from these modern masters. That said, truly atonal moments are few and far between, and Himmelrand sounds more like a volume of undiscovered gems than anything else. Coupled with the goosebump inducing sonics, Himmelrand becomes something incredibly rare for me, a church service I would gladly attend.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Dave Stryker's Eight Track II sounds sort of like Paul Schaffer's band on the Letterman Show--not the CBS Orchestra but the smaller ensemble that played back in the NBC days. I'm not saying that as any sort of diss. It's just that ten seconds into the first cut, an ebullient yet smooth cover of the Isley Brothers' "Harvest for the World," you'll easily imagine Paul hovering over his keyboards, head bobbing in rhythm, while the other three or four musicians on that little side stage play with oodles of their trademark confidence and professionalism. Part of this vibe comes from heavy doses of Jared Gold's Hammond B-3, but a surprising amount comes from the addition of Steve Nelson's vibraphone which serves the same role as Paul's second and third set of keyboards.
Eight Track II, in other words, isn't moody and soulful like Kind of Blue. It's bubbly, energetic and whimsical, the kind of music you might hear at one of those big fancy parties where everyone is dressed to the nines and yet not afraid to work up a sweat on the dance floor. From the title you'll quickly figure out that this is a follow-up--Stryker's first entry back in 2014 picked up on a novel idea to cover pop classics of the '70s with a jazz trio plus vibraphone. (Bass duties are covered by the B-3 pedals.) On the second pass, Stryker and his guitar expand the repertoire with very intriguing choices, everything from Prince's "When Doves Cry" to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" to even Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." It would seem like a gimmick if Stryker and his band didn't have the chops to carry it off.
Here's the funny thing about this album--those Schaffer parallels are strong in the beginning but they start to melt away about halfway through. The band's take on John Barry's theme from Midnight Cowboy would probably sound a little too reflective coming back from a commercial break, but from there it seems that McClenty Hunter's drums take over and build momentum through the end of the album. The result is somewhat schizophrenic--the familiar themes are introduced in the beginning of each tune and you nod your head affirmatively and think, oh now they're doing The Zombies of Stevie Wonder or The Temptations and then the solos start and those novel feelings get swallowed up in a fury of skillful improvisation.
The fantastic sound quality will also win you over. I'm especially fond of Hunter's crisp and explosive drumming throughout the album, and there's nothing quite as thrilling as the decay from a vibraphone captured with accuracy. In fact, a lot of these jazz CDs I've been getting lately are following that pattern. From the next room I'm relatively unmoved by what sounds like mainstream modern jazz but then I move in closer and start discovering hidden depths, especially when it comes to how well these CDs are recorded. Eight Track II is a perfect example of this--I smirked through the first listen, fixating on the Schaffer similarities, but repeated listenings really won me over.
Friday, November 11, 2016
I just returned from TAVES, the annual audio show held in Toronto. It's the first hi-fi show I've done outside of the US and I wish I had a bunch of stories to tell about my daring adventures in a foreign land. But I spent the entire show in the hotel which was located in the Richmond Hill area of Toronto, far out into the suburbs. Everyone told me how beautiful Toronto is and that I should check out the downtown area, but alas, Richmond Hill looked just like any sprawling metro area in any US city with its greenbelts and its traffic intersections and its road signs and its suburban neighborhoods and its industrial parks. It was clean and organized, but it didn't have that same exotic feel as Sydney. It looked like Irvine.
Not that I'm bashing Toronto. I didn't explore enough, and that's my fault. It's just that when people ask me "How was Canada?" I can only reply that it was fine and nothing bad happened to me, thanks for asking. If anything, the experience has prompted me to plan for a Montreal trip ASAP--that place has to be more unusual than Toronto. It HAS to be. They speak French there, after all.
Anyway, I wound up coming home with three new LPs. Each has its own little story.
The first album was a present from Vince Scalzitti, our distributor counterpart up in Canada, for basically showing up and giving him a hand running his five rooms for TAVES. It was this album, Raising Sand, from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I was gobsmacked. It's as if Vince stuck his fingers into my grubby little brain and pulled out a sad old story of mine and acted upon it. I reviewed the Raising Sand LP many years ago, basically when it first came out. I loved it, gave it a great review for a hi-fi mag and even chose it as my favorite album of the year for the annual writer's poll at Perfect Sound Forever.
Then, goddamnnit, the publisher of the mag (not PSF, by the way) asked for it back. He wanted it. I guess I was so used to keeping the LPs that I reviewed that I thought I was going to get to keep it, but no. Maybe this is why I now insist on getting hard copies of every piece of music I review. If I'm going to think that hard on a recording, it must become a part of my collection afterward. Does that sound weird? I don't care.
I actually went to buy it on LP, and I was mildly shocked that it was $30. I guess that was a deal-breaker back in 2007--now it's pretty much the going price for a new piece of 2-LP set. But as time went on I just resigned myself to the fact that I didn't actually own one of my favorite LPs released in the last decade, and my left eyelid would start spasming whenever the subject of Raising Sand came up. So thanks, Vince, for making me whole again.
I grew up in Southern California in the '60s and '70s, about nine miles from the ocean. So you probably know how I feel about The Beach Boys, and it's this:
Not my thing. Never was. People I grew up now think it's strange that I have utterly no love for The Beach Boys. But I remember back when we were young, o California peeps, and none of us were listening to the Beach Boys. NONE OF US. We were listening to the Beatles and the Stones and Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and The Who (the cool people) and Foreigner and Journey and Styx and REO Speedwagon (the dorks). Sure, they played a lot of Beach Boy tunes on the radio, and that's when I switched the station. I can't remember one person from my youth who loved the Beach Boys back then, but now they're all sappy and emotional whenever someone mentions Brian Wilson or "Good Vibrations" or even Pet Sounds. Whatever.
But here it is, Pet Sounds, a semi-permanent resident in my collection. How did this happen? Well, I went to TAVES with Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison Research and Opera, and this was his present from Vince. And he accidentally left it behind when he flew back to Italy, so now it's mine. But I can give it back to him in January when I see him at CES. I won't be sad.
The only saving grace here is that this Pet Sounds is the one recently remastered by Analogue Productions. (It's the mono version.) It sounds much better than any other version I've heard. I once had someone bring me their original copy from the '60s and the grooves were so worn out that it sounded like the music was coming out of a tinny transistor radio circa 1966. I thought to myself, really? This is the album that everyone thinks is so great? This is the album that inspired Paul McCartney to start work on Sgt. Pepper's?
Nevertheless, I have a copy of it for now. And it sounds pretty good for a fey, precious trifle about adolescence.
This is the only album I actually purchased at TAVES, and that's because I already planned on buying it. I love Anne Bisson--she's one of my very favorite "do you have any female voice?" artists. I do enjoy her singing voice, but I think I like her even more for personal reasons--I've met her a few times in the past and she is one of the sweetest, kindest, happiest human beings I've ever met. When she says hi to you while you're passing in the corridors of a hi-fi show--and she shows up to most of them--you'll have a smile on your face for the next hour. She's sunlight in a mason jar sitting high up on the shelf next to the window.
I own two of her albums on vinyl already--and they're absolutely beautiful pressings. This one is no different. But before I go on and on about the new Anne Bisson album I do have stop and say this is not hers alone. Conversations features Anne's voice and Vincent Belanger's cello, equal billing, and perhaps this is why I like it even more than the other two. It's more varied in tone and style because Belanger shines on his own for close to half of the album through his moody, evocative instrumentals. (It's a "conversation" between the two, after all.) I won't go into too much detail now since I may give it a more proper and thorough review later--I'm still rooting around in all the beauty and I'm still making discoveries.
One bummer about this album--I heard Anne was at the show and I was hoping she would come into our room. As it turns out, Anne had her own booth set up in the marketplace where she was selling the LP. I saw here sitting in her chair, talking to a half-dozen Canadian audiophiles who were clearly mesmerized, so I decided I'd come back later. When I finally had a moment, she wasn't there, so I bought the LP from the person who was manning the booth. I can't remember what that person looked like, or whether it was a man or a woman. I just knew it wasn't Anne.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
My latest review for Positive Feedback Online is now online--it's the latest from Norway's 2L Recordings and it's quite, well, out there.
You can read it here. Enjoy!
Saturday, November 5, 2016
I'm not sure if this is an "ask and ye shall receive" period or a "be careful what you ask for" period, but I'm suddenly buried in a pile of contemporary jazz CDs that are all, to one degree or another, recorded and performed beautifully. A company called Jazz Promo Services, as I might've mentioned, has opened the flood gates and my mailbox has been getting stuffed with new releases. Perhaps this was in response to assertions during my reviews of Todd Hunter and Jane Ira Bloom that it had been years since I heard a contemporary jazz release that truly moved me in the same way as some of the classic reissues I've been purchasing over the last couple of years. Someone over at JPS is determined to prove me wrong.
Some of these releases seem, well, modest. I don't mean that in a bad way, but in a way that suggests that there are a lot of jazz musicians still out there in 2016, trying to get noticed and waiting on that big break. A glass-half-empty kind of guy might posit that a big break in today's jazz scene might be an oxymoron considering the alleged waning interest in jazz in this country. But from the looks of some of these titles there are a lot of jazz musicians still out there hustling, playing a couple of hundred gigs per years, traveling from town to town and earning enough just money to get by just like they did fifty or sixty years ago.
I think about those hard-working, dedicated performers when I listen to Craig Hartley's new CD Books on Tape Vol.2--Standard Edition. I don't know this supremely talented jazz pianist, nor do I know bass player Carlo De Rosa or drummer Jeremy "Bean" Clemons. From the looks of the CD cover and packaging, I'd say these guys scrimped and saved to put out this CD. It's as simple as it gets, jam econo for the jazz set, but stick the CD in your player and hold on tight--the sound quality is nothing short of magnificent. This jazz trio recording is crisp and vibrant, with virtuoso performances that strongly remind me of Jane Ira Gross' Early Americans or even the Jacques Loussier Trio's classic recordings through the '60s and '70s.
Books on Tape Vol.2 is obviously a follow-up album. Vol. 1, which I obviously have not heard, contained original compositions from Hartley. Vol. 2 is mostly standard tunes, hence the subtitle. That means you get Hartley's takes on such tunes as Mood Indigo, a lively and thunderous Caravan and Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz. But you also get a lovely, serene version of Paul McCartney's Junk, as well as a couple of hybrid tunes that mix Bach and Miles Davis (hence the Loussier reference) and even John Lennon and Bill Evans. Hartley's fluid, romantic runs through the keys are perfectly suited for the Evans homage, by the way.
After quick perfunctory listens through this ever-growing pile of jazz CDs in my living room, Books on Tape Vol. 2 was the immediate stand-out in both sonics and performances. Produced by Hartley, recorded at Bunker Studio in Brooklyn and mastered by Greg DiCrosta, this is stunning jazz recording from a trio of guys I've never heard before. That goes to show that modern jazz is alive and well, and that more people--me included--should be paying attention.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Objectively, Shoreline Blues is the type of modestly played jazz that you might hear at a charity event or a small neighborhood club. The musicians might be local guys who have been playing together since they were young, so they play together seamlessly. They're not part of the vanguard, they're not blazing any new trails, but they're the right performers for the right time.
That might sound dismissive. I've heard a lot of jazz this year that really broadened my horizons, from the melancholy textures and images evoked in Jane Ira Bloom's Early Americans to the wild celebration of sheer energy in Todd Hunter's Eat, Drink, Play. Bassist Jeff Fuller and his friends--pianist Darren Litzie and drummer Ben Bilello--aren't blazing those storied trails, but they do play expertly, with plenty of precision and detail and clarity. As the liner notes declare, the trio was formed "to perform new, original music which re-invents timeless jazz styles with new vision and creativity." And someone was paid to write those words.
But here's why I don't want to be dismissive about Shoreline Blues: it's beautifully played and beautifully recorded. 2016 has been such a year of discovery for me in terms of music, and it's incredibly easy to overlook such a simple pleasure as a well-practiced jazz trio hitting all the right notes.
As I've mentioned, Fuller is the bass player. He's also the front man. This is his band. So this recording winds up being a primer on how to make that instrument the driving force, the real star. Fuller's playing is rich, thoughtful and deft without being showy--he's a bassist's bassist. That doesn't mean Litzie and Bilello are wallflowers since both musicians have a light, playful and quick touch. They just use their leader as an anchor, weaving in and out of these tunes (most of them are composed by Fuller, with a few scattered tunes from Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker) and allowing the boss to improvise freely.
Fuller deserves even more kudos for producing this recording himself--it's clear he knows his way around a recording studio. Shoreline Blues has a clear, spacious sound that is very natural and realistic. Right now it's playing in the other room and it doesn't take much to trick my mind into believe these three gents are in there, playing a casual set for a knowing and appreciative audience.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
It was difficult to miss last week's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest--I've attended the last ten years in a row and exhibited the last five. But I had a chance to attend the TAVES Show in Toronto instead, and I've always wanted to attend either this show or the one in Montreal in the spring. I'll be assisting Vince Scalzitti of Tri-Cell Enterprises, the Opera and Unison Research distributor up north, as well as my brother Bartolomeo Nasta straight from the factory outside of Treviso, Italy, run the Tri-Cell room at the show.
I do have quite a few Canadian audiophile pals out there, so I hope I get to meet a few of them in person. TAVES will be held October 28-30 at Sheraton Parkway Toronto North & Best Western Hotels, 600 Highway 7 East, Richmond Hill, ON L4B 1B2. Telephone number is (905) 881-2121. You can find out more info here.
Friday, October 14, 2016
My latest music review for Positive Feedback Online is now live. This one is the absolutely great pop album from Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam...I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. You can read it here.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
It was a tad difficult to wrap my head around this CD--not music-wise, of course, but title-wise. Is Sonus Inenarrabilis the name of the group, or is Nine Live? Who is the guy holding the French horn on the cover? Is that John Clark? Is it okay to name your record label Mulatta in the PC age? It even took a bit to make sense of "Nine Live"--is there supposed to be an s at the end? Oh wait, maybe that's the name of the ensemble, nine people playing live. Ah. It's starting to become clear. The name of the album is, indeed Sonus Inenarrabilis, performed by a jazz nonet and featuring music written by the horn player on the cover, John Clark.
I hate to seem like I'm fussy about all this. It's just that in judging this CD by its cover (and title), I made some assumptions such as this is a very small label with very limited production budget putting out the kind of CD Nine Lives sells at the back of the club after a gig. I'm not biased against such releases--everyone has to start somewhere, and I've been guilty more than once of buying someone's CD after a live show. It's just that my expectations are usually somewhat low in these instances--the production values are probably minimalist at best considering studio time can be quite expensive, especially when nine musicians are involved.
After a perfunctory first listen, I realized just how wrong I was. Have you ever seen a hi-fi component that comes in a rather plain black box that turns out to be a great performer, and the manufacturer then comments that "we put all the good stuff on the inside, where it counts"? On Sonus Inenarrabilis, all the good stuff is definitely on the inside. First, the choice of instrumentation is fairly novel for a jazz nonet--clarinet, violin, horn, 7-string electric bass, cello, viola, drums, bassoon and keyboards, all held together by conductor Thomas Carlo Bo. That allows Nine Lives to slide around in the space between genres, moving surreptitiously through jazz, blues, fusion and funk as a well-tuned small orchestra--imagine a Lalo Schifrin score from the mid '70s and you'll understand the vibe. In other words, this is not a recording of a horn player sitting in a chair, playing old Scarlatti pieces.
That's not to say this music is odd or exotic in the same ways as Black Paintings, which I reviewed last week. It's not hard to imagine this music as the soundtrack from a '70s movie, a pretty good one at that, with a slightly dated sound that's completely on purpose. (This idea popped in my mind because I watched The French Connection the other night and I've always had very mixed feelings about the harsh, atonal jazz score until now--I love it.) I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the clean, compact delivery of John Clark's compositions is totally intentional, evoking that same sense of perhaps a B-movie score that outclasses the B-movie it's in.
The kicker is this: the sound quality of this modest little CD is absolutely superb. There's a forward and immediate presentation here that excels at separating each performance so that you can follow individual performers with ease without losing sight of the whole. Dan Cooper, who co-founded the ensemble with John Clark, provides such a solid foundation with his 7-string bass guitar--it's always there, offering full, warm and rich support of his fellow performers. Drummer Cesare Papetti, on the other end of the frequency range, offers plenty of delicate shimmering highs with his splendid cymbal and hi-hat work. Everyone else in between is on the money--these are mostly NYC session performers who are the epitome of professionalism.
As far as Mulatta Records is concerned, it has a hell of a pedigree. Dave Soldier, who produced this album and is responsible for getting these nine performers in the studio at once, co-founded the label in 2000 with Nigerian record producer Ayo Osinibi. Soldier has had a very interesting career as a composer and performer on his own. Even the motto of Mulatta is "purveyors of the unique and bizarre," which seems at odds with the very low-profile cover. But Sonus Inenarrabilis makes much more sense when you just place the CD in your player and forget about the rest.
Friday, October 7, 2016
I had to work up to this one. This is, for all intents and purposes, as heavy as it gets for me. Michael Rafferty, my smoking buddy and drummer for Fall of Humanity, warned me about his CD, saying that a few tracks were pretty heavy--which probably meant that a 54-year-old like me might get whiplash from listening to it. I found Mike's band to be a pretty solid modern metal band, not too much for my aging ears. When I reviewed We the Wild's CD a few weeks ago, I may have been a bit too rough on them for their rather formulaic lyrical style--that oft-copied juxtaposition of the angry howl and the backing harmonies designed specifically for shouting in a large arena. I didn't find the growling too "heavy" as much as I objected to that type of vocals being an easy way out for singers who can actually sing.
Thoughts in Reverse makes all of that sound like Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" on Laugh-In. On an old black-and-white Zenith. Back in the '60s. You want heavy? This album is rusty-garbage-can-full-of-mercury heavy. After listening to these six slices of precise yet baleful doom, I felt like I had a case of the cold sweats. I was so discombobulated that I listened to the new Norah Jones album immediately afterward just to get my bearings back, and I don't like Norah Jones. ("Get high/take flight"? Really?) In fact, I may have hurt my head a little after listening to Thoughts in Reverse. It might be permanent.
I can't even imagine listening to this on headphones. That's far too close.
All right, I'm exaggerating. I'm not that wimpy about this kind of music. Just recently I listened to Napalm Death's highly acclaimed 2015 anthology Apex Predator--Easy Meat and found it a lot of fun. I'm not afraid of a wall of sound. In fact, I kind of like being swept away by tidal waves of pure noise. I'm also not saying that Thoughts in Reverse is the heaviest music in the world--I once heard a band in Austin that played so loud that it drove everyone in the club out into the street until the manager literally pulled the plug. But it's the heaviest music I want to listen to. If there's heavier, I'm okay with not hearing it.
This album came from Ulf Oesterle from Aux Records here in Syracuse. He and Jenn Bort from bettyElm records came in a few months ago and so far everything I've reviewed from the pair was from Jenn. I did sample everything from their pile or records after they left, and when I got to this one I said "Holy crap, wow...that's intense." I didn't know back then how I was going to approach it. But here I am, months later, attempting to do just that.
I'll say the following nice things. I love the colored vinyl. The pressing is clean and the sound quality is first-rate, especially for an indie label. (I've been very impressed with the bettyElm pressings I've received, and Aux seems to have the same high standards for their vinyl.) And while I can't quite don my reviewer's hat and talk about Thoughts in Reverse with a modicum of intelligence, I will say that I'm grateful to have it here--the next time someone tries to tell me that some piece of music is "heavy," I'll put this on and say "Heavier than this? I didn't think so."
Thursday, October 6, 2016
For many audiophiles, there's nothing like the sound of a big pipe organ in a big church. That's the traditional test for full range speakers--can they produce that famous 16 Hz tone from a 32' pipe? There's no other acoustic musical instrument that has that wide of a frequency response, or at least none I'm aware of, and there's no other instrument that can naturally produce such a huge sound field since the pipes take up so much physical space. It's quite an experience to sit in an old church and hear one of the world's great pipe organs create tones that seem to come at you from all directions. Recreating that immense space in a recording is one of those Holy Grails for high-end audio.
That said, I'm kind of indifferent about the pipe organ as a musical instrument. I have audiophile friends who absolutely adore it and I can totally understand why--it creates such a singularly impressive sound. It's a veritable goose-bump machine. And I get that--I have a few Virgil Fox LPs at home and I like to trot them out once in a while to wow my buddies. But for me, true pipe organ music tends to fit into two categories--the spooky and the sacred. In my opinion, that limits its appeal. For an instrument that such an enormous frequency response, it's a shame that I feel that way.
Leave it to 2L Recordings in Norway to change my mind. Their latest release on CD and Blu-ray audio, Organism, features three unique pipe organ pieces from composers Kjell Mork Karlsen, Trygve Madsen and Kjell Flem, all performed by Terje Winge--the Professor of Organ at the Norwegian Academy of Music. These composers have obviously been informed by the sacred side of the pipe organ canon, with specific references made to Gregorian chants and the Lutheran chorale traditions. And a significant portion of this album sounds like the type of pipe organ you would typically hear in a church, albeit a Scandinavian one (in this instance, the Alesund Church in Norway).
But there are moments, especially in the quieter passages, where the music launches on a secular tangent and starts evoking feelings and visuals far outside of the Christian liturgy. The air traveling through those pipes meander and crawl around the room and start to dig in with prying fingers--sadness, despair, unease and worry. These emotions aren't necessarily alien to the ideas behind the hymnal, but it's odd to let your mind wander in and out of these notes, out the door and into mysterious and troublesome landscapes where anything can happen.
That sounds a bit fanciful, but that's my reaction to this strange and haunting organ music. It took my mind to places where it hasn't been before and definitely engaged me in an unprecedented way. It's so easy to become lost in these gigantic sounds, to ride a roller coaster of dynamics and find yourself alternately soothed and excited by what you hear. I couldn't imagine being at a church service and hearing these pieces played. What the hell kind of church is this?
On top of all that, you have Morten Lindberg of 2L performing his magic. As I mentioned in my review of TrondheimSolistene's Reflections last week, 2L has upped the ante for recording techniques, using Dolby Atmos in conjunction with Auro-3D surround for the Blu-ray disc. In other words, the recording Organism will envelop you in exactly the same way as the actual recording in the church. If you're the type of audiophile who's looking for that big pipe organ recording to really wow your buddies, this is it. But if you're like me, looking for an emotional entry point into this fascinating musical instrument, you'll be really, really surprised by Organism.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
At some point during your first listen to Jeff Guthery's Black Paintings, you'll ask yourself "What kind of album is this?" You won't ask what type of music it is, because you'll get that answer one track at a time--full orchestral music, free jazz, string quartet, world music and wait, was that an electric guitar solo I just heard? If anything, Black Paintings almost resembles a soundtrack album for a movie--you get the main orchestral score with frequent leaps into different genres. But these nine tracks are meant to work together as a whole, not as some cobbled-together background narrative.
This shape-shifter of an album, composed by percussionist Guthery, is designed as a soundtrack of sorts--each piece is influenced by one of Francisco Goya's Black Paintings. These 14 works, painted on the walls of a villa in Madrid, were the result of Goya's extreme paranoia after chronic illness, deafness, war, the death of his wife and finally his "falling out of favor" with the Spanish monarchy. In other words, these are portraits of madness. Goya never spoke of these paintings, completed just before the end of the 18th century, since they were completed in a private residence. The existence of the Black Paintings was not discovered by the public for 50 years, and their first public exhibition--they were lifted to canvas by the owner of the villa--did not occur until 1878.
Each image is provided in the packaging of this CD so you'll be able to match the black painting to the track. It's a heady endeavor since these clearly are the jagged works of madness and the images are unduly haunting, the stuff of nightmares. The musical accents from Guthery are sometimes equally jarring--as a percussionist he is big on sudden strikes of bells, the tympany, horns and the like. The opening piece, Goat, sounds like an outtake from the classic Shaded Dog Witches' Brew, all scary and perfect for the upcoming Halloween festivities. Just as you're settled in for some spooky holiday fun, however, you get an epic free jazz freakout in the form of the next track, Saturn, and I will worn you that the corresponding painting is easily the most disturbing one. (I'll just say someone's getting eaten.)
As you might guess, Black Paintings isn't made for casual listening. I had it playing in the background for the first couple of listens and found it distracting, schizophrenic and uneven. At the same time I found the sound quality to be dynamically forceful and extremely impressive. I was particularly intrigued with the wide open soundstaging that allowed for effortless transitions between the full power of the East Coast Scoring Orchestra and the jazz quartet improvisations (performed by pianist Kenny Werner, saxophonist George Garzone, bassist Bruno Raberg and Guthery on drums). In many ways this is an outstanding demo disc as long as you stick with the orchestra pieces and beware of the sustained chaos of the free jazz.
What's ultimately so fascinating about this album is on Guthery's noble attempt to translate "a distinct set of visual art into aural art." I've made a couple of passing references to the language of film, and this is a deliberate goal for Guthery. The liner notes mention that "The music is majestically cinematic(...)the camera closing in tightly, pulling back, panning, fading and cutting in its imagery." So studying the included material and reviewing the history brings an uncommon depth to this album, and added appreciation.
Friday, September 30, 2016
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column, #111, is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. In this one, I finally do something I've wanted to do since I started the column in 1998--talk about ten turntables I really, really, really want. You can read it here!
Remember the '80s band Berlin? Remember how cool they were? You don't? Oh, that's because you're probably remembering the watered-down mainstream version of the band, the one that actually won an Oscar for "Take My Breath Away" for that God-awful '80s flick Top Gun, a film that still resides on my all-time Top 5 Least Favorite Movies. No, not that Berlin.
I'm talking about the sexy and dangerous Berlin, earlier on, the band that sang songs like "The Metro" and "Sex (I'm A)." That band, native to my own Orange County, cited influences such as Kraftwerk and Devo and The Screamers. That band used to have issues with airplay due to graphic lyrics. That band had an awesome female singer who, as a child actor in the '70s, used to always play the bad girl. She was good at it, too.
I bring up Berlin because Occurence reminds me of them. Not early Berlin so much, or even sell-out Berlin, but Berlin if Terri Nunn and the gang started playing gigs in 2016 instead of 1978. This electronica duo from New York combines those same pounding synthesizer landscapes with sexy, provocative female vocals that are just a little spooky. But Berlin 2016 wouldn't be Berlin at all. They'd be completely different in a lot of ways. Their music would be less '80s synth-pop, less danceable, with heavy influences from dub and ambient. They also wouldn't be all dolled up like Berlin with brightly colored clothes, lot of eyeliner and crispy '80s bangs. They'd look like perfectly normal people, you know, like Ken Urban and Cat Hollyer.
On their new album The Past Will Last Forever, Ken and Cat get weird. Funny and weird, I should say. While the album starts off with very Berlin-like songs such as "The Things I've Always Liked I Now Hate" and "My Days and Nights Belong to You," heavy on beat and a dark sensibility that might seem a little too textured for the early '80s but not really, the twosome dives in and out of layered backgrounds of noises, voices and grime. They do come up for air every couple of songs, such as the pulsating and deliberate "The Right to Be Forgotten," but this is a deeply interior album, one designed to evoke strange thoughts and visuals.
The Past Will Last Forever scores extra credit for great sound quality--the deepest pulses are subterranean and the spaces are gargantuan. Plus, Cat has one of those too-cool-for-school voices that makes you want to forget everything your mother told you about girls like her. It's that balance between the '80s New Wave and the solid, inventive ideas that permeate today's electronica that make Occurence distinctive and ultimately far more sophisticated than their '80s counterparts.
Then again, Berlin is planning a tour for 2017. Wouldn't it be fun if Occurence opened for them? They might even steal the show.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
It's been a while since I've received a new release from 2L Recordings in Norway. Then it hit me--when I moved to Syracuse last spring, I'd forgotten to send Morten Lindberg my new address. I sent him a quick message on Facebook about the latest move; I was worried that my old mailbox in Colorado was filled with all the latest and greatest titles. "For the first time in a while I have no 2L Recordings in my review pile. I hope I didn't miss anything!"
Morten replied swiftly: "No worries, Marc! We've been busy making new recordings. Four new titles are ready for release over the next weeks." And sure enough, those four titles reached me safely in New York. I've been listening to all four through the summer, and this one was from TrondheimSolistene the most immediately engaging and familiar--after all, the first 2L Recording I've heard was Souvenir, which I reviewed back in 2012. When I saw their latest, Reflections, I was thrilled that it included one of my absolute favorite pieces for string orchestra--Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In fact, the first thing I did after unpacking the padded envelope from Norway was to listen to this piece. And it was absolutely beautiful.
That's saying a lot, considering my longtime reference is an old, somewhat beat up copy of Sir John Barbirolli's English String Music with the Sinfonia of London. This 1963 performance is stunning and of course legendary, but I've been vexed by the surface noise. (I bought it used on eBay, and I paid a significant amount of money for it.) I'd splurge on a better copy, but I'm sure examples are both expensive and rare. So the idea of having a brand new take on this piece, pristine and beautifully recorded, made my day. TrondheimSolistene is known for taking liberties through unique arrangements, but their version is restrained and yet animated, and incredibly fluid and emotional. Is it the equivalent of Barbirolli's? I'm not going to go there--I'm thankful I have both.
The other two pieces on Reflections have been chosen, along with the Williams piece, for "passion, perfection and raw intensity." These include Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Igor Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete, and they do create a unified and stirring hour-plus of music. Even the Stravinsky piece is perfectly lovely and lyrical--I'm not familiar with it and would never have guessed that it was composed by the same person responsible for The Rite of Spring and Petrushka. At first I thought it might have come from Stravinsky's earlier periods before, as Taruskin wrote, "Stravinsky became Stravinsky." This version was actually revised in 1947, and has flourishes that reach back to the Romantic Era and even, for a few fleeting moments here and there, the Baroque Era.
I did mention that TrondheimSolistene uses atypical arrangements and seating positions--these three pieces are performed with the musicians in a circle and with the microphones on the inside of the circle pointing outward. The placement of the musicians are unique within that circle for each separate piece, so there is a slightly different sonic presentation in each section. Most of the positioning would probably be more obvious in the surround formats--which I do not have yet (I'm working on that as I write).
But I finally have access to a decent universal disc player--the Cambridge Audio CXU--so I can finally do more informed A/B comparisons between CD and Blu-ray digital formats. My initial impressions while switching between these formats aren't yet formed--I hear difference but very small ones, and I suspect those margins increase when you switch to multi-channel. (These four new CDs also utilized Dolby Atmos for the first time, so I'll see if I can find away to explore that new technology as well.) For the moment I continue to give the nod to Blu-ray Audio; it's simple quieter and smoother and more extended in the treble. But it's still amazing to me that two-channel redbook CD sound continues to be as realistic and as lifelike as it is. And no one's doing a better job of pushing the CD format into the 21st century than 2L.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
I'm coming up on six months in New York. The leaves are starting to turn color and I soon I will experience my first Syracuse winter. Syracuse gets more snowfall than any other major US city, by the way, so I'm about to have an adventure. Texas summers and Colorado winters have toughened me up over the last few years, so I'm not that worried, but I have planned a bit of traveling over the next three or four months--Toronto next month, CES in Vegas after the New Year as usual. So I'll be dealing with huge piles of snow on a fairly regular basis. Outside of that, I plan to burrow here in Salt City. Fortunately I have a ton of new music to review.
While that last paragraph meanders a bit, it's to make a point--I still have a bunch of vinyl to review from local Syracuse record labels L.R.S, bettyElm and Aux. I've been here six months, and I still haven't finished. I've been listening to most of these records, and I dig the overwhelming majority of them and have played most of them repeatedly. This album here, Inclusive Or's Cocktails in Purgatory, is a fine example of an LP that was likable at first and has since grown into something more rewarding and substantial.
I was reminded of this clever little album with lots of hidden depth when I was shopping at The Sound Garden, the local LP store here in Armory Square. They had Cocktails in Purgatory in the LP New Release section and I thought to myself, "New release? I don't feel so bad for not having reviewed it yet. It's still new!" But no, this album came out in 2014. Should I even bother?
In a word, yes. I should bother. What makes this indie band so intriguing is the slow and deliberate way this album unfolds. The first two or three songs are straightforward indie rock songs, a little rough and ragged and delivered with earnest energy from a band with electric guitars and bass guitars and drums and even a little keyboard action for low-level textures. I don't want to use words like ordinary or typical, but this is the type of music that makes you nod your head once or twice and acknowledge "Yeah, this is pretty good."
Then the band starts to stretch. While Trevor Grant's hoarse and jagged yet somehow whimsical voice remains a constant throughout the album--anchoring Inclusive Or's garage band aesthetic, the arrangements simultaneously focus and vary. "Inclusive Or" is a bouncy '80s track that almost sounds like The Knack, while "Scherzo" has the same fluid power of Green Day in their least self-obsessed incarnation. That song and its rock ballad follow-up, "Eudaimonia," feature a huge, endearing chunk of Hammond organ that's almost poignant. "Cured!" is a thrift-store hymnal, with Grant backed up by guitar and a strange grinding sound in the background--it's melancholy and desperate and ultimately hilarious in its honesty. ("Getting drunk off the blood of Christ/Isn't it nice?")
Sure the album is a couple of years old, but the Syracuse music scene is tight and close and these guys are still playing around town, and they're playing some of these songs. Something tells me they're great live, so I might try to check them out soon--if I don't go into hibernation for the winter, that is.