Monday, June 18, 2018
Almost by definition, big band jazz should evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. Meeting of Minds, the new album from the Bob Mintzer Big Band and the New York Voices, doubles down on that sense of long ago by teaming a brash and tight big band sound with an equally versatile complement of singers. Using standards primarily from the Great American Songbook during the '30s and '40s, this sprawling album recreates the sound of a huge celebration in the heart of New York City during wartime. My first impression was that of a huge USO show, with all the big names coming out to wish the boys well before they were shipped out to the front. That's the essence of nostalgia, a very specific time and place.
In a way, this is genius. As I've said just recently, the trick to enjoying big band jazz is finding the novel theme or idea that propels the performances into something memorable. That's not always easy. If Meeting of Minds had not combined the two groups, the result would have been something professional and polished, but not especially distinctive. The magic resides in the partnership of Bob Mintzer and the Voices' Darmon Meader, two composers who take their own strengths and blend them into something complex where fascinating ideas thrive. Those ideas come in the form of thrilling solos, more than a dozen of them, a rarity when so many musicians are simultaneously involved and trying to keep everything seamless and taut.
Mintzer and Meader, along with 19 other performers, take an unusual approach to the musical union. Rather than simply blending equal measures of big band jazz and four-part harmonies, these arrangements weave in and out of the dual genres and create an evolving structure that doesn't always adhere to the nostalgic feel. It's almost like the streets of New York City, where you can turn a corner and find yourself in a radically different neighborhood. There are moments, fleeting of course, where the USO show folds up and suddenly you're hearing Brazilian jazz influences, or even funky sojourns that take you to more recent eras. It's surprising how much of this is instigated by the New York Voices--they can summon up the spirits of the Andrew Sisters, or they can drop the affectations and suddenly sound like they're singing contemporary pop. Because these deviations are so sly, it doesn't take you out of the moment. It's more of a roller coaster ride because the fun quotient remains constant.
Overall, Meeting of Minds sounds enormous in its scope. This is a big big band, and the complex vocal arrangements appear to double the size of the stage. There's a lot going on, obviously, but the sound never becomes muddled due to the exceptionally clean production values. Back in the '30s and '40s, they had words for shows like this, words like extravaganza. There's a wonderful New-Year's-Eve-in-Times-Square vibe to this album, and if you can forget that it's only June, you'll have a ball.
Last week was pretty chaotic and disruptive and eventful. I started off breaking in a new computer after the old one--with its slowly dying power supply--finally gave up the ghost. That always throws me off considerably, which has something to do with my status as an introvert who constantly works hard to get things just right. I went to Toronto over the weekend, a good thing of course, but anytime I whip out my passport I feel like I've gone on a major adventure...even if the so-called exotic international locale is only 181 miles from my front door. When I returned yesterday afternoon, my mailbox was stuffed with 14 CDs and 2 LPs, so once again the review pile is growing out of control. I feel like today is the day when I can finally get settled in with all the newness--which includes finalizing my sound system and finally getting my Roon software installed so that I can start organizing all my digital files, downloads and Tidal subscription.
Today, in other words, is a good day for a capricious cannonball into that burgeoning pile of music, and it's reassuring to begin with music that's so lithe and pleasant and calming. The Richard Shulman Group is a small and lively quartet that doesn't have an unusual angle or intricate theme behind their performances. Pianist Shulman, along with sax player Jacob Rodriguez, bassist Zack Page and drummer Rick Dilling, concentrate on lush melodies that are low on tension and high on a rare energetic beauty. A year ago I might have made a wisecrack about this type of music being more suited to a cruise ship than an honest jazz club. My first impression, after all, was "light and breezy." Considering I just spent so much of my review of Andy Zimmerman's Half Light talking about my fondness of sad music, you might expect me to damn this album with faint praise. I won't.
Part of the reason is these 14 original tracks, all composed and arranged by Shulman, have a somewhat cleansing effect, like sleeping in your own bed after a long and exhausting journey. These four musicians are certainly making lovely music, but they do it with confidence and skill that acts as the perfect antidote to ambition for its own sake. There's a flawlessness to these performances, and while that can be a bad thing in a genre that actively celebrates the crossing of new frontiers, there's no denying that there's a time and place for safe harbors.
Another plus is that the sound quality is top notch, especially when vocalist Wendy Jones joins in on "The Gifts You Gave to Me," "Homage to Pharoah" and "Finding Peace." Her presence almost provides an opportunity for a double-take--she breaks through the sweetness and light with a knowing and sultry richness that makes your ears perk. When she's not hanging around the microphone stand, the focus shifts to the fluid piano work of Shulman himself, who claims Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Bill Evans, among others, as inspirations. The sound of his piano is substantial, grand even, and it's the trusty foundation underneath the perfect soundtrack for a well-needed return to normality.
Friday, June 15, 2018
My review of Andy Zimmerman's incredible new LP, Half Light, is now live at Positive Feedback Online. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Once in a while I get an album from one of my contemporary jazz contacts that isn't quite, well, jazz. That brings up the old brain twister about the definition of jazz, of course, and I have learned that all sorts of sounds can be informed by jazz without sounding like it. I actually welcome these releases because they tighten the focus I have on the idea of a musical genre. And if you love music, you know that the music that refuses to be pigeon-holed is usually the most fascinating and illuminating kind.
Michael William Gilbert's Radio Omnibus is certainly one of those creations. You can hear jazz in it of course, deep in its core, beneath the cracked foundations. Gilbert is not the typical jazz composer--he grew up in Connecticut and Belgium and gravitated toward the music of Varese, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry and placed it within a context of world music he heard from Japan, India and Africa. He went from studying electrical engineering to electronic music, and he settled in on a career in the design and teaching of synthesis systems. That's why his compositions are firmly within the realm of electronica, with one subtle difference--he strives to make that music more "human" by adding percussion, wooden flutes and voices. That's where the jazz comes in.
If I wanted to perform the rather useless practice of coming up with musical hybridization to describe the work here, I would call it a cross between electronica, perhaps trip-hop, and fusion jazz. I'm not sure that would do justice to these compelling songs. This isn't a unique countenance, and you might find a lot of it familiar. Here the magic is in the elusive whole, of purposing a lot of synthesizer noises and tones into something with a funky beat, something that uses fusion jazz as a touchstone before heading for the outer reaches of space. Just to mix it all up, Gilbert includes two acoustic chamber compositions that peel back a few layers from what's really happening deep inside this music. Oh, and he evens throws in some "multi-cultural" folk such as "Night Walk," which contains the flute, bassoon, vibraphone and a string orchestra. It comes from out of the blue.
If that sounds a tad too exotic, it's not. This is music that's extraordinarily likeable in its beauty, weirdly delicate in a way that's not off-putting, original in the way the seams are obscured. It sounds fantastic, with deep synthesizer bass smashing through the floorboards, and dozens of layers of mechanical drones and swirling highs that set up a huge space for Gilbert's ideas. My first impression, of course, was "This isn't jazz," but I sat still for the duration, bathing in a hypnotic soundscape that prompted my mind to wander and entertain a host of new ideas. If you're into electronica (I am) or fusion jazz (eh, not so much), you will find common ground here. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
I have a warm spot in my heart for things related to the Great Depression. I love movies either made or set during the '30s, and the music from the era has this constrained yet grand feel that accurately conveys the seriousness of the times while adopting an outward sense of escapism. Well, the Glenn Crytzer Orchestra gets that. This 17-piece band not only records music from the era with an impeccable sense of authenticity, but they recreate that classic sound by using the Associated transcription service "sound" as a model.
The Associated transcription service offered an alternative to the sonic presentation offered by most 78rpm records of the time. There's a greater sense of space and reverb in the recordings, even though they were still recorded in mono. The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, along with Blue Rhythm Records, have perfected this glorious sound in their latest double CD, Ain't It Grand. These 30 classic songs sound like they chronicled a wild yet proficient band from 80 years ago, and yet there's a subtle clarity to the sound that hints at a more modern recording approach--to well-trained ears, that is.
"The album allows us to hear vintage big band swing in a whole other way, auditorily speaking, and takes classic music and makes us hear it in the audio equivalent of 3D IMAX--it's quite a wonderful, unique sensation." That might be overstating it a bit, but you get the point. I've been listening to this CD on a fairly expensive audio rig, and I don't get the "entirely new perspective" point as much as I'm convinced this sounds like a very clean copy of a long-lost master tape. It reminds me of an audio dealer I used to know who was firmly committed to listening to 78rpm records with an optimized playback system (with a mono phono cartridge mounted on an old restored Micro Seiki turntable that could spin at that speed). He managed to find a few unplayed 78rpm records, and the results were stunning--while the overall presentation sounded hemmed in and small, the timbre was especially pure. Vocals, in particular, sounded pristine. That system provided plenty of goosebumps.
Ain't It Grand? approaches that same feeling of wonder, of capturing and preserving a precious historical moment. These extraordinary musicians have spent an enormous amount of time and talent perfecting the classic sound of a Depression-era orchestra, and the casual listener will immediately be convinced that it is. You won't find a lot of performers working this hard to recapture such a specific time and place in musical history, so my hat's off to Crytzer and his crew. If you're the type of music lover who still gets a charge from listening to old mono recordings that have been meticulously stored, or old 78s that haven't been tortured by old playback equipment, this is a wonderful gift to you.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
Deep Into Jazz in Texas: The Jazz Program at University of North Texas Now Live at Part-Time Audiophile!
At last! I've finally finished the UNT article for Part-Time Audiophile, You can read it here. Enjoy!
Friday, June 8, 2018
It's not news that I've been inundated with big band jazz recordings over the last few months. And yes, the UNT big band jazz project is long finished and will be appearing in Part-Time Audiophile shortly. Through all of these recordings, most of them fantastic and illuminating, I've questioned deep down that it might not be my specific cup of tea. But I've soldiered on, stepping outside of myself to give these huge ensembles the credit they deserve. I suppose my reservations revolve around the fun factor in this music--it's splashy and exciting and precise.
Is that my thing? I'm not sure. I like my jazz to be on the moody, forlorn side of the spectrum. Most big band jazz performances are focused around the standards, delivering them with the prerequisite amounts of dazzle. If I could just find a big band sound that captured the more melancholy and reflective side of music, a sound that's new and distinctive and shies away from more than just a novel theme or approach. Ask and ye shall receive, in the form of this new release from the Frankfurt Radio Big Band--located, of course in Germany.
Envisioned by conductor and composer Jim McNeely, these seven songs depart from big band canon with liberal doses of the sad and the surreal. I'm not talking about abstract or "free" ideas that branch out on nervous tangents, but rather somber moods and places I haven't been. There are moments during this amazing recording, which was culled from two live performances back in 2014, where the big band moniker doesn't seem to apply. There's a dreaminess to McNeely's vision that skirts along the more substantial nooks and crannies of jazz as we know it. There's an almost magical way this band travels into darker territory, a land where brash dynamics surrender to a far more intimate feel. The emotions here are complex and full of doubt and regret. It's not downbeat as much as thoughtful, serene and perhaps a bit confrontational.
These pieces present seven "imaginary scenes" that start off as chamber-bound and develop into the appropriate size and scale of big band. That's why there such an unusual sense of the sacred and the fantastic. Fantasy is the key word here, with the tracks borne from "imaginary friends; winning the 'big game;" confronting monsters; visits from mysterious people we don't recognize." That essence informs the listener every step of the way, providing a new roadmap to a big band sound I didn't realize was possible. If you have predisposed ideas of what a big band jazz ensemble should be accomplishing, I challenge you to listen to this new album and bask in completely new visions of sound.
Thursday, June 7, 2018
"One of the preeminent performers in Chicago jazz, saxophonist Shawn Maxwell--"
I could almost stop you right there. Start talking about jazz and Chicago and saxophones, and I'm going to imagine a particularly energetic sound. We're talking about big horn sections, acting as a singular force, and more than the usual helping of blues and rock and roll drive. To tell you the truth, I heard a lot of that on the surface of Maxwell's new CD, Music in My Mind, blaring horns leading the way, lots of ooomph, the antithesis of introspection. During subsequent listening sessions I heard something else emerge, a more modern approach that employs different levels of dynamics simultaneously. If this is Chicago jazz, there's something new in the wind off Lake Michigan.
There's a busyness to the sound that comes from meticulous composing and strong pushes of sheer originality. Maxwell and his usual quartet New Tomorrow (keyboardist Matt Nelson, drummer Phil Beale and rotating bassists Patrick Mulcahy, Junius Paul and Tim Seisser) are joined by three well-known Chicago horn players (Victor Garcia, Chad McCullough and Corey Wilkes). Guest appearances include vocalist Dee Alexander, who has an unusually sweet and velvety approach to improvisation. There's a lot of talent here, patiently taking turns to shine, and that's where it sounds so different than the traditional Great Lakes vision of precision and teamwork. It's a swirling, detailed delivery that constantly circles around in your mind.
These ten original compositions from Maxwell are given flight by his versatile sax--his shifting of gears is fluid and he has a lot of emotions at his fingertips. He can blast when he needs to, or lurk in the background like a low voltage charge, ready to spur on his cohorts when inspiration is warranted. There's a consistent vibe here of support, of each of these musicians encouraging the others who share the stage. Maybe it's love--it certainly feels like it.
As I listen to this album, I keep making an unlikely connection to Sufjan Steven's epic Illinois, which certain shares those geographic cues. The reasons are surprisingly subtle, however. Maxwell and Stevens both like a lot of musicians on the stage at the same time, and there are intersections with some of the instrumentation--especially with the vibraphone and some of the percussion. It's fleeting, but it's enough. That doesn't mean you should get one if you like the other, because this is a very specific and personal observation. But it all goes back to that feeling of love--not in a schmaltzy way, but in a shared joy of playing music that is obvious to the listener. Shawn Maxwell and his crew loved making this recording, and it shows.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Another day, another organ trio. As I've said repeatedly, this is not a bad thing. I'm really digging the preponderance of these ensembles in today's contemporary jazz scene. After listening to a least a dozen of these outfits over the last few months, the thing that strikes me the most is how these simple trios can adopt such a distinctive sound and attitude despite the simplicity of their arrangements--hip, nostalgic, earthy, sinister, whatever else you got. Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart have been recording as an organ trio since the early '90s--Toy Tunes is their twelfth release--and they whip up a distinctive mood as well, and that's mellow.
Mellow can be intriguing, of course, if you know how to focus and listen carefully. While there's a certain spareness to their overall sound, bordering on reticent, they teeter along the precarious edges of jazz enough so that they're never boring or indifferent in the way they pursue familiar themes and melodies. This smoothness, always flirting with the adventurous, is usually centered on Bernstein's guitar. It's that classic jazz guitar sound, clear and unfettered with distortion. He plays the lead most of the time, carrying the melody, while Goldings' Hammond B-3 provides the atmosphere. I know I overuse the term texture at times when I'm describing jazz, but it's an essential trait for most B-3s. There's a flow, an almost drone-like layer of feeling and emotion that acts as a canvas for the other players. Stewart, the drummer, invokes much of the excitement with his restlessness and his constant shimmer. As a trio, these seasoned musicians are the proverbial still waters. There's a lot going on that you won't hear from the next room.
Goldings summarizes this unique feel and structure by revealing that "our approach has never been dictated by the 'organ trio' format but rather by our individual personalities." This is precisely right. Toy Tunes is one of those rare organ trio recordings where you can easily follow each musician through the track and keep the other two in the periphery. In other words, you can listen to each song straight three times and have three separate impressions. Despite the calming effect of the whole, Goldings, Bernstein and Stewart are often pursuing separate journeys--they're walking down the road together but seeing and feeling different things. This makes for a sound that begs you to crawl around inside of it.
The trio also specializes in intricate song structures. The first tune, "Fagen," is obviously a tribute to the famous Donald from Steely Dan, and it seems like a natural instinct to pay homage to another individual who prefers innovative song structures. While the majority of tunes are originals, with equal composing credits from each of the three, there are also knowing nods in the form of adaptations from kindred spirits such as Carla Bley ("And Now the Queen") and the title tune from Wayne Shorter. G,B & S is hardly an organ trio for beginners, but these gentlemen are a gift to those who want to think about their jazz as well as float along with it.
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Your first impression of Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkestra, other than the whimsical name of the ensemble, might be that their music is fairly straightforward big band jazz, full of bright and splashy dynamics and a keen sense of fun. After a while you might pick up a few odd cues here and there, that the ensemble does an especially good job of sounding bigger than it actually is, for instance. Here are twelve very talented musicians, all Korean--a horn section, a flute, a cello, a four-piece rhythm section and a male voice--and they're versatile enough to deliver all manners of size and scale. Jungsu Choi is this group's leader, composer and arranger, and while he chooses that familiar big band sound to realize his original compositions, he also borrows liberally from other genres and mediums such as modern dance, TV spots, film scores and musical theater.
That gives JCTO a unique sound that carves out a distinct niche in contemporary big band jazz. "I am ready to welcome the new jazz," states Choi, "bye-bye jazz era!" I know, that sounds a bit precious. But the five epic tracks on Tschuss Jazz Era are made up of ingredients that sound familiar yet have never been mixed up in these specific portions before now. There's a certain daring to Choi's approach--he takes classics from Parker, Ellington and Corea, along with a couple of original pieces, and blends them into a sprawling journey that turns itself inside out at times. (One of the tunes is titled "What if Ellington Didn't Take the 'A' Train?") Yes, there are just five songs here, but each one contains a series of vignettes so that every couple of minutes you'll find yourself in a very different place.
The pace is manic, and exciting ideas are constantly being revealed at breakneck pace--the Tiny Orkester doesn't slow down until the opening of the final Corea track ("Spain"). The rotation of voices from Jinho Pyo, Sehyun Baik and Choi himself are the most exotic ingredient here, and they don't always blend seamlessly with the music. But this is where the chances are being taken, to mate the core components of big band jazz with something that underlines Choi's declaration of "out with the old and in with the new." The result isn't something radical as free jazz, a genre that Choi often alludes to in the liner notes: "My music is meant to free jazz from jazz, without any labels," he explains. But it does possess that same unpredictable spirit.
Fortunately he's taking it one step at a time with these five compositions, with those big band elements serving as beacons to reveal the occasional excursion into the unusual. If you can use the more traditional touchstones to steady yourself--like holding onto the pool's edge while you navigate toward the deep end--you'll find this album to be far more accessible than it should be.
Monday, June 4, 2018
As most music lovers know, there's often a gap between the musicians we know and the songs we've heard. I'll give you an example. 25 years ago I was the manager of a Toys 'R' Us, and I was subjected to a steady stream of Muzak from the store's sound system. I heard a lot of Top 40 hits over and over again. I didn't know who was singing these pop songs, but I actually knew the artists just by pop culture osmosis. I just hadn't put two and two together. Oh, so that's what Britney's voice sounds like. Hmm. Now I know.
My experience with the James Gang is a slight variation on that theme. I knew there was a '60s rock band named James Gang, and a lot of my friends thought they were really good. I also knew Joe Walsh, of course, because of The Eagles and his solo hits such as "Life's Been Good" and "Rocky Mountain Way." Everyone knew who Joe Walsh was back in the late '70s. Up until a few years ago, however, I never knew that Joe Walsh had his major breakthrough with the James Gang. Someone mentioned the trio, which of course included drummer Jim Fox and bassist Dale Peters when they recorded James Gang Rides Again in 1970, and once I had a moment alone I looked them up on the internet to listen to some of their songs. Of course I started off with "Walk Away" and "Funk #49" and instantly thought oh, of course I know these songs. I imagine I just always thought they were early Joe Walsh songs.
Now I don't like The Eagles much, but I've always liked Joe. He's a goofy guy with a great sense of humor and he's a hell of a guitar player. Over the last couple of years I've streamed most of the albums from James Gang--their 1969 debut Yer' Album, for instance, 1971's Thirds (which contains "Walk Away") and this one, which was instantly my favorite. I told myself, "You gotta find some of these on LP when you get the chance."
Last year I heard that Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs was remastering Rides Again, and I was determined to buy it when it came out. Seems like it's been a while since I bought an MFSL LP, even though I probably own close to 100 of them. Just haven't been paying attention, I guess--I'd love to get on their mailing list. Well, I forgot about it until a few weeks ago when I attended a grand opening event for one of my dealers in Mystic, Connecticut--Castle Hill Audio/Video. They have a great selection of audiophile LPs up front, and there it was, right in the front of one of the bins. I knew I wasn't leaving without it.
I'm not sure what I can tell you about this 48-year-old album that you don't already know--it's a nice, tight and surprisingly ambitious album. It's starts off with "Funk #49" of course, which just kicks butt in that early '70s hard rock way, but there's plenty of acoustic songs, string arrangements and even a variation on Ravel's "Bolero." But I'll tell you something--as much as I like Joe Walsh, who is definitely front and center for the entire album, I really enjoy Jim Fox's drumming first and foremost. He's one of those rock drummers who's always doing something special, offering gifts to those who pay close attention. He's a more rambunctious version of Mick Fleetwood, keeping the time but never taking the easy way out. He is the "James" of "James Gang," so he was never going to fade into the background, but he's the biggest reason I like this band at this specific point of my life.
I don't have a garden-variety version of this album, so I can't compare the MFSL. But overall, it does sound clean and compact. It's a 1970 rock recording, which means it sounds a bit muddier overall than something recorded ten of fifteen years later, but you get a clear window into the performances of these three talented musicians. They were kids when this album came out, but they knew what they were doing.
Friday, June 1, 2018
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one discuss another promise of "hi-rez" vinyl technology, and how my latest forays into reel-to-reel have given me a new perspective into analog formats. You can read it here.
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
My review of the Fred Hersch Trio's Live in Europe is now available at Positive Feedback Online. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Friday, May 18, 2018
"Its latest release includes [Walt] Gwardyak's 2018 arrangement of 'Peter and the Wolf,' the first new big band re-imagination of Prokofiev's masterpiece in more than 50 years."
What? Did I miss something? I love Prokofiev, and as I recently mentioned in my review of Bjorn Morten Christophersen's Woven Brass from 2L Recordings, Peter and the Wolf was my earliest introduction to the world of classical music. I've owned numerous copies of this work over the years, with narration by everyone from Sebastian Cabot to David Bowie, but I've never heard this, a jazz version of this piece. A perfunctory search on the internets reveals several performances by David Tennant and the Amazing Keystone Big Band ranging from 2012 to 2015. That undermines the previous claim from the press release of this new performance from the New England Jazz Ensemble, although the wording in the above pull quote is very specific. I have found a classic 1966 recording from Jimmy Smith using Oliver Nelson's big band--something I should know about but don't--a perhaps that explains the "more than 50 years" comment.
Still, I'm surprised by this idea and when I first received this CD in the mail (the day after I reviewed Woven Brass, by the way) I rolled it around in my head for a while before declaring that yeah, I'm sure it works great. When I finally got around to listening to this version a few weeks ago, I immediately smiled as soon as the musical introductions began. It does work. It's a fantastic concept. I should have expected this measure of success after we've seen such amazing mash-ups of jazz and classical such as the legendary Bach series from the Jacques Loussier Trio. But wow.
Those familiar musical themes aren't just suited to jazz--they're suitable for all kinds of jazz. Arranger Gwardyak provides each character in the story with its own distinct cadence and style including blues, salsa, New Orleans jazz, waltz and more. This mimics, of course, the drastic changes in moods and tones in the original versions. Another first for this recording is the new libretto from famed vocalist Giacomo Gates. He doesn't sing the narration, which might have been interesting as well, but he has added a new "beatnik" edge to the words that's amusing despite being somewhat anachronistic--people who are old enough to appreciate that time in pop culture will find it funnier than younger jazz fans. ("That's all, y'all!" he exclaims at the very end.)
But wait, there's more! As you know, most versions of Peter and the Wolf last for around a half an hour, so the NEJE puts its jazz imprint two more loose Prokofiev adaptations--"Serge's Birds" and "Power Serge"--and one more original piece with a lupine theme called, of course, "Wolves." These are mostly improvisations on the themes found in the main work, but the musicians are allowed to explore further without detracting from the story. The magic of this album is the smooth, crisp and fully-realized musical performance from the NEJE. You can tell from the results that everyone had a wonderful time during the recording. As for me, I have to track down that 1966 Jimmy Smith version. I bet that's the cat's pajamas as well.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
I've just made another change to my review system--I've installed The Wand tonearm from New Zealand on my trusty Unison Research Giro turntable. As the US distributor I've installed a couple of these tonearms in the past, but this is the first arm from the new Master Series and we bought one so I could both familiarize with the installation and, well, up the ante when it came to my analog rig. (The stock tonearm on the Giro is a modded version of the Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm, which is a fine tonearm and has been a steady team player over the last few years.) The current MSRP of the 9.5" Master Series tonearm is $2250...there are also 10.3" and 12" versions available.
The Wand Master Series has the following improvements over the Classic and Plus Series tonearms: easily adjustable-on-the-fly VTA, a vibration shunt/damper (which comes in the form of an oil-filled trough), silver-coated copper wiring and a silver carbon fiber arm tube. You can easily tell the difference between the Master and the others in the line--the Master has a silver arm tube while the Plus and the Classic have black arm tubes. The armrest assembly on the Master is also much more complex.
When I first unpacked the Master from its compact wooden box I was surprised by all the pieces, especially compared to the Plus arms I've installed. My first impression was how daunting it all looked, but once I sorted everything I out I realized that there were several versions of many parts so that the Master could be installed on a wide range of turntables. This is a feature for many premium tonearms--I remember my SME V tonearm and how many extra parts and hardware remained in the box after I was done. Most of these extra parts revolved around the two-piece mounting plates for the arm--different plates work on different turntable plinths, with different screws for different plinth thicknesses.
Finding the right mounting plate for the Giro was the reason why I had to install and uninstall the Master three times. The mounting plate for the Satisfy arm actually has more than one piece, and I had to remove more than I anticipated to set the height of the arm so it would line up with the platter. This is the Giro sans arm, as clean and disassembled as I've seen it. The Wand tonearm can be mounted with any turntable with the right size arm hole in the plinth--23mm to 25mm are ideal, but the mounting plates will work with holes up to 28mm in diameter. If the hole in your turntable is bigger--up to 48mm--Simon Brown, the designer, will send you a fitting. Simon offers a wide range of additional accessories that will help you install this tonearm on a wide range of turntables.
This was the mounting assembly I wound up using. I had tried a couple of the others, but they didn't quite fit. Then I noticed this plate, which had a tiny purple post-it note stuck to it. The note was from Simon, who told me that he designed this particular plate for the Giro. D'oh. (Simon is a stickler for reading instruction manuals FIRST.)
This is what the mounting plate looks like after it has been installed. Notice that Phillips-head screw that keeps the two plates together? Turns out it's very important later. I'm jumping ahead, but when you loosen that screw, it allows the plate to move around in the hole. That's how you set overhang on the cartridge! I like this much more than constantly fiddling with the tiny mounting screws on the cartridge, and those tiny bolts that like to fall into the carpet, never to be seen again.
This is how you position the arm assembly so that the effective length of the arm is correct. You install the spindle (The Wand is a unipivot, which means the arm tube rests on a single point), set the correct height using a notch on the side of the supplied jig (that funky-looking metal thing), and then you place the jig between both spindles to get the distance correct. This jig was so accurate that when it came time to adjust the overhang on the cartridge, it was already close to correct. The jig itself is fantastic--you can set everything but tracking force with it (which is why Simon includes an Ortofon manual stylus force gauge with every arm he sells). You can set overhang and azimuth with it as well.
Whoops, I forget something. The first step in Simon's manual is mounting the cartridge on the arm before it is installed on the turntable. I'm not going to on and on about this, other than it's very easy to do with The Wand--my main problem, as usual, is with the antique mounting hardware required by the Denon DL-103. (My Transfiguration Axia will be mounted after it gets a re-tip, and it will be much easier to mount.) Notice that the holes for the mounting screws are fixed--overhang is set at the mounting plate, which is unique in my experience. Also, Simon includes a couple of small plates that can be installed between the cartridge and the headshell to add weight--a feature needed for lightweight cartridges.
Next, it's time for the armrest assembly, which comes almost completely assembled. You just have to install the cuing level (easy), hook up the anti-skate (the traditional tiny weight/monofilament style) and set the right height of the armrest on the spindle. There's a trick to the angle of the armrest so that it doesn't collide with the arm as it tracks across the record, so that the vibration shunt is aligned, and so the anti-tracking weight hangs loose. Then you route the tonearm cabling through the clip so that the wire makes a nice arc that doesn't touch anything on the arm.
This is what everything looks like after the armrest is in place. That tall tower is the VTA setting, which can be adjusted on the fly. You can also see the vibration damper and its trough, which is filled with oil. Simon gives you three different bottles of oil with different viscosity so you can experiment with the results--or you can choose not to use the oil at all. You can also see the armlock, which hooks onto the same post on the bottom of the arm tube that drags through the oil in the trough.
Here's one more photo of the alignment jig, and how easy it is to set overhang. For me, that's one of the most time-consuming parts of mounting a cartridge--fiddling with the tiny screws, checking the tip of the stylus with a protractor and a lighted magnifying glass, going back and forth until you get it right. Getting the overhang right took much less time than usual. From there it was just a matter of getting the tracking force right (Simon includes a number of plates that can be added to the back of the counterweight, with fine adjustments done with a large, knurled bolt--again, simple.) Azimuth is also adjusted by adjusting the counterweight--a notch on the jig helps with that as well.
Next thing you know, I was finished. It took several attempts because, as I explained, I wanted to try all of the parts to find the right combination to match with this particular turntable. But once I dialed it in, I could probably take this arm apart and put it back together in a relatively short amount of time.
And the sound? Yes, I noticed an immediate improvement in the overall sound of the system--everything sounded more full, with better bass control. I do have experience with this arm and my Transfiguration Axia--that's the combo we used at AXPONA a couple of years ago--so I know I will hear incredible gains in detail once that's back in the system. But for now, I'm content to know I tackled this super-arm, and this will make my music reviews ever more fun than before!
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Imagine a jazz event, one that's called something like "Jazz at the GRJC." So far, so good. You find out that it's the "first annual" occasion for the event, and you think of Themistocles and maybe how great things have small beginnings. Then you find out that GRJC stands for the Glen Rock Jewish Center, straight out of Glen Rock, New Jersey, and perhaps you start thinking that this is going to be a much smaller event than anticipated. Then you actually listen to this recording of the Misha Piatigorsky Trio, performed live at yes, the first annual "Jazz at the GRJC," and suddenly you have a whole new perspective.
Why the change of heart? In a word, the MPT is magnificent, and this performance sounds like a great undiscovered recording from fifty or sixty years ago. Misha Piatigorsky's piano is a marvel--one minute it is as smooth and lush and gorgeous of a piano sound that one can achieve playing jazz, and then he shifts into a wild, jagged improvisation full of new and dissonant ideas that all circle back to that lushness like a perfectly thrown boomerang. Misha is known for straddling these two modes, and it's breathtaking to listen to him swing like a pendulum from a warm affinity for melodies to a singular sense of adventure.
His trio consists of bassist Charlie Dougherty and drummer Sam Fishman, and on the last three tracks the trio becomes a quartet when Sam's brother Jeremy joins in on sax. Sam is the guiding force here, surprisingly enough--he is the one who started the "Jazz at the GRJC" and he wanted Misha to play because considers him to be "one of the best pianists in the jazz scene." Dougherty is longtime friend of Sam's, so the ensemble definitely has chemistry as well as history.
What makes the gathering so special is Misha's unique arrangements of such classics Cannonball Adderley's "Inside Straight," Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and even a deeply dug interpretation of "Pure Imagination," yep, the one right out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Mixed with several Piatigorsky originals, these ten tracks are epic in structure. This trio never takes the easy way out, thriving instead on "the spark of spontaneity," as Sam Fishman says. This is one piano trio that sounds like no other, and hopefully they will return to the second annual "Jazz at the GRJC" concert. If they don't, the smallish crowd who attended the first gig will probably remember this performance for many years to come.
Monday, May 14, 2018
While reviewing Juan Andres Ospina's Tramontana last week, I fixated a bit on geography. Ospina is a Colombian writing music about Spain, yet I kept hearing Brazilian jazz influences in his arrangements. I finally settled on a vague South American definition of his music based mostly on the breezy vocals and the dense instrumentation. With Edward Simon's new Sorrows and Triumphs I get those same feelings from these complex and multi-layered arrangements, that same breeziness where you feel as if you're standing on a shore in some exotic country halfway around the world, and you're using all of your senses to define all the differences from the way things are at home.
Edward Simon is a jazz pianist, bandleader and composer/arranger who played in the US for decades. He's a native Venezuelan who currently lives in the Bay Area, and perhaps that's why his music takes on that nebulous South American quality of sounding big like a flowing river that's impervious to the activity along the banks. That same sense of scale can be applied to the music itself--Sorrows and Triumphs consists of two suites that were commissioned by the Chamber Music of America's New Jazz Works program. These two pieces--a title track and "House of Numbers"--were meant to be absorbed as a whole. These pieces have three and four movements, respectively, so they have the same structure more common in classical music--something that registers in the back of your mind while listening.
If this sounds like an ambitious work, it is. Simon creates a core jazz ensemble with his piano, David Binney's alto sax, Scott Colley's bass and Brian Blade's drum kit, and then he surrounds himself with guitars and additional percussion and Gretchen Parlato's soft and warm vocals. These physical boundaries are once again expanded through the use of the Imani Winds, an additional ensemble that employs flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets and a French horn. The final ingredient is what transports the music from jazz into a more universal sound, something that is ultimately more hypnotic than you would expect.
What's so surprising in this music is the constant improvisation, done in a way where the soloist never detaches completely from the whole. There are times when more than one improvisation is being performed simultaneously, which sounds disorganized but comes off as more congealed layers of sound that make perfect sense. It's vibrant feel, seldom agitated, smooth and effortless when viewed from a reasonable distance. Simon has created a music that is joyous without being frantic--it possesses a smooth and content manner, very at peace with itself despite its ominous title.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
I often approach new albums from female jazz singers with some caution. I've been burned many times, you see, with chanteuses who are more concerned with vocal "stylings" than real singing. Ah, you've heard me start off like this before. It usually leads to me talking about a female vocal album that has surprised me in some way. You're so on to me.
I've never heard of Rondi Marsh before, even though she released a couple of albums more than a decade ago. It took me some time to slap this CD into my machine because, well, you know, female jazz singer. But once I did, I felt happy. Rondi's a lovely singer with a rich and sultry delivery that has something I really like...gravitas. I usually hate that word, nearly as much as I hate the word stylings. But when it comes to female singers, I enjoy a little bit of extra weight. So many of these new jazz singers, both male and female, want to be so light on their toes that they feel like they're rushing through the song. They avoid holding notes for too long--they don't want to be caught not living up to that note's potential.
Rondi Marsh is different. She's relaxed. She's not trying too hard to impress you with her interpretations of old standards such as "Misty," "Boy on a Dolphin", "Angel Eyes" and even "Mambo Italiano." She knows she's good, she know she's an able singer. She's not trying to knock you off your feet--she just wants to have a good time. If you're in the same room at the same time and you're having fun, then win-win, baby.
Rondi's almost opulent delivery only gets me half of the way there. The other half is supplied, of course, by a group of musicians who know how to accompany her and align with her strengths. There's nothing minimalist about these arrangements which often include accordions, strings, guitars, mandolins and plenty of horns. This is the kind of jazz singer albums they used to make back in the '50s and '60s, where a versatile and professional band might be given a seemingly impossible task and the only reply is "What key?" That observation makes me realize why I like this album so much--it is decidedly old-fashioned, and in the best possible ways.
Then there's a touch of the modern. Rondi is hip enough to mash-up Meaghan Trainor's "All About the Bass" with Ira Gershwin's "Slap That Bass," and it's respectful toward both worlds. She's also generous with David Lange's accordion, which suggests that she's right on top of the current hot Parisian jazz trends. (She calls it "gypsy jazz," a term I haven't heard in a while.) The sound quality is also modern--it's clean and clear with minimal reverb. You need that transparent sound in order to explore the hills and valleys of that lovely voice. Highly recommended.
Man, I tell you...all this big band jazz has fried my brain. I'm not complaining by any means, since much of this music has been surprisingly great. It just seems as if my ears and my brain have become so used to the sound of big band jazz that this new release from keyboardist Bill O'Connell, Jazz Latin, sounds almost alien. This is the simple, intimate jazz I prefer in most cases--I love crawling up inside of the handful of instruments on stage and really digging out the details. You can't do that with big band jazz. It's all about riding that big sonic wave. This, however, is more my speed on a rainy day.
The word I'm looking for is refreshing. O'Connell plays his piano and Fender Rhodes in an unusually clear-headed way. He's on point with the melodies and he has a crisp and precise manner of improvising. You're not constantly wondering where he's going since he's a competent and affable guide. You can hear a little of Bill Evans in the way he glides up and down the keys. When he switches to his electric piano, he injects just the right amount of funk into the Latin-tinged excursions without spending too much time paying tribute to the past.
The core of this ensemble is a trio--O'Connell is joined by bassist Lincoln Goines and drummer Robby Ameen, who provide strong supports for the many guest stars including flugelhorn player Randy Brecker, sax player Craig Handy, trombone player Conrad Herwig, flutist Andrea Brachfeld and guitarist Dan Carillo. Goines' electric bass casts a unique sound for the trio and helps O'Connell to swing just a little harder, while Ameen is a madman and creates an ocean of percussive sounds that are essential to the conjuring of the necessary Latin connections.
I have reviewed Bill O'Connell before. I reviewed Monk's Cha Cha almost exactly one year ago. That was a solo piano album, recorded live, and yet I had almost the same responses to his performance--the Bill Evans comparison, the way he moves across the keyboard. I even used the same photo of him from the Google archives. That means just one thing, and it's a compliment about O'Connell's easily recognizable style. In jazz, that's an almost sure sign of greatness.
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Here's a little synchronicity for you. The other night I was driving down the New York Thruway and was listening to an NPR interview where the guest was a British author who had a new book out on precision engineering and its effect on modern society. One of his central ideas focused on our need for ultra-precise designs--his example involved the tiny transistors inside our cell phones--and how we are more susceptible to catastrophic failures in designs because the tolerances in manufacturing have become so small. He stressed the continuing need for craftsmanship and how the human element is often required to make precision designs work flawlessly.
After the interview was over, I switched to my car CD player and was instantly treated to "Crazy, Classic, Life" from Janelle Monae's new album Dirty Computer. Janelle was singing about the simple joys of life and how we have shied away from them in our quest for a perfect tech-based society--running around naked at luaus, loving the smell of trees as you drive down the road, basically being accepted for being an imperfect yet fun-loving person. Then I realized this entire album has the same theme, that we should stop stressing out about meaningless things. We should enjoy ourselves more. Sounds like a party album, right?
Wrong. Well, sorta.
By now it should be obvious that I'm a huge fan of Ms. Robinson. She spent the first decade of her amazing career following the adventures of Cindy Mayweather, a time-traveling android from the future who falls in love and winds up sparking a revolution. From the 2007 EP Metropolis (Suite I) to the ground-breaking masterpiece that is 2010's The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) to 2013's The Electric Lady (Suites IV and V), Monae has shown the world that she has imagination and talent that stands out from the rest of pop music. Her complex themes about coming to terms with the onset of powerful human emotions is an inspiring and breathtaking blast of Afrofuturism, science fiction and an easy mastering of multiple musical genres. Plus, her singing voice is powerful and limitless and as perfect as I can imagine. You have your favorites, and I have mine.
Dirty Computer sounds like the title of Suites VI and VII, but it's not. Janelle Monae is no longer speaking through Cindy Mayweather. She's speaking for Janelle Monae, the now 32-year-old who's been the face for Cover Girl for some time now, and the same woman whose first two movies (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture (one of them, obviously, took that award). She's obviously been through a lot of the things we've all been through over the last decade, and she has something to say about that--as Janelle Monae.
As you might imagine, Dirty Computer has a very different feel than the other albums. On its surface, it seems like a fun pop record, one that has a clear '80s R&B feel that jumps back and forth between Madonna and Prince and maybe even Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. If that doesn't sound like your thing, just hold on. The deeper you dig into this album, the more you'll realize that Monae's views of the world aren't seen through rose-colored glasses. She's angry, first of all, so angry that there's one of those parental warning stickers on the cover. Cindy Mayweather's adventures were mostly suitable for general audiences, but Dirty Computer definitely earns an R-rating for its numerous f-bombs, not to mention its sexual frankness. That, of course, is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. It means that Janelle Monae is speaking from the heart, and that heart is heavy and open and passionate. Stand back and let her speak.
"If you want to grab my pussy, this pussy'll grab you back" in "I Got the Juice" is a warning, not a come-on. It's clear that Monae is not fine with the current leadership of our country, but she's also not fine with the need to fight for basic human rights. Her songs are rich with references to #MeToo, same-sex marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement. Going back to my first point--stressing out about meaningless things and enjoying life--having these concerns does not take away from these goals. She seems to be saying "Let's get all this stupid fear-based BS behind us, and we'll all be much happier." No song better summarizes this idea than "Screwed," which is delightful since it's the catchiest tune, ripe for airplay--except for the unfettered parade of profanity, joyously realized. (Then again, CeeLo Green managed to have a hit with "Forget You!") But her ultimate idea is this:
See, if everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
You screw me and I'll screw you too
Everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
Now ask yourself who's screwing you
Now set this all to a bouncy Madonna groove straight out of 1985, finish up with a truthful, somber rap from Zoe Kravitz and you'll have an idea of just how deep Monae intends to go beyond those slick, danceable beats. If you think anger and pessimism are Monae's only offerings this time around, however, just hold on again. She's always been gifted when it comes to pure love songs, the ones that are honest and realistic and yet delivered with a heart-melting ease. "Don't Judge Me" is the greatest example of this here--Monae tells her lover that she can be a little weird, a little crazy, but none of that matters when it comes to loving someone for who they are. It's one of her most gorgeous and sexy songs, all wrapped up in velvet.
As usual, Monae collaborates with the best. In addition to Kravitz, she also works with Brian Wilson on the title track and Pharrell Williams on "I Got the Juice." She also enlists the help of Jon Brion, Nate "Rocket" Wonder, Matt Jardine and Chuck Lightning. Monae also lists her inspirations for each track: Wakanda, Gloria Steinem, Paul Simonon and Barack Obama. Perhaps the most important influence is Prince--he worked on The Electric Lady and was helping Monae with this album when he passed away. There are times when you can easily imagine Prince singing these songs after swapping the gender in the lyrics. Prince and Monae have a lot in common--both of them are comfortable with rock, pop, funk, R&B and whatever else you got, and they can also blend them all together and make it sound like no one else. The spirit of Prince is everywhere.
If I had a single criticism of Dirty Computer, it's that it doesn't have the overwhelming impact of The ArchAndroid--but perhaps that bolt of lightning will never be repeated. (Just a few weeks ago I treated someone to her first listen of that album--after the first couple of songs she complained about my musical choice because she was too rock and roll, but by the end of it she couldn't stop talking about its greatness.) The new album is closer to The Electric Lady, where repeated listens show off all the hidden treasures. If you know nothing about Janelle Monae and you listen to this album first, you might not see what the fuss is about. But I love her because she's wildly talented, almost unfairly so. She is a force of nature.
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
After finally completing that big University of North Texas jazz review--it should appear in Part-Time Audiophile shortly--what's next? More big band? Really? Fortunately this one stands apart from the crowd because of all the Latin and Hispanic influences. Juan Andres Ospina's Big Band has landed with Tramontana, a swirling global survey of different sounds and influences. It is not anchored in the traditional big band catalog so it is free to explore in an almost romantic travelogue sort of way. These six rich, flowing tracks--all originals except for Jimmy Van Heusen's "Like Someone in Love"--have the freedom to paint their own unique and colorful portfolios.
My first impression was that I was listening to Brazilian jazz with its exotic rhythms and fluid female vocals, ba ba ba BAAAAAAH. After reading the liner notes, I learned that tramontana is the name for a gale force wind that often hits the Catalan coast. I thought I was mistaking Brazilian cues for Spanish ones and I listened some more. Then I found out that Ospina is a beloved bandleader and composer from Colombia, and I was back to thinking his band's sound was firmly located back on the South American continent. Add Cuban sax legend Paquito D'Rivera and Colombian singer Lucia Pulido, and well, it's time for me to give up on fixating on a particular piece of geography. Tramontana is complex in its moods, and it encompasses many histories.
Ospina, who has been working on this project for a decade, is faithful to just one concept--the powerful wind that inspires his compositions and arrangements. It's clear that he had to assemble a big band, a really big band, to realize this specific sound. Big band jazz, more often than not, is about using it size to create dramatic impact. Ospina has a distinct and differing opinion. Although the melodies are propelled by big brass sections, the fun is in the periphery with its many textures. Ospina takes advantage of D'Rivera's appearance on "Todavia No," and there is no doubt who the star is on the stage. His counterpoint creates one extra layer of depth, while the steady feast of percussion delivers yet another. Then you look at the huge line-up from musicians from faraway places such as Israel, Argentina, Greece, Canada, the US, the UK and of course Colombia, and each one of those puzzle pieces creates an incredibly luxurious whole.
I'm grateful for this album and for the timing of its arrival. As I said, I've been listening to a boatload of big band jazz lately and I'm usually the type of person who loves to mix it up and be omnivorous when it comes to my music diet. Tramontana creates such a unique palette of sounds and feelings that I found myself dislodged from the big band rut and feeling like I discovered a new frontier in jazz. It blew me away, like a gale force wind. Use THAT as a pull quote. I dare you.
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
I've spent a lot of time with big bands and trios lately, and I feel like I've somewhat neglected the middle. I'm talking, of course, about everything from quintets and nonets, and any variation thereof. Big bands and intimate ensembles require separate attitudes and separate approaches--the former is about impact and precision, and the latter is about crawling inside the mind of each performer. I mention this for a particular reason--from the first few seconds of this sextet's new album, I Never Knew, I instantly thought I was listening to another big band. It's one of those cases where these six seasoned jazz musicians, led by pianist John Colianni, are able to weave in and out of each other's space so well that at times I feel like I'm listening to a dozen guys. Yet I can still follow each individual performer and know what's on his mind.
The dual tenor saxes, played John David Simon and Grant Stewart, are so in sync with each other that you'll feel like you're listening to an entire horn section. Drummer Bernard Linette backs this up with a big, shimmering style on his kit--he creates an enormous amount of space on stage. Guitarist Matt Cherkoff trades places at the front of the stage with Colianni--not that it's easy to move a piano back and forth, mind you--and he seems like an additional, unexpected layer in this bag of tricks. (I don't want to leave out Ralph Hamperian and his amazingly tactile bass, but he sounds like one solid performer and not an entire section.)
After you settle into this dynamic sound, you'll start thinking of the term "swing" as it applies to jazz. These are the kinds of jazz musicians who inhabit a rare space where every second is fulfilling on some level. They're loose and relaxed and you won't be able to keep your head from nodding with the beat--ah, I can give Hamperian a little extra love here, because he's mainly responsible. These guys swing in a way that will remind you of Vegas in the '60s, or maybe even Harlem a decade prior. I Never Knew is what I've referred to as sunglasses jazz, and by sunglasses I mean those that are worn in a dark and smoky jazz club way after midnight. There's an inherent coolness to these eight tracks, a mixture of originals from Colianni and Simon and great swinging classics from Illinois Jacquet, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. (Talk about swing!) You even get a superbly transformed version of Fur Elise--you might not even recognize it at first.
A lot is made out of the fact that Colianni, on his fourth album, has switched to the two-tenor sax format in this new ensemble. His other albums featured a two-guitar quintet. But Colianni clearly knows his history by using the sound that was made famous by people such as Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Plus, he also plays with a much larger ensemble known as the John Colianni Jazz Orchestra, which branched out from his days playing with Mel Torme and Les Paul. (Perhaps that's why he has such an affinity for guitars.) It's not the size that matters, in other words, especially when you have Colianni's light yet propulsive piano leading the way. It sounds like this guy can play anything he wants and make it sound big and exciting.