Thursday, April 13, 2017

Colleen Cardas Imports and J&B Distribution at AXPONA

Yesterday I talked about Down Under Audio 2 at the AXPONA hi-fi show which is happening next week. Colleen Cardas Imports is also supporting a second room from J&B Distribution, our Unison Research dealer in New Jersey. J&B will be exhibiting in room 424. (Down Under Audio will be one floor us, in room 532.)

J&B will be showing off the brand new Unison Research Unico CD Uno, which retails for $2800. This is the middle of Unison Research's CD player, sitting right between the classic CD Primo ($2250) and the flagship Unico CD Due ($4500). This sophisticated DAC/transport has plenty of connectivity options, and can upsample all hi-rez files and stream DSD64 and DSD128 (with an upcoming module for DSD256). I have been breaking in this Unico CD Uno, the first one in the US, and I can say it offers a huge chunk of the CD Due performance for a significantly lower price.

J&B will also use the Unison Research SH headphone amplifier in their room as well. This is what I use at home.

Please stop by either room and say hello. I will probably be bouncing between both rooms and occasionally sneaking outside to smoke cigars and conduct business like a boss. But if you see me, feel free to introduce yourself.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Down Under Audio Returns!

I feel like I haven't done a trade show in a long time. Perhaps that's because we skipped CES this January, the first time I haven't been in many years. So that makes the last trade show where I exhibited was TAVES in Toronto last October, and since I was helping out the Canadian distributor of Unison Research and Opera, it wasn't the usual ordeal. Of course the last show I really did was the first Down Under Audio at the Newport Show last June, almost a year ago.

And now, in a few days, I'm leaving for Down Under Audio 2 at AXPONA in Chicago!

This time Colleen Cardas Imports is just doing one room for Down Under Audio--room 532. Here we will be featuring both Axisvoicebox and REDGUM Audio from Australia. We are bringing the brand new Axisvoicebox EBS, which stands for Extended Bass System. The EBS system features a pair of large enclosures that contain active woofers. These are designed to be used with the Axisvoicebox S monitors as a full-range system. The massive and powerful EBS costs $4500/pair. With the $2500 Voicebox S, this is an accurate yet authoritative loudspeaker system.

We will also be debuting the new Axisvoicebox FLS ($4000/pair) loudspeakers, which are basically the award-winning Axisvoicebox S in a floor-standing enclosure and mated to an active subwoofer.

REDGUM Audio is bringing products as well--particularly their new Black DAC 8, which has a few very innovative features at a reasonable price, and the entire Black Series of integrated amplifiers. Even the cabling is all REDGUM Audio.

We'll also have Unison Research in a different room--we'll be debuting a brand new Unison Research product there. I'll update you here tomorrow.

In the meantime, AXPONA 2017 will be at the Westin O'Hare outside of Chicago from April 2- to April 23. Please stop by and say hello!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Michael Rabinowitz' Uncharted Water on CD Now at Positive Feedback Online

My review of Michael Rabinowitz' Uncharted Waters is now up at Positive Feedback Online. If you've never heard a jazz quartet led by a bassoon, it's quite good. You can read it here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Smoking Jacket Now Online at Part-Time Audiophile

This one slipped through the cracks a couple of weeks ago, but here's the latest from The Smoking Jacket cigar column for Part-Time Audiophile...this one is all about BIG stogies! You can read it here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Stereo RV's Human on CD

Do you like Adele? A lot of people do, obviously. I think she's just okay. The first time I heard "Rolling in the Deep" on the radio, I thought hey, that's interesting. Then I listened to the rest of the album and said no, not my thing. I even remembered that I had seen her on SNL back when her first album came out and she was barely out of her teens and I thought hey, that wasn't bad. But it wasn't quite enough for me. When it comes right down to it, I'll never be a Top 40 kind of guy. I don't hate modern pop as much as I did when I was an angry youngster, campaigning for the death of disco, but bouncy beats and catchy songs tend to float away in the ether as far as I'm concerned. They might as well be pink noise.

I thought about Adele when I listened to this new five song EP from Stereo RV, Human. Just a few seconds into the first song, the title track, I thought hey, this is a lot like Adele. Singer and keyboardist Myra Gleason has that same assertive manner as Miss Adkins--her mere voice seems to imply that she's been knocked down, but she'll get up again. Her husband Gabe supplies the rest of the musical side, and together their melodies are memorable without being cloying. On the surface, this is the type of music that you might hear on the radio any day of the week. You might say hey, and you might not.

But here's another layer of the onion--Myra and Gabe are from Portland, Oregon, my old stomping grounds. And like Adele, who is very British and lets those sensibilities seep into her music, the Gleasons aren't afraid to add a layer of Rose City gloom that makes you realize that these five songs aren't about the usual song things. In the aforementioned title track, for instance, Myra sings that she's just trying to be a human, and all the responsibility that entails. In fact, that's one of the main themes of the entire album--most of us just blend into the crowd, and it takes everything we have just to get noticed for something. In "The One," Myra delivers a multitude of life analogies--forests, mountains, oceans, hurricanes--to bring across the point that "we made it out okay."

In the end, that's what separates Human from the vast majority of Top 40 pop out there--it's about something other than love, sex and making it big. It's about survival, and we're not talking about the last romantic relationship that went sour. More than anything, Stereo RV is singing about what it takes to come out on the other side okay, and what that feel likes.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jens Harald Bratlie's Vers la Lumiere from 2L Recordings

"I noticed you were playing some piano music before. It was...very different."

"Uh, er, yeah...that was something I have in for review..."

"No, no. I liked it. Could you play it again?"

Have you ever watched a horror film or a thriller where the shocks and surprises are few and far between, which increases their impact? Now imagine that concept applied to music, where you listen to a substantial chunk of music, ten minutes or twenty minutes or more, and then the entire piece gets knocked over on its side and takes your breath away. That's what happens in the latest release from 2L Recordings, Vers la Lumiere. This album takes solo piano works from Antonio Bilbalo, Franz Liszt and Olivier Messaien--all performed by Jens Harald Bratlie--and juxtaposes them with brief interludes of electroacoustic tones and sounds from his son David Bratlie.

Okay, maybe I should have said "spoiler alert." If you go into this album blind as I did, it's quite a rush to hit that first wave of electronic tones. It sounds, and feels, like the floor disappears beneath you. Once you regain your footing, you wait for the next wave. It comes later than you think, adding to the suspense.

Lest you think this is some parlor trick, it's not. The idea of the juxtaposition of the piano and the "electroacoustic transitions" supports the theme suggested by the title--"darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that." (That's a quote, of course, from Martin Luther King, Jr.) Bratlie & Son use that idea as a springboard into the nature of artistic expression, and how a musician needs to plunge into contemporary sound in order to re-evaluate history.

What makes this such an effective exercise (which inspired the conversation above, with a friend) is the focus and depth of the piano pieces and how those qualities demand such rigid and consuming dedication from the pianist. The program choices are varied to add yet another layer. Bilbalo's "La Notte" chronicles a night of loneliness and despair and therefore prompts you into darkness. Lizst's "Vallee d'Olbermann" comes straight from the heart of the Romantic Era and sweeps you back into the light, where you can experience the healing power of sheer beauty. The two Messiaen pieces, both from "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus," are more manic and tinged with madness; in a way they encapsulate the flood of opposing emotions that come before while clawing at the walls of the frontier.

Punctuating each piece, of course, are those astonishing electronic sounds that act as the hand that shakes your shoulder and wakes you up. Allow yourself to absorb them, to be surprised by their appearance, and perhaps you'll experience those same epiphanies about dream states you might have felt the first time your watched the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive. There's a sublime, private cluster of feelings that gets disturbed when you ponder the nature of sleep, which of course is another realm where the differences between light and darkness get resolved.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Baron Tymas' Montreal on CD

I've really wanted to go to Montreal for several years now, mostly because it seems both exotic and relatively accessible. Now that I live close to the Canadian border and can drive to The City of the Hundred Steeples in about five hours, the call is plaintive and clear. The Montreal Audio Fest, formerly known as Salon Son et Image, was just a week or so ago and I was utterly unprepared to go--one of the good things about moving to Central New York was living close enough to make the Montreal hi-fi show a regular thing. It came and went. I felt like there was no good reason for that to happen.

Baron Tymas' new album, Montreal, pours salt on that wound by making me feel that I'm really missing out on a spectacular place. Tymas, who hails from North Carolina, is a jazz guitarist who possesses an easy demeanor and a clear tone. (He's also an associate professor of music at North Carolina Central University.) He spent 2015 as a Fullbright Fellow at Concordia University in Montreal, and this album is inspired by his time there, working with a variety of Montreal jazz musicians such as pianist Joshua Rager, bassist Sage Reynolds and drummer Jim Doxas. These eight original compositions are designed to evoke images of Tymas' travels on the metro and the bus lines, of the diverse cuisine, of the warm fall weather and of the relationships he built. The result is solid, and it's easy to translate these vivacious sounds into a soundtrack for a vibrant city.

Each of these tunes go down easy without feeling like easy listening, and you can hear Tymas' inspirations with a certain amount of deliberation. I do have to make one small confession--I do not dig Jeri Brown's vocal improvisations on "And Oui" in the least. I don't want to pick on her because she has a lovely, rich voice that's filled with an element of sorrow and deep reflection. But it's almost alarming the way she slides into the song like a river of molasses, slowing everything down. I've heard this type of scatting a few times in recent months and I don't know if it's the new things or a reclamation of some old style, but it's making me hit the NEXT button on the CD player.

Fortunately that act brings on one of the most liveliest and distinctive jazz tunes I've heard in a long time, "Wishbone." Driven by Tymas' mean and lean guitar work, this tune has a steady drive that pushes it to the brink of jazz-rock--imagine Bill Frisell making an appearance on an old Steely Dan record. It's dry and it moves like one of Tymas' buses. It's also fitting that the final tune is titled "Take the 24," which was the actual number of the bus that he used to go sightseeing.

Once again, Montreal is a contemporary jazz album from a small label and it sounds absolutely fantastic, as realistic as any hi-rez audiophile standard. After saying this over and over, I'm wondering if there's some sort of renaissance going on in contemporary jazz. I probably wouldn't be so astounded by this is it was one particular label or studio, like 2L Recordings of Norway putting out such consistently excellent work. All I can say is whoever is sending me all these jazz CDs has extraordinarily high standards when it comes to recordings.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Date Night with Brian on CD

Again it's time to address the growing pile of CDs I need to review, I know, life is hard. But here's the thing--most of these CDs coming in are contemporary jazz, so I have to be diligent when it comes to mixing things up. I have eclectic tastes in music, obviously, and much of my mental health depends upon listening to a constant variety of sounds instead of digging too deeply into one specific genre or another.

That's why Date Night with Brian seems so refreshing to me right now. It's a five-song EP from a self-described punk rock group from Seattle. I must digress first and admit that punk meant something very different in 1981. I learned in my younger days that not everything called "punk" is punk, and those within the scene have very narrow definitions. I've heard two old-school punks argue that a certain piece of music wasn't punk because of the drummer's time signatures and the style of his fills. Green Day is "punk lite." Pixies are "post punk." Sonic Youth is "art rock." You're either hardcore or you're not. There's no wiggle room.

I bring this up because Date Night with Brian is not quite punk. It's sort of Daydream Nation with the band members being in much better moods. It does have one strong and persistent tie to the early punk years, and it's the de-emphasis of the bass guitar. I can remember when someone first described punk rock to me back in high school, and he said "Imagine three guitars, no bass, and a crazy fast drummer." He was talking about the Ramones, so that doesn't quite fit his description, but Dee Dee wasn't that prominent in the early mixes, either.

Date Night with Brian eschews the bass guitar completely with just two guitars and drums. (Band members Ean, Rena and Brian come from such Seattle mainstays as the Cripples, Sicko and Voodoo Hot Dog.) This isn't the two-guitar approach of The Presidents of the United States of America where one guy goes low and the other guy goes high. But neither is it The White Stripes featuring a special guest appearance from Frank Black on rhythm Telly. What DNWB lacks in lower registers, they make up in the guitar textures and the way the two guitars weave in and out, which explains why my brain keeps tugging on my sleeve and saying "that part right there, that was Daydream Nation-ish."

I don't need to drone on and on about a straightforward sort of punk-ish 5-song EP--if this sounds like it could be your cup of tea, it probably is. And I do get excited when a new band emerges out of the ooze to bring a fresh new approach to punk whether it was Rancid or the White Stripes or yes, Green Day. Any band that can effortlessly evoke Daydream Nation has a lot going for it as well.

It should also be noted that when the album is released on April 17, it will be available on special edition 10" green vinyl. That's the way I'd go.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Vinyl Anachronist #114 Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever!

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now up at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is about re-tipping cartridges and whether or not you should bother with replacement styli. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dave Soldier's The Eighth Hour of Amduat on CD

I honestly think I should know more about Dave Soldier than I do. He's a very interesting person, and he's involved in plenty of mystical and cerebral projects that connect the aesthetic dots between music, art and history. (His real name isn't even Dave Soldier.) When I reviewed the latest Sonus Inenarrabilis' CD a few months ago, I was just a bit confused by the way this album was packaged especially in terms of who did what, and whose music they were playing. That's Dave Soldier's fault, I think. Shortly afterward, I found a half dozen of my friends in the audio industry discussing Soldier on Facebook in a way that led me to believe they knew him and he was a good buddy of theirs.

Now I have this new Dave Soldier project on deck, The Eighth Hour of Amduat, and the ambiguity continues. A perfunctory listen reveals very little since it's a somewhat eclectic and disjointed collection of noises and sounds, punctuated by passages of truly beautiful music, all recorded in a careful, loving manner. Looking at the busy cover of the CD undoes some of the mystery--Marshall Allen plays Sun Ra, Sahoko Sato Timpone plays The Mistress of the Boat and there's credit for an orchestra and choir. But then, at the bottom, it says "Rita Lucarelli, Egyptologist."

Take my advice and dig around a little bit before throwing this into your CD transport and hitting the play button. In a nutshell, this is what Dave Soldier has done: he's taken the oldest known musical score, "The Eighth Hour of the Book of the Amduat" from 1425 B.C., and he's turned it into an opera that fuses jazz, classical and electronic music. As a whole, this opera jumps around from lush orchestral scores to free jazz freakouts to extended periods of random sound effects and noise and overall it can be a bit frustrating. It's when you focus on the individual components of the opera that you find the hidden jewels. For instance, Marshall Allen's contributions on saxophone and something called an EVI (electronic valve instrument) are intriguing especially when you consider that he's now 93 years old. The choir is fascinatingly unhinged because it's mostly improvisation, a novel concept.

After listening to this album a handful of times, I can be honest and say that reviewing it is quite tough because there are so many layers here and I might not peel them off for a number of years. This is difficult music, but there are so many fascinating touches that I think there's more to discover.

One thing, however--the sound quality is excellent.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Luke Sellick's Alchemist on CD

Right off the bat, there are a few interesting things about Luke Sellick. First, and this is plastered all over the place, he's only 26 years old. Second, he's from Winnipeg. Third, he plays double bass and yet is the leader of this particular ensemble, which has complimentary echoes of Mingus. Fourth, he was mentored by the great Ron Carter. Finally, he's a hell of a composer. On Alchemist, from the Cellar Live label, Luke presents nine original songs that have that old soul feeling in spades, something from someone someone who's spent a lifetime perfecting a craft.

That might sound a tad effusive, but I've been listening to Alchemist casually for the last few weeks and it never occurred to me that Sellick played the bass. He's so generous with his bandmates--Jimmy Greene on tenor sax, Jordan Pettay on alto sax, Benny Benack III and Mat Jodrell on trumpet, Adam Birnbaum on piano, Kush Abadey and Jimmy MacBride on drums--that any one of them could stand up and declare "I'm in charge" and possibly no one would say a word. Well, maybe Sellick would say something.

This unity, however, comes from a group of musicians who are very familiar with each other. Sellick has played bass on Jimmy Greene's albums, so the two share a special bond on most of these songs. (Sellick has also recorded with Russell Malone, Johnny O'Neal and a few others.) His style is not flashy, and these nine tracks are not punctuated with constant double bass solos. Instead, Sellick's foundation is as smooth and as fluent as can be, a flowing river of low notes. One could argue that he's the backbone because his presence is so constant, but the real star of Alchemist is the compositions themselves. They are uniformly carefree and winsome. I hate to keep uttering this same cliche over and over, but in this instance it is unusually fitting--these sound like lost classics. So many of the contemporary jazz I've been listening to combines originals and classics in a way that suggest the building of endless bridges, but in this case we have nine strong jazz compositions that are heavy on structure and stingy with needless tangents. There's tremendous focus here.

The liner notes suggest something unusual, that most of these compositions are reflections of Sellick's Christian faith, "which was instilled in him during his Canadian upbringing." I wouldn't have guessed this in a million years, but I'm not the person to seriously think about the connection--especially when there are no vocals. But those ideas may connect to the central tones that attract Sellick, that this is content jazz, relatively free from conflict. As soulful as this album is, it is certainly not the blues. But it is a smart jazz album, and a well-recorded one, so it's well worth your time.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack's The Harry Warren Songbook Now Live at Positive Feedback!

My latest review for Positive Feedback Online is now up, and you can read it here. This one is of an amazing new jazz CD from Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack's The Harry Warren Songbook, where classic Warren standards are played in the "hot Paris" style of jazz a la Django Reinhardt. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jan Gunnar Hoff's Stories from 2L Recordings

I'm at the tail end of my first Syracuse winter, and I seem to have survived. According to the locals, it's been a pretty average season--well over 100 inches of snowfall so far, but certainly not all clumped together at once. Other than slipping on the ice four times in one week right before the holidays, I appear to be strong enough to handle northern life.

Today, however, we are expecting a big snowstorm. It's the middle of March, and we're still not out of the woods yet. The first piece of music I'm playing today is Jan Gunnar Hoff's Stories, another exquisite recording from 2L Recordings in Norway. I've played this disc several times over the last few weeks--it's the perfect soundtrack for watching the snowfall through a big window. These fifteen pieces for solo piano are all songs in the strictest sense of the word--they range from two to five minutes long, and they have specific song structures. Most importantly, they all tell a story.

Jan Gunnar Hoff is a familiar face to anyone who has been purchasing Blu-ray discs, CD/SACD hybrids and even LPs from 2L. I've already reviewed several of his releases right here on this blog: Living was reviewed in 2013, and the Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night is one of my favorite LPs to demo at a trade show. As a solo pianist, Hoff is one of those inventive performers who can sit in front of a keyboard and improvise endlessly. His style is fluid and lyrical, but at the same time he can connect to a wide range of emotions--it certainly isn't just pretty piano music he's playing. There's bite and there's thunder.

In Stories, however, Hoff does an amazing thing. Those beautiful improvisations are blended with familiar songs, familiar passages, even fleeting moments. Aside from a glorious and thoughtful cover of "God Only Knows," a rearrangement of the traditional Norwegian folk song "Varmlandsvisan" and Gerhard Winkler's "Answer Me," these are all original compositions from Hoff, so those gentle moments of recognition are wonderfully ethereal. At various points through Stories I'm reminded of everything from Thomas Dolby to Alan Silvestri's original score from Cast Away. These are incidental, however--the moment I lock in with a flash of realization, Hoff has moved onto something else.

This wavering between pure improvisation and surreptitious homage make Stories one of the most rewarding solo piano works I've heard in some time. By now you know that 2L Recordings are perhaps the most lifelike and natural you can buy in 2017, so I don't need to tell you how warm and spacious the Sofienberg Church sounds, or how producer Morten Lindberg has a better handle on how to bring out the wood and the wire of a piano out into the open better than anyone else.

Just grab this recording and wait for a snowy day, like today, and stare out the window and think about everything that matters to you.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Avalanche Lily's Dream Horizon EP

"The band is reminiscent of the Raincoats, Beat Happening, and perhaps the Minutemen, if the Minutemen were fronted by a couple of women."

That description is enough to get my attention, but the real reason I'm talking about the new Portland band Avalanche Lily is that I've known singer-guitarist Ramune Nagisetty since I reviewed Rocket 3's CD Burn back in 2014. (We've been friends on Facebook, so don't think I drop by her house a couple of times per week for a frosty pint of Pliny the Elder.) I actually loved her old band, which reminded me of such fun '90s bands as Letters to Cleo, Veruca Salt, Elastica and especially Clouds. Plus, I always pay attention to her on my newsfeed because Ramune Nagisetty is such a cool name.

Ramune sent me a PM a couple of weeks ago asking me to check out her new band, Avalanche Lily. She didn't want a review or anything--just an honest evaluation. Their new EP, Dream Horizon, is coming out next week so she sent me out a quartet of tracks to download. Compared to Rocket 3, Avalanche Lily sounds much cleaner, purer and sunnier. I'm not hearing Minutemen's jam econo, but I do hear Mazzy Star, kind of dreamy and sexy albeit with more clarity and a penchant for quiet, brief jams. I'm drawn to drummer Andrew Anymouse's persistent brushwork, which is steady and hypnotic, along with the sound of Ramune's clean, undistorted guitar sound. Filling out this trio is Cyndy Chan, who plays bass and sings beautifully measured harmonies with Ramune. It's even more fun to learn about their day jobs--Ramune is an engineer in high-tech, Andrew is a cyber-security specialist and Cyndy raises chickens on her farm and works in a factory.

What Avalanche Lily does, thankfully, is transport me back to that same period of the early 1990s where so many pop genres blended together which resulted in a general broadening of young minds. Best of all, this stripped-down trio is bright and whimsical and easy on the mind. You can get more info on ordering at the Avalanche Lily website.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Collected Works of Stephen Douglas Wolfe

Last month I told you about meeting local singer-songwriter Stephen Douglas Wolfe, and how he delivered three 7" singles and a CD (an EP containing the contents of those singles) in order to thanks for a review I did last summer.

I'm not sure how much I can add to those blog entries. I do have a different perspective on the all of the tracks, thanks to the CD, and what it adds up to is a terrific side one on an LP. The 7" singles are gorgeous in packaging, sound quality and musical content, but listening to small chunks of music and then flipping the records over ever few minutes...wait, where did the Vinyl Anachronist go? This guy is complaining about flipping over vinyl!

Naw, it's not like that. I'm just saying that listening to all of the single tracks in a row impressed me because I saw the flow between the songs better, and I feel confident that Stephen Douglas Wolfe is more than just a promising Syracuse performer. He's good enough to make it big, make it on his own, go national, go global, whatever cliche you want to add. I hope he does. I hope he adds a side two sometime soon.

If you're interested in ordering these recordings, you can visit his website for more info. The total cost of the three 7" singles is $30, which might seem like a lot until you remember that the pressings sound fantastic. (It's sold under "SDW Vinyl Single Series.") I'm tempted to stick in a qualifier--really good sound from a small indie label--but I listened to the CD extensively on a big reference system and there's none of those small label budgetary concerns here. This is a first-class collection from a talented singer-songwriter and an all-around decent fellow.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Chris Rogers' Voyage Home on CD

Over the last few months I've been reviewing a lot of jazz CDs from a variety of contemporary record labels. Most of these labels are small, and some of the packaging can be best described as spartan...or maybe just streamlined. This isn't a knock in any way, but it's obviously that many of these labels are small ventures that are dedicated to recording all of the musicians on today's jazz scene, the guys who are out there playing gigs 200 nights per year, sometimes for decades. But there's something strange about many of these CDs I've been getting. They sound fantastic. We're talking about redbook CDs, with no special designations on the back cover describing all of the hi-rez recording techniques, or the latest digital formats employed. They're just CDs.

Why do these "garden variety" discs sound so good?

Take Chris Rogers' album Voyage Home. I almost called it his new album, but it turns out it was released about a year ago. The label is called Art of Life Records. I've never heard of them before. Since 2000, they have released 46 compact discs and computer downloads. You can go straight to their website and order Voyage Home for $9.99. And it sounds great. I'm listening to a lot of hi-rez digital these days, mostly streaming from Tidal. Obviously I listen to a lot of jazz on LP as well, and I know what a great classic jazz recording sounds like.

I could play this at a high-end audio show, and I'm sure quite a few attendees would ask me what it was and where they could get it. I could blurt out something like, "Oh, this is the new Chris Rogers CD from Art of Life Records. You don't know them? They're fantastic!" I would never mention to them that it cost only ten bucks, because the jig would be up.

My point is this--a modest little jazz CD like this comes across my desk and I might not even pay that much attention to it for weeks. Then I slowly work it into the rotation, which means it plays in the background on a pretty high-quality system. When it comes time to review it, I start zeroing in. I sit in the sweet spot. I list to the entire disc beginning to end. By this time the album should feel comfortable and familiar. With these recent jazz CDs, however, this is the point where I'm totally surprised by the superb sound quality as well as the exciting performances. It's like I'm starting over and hearing them for the first time.

Rogers, who is a trumpeter and a composer, has been on the NYC jazz scene for quite a while--even though this is his debut solo album for Art of Life. He's assembled a big and bouncy ensemble that includes Michael Brecker (tenor sax), Ted Nash (alto and tenor saxes), Steve Kahn (guitar), Xavier Davis (piano), Jay Anderson (bass), Steve Johns (drums), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Art Baron (trombone), Mark Falchook (keyboards and Willie Martinez (percussion). He's also featured his father Barry Rogers, who is quite well-known for his legendary salsa trombone.

Lay this all out across nine original compositions from Chris, and you have a tight, horn-based jazz ensemble playing with a perfect combination of precision and adrenaline. These tracks are also distinctively melodic, which almost tricks you into thinking that at least a couple are old standards. They aren't.

Rogers and his ensemble aren't blazing new trails here--hopefully you don't think I'm being dismissive by saying that--but this is beautiful, richly-played jazz, heavy on brass yet still lush and exotic enough to seduce you. Voyage Home should prompt audiophiles as well as jazz lovers to explore more of the Art of Life catalog, something I plan to do. I mean...ten bucks.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Howard Johnson and Gravity's Testimony on CD

A few weeks ago I was driving home late at night, listening to the local jazz station up here in Syracuse. It was yet another typically snowy evening and I was trying to focus on the road. Suddenly I heard the most beautiful and unusual music I've heard in a long time--a simple jazz trio playing standards, a trio that consisted of drums, bass and--get this--a harp. I didn't get the name of the trio or the recording, so it will remain a mystery for now--unless Tidal can solve this mystery for me. But I need to find that music and hear it again.

I bring this up to illustrate that something as simple and well-defined as a jazz ensemble can become something extraordinary and unusual with a minor tweak here or there. Case in point: Howard Johnson and Gravity. Based in New York, this ensemble is described in the liner notes as a "ten-piece tuba choir," a moniker I have not heard until now. Johnson himself has been a part of the New York City jazz scene since he arrived in the '60s, and he is known as a master of "low brass"--tuba, baritone sax and bass clarinet. (He also plays a mean electric bass guitar.) Testimony almost serves as a musical sampler for these instruments, and it's amazing how these jazz standards are transformed into something completely new and exciting when "low brass" is placed front and center.

Gravity is, indeed, a tuba choir. Johnson, Velvet Brown, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre, Joseph Daley, Bob Stewart and guest player Joe Exleyall play various tubas with various pitches--BB♭, F, E♭, CC, whatever you got. Pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer Buddy Williams flesh out the sound and make the ensemble sound much larger than it is--more like a big band. We are even treated to a couple of stunning vocalists--most notably Nedra Johnson on a rousing, sultry version of "Working Hard for the Joneses." The overall effect is loose and fun, a collection of long-time friends who really enjoy playing together.

My only objection to this collection is when Johnson takes a turn on solo pennywhistle on "Little Black Lucille." Compared to the low brass, the pennywhistle is far too whimsical and silly and this great ensemble loses some of its, well, gravity. I have to be honest--I skip the track entirely when I listen to Testimony. It just doesn't fit. The rest of the album, however, is wonderful. It reminds me of listening to the incredible Double Bass Concertos LP from Opus3 from the '70s, where's it's strange and unsettling at first to hear an instrument with such low registers take over as the lead solo instrument and then your ears adjust and you suddenly hear all the textures and subtleties. Having an entire choir of low brass is something even more extraordinary, with even more textures to explore.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who Is Ronnie Crawford?

This little 7" single from L.R.S. Records here in Syracuse had slipped through the cracks. Or, more accurately, it slipped between two 12" LPs and has stayed there for who knows how long. I don't remember Nicolas Oliver or Mark Turley from L.R.S. dropping it off, so it might have been here for months and months and months. I'm glad I found it.

Who is Ronnie Crawford? After a perfunctory glance I determined it was yet another local Syracuse singer-songwriter, but then I read this in the included pamphlet:

"It is with great pleasure that we have the opportunity to share with the world, for the first time in over 50 years, the legendary and influential music of Ronnie Crawford."

That quote is from Nic, who then goes on to include a bio on Crawford. He was born in Texas in 1937, headed out west at 17 and was soon busking on the streets of Santa Barbara. He wound up having modest success throughout the late '50s, partnered with a young producer named Phil Spector and recorded dozens and dozens of songs. Then on one fateful day in 1960, near Roswell NM, his car went off the road and his body was never found. In the aftermath, Crawford's later recordings were never released--they were destroyed in a fire. The bio ends with this sentence:

"With Spector now facing a life sentence in jail, it is possible that the location of Crawford's tapes will die with him in his dessert [sic] prison cell."

Shades of Jim Sullivan aside, it's a great story. It's also a sad story, since the four songs included here are superb and indicate a talent who should have been as famous as Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. These tunes are best described as delicate rockabilly, ballads that roll along like Crawford's 1957 Chevy through the New Mexico desert. His falsetto is equally delicate, hinting at the strong emotional meaning behind these simple songs.

Clocking in at a little over 12 minutes and costing just $8, this disc is definitely worth the time. You can order it from L.R.S. here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Brad Myers & Michael Sharfe's Sanguinaria (Hopefulsongs) on CD

Terms such as soft jazz, or quiet jazz, or anything that implies a soothing, relaxing jazz sound for a Sunday morning spent reading the New York Times--well, that's not always my bag. I want a little bite from my jazz, a little impoliteness. Lite jazz, smooth jazz, adult contemporary jazz, that all makes me shudder. Then I remind myself of the time I introduced a friend to Kind of Blue and he summarized it as slow, depressing and sad. I was astonished at his comments since I've always seen the playfulness. But I still think about what he said and it colors my perceptions every time I listen.

Guitarist Brad Myers and bassist Michael Sharfe remind me of the highly subjective nature of intimate jazz ensembles in their new CD, Sanguinaria (Hopefulsongs), which seems very pleasant and amiable on the surface and feels like the perfect background music for solving crossword puzzles on a balcony somewhere in Tribeca. Even when accompanied by a combination of various drummers, percussionists and keyboard players throughout the album, Myers & Sharfe are busy creating an intimate conversation between themselves. This is an unusually quite interplay, thoughtful and soothing, and it will make you drift.

At the same time, this music is neither light nor simple. These two Cincinnati jazz musicians have known each other for a very long time, and the melodies they create together are unusually seamless--it's almost as if one musician found a way to play both instruments at the same time. Additionally, these two are not so comfortable with the partnership, complacent even, that they are unwilling to take chances. Each of these twelve tracks, which combine original compositions with standards from Brubeck ("In Your Own Sweet Way", Guaraldi ("Great Pumpkin Waltz") and Jarrett ("Country"), shows off a wide variety of colors and moods. Only "Norm's Ridge," a homage to Pat Metheny, seems to lack enough sparkle to draw my attention, and that has more to do with my feeling about Metheny's music than anything else. (I find it bleak and plain too much of the time.)

Much of this variety comes from a careful approach to the arrangements for each song. As I mentioned, Myers and Sharfe are supported by two different drummers (Dan Dorff Jr. and Tom Buckley), a percussionist (Marc Wolfley) and a melodica player (Dan Karlsberg). In addition, the two frontmen also play with both acoustic and electric guitars and basses as well as something called "guitar bongos." The bond between this duo is front and center on each track (except when they play solo), but the contexts vary and glow with imagination.

Finally, the sound quality on this recording is an absolute treat. Much of the emotional connection between Myers and Sharfe wouldn't be obvious otherwise. I must concede that it's relatively easy to make an intimate jazz recording like this sound good. Maybe not easy, but common as long as you keep it simple. Sanguinaria, however, was also produced by Myers and Scharfe, which shows that the creative chemistry between these two men permeated every aspect of this release and the reason for its excellence.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Safe's Cinematic Ocean on LP

I think this is the last LP from my Syracuse stack that I need to discuss. I have a few more 7" singles that have snuck into my hands over the last few weeks, such as the Steven Douglas Wolfe collection I received just a couple of weeks ago. But I received this particular pile of LPs way back at the beginning of the summer and I was shocked and dismayed that a couple of titles slipped through the cracks.

I listened to this LP, Safe's Cinematic Ocean, right after Ulf Oesterle from Aux Records gave it to me. Actually, he gave me three copies of the album, all different colors. I've included two of the colors here--I never saw the third pressing because Shayne at Tenacious Sound grabbed it before I could open it. So I don't have the "complete" collection. But I do have an extra copy!

I'm not sure why I saved this LP for last. Of all the Syracuse records I've listened from L.R.S.. bettyElm and Aux, this one is perhaps the most polished, most professional and most likely to be heard on a college station--and I don't mean any of this as a diss to Safe. Over the last few months I've been trying to get a handle on the Syracuse music scene, and for the most part the DIY/indie rock influences run strong in Salt City. It's rough around the edges, passionate, retro--not that different than other medium-sized cities in the US--but there's more of a sense of fun here.

Cinematic Ocean, however, is dense and textured indie rock quartet music, a couple of guitars and a rhythm section and vocals that are earnest and clear without being too poppy. For a debut album it's very consistent, with each track maintaining the same high level of energy; it's an indie rock version of Damn the Torpedoes. There's a seriousness and dedication at work here--this quartet has mastered the concept of sounding like themselves, finding their sonic signature and making songs that sound like, well, Safe. That's something a lot of bands don't get right for a few albums, after they've earned their freedom by selling a few millions CDs.

In researching the band and this album, I made an interesting discovery--Cinematic Ocean was released in November of 2012, more than four years ago. Still, it's in the new release section at The Sound Garden, the record store here in Armory Square. I was also playing this LP in Shayne's store a few days ago and someone walked in and immediately asked if this was Safe. In a way Safe represents the great Syracuse hope, a local band that has garnered a great local rep and is perhaps ready to push for bigger exposure. If so, it's been four years already, so I hope we get that awesome sophomore breakthrough album--for all I know it's already out--and then I can say you heard about it here first.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Bridge Under Fire's Gluttons Before Grace on LP

Last week I was rummaging through the pile of LPs and CDs I have to review, and I discovered that I still had some quality Syracuse vinyl that I had yet to talk about. I've been in Syracuse since April, and I probably received the bulk of this music in May or June. And here it is, deep into February, and I can still go on and on about great local record labels around here such as L.R.S., bettyElm and Aux simply because I have a ton of their music unheard and spread out all over the place. I'm going to focus on the remaining vinyl this week. I promise.

Mark Turley of L.R.S. served as a wake-up call. He's been talking about the new album from his band, Bridge Under Fire, for the last few weeks. I reviewed a 7" EP from BUF for Perfect Sound Forever back in my June 2016 column "We Specialize in Vinyl," along with a handful of other L.R.S. releases. I wrote that "Bridge Under Fire's I Got a Guy for That offers a big healthy serving a lo-fi, hard-driving grunge that's recorded with the same minimalist approach as early hardcore--a tribute to the little record labels thirty years ago."

I was talking about SST, by the way. Listening to L.R.S. bands reminds me of some of my favorite bands from the now distant past.

I also noted BUF's propensity for funny song names. On the new LP, Gluttons Before Grace, you get a few more: "No I Don't Want to Hang Out with You, Now Bring Me to Taco Bell and Take Me Home," If Wishes Were Horses, I'd Have a Lot of Glue" and "Rhythm and Booze." So the familiar sense of humor from the earlier EPs is intact, but there's something deeper and more accomplished going on. There's a distinct feeling that Turley, who sings and plays guitar, got together with guitarist Chris Whitemore, drummer Steve Lowe and bassist Jeff Walker and said, "You know guys, we've been having a lot of fun playing these gigs and being kind of goofy on stage but I feel like there's something deeper we can explore."

As a result, Gluttons Before Grace is a surprisingly ambitious dollop of post punk despite a minimalist studio aesthetic. Mark's still a screamer, and on the surface that can seem at odds with the more complex musical themes such as the suite that encompasses "Prelude" and "Blacklisted at Hop Sings" and returns for the album's "Epilogue." Listen deeper, however, and you'll start to hear the anger that fuels many of these songs. On the aforementioned "Blacklisted," Turley sings "Make it all impossible to make anything creative and new/We need more big retail to sell all that bullshit to you." (Double Nickels on the Dime, anyone?) While those types of angry anti-establishment sentiments are touchstones to the origins of punk rock forty years ago, the band has the maturity to temper that rage with the realization that we're all older and we're all going to get sucked in to suburbia and we're all going to forget why we were so pissed off.

All of this starts to make sense when you add in the music. Turley's howl can make you think BUF is more hardcore than it is, but if you isolate some of the quieter passages you'll catch something more beautiful than you expected. Gluttons Before Grace is full of conflict, paradox and confusion, at the surface at least, but at its core is change. It's not about growing up or getting older as much as it's just about figuring it all out, and going with the flow as long as you can occasionally bash your head against a wall in frustration.

That's pretty impressive subtext for a local Syracuse band, but don't forget that Turley runs L.R.S. Records with Nic Oliver and those two guys have probably seen it all while dealing with the business side of the industry. And if you can run a record label and still put together a side band and release an album this good, then maybe it's all worth it.