Tuesday, April 30, 2019
My latest Vinyl Anachronist music review is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one is about the ORG Music reissue of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's 1969 album Tutankhamun. You can read it here.
Saturday, April 27, 2019
My latest show report for AXPONA 2019 is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one covers my friends Al and Lori Clark, who run the digital audio firm Danville Signal up in Minnesota. You can read it here.
My latest show report from AXPONA 2019 is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one is about Luxman and Triangle, and you can read it here.
My next AXPONA 2019 show report is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one is about MoFi Distribution, and a very exciting new $1600 speaker that was one of my favorites. You can read it here.
Friday, April 26, 2019
When I think about the techno-Goth-alternative bands in the '80s, I'm not really thinking about the obvious and flamboyant ones like the Cure and Depeche Mode. I'm very picky within these genres and there's a lot I don't like, but there are a few more low-key choices I still really dig such as the Psychedelic Furs or Sisters of Mercy or even, in small doses, Echo and the Bunnymen. Pale Mirror, the new album from Seattle-based Blue Glass, sounds like one of those albums that came out around 1982 or so and straddled that fence between the new techno trends and New Wave that was still driven by the sound of guitars. This was the world New Order navigated so well, but I think that's because they went to the sunny, danceable side without much resistance. Bands like Blue Glass, or at least bands that sounded like Blue Glass thirty years ago, stayed on the safe side, the one with the strings and the real drum kits and the gloom that stings your face.
Blue Glass is primarily one man named Michael Shunk, who also plays with a PNW band named Transient Songs. (I reviewed their last album here.) He envisioned this album, as well as the Blue Glass moniker, as a way to explore his own feelings about Seattle and how it changes during the winter. Shunk's songs focus on images of ice and cold and loneliness, and they also suggest the PNW habit of hibernation, of cutting yourself off from the world for weeks while you curl up with a good dozen books from Powell's. In many ways this is a modern-sounding release, with a nice groove and lots of detail, but Shunk's influences are strong. Months ago, when I first listened to the CD, I immediately thought of Psychedelic Furs. Now, after more time has passed, I hear The Cure more, but really early Cure. You know, the good stuff.
I was actually set to review the CD some time ago, but then the LP arrived and I thought well, I'll have to do a comparo. That'll take time, right? Actually, I no longer have much interest in comparing these two formats, but I will say that the vinyl is sweet, with very low surface noise and nice dynamics. I feel like we've been on a lucky streak with this indie vinyl lately--even the little guys can get quality pressings in this day and age.
That brings up one more little point. As you can see from the photo, this is the first album I've reviewed while using the Technics SL-1200G turntable. I've got the G hooked up to a quality chain of components: Miyajima Madake cartridge with Miyajima step-up transformer, Nasotec swing headshell, PureAudio Vinyl preamplifier. This analog rig is a ton o' fun because everything is so precise, and everything works so well. The ease-of-operation is fascinating to me, because I'm sometimes tempted to play the CD over the LP just to save time. (Or, more likely, I'm just being lazy.) The 1200G is such a machine, and now I'd rather throw on the vinyl when I can.
In that spirit, I need to break this beautiful beast in, and I have a lot of vinyl to review. The weekend looks like rain.
Another AXPONA 2019 show report is live on Part-Time Audiophile--this one about a fascinating and affordable new record cleaning machine from Kirmuss Audio. You can read it here.
My latest Part-Time Audiophile show report from AXPONA 2019 in Chicago features three of my favorite brands that I didn't know existed until about a year ago: Spatial Audio, Linear Tube Audio and ANTICABLES. You can read it here.
My latest AXPONA 2019 show report for Part-Time Audiophile is now live. This one's about Amped, Acoustique Quality and other new brands distributed by my friend Boris Meltsner. You can read it here.
Thursday, April 25, 2019
When you first see the cover to Five Play Live from the Firehouse Stage and you see the photo of five women, it's easy to get caught up in the all-girl band excitement and not just judge the music on its own merits. I've mentioned this before, probably while discussing the excellent releases from the Diva Orchestra over the last couple of years, but I'm torn between the feeling that we should treat women jazz musicians as something other than novelties, and the feeling that we should keep celebrating this sort of egalitarian support and encouragement. Jazz music, after all, is known for having rich contributions from both genders all through its history.
I'm sure there are stories. Bad ones. That's a given.
And still there's this feeling that we need to mention that Five Play, which is actually a "sister" group to the Diva Orchestra, is made up of women. I can almost envision the cock-eyed forum discussions about whether male and female musicians in jazz approach their instruments with any audible differences, or something asinine about women gravitating toward tenor horns because baritones need that extra dollop of manly elbow grease to coax out the notes with the right authority. Please, let's not. Instead, let's talk about Five Play and how hard they swing in this album. I'm talking about major swing, the kind that starts kicking at your heels and telling you to stay with the beat or exit through the gift shop. (Was thinking of Banksy earlier today, sorry.)
This project was inspired by the Diva Jazz Orchestra's 25th Anniversary Project, which I reviewed here. While Five Play refers to the Diva Orchestra as "the mothership," I feel like the quintet is operating on an almost independent vision, one where the playing is confident and there's more of a platform for improvisation. The majority of tunes here are originals by one of the members--drummer and leader Sherrie Maricle, pianist Tomoko Ohno and bassist Noriko Ueda all take on an almost equal amount of the writing. The quintet is then fleshed out by the horn section, trumpet and flugelhorn player Jami Dauber and sax and clarinet player Janelle Reichman (who contributes just one song, "Circles"), and someone winds up stepping on the gas, and the energy levels rise and, best of all, the entire set was recorded live with an enthusiastic and grateful audience.
There's also a hidden meaning behind it all, a little personal touch that makes it even better. The Firehouse Stage isn't some New York City hot spot where the top jazz performers play every Friday night, but a small venue in Johnson City, New York, near the Pennsylvania border. Maricle grew up near there, not far from where I'm writing this, and she explains that "From the moment it opened, I have been a fan of this extraordinary performance space." It is a nice -sounding venue, warm and comfortable and not too intimate. She made the right choice about the venue, and fortunately her quintet was inspired while they stood on its stage.
It's still surprising to me that I've never been to Miami. I've been in Florida several times, just never that far south. It's surprising since I've heard you can get a good cigar down there. And the music in the streets is supposed to be incredible, especially when it's Cuban music. The idea of music devoted to Miami's Little Havana neighborhood doesn't seem that esoteric of an idea, but this is another release from Zoho Music, a jazz label dedicated to Latin and South American jazz recordings that often double as history or geography books. There's always an additional layer to a Zoho release, something new to learn that makes the rich music within just a tad more spectacular.
Senor Groove is a Miami-based jazz band featuring brothers Tim Smith (bass) and Roddy Smith (guitar) who lead a group of Latin jazz all-stars such as drummer Marcelo Perez, pianist Martin Bejerano and percussionist Murph Aucamp. Little Havana is devoted to an idea that the neighborhood, the one where they all grew up, was actually ground zero for a lot of thought when it came to the development of Latin and South American jazz. In the 1960s many Cubans fleeing Castro relocated here, and so these young men were surrounded by counter-revolutionary thought--as well as Cuban food, culture and music.
Senor Groove is smoother and more modern in its delivery than traditional Cuban music, especially considering the importance of those historic undercurrents in the themes. Perhaps that's a comment on how far everyone has come since those days of revolution, as opposed to merely fixating on old memories of interesting times. Aucamp's constant percussion places those traditional Caribbean influences at the front of the stage, but it's the flow of the songs that provides the spirit here, a modern groove that relaxes you and makes you think about the last exciting weekend you had. This is not about honoring the past as much as showing how people feel now, today.
Since this is a Zoho release, here comes the obligatory part where I gush about how good this album sounds. From the first few notes the music was so warm and full, so flexible in form, so human, and I always have to single this particular label out because they have such high standards and because they don't necessarily have to sound this good, but they do anyway. Seriously, if you haven't checked out Zoho yet, do it. Feel free to start here.
"I was thinking how much I wanted to create a smaller band that would have the same power as a big band, but with so much more room in it for each musician to shine," explains pianist/composer Amina Figarova, who is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her band with this new album, Road to the Sun. She hits the nail on the head in regards to the overall sound of her ensemble, how it flirts with the dynamics and power of old-fashioned big band jazz without resorting to a wall of sound approach. Twenty years ago, Figarova was playing with a big band made up of students from Thelonious Monk's Institute of Jazz when she came up with this idea of adjusting the size of the ensemble to allow for more improvisation.
Figarova isn't the only composer or arranger to adopt this sound, but she's had twenty years of refining it, of filling in all the gaps between the performers with confident arrangements. Road to the Sun is more than just an idea about size, however. It's a fluid, sprawling work that has the sometimes romantic approach of a movie soundtrack, of an outstanding range of melodies held together by a recurring theme. Figarova's compositions are complex, with at least two separate jazz ideas having a dialogue at any given moment. Those exchanges often tell a story accompanied by many visions, all theatrical.
Figarova's band is smaller than you think--in most cases it's just a sextet or a septet, occasionally augmented with a small string section. I'd say most big bands come in at under twenty musicians. That means each performer has to step up and sound like more than one person. That's easy to do when you have a band of this caliber--you have the great Wayne Escoffery on tenor and soprano sax, Alex Pope Norris on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bart Platteau on flutes and Luques Curtis on bass and many more.
What's remarkable about Road to the Sun is how Figarova writes and arranges for these musicians, how twenty years of working together has produced a familiarity that encourages creativity..."I'd love to hear this person play that. I can already imagine it." Figarova refers to this as "different directions, different unknowns," and this adventurous album is rife with the unexpected. It's not small ensemble, it's not big band, and it's too original to be merely somewhere in between.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Live at St. Peter's Church is such a perfect record for today's weather--cool, blustery and looking a bit like early spring. It has that sound of a small ensemble playing in a big church, drawing 2L Recordings' catalog into the discussion, all open and rich with the sound of wooden beams on high ceilings. Baritone sax player Carol Sudhalter has plenty of experience--this is her eleventh album, and she's not afraid to take risks. There's something light and full of air in her tone, a sound uncommon for baritone saxes, and it's that exact feeling of making it through another winter slightly stronger and slightly smarter that surrounds her approach. At the same time, she also plays the flute with an unusual amount of gravitas. It's as if she's coaxing her instruments to become something else for a night.
Sudhalter is joined by a stellar jazz trio (drummer Mike Campenni, bassist Kevin Hailey and pianist Patrick Poladian) that wanders into a more lush, ornate sound that weaves with precision. There is something so natural, in a sylvan sense, in this sound. It sounds like it's being recorded in a church most of the time, but when the ensemble grows more reticent the walls disappear and it sounds like you're listening to an outdoor performance. It's an effect that pulls you into the music, whether it is deliberate or not.
It's surprising just how much the space defines this album, and how it continually defines the mood. There are moments of peace in these performances that suggest other places in the world, such as in that forest or on a harbor cruise where everyone is dressed to the nines for the evening. You can hear the echoes moving through the trees or down the outdoor walkways. You get this vague sense that the weather that evening was pleasant and everyone was in a good mood. Scarves were worn.
Sudhalter is also featured on vocals for the first time in her career, on "Colin Blues." Much is made in the liner notes about her roll of the dice, but the performance is special because she's playing with that space again, using it in a passive way to outline the vast inner dimensions of the church. I think of 2L Recordings once again, and how they have built their reputation on this sort of attention to detail. They didn't invent recording music in a church, but they re-wrote the play book. Live at St. Peter's Church therefore becomes a rarity, a live recording of a jazz quartet filmed in a venue that's void of the obstacles you find in most nightclubs. It sounds great.
I know I can come off like a bebop purist when it comes to discussing jazz, especially when I seem to prefer improvisation over production values, but the truth is my tastes have been changing over the last few years. While I still treat myself to regular playings of classics such as Sonny Rollins' Way Out West and Miles Davis' Someday My Prince Will Come, I've been spending just as much time with the people I call the "Professionals," the big stars who needed the best of everything around them but still managed to put down some serious jazz. There's nothing wrong with big production values as long as you can back it up with something real.
Singer Patrice Jegou was born in Newfoundland and raised in Alberta, which seems a little strange when you consider her elegance, her commitment to the bright lights and the big city polish in her performances. On her new album, If It Ain't Love, Jegou adopts the old adage of going big or going home. The standards here are all individually considered and wrapped up in bows of different colors--Jegou and her orchestra envision each of these tunes as a blank slate, with endless possibilities. That's why one song will sound like it's being played at USO show in the '40s, while another sounds more like contemporary pop complete with funky beats and electric guitar solos. Jegou's lovely, classically beautiful voice is what creates a common thread in the music. She supplies the focus and keeps this ambitious project from flying off into the clouds.
When it comes to the female voice, preference is key. I think that's why modern audiophiles are so keen on these recordings--there's a bond that's created when you hear a voice that truly seduces you and wins you over. I try to keep the opinions that I have about music I don't like to a minimum, but I'm more opinionated about singer's voices than any other aspect of music. Jegou's voice is so appealing because she's able to do something rare--she's singing with personality and character, but the pure tone of her voice is so soothing, so romantic and so based in another time. It's the kind of voice that makes you beg for just one more song.
That's an important point, I think, since it's this voice that's going to carry Jegou through the rest of her career, and hopefully she'll wander and explore the Great American Songbook and take a lot of risks. If It Ain't Love is an impressive calling card--Jegou had the help of everyone from legendary recording engineers Don Murray and Al Schmitt to Toto's David Paich. Three different conductors are used for the orchestra. The arrangers include Jorge Calandrelli, the guy who also works with Streisand and Tony Bennett. It was even recorded at Capitol Studios. This album has an incredible pedigree. Still, I'd love it if Jegou's next album featured just a jazz trio. That could be extraordinary.
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Cathy Segal-Garcia has been a fixture on the LA jazz scene for many years, as both a singer/songwriter and as an educator. Dreamsville is her twelfth album as a leader--she's enlisted the help of guitarist Larry Koonse and pianist Josh Nelson to create this intimate mix of standards and original compositions that veer a bit from the norm. Perhaps that is due to Segal-Garcia's voice, which is complex and rich and carries a touch of sadness to every song--or, perhaps, to every note. She's adding something specific to all eleven of these tracks, a feeling that these songs are meant for those who have just crawled out from under life and have dusted themselves off and are ready for more of the same because it wasn't really that bad. It's a weariness, it's true, but Segal-Garcia uses her deep and expressive voice to suggest more--not hope, not optimism, but perhaps that faith in our ability to rebound.
Indeed, this album is not your garden-variety female jazz vocal album, nor is it meant to be. The musical interplay between Koonse and Nelson is lush and melodic and can lull you into blankness, but it's the singer's words, so direct and infused with meaning, that compel you to attention, to wondering what really happened in her past. That's how convincing she is at this chosen role.
The mood is the star here, the dark and shadowy world this trio creates consistently from song to song. Even when these three really stretch by performing an absolutely gorgeous take on Scarlatti's Sonata in B minor L.33, it's so connected to the rest of the album that its inclusion avoids novelty and feels downright necessary. These moods are easy to sustain, I believe, because the trio never really uses one musical genre as a springboard over another. There are certainly jazz elements, and obviously classical ones, but Dreamsville reaches into those dark corners and runs on that hard-to-categorize energy from beginning to end.
How does this translate into the average audiophile and his love for well-recorded female voice? Well, Dreamsville is clearly that, a great recording with plenty of space for deep thinking. But this isn't the kind of music you want to absorb passively, as an antidote to a long and difficult day. This album is sad, and it might demand more attention from you. It might trouble you. But the best music always does.
Sunday, April 21, 2019
Another show report from AXPONA 2019 for Part-Time Audiophile...this one on the panoramic systems from BorderPatrol, Volti Audio and Triode Wire Labs. You can read it here.
My latest AXPONA 2019 show report for Part-Time Audiophile is now live. This one covers a new desktop computer audio system that sounded impressive. You can read it here.
My latest show report from AXPONA 2019 is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one is centered around the wonderful new EgglestonWorks Nico EVO speakers. You can read it here.
Friday, April 19, 2019
My latest show report from AXPONA 2019 is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one covers McGary Audio and Salk Sound, two relatively unfamiliar brands that made a huge impression on me. You can read it here.
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
I've been on the road for the last couple of weeks, first to a wedding in Honolulu that I dubbed the Blood Diamond Wedding since it was absolutely beautiful and perfect and ambitious in so many ways and yet some lives may have been lost. (The Cecil B. DeMille joke in Blazing Saddles is my favorite.) Then I flew all the way back to JFK, the new non-stop from NYC to Honolulu, drove down to Connecticut to pick up Lucy, drove back to Rochester, got up the next morning and drove to Chicago and covered the AXPONA 2019. Now I am home, sick as a dog with a chest cold. Is this the Honoluluflu, or is it just another trade show virus? At any rate, I've rested the last couple of days and wasn't really listening to music--my head was too congested and nothing sounded right.
Today, something sounded really right, and it's this new CD from bassist Jay Anderson called Deepscape. This is a sparse work, mostly made up from improvisations between Anderson, sax and clarinet player Billy Drewes, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, drummer Matt Wilson, harmonium player Frank Kimbrough and percussionist Rogerio Boccato. This is a diverse world up on stage, a flexible crew who seem to have a deep knowledge of various jazz sub-genres, and yet they create vast amounts of space between the performances so that your mind wanders from musician to musician, catching up on all the conversations that are going on at the same time.
Anderson has been a jazz mainstay since the '90s, performing with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Toots Thielemans, Lee Konitz and wait a minute...Bowie and Chaka Khan and Zappa and Tom Waits and even Celine Dion? Wow. He includes a couple of Keith Jarrett jams that set up the structure throughout, long and singular improvisations that can only be heard right here, this way. He builds quartets and quintets and then tears them down and starts again with a simple duet. It's an approach that sends you back on your heels once or twice because it sounds so new and familiar at the same time, but much of the time the music seems to be waiting for another element to join, but that element doesn't arrive because the music is set up to observe the absence of the one. That's a world apart from needing something more. This doesn't.
That's digging deep into these improvisations, which is why Deepscape can be an intellectual exercise as much as an hour of sparkling, dynamic jazz. There are some brash ideas here, floating in a sea of math. You might find yourself thinking too much about Deepscape while you're listening to it. It gives you plenty to chew on in terms of time signatures and the mysteriously austere arrangements. That doesn't mean you won't get swept away by Anderson and his persistently imaginative bass playing--and his strangely new style of jazz improv.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
My latest show report from AXPONA 2019 is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one's about Fern & Roby and LTA, two brands that are new to me but have totally impressed me. You can read it here.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
My first show report from AXPONA 2019 in Chicago is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This is about my past life as an importer and distributor, and how friendships have carried over into my new role as a journalist. You can read it here.
Thursday, April 11, 2019
My first issue of The Occasional, the Spring Issue, is now available! You can download it here.
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
My latest music review for Part-Time Audiophile, Raul E. Blanco and Jazz Wires' Land of Giants, is now live. You can read it here.