Monday, October 28, 2013
"Mono kicks ass!"
Bob Clarke was right. As soon as I brought the Analogue Production CD/SACD reissue of Ella and Louis Again into our room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest earlier this month, I knew Chad Kassem had another winner on his hands. Between Chad's Analogue Productions record label, 2L Recordings and FIM, the audiophile market is flooded with great reissues right now. It's certainly risky to play mono recordings at trade shows--one of those sit-down-for-three-and-a-half-seconds audiophiles might drop by and then proceed to tell his all his buddies that the sound in the room was compressed and that the soundstage seemed awfully narrow. For me it takes a few seconds for a mono recording to register in my brain--especially one that sounds as good as this one. Listening to a beautiful mono recording like Ella and Louis Again is like viewing an Ansel Adams print. Sure, it's in black and white, but look at all that amazing detail!
I've been joking for the last few weeks that among audiophiles, this seems to be the Year of Ella Fitzgerald. Once I purchased the Analogue Productions CD/SACD of Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie! a few months ago, it seems like I've been hearing her everywhere--not just at trade shows. Part of the reason, I suppose, is because there are so many great Ella reissues out on audiophile labels right now--including this disc's predecessor, 1956's Ella and Louis, which Chad released not too long ago. I've jumped on the Ella bandwagon as well, and I've been a sucker for all things Satchmo for at least the last decade, so buying this exquisite 1957 mono recording seemed to make perfect sense even if the occasional show attendee didn't quite get it.
Yes, this album kicks ass. Look at the line-up...aside from Ella and Mr. Armstrong, you have Ray Brown on bass, Oscar Peterson on piano, Louis Bellson on drums and Herb Ellis on guitar. Does it get any better than this? When you hear an excellent recording with stellar performers creating one-of-a-kind performances, you're instantly shoved into a time machine and transported to back to the recording event. When the recording is in mono (or even on a pristine 78 rpm disc), those quaint technologies add a stunning patina to the surface. It's like seeing a daguerrotype of a long-dead historical figure and seeing through the scratches and the blemishes and saying to yourself, "My God, that's really them!"
It certainly helps when someone comes along a squeezes even more life out of the artifact while gently wiping off a layer of dust. I'm sure there are plenty of vinylphiles like me who would rather have a mint copy of the first Verve pressing of Ella and Louis Again, but I'm sure that would cost a fortune. For $30, you can have something that either comes awfully close, or completely
surpasses the original, depending on your format prejudices.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
It's a real thrill to be contacted directly by a musician about an upcoming release, as opposed to publicists or record labels. Case in point: a couple of weeks ago I received a Facebook message from folk singer Robert Sarazin Black about his new semi-eponymous album, accompanied by a friend request. Would I send him my address? Hell yes! I reviewed his 2009 album, The Air Your Lungs Forced Out, for TONEAudio at the behest of one of my favorite publicists (which you can read here). Last year, Robert contacted me directly to review his amazing beat-poet manifesto Put It All Down in a Letter, and I later chose it as one of my favorite albums of 2012 for Perfect Sound Forever. Fortunately he remembered my praise and asked if I would check out his newest release. A simple manila envelope was in my mailbox when I returned from RMAF last week.
Here's how real Robert Sarazin Blake is--the CD was accompanied by a note. Not a form letter from the record company or a publicist, but an actual note that was typed out on a manual typewriter--as you can see below. Listening to these three albums, and many others he has recorded over the years, you'll get the sense that he's a throwback just like his typewriter, a man who still travels constantly in search of the next gig. Via email, Robert wasn't content to say thanks for the review--he asked my about my newly adopted Colorado town and asked if there were any decent places to play. I'd love to see him perform on the sparsely-populated Western Slope, and I'm sure he's played in many places with far fewer people.
Robt Sarazin Blake, the new album, is a huge surprise. In his last few albums, Blake has stressed his collaboration with his backing band and created an impromptu yet fleshed out sound. Here he's largely alone, just him and his trusty 1978 Martin D-35, with the most spare of accompaniment (most notably Jacob Silver on double bass, Jefferson Hamer and Daniel Zane Maroti on guitars, Robin McMillan on congas, Eamon O'Leary on bouzouki and Anais Mitchell's lovely backing vocals on the touching "Our Winter on New York"). While his singing style remains influenced by the Phil Ochs School of Dry, Plaintive and Political, there's a relaxed loveliness to it that suggests a renewed confidence in his striking vision.
The surprise, of course, is what a beautiful collection of music this is. Blake seems to be traveling backward through time on the last few albums--The Air Your Lungs Forced Out seemed very much a product of the Portland music scene's 2009 infatuation with all things Americana, but Put It All Down in a Letter reached backward toward Ferlinghetti, Kerouac and Ginsberg and was clearly evocative of the day when traveling musicians played to survive and eat their next meal or two. This album, however, resurrects the ghost of Woody Guthrie with its purity and commitment. The nostalgic aspect of Blake's music is gone and he feels as if he's truly singing for the New Depression.
If I had to pick out one stand-out tune, it would be "Sister." Blake laments the fact that his sister went off to fight in the Army, putting a perverse spin on the equal-opportunity joy that was fostered by long-awaited okay of women in combat. There's a sad flip-side to it all, exemplified by a chorus that states "when my sister joined the Army, my mother's heart'd fell/down to the bottom of a dark ancient well." And for those looking for another one of Blake's epic trademark poems there's "Ghosts on Bedford Ave," where he continually wonders if he's chasing the old ghosts of his pasts or if they're chasing him.
It's with amazement that I note it's almost November and I'll have to start thinking about my favorite releases of 2013. Quite frankly, there have been very few. For all of its unheralded beauty and honesty, Robt Sarazin Blake sits at the top of the heap. While there's no current release date, it would be a shame if people had to wait until 2014 to hear Blake at his most serene and inspired.
Friday, October 18, 2013
One of my relatives just donated 20 or so unwanted CDs to my collection; it was mostly classical titles, so I figured why not. Amid those classical CDs I found a lone Kenny G CD and I recoiled in horror. "I now have a Kenny G CD in my collection!" I exclaimed, breaking out into a cold sweat and wondering if I should just bury it in my backyard before anyone noticed. I instantly traveled back in time to 1987, when I still lived in Virginia Beach. A friend of mine, upon seeing my eclectic music collection, told me he also liked jazz, you know, "like Kenny G." I recoiled in horror then as well. I'm sure Kenny G is a nice enough guy--he's in one of those funny "feel better?" Snickers commercials and he does that awesome circular breathing thing--but lite jazz is definitely not my thing. I even have a couple of awesome Kenny G jokes at my disposal for when the subject comes up.
I'm only mentioning all this because Jane Ira Bloom is, perhaps, the anti-Kenny G. I've listened to a couple of seasoned musicians discuss why they liked Kenny G so intensely, and one of them mentioned how easy it was to play the soprano sax. "It takes relatively little air to hit the notes," he explained, which seemed to suggest that Kenny G didn't put forth an effort. I don't buy that; it's a matter of taste and that's it. Listening to Jane Ira Bloom will convince you otherwise--she infuses so many complex emotions into her music that you simply can't absorb its sheer loveliness into your being, you have to ponder it deeply. On her new album, Sixteen Sunsets, Bloom tricks you into thinking you're listening to serene, gorgeous selections from the "Great American Songbook" that are meant to be listened at dusk. But the silence that surrounds her gorgeous notes are brimming with an unease and longing you won't discover while listening to something like "Songbird."
In other words, Bloom is the thinking person's soprano sax player. While her playing on Sixteen Sunsets is presented in a pure, straightforward manner, she does have a reputation for manipulating the sounds of her sax through electronic means. She also famous for her novel interactions with the band that surrounds her--in this case it's pianist Dominic Fallacaro, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Matt Wilson--and she has once said that "Sometimes I throw sound around the band like paint and at other times I play and feel as if I was carving silence like a sculptor." That's a pretty helpful guide to approaching the 14 cuts on Sixteen Sunsets--Bloom constantly moves while she performs, and her performances here were captured in a rare hi-rez 5.1 surround recording session that included an array of microphones placed to track her movements.
That's the real news here. Sixteen Sunsets is a truly 3D sound experience that is meant to elevate Bloom and her band through the latest technologies--Blu-ray, surround, DTS, etc.--without sacrificing the beauty of the core performances. Pure Audio Records, who just released the Blu-ray Audio version a couple of weeks ago and also offers Sixteen Sunsets in FLAC, WAV and MP3 files, is known for employing cutting edge recording technologies. It's a singular thrill to hear classic songs as "The Way You Look Tonight" and "I Loves You Porgy" delivered with such a pristine, magical and downright futuristic presence. If I could travel back to 1987 and meet with my jazz-loving friend from Virginia, I'd play Sixteen Sunsets for him and show him the infinite possibilities of the soprano sax.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
I'm back from the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. This year's meet--the tenth annual, by the way--seemed a little quiet compared to past years, but perhaps that's because we were on the second floor of the tower, which seemed like an orphan since it was so isolated from the action on the seventh through the eleventh floors. Still, CCI had a productive show...we added a dealer or two as well as a new product line. I'll elaborate on that in a couple of days on the CCI website.
Once again we shared our room with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and Bob Clarke of Profundo, so we set up two systems side by side and switched them every hour on the hour. It never failed that as soon as we switched over, someone would come into the room and request a tune or two on the other system. In addition, I was without Colleen's help for the first two days of the show--it's getting busy at CCI these days--so I had to rely on Dan and Bob's help more than usual.
With every trade show that we do--and this was our sixth of 2013--there's always one particular component that emerges as the star. This year it was the Opera Callas loudspeaker, which seemed to defy physics in terms of low bass output. Last year we used the floorstanding Opera Grand Mezza loudspeakers and were vexed by the lack of deep bass in the room--it was almost as if someone disconnected the woofers. It took plenty of tweaking late into the night before the show to coax the lowest frequencies from those five-inch woofers. With the Callas speakers, however, the bass was deep and impressive as soon as they were plugged in. Since we were once again sharing with Blackbird Audio Gallery and Profundo, we had to place the Operas in front of the big floorstanding Trenner & Friedl Pharaohs--and everyone was convinced that they were subwoofers. No, all that bass (the Callas is rated down to 32 Hz, amazingly enough) was coming from the little Operas.
Quite a few show attendees were curious and initially critical of the five--count 'em, five--tweeters on the small but beautifully finished Callas. Most visitors were very aware of the Callas review a couple of months ago in Stereophile, and John Atkinson's follow-up in this month's issue as well. JA was very skeptical of the use of two tweeters above and below the SEAS woofer, and of the "triplet" array of tweeters on the back panel--I think his exact words were "It shouldn't work!"--but his measurements supported reviewer John marks' enthusiastic review. As a result, almost every "serious" visitor to the room walked behind the Callas to see those extra drivers.
Here's the crazy thing--the Callas has been around since the '90s. It was reviewed in Stereophile by Sam Tellig many years ago. It hasn't changed that much since then...perhaps new drivers and a few improvements here and there, but it's been the same basic design for close to two decades. Yet everyone thinks the Callas (and its big brother, the Grand Callas) is sporting some revolutionary new design.
Finding an amp for the Callas proved to be the real challenge. We planned on debuting the new Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier at RMAF, but it didn't quite make it to CCI headquarters on time. We plan on showing it at CES in January, complete with its optional USB DAC feature. So we decided to bring in the gorgeous push-pull P40 integrated amplifier instead. This is the first one we've brought into the US, although it's been selling well in Europe for several years. It features a stunning Murano glass faceplate that really captures and reflects the light when placed properly in the room. Since the glass is hand-blown, each faceplate is slightly different from the next one. Unfortunately, a bad EL34 tube flared up and we didn't have a replacement tube until our Denver dealer, Blu Note Audio, helped out. By the time we got the new tube in, the P40's replacement was already impressing the crowds--so we left everything as is and showed the P40 in a static display right at the entrance of the room.
The P40's replacement was a seemingly modest Unison Research Unico Nuovo, part of the hybrid amplifier line. I brought it as a back-up amp, yet it shined in the RMAF spotlight. The Nuovo was just reviewed by Marvin Bolden of StereoMojo (review to appear very soon); he was so impressed he bought the unit. Here you see the Nuovo paired with my trusty Unico CDE CD player--the same one I've been using in my system for over two years, and the same one we've used at probably a dozen shows. I know CDs are fading away, but this is still one of my favorite players out there.
One of the highlights of the show occured when Dean Peer popped into our room, plugged in his bass and started playing for the attendees. Too bad he was only there for about twenty minutes.
The other system in the room was also very impressive. Bob Clarke brought in his usual battery of pint-sized Heed Audio components from Hungary--preamp, power supplies, phono stage, monoblock amps, DAC and transport, all small enough to take up a single shelf. But if you know Heed, you know that it's small but mighty. The turntable is the awesome Basis 2500 Signature, mated with the Basis unipivot arm and the new flagship Transfiguration Proteus cartridge. The speakers, like last year, are the Trenner & Friedl Pharaohs, but this time they're in a striking pure white finish.
Before we left Denver, Colleen and I headed over to Blu Note Audio for a visit with Brandon Howell, the owner. Blu Note is our Unison Research dealer in Denver, and they've spent the last year building a state-of-the-art home entertainment and automation store that's truly impressive. I immediately saw two of our Unison amps--the S6 and the Simply Italy--sitting in a place of honor along the main wall of the showroom. I've never seen the Simply Italy with the cherry faceplate before...this was the first one we brought into the US. The S6, also in cherry, looked great right next to it. I told Brandon about the new Triode 25, and he's getting one of the first units. I told him to place it right between the two other amps.
The nicest thing about RMAF 2013 is that we only had to drive five hours back to Western Colorado, as opposed to 20 hours back to Texas. It snowed while we headed over Vail Pass, but it wasn't dangerous--just breathtakingly beautiful. Now that we're back home, Colleen and I are already planning CES as well as a PureAudio dealer event next month at Blackbird Audio Gallery. In addition, we have a new product line to promote. But I do want to thank Dan and Bob for making this year's RMAF run so smoothly, and I can't wait until next year!
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Mention prog rock and most people will start thinking of the '70s--King Crimson, Yes, early Genesis, Jethro Tull, ELP and maybe even Floyd. Over the years, many rock fans and critics have been very dismissive of the genre; even the Wikipedia entry uses such words as "overblown" and "pretentious" in its opening paragraph. What many people don't realize is that progressive rock has made a comeback in the last decade or so, with bands such as Dungen, Muse and The Mars Volta producing intricate, complex and ambitious music that has been pigeonholed as something labelled "nu prog." (One day I'll figure out how to put an umlaut in Blogger copy.) This 21st century version of prog is more inclined to add elements of indie, metal, grunge and shoegaze, eschewing the jazz and classical dalliances of old school prog. As a result these new bands have much more of an edge, and that makes them much more interesting than many of their forebearers--in my humble opinion, at least.
Bone Cave Ballet is a Seattle-based progressive rock band that straddles the precipice between the old and the new. They're as light on their feet as Fragile-era Yes, and as beholden to the baroque as the first incarnation of Crimson. But they differ in two important ways. First, they've trimmed the fat off of classic prog rock by offering five relative succinct cuts on their new EP, Will of the Waves--the whole affair lasts just over 25 minutes. Second, Bone Cave Ballet features a female lead singer named Jacqui Gilroy, and her voice is downright coquettish and sexy. (When was the last time you called prog rock "sexy"?) Female singers in prog rock are rare enough, outside of Amy what's-her-name from Evanescence who's more interested in a Gothic, overwrought patina to her vocal delivery. But Gilroy puts such a winsome spin on Bone Cave Ballet's songs that you might not even notice it's prog at first.
Prog isn't prog unless you have some damn fine musicians backing you up, and Bone Cave Ballet also includes three people who sound like they've been experimenting in the basement for decades. Drummer Kelly Mynes flies through prog's odd time signatures with the greatest of ease, bassist Ezekiel Lords delivers on that awesome classic prog name with a lithe touch and Jeff Blancato--who shares guitar duties with Gilroy, embraces all those distinctive '70s guitar effects with considerable respect and affection. Another added bonus is the superb sound quality of Will of the Waves. This is the type of album that, if released in 1974, would sport one of those goofy "This record should be played LOUD" stickers at the end of the liner notes. Open, relatively uncompressed and dynamic, this recording won't get muddy once the volume control passes midnight.
I have quite a few audiophile friends who keep complaining that there'll never be another Selling England By the Pound or Larks Tongues in Aspic--and that's what makes some of these old prog fans so insufferable, if I can be slightly snarky. But I think those same middle-aged guys would really enjoy Bone Cave Ballet, despite the fact that there's more than enough here to appeal to a much broader audience. If you're curious about new prog, I suggest you start here.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
I've just assembled this impromptu system next to my computer consisting of the Carot One Ernestolone DAC/headphone amp/integrated amp, the Cardas Audio EM5813 ear phones and my trusty Samsung Blu-ray player. So far this is my favorite application for the Carot One--the sound quality is warm, open and impressive. I've obviously dedicated this system to my collection of 2L Recordings' Blu-ray audio discs. It sounds so good that I'm going to take it with me to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this weekend.
I'll probably leave the Cardas earphones behind--I really don't want them to see the insides of hundreds of strange ear canals. Think of all the Purell I'd have to bring! Instead, Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery is going to bring the latest headphones from Ultrasone.
I was able to use a pair of earphones from another company for a few days, but they were a prototype so I can't quite talk about them yet. They were relatively inexpensive and offered fantastic sound quality as well. (I'm not going to compare them to the EM5813, which are more than twice as expensive.) I will be getting a final production model after CES, so stay tuned. I'm only bringing them up because I'm hearing some fantastic in-the-ear phones of late, and it's amazing what kind of sound quality you can get for a relatively modest price. I think the Cardas EM5813s are so good for their price ($425) that it's really shaking up the headphone market.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
It's almost time for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest! This year will be slightly different because we already live in Colorado, albeit 250 miles away from Denver. But a five hour drive is far preferable to a twenty-hour drive, and we plan on this show running far more smoothly than last year.
That's why we're keeping it simple this year: we'll be showing a system comprised of the Opera Callas monitors, fresh from their review in Stereophile, the Unison Research CDE CD player and the Unison Research P40 integrated amplifier, with all cabling and power management by Furutech. This is the first P40 we've had in the US, and as you can see from the photo it's strikingly beautiful and different. The faceplate is made from genuine hand-blown Murano glass, which contains all sorts of amazing variations that pick up the light in unusual ways. In other words, each P40--as well as its big brother, the P70--looks a little different from every other one.
Like last year, we'll be sharing a room with our good friends Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and Bob Clarke of Profundo. Bob plans on showing Viva from Italy, Trenner & Friedl from Austria, Heed Audio from Hungary and Transfiguration of Japan. The turntable will be from Basis, right here in the USA. Also representing the US is Cardas Audio cabling. We'll basically have two separate systems like we did last year, and we'll switch off every hour.
We'll have a few extra surprises which I'll announce over the next few days as well. We may have more goodies from companies such as Ultrasone, Carot One and Furutech, so check back!