Wednesday, November 30, 2016

2L Recordings' Himmelrand on Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD Hybrid

Chapter 1:

"A pipe organ and a choir is sometimes all I need," an audiophile friend told me recently. He's the type of person who has been caught more than once playing Christmas music in the middle of summer, so I take him at his word. He's kind of a nut this way, and I've rolled my eyes at him more than once for doing this.

Fortunately for him, I'd just received this 2L Recording from Norway, Himmelrand, which features new hymnals from the Church of Norway, performed by the Uranienborg Vokalensemble conducted by Elisabeth Holte, with Inger-Lise Ulsrud on the enormous pipe organ at the Uranienborg Church. He sat and listened to this recording straight through to the end with a silly smile on his face the whole time. It was also his first experience with a 2L Recording, and he just couldn't believe the warm, open and engaging sound. Honestly, I think he was in a deep hypnotic state by the end.

Chapter 2:

A few weeks later, I played Himmelrand at a high-end audio show. A man walked into the room and within ten seconds--SERIOUSLY, TEN SECONDS TOPS--he had pulled out a notepad and started asking me what was playing. I handed him the CD case and he started scribbling down all the information. This was his first experience with a 2L Recording as well, and after a twenty minute conversation I think I had convinced him to go home and order the entire catalog. "I've never made such an instant emotional connection to a recording before," he explained. I never quite shook the feeling that he was pulling my leg because seriously, ten seconds was all it took. That's it. But this show was in Canada, and Canadians are famously polite, so maybe he was just being nice. Or maybe he was just like the first guy, deeply conditioned to have this sort of response to sacred music.

So it's safe to say that if a pipe organ and a choir is all you need to feel fulfilled, start here.

As for me, I still ponder about the same exact things when I listen to sacred music. You can go through every other review I've done on this type of music and I'll make the same comments about why I'm so attracted to these recordings despite an adamant agnostic streak. I can still get a huge thrill sitting in a huge church and listening to either a thundering pipe organ or the soft ocean that is a large choir, as long as everyone understands that I'll be slipping out the back once someone gets up and starts talking. There's something so old and ancient and peaceful in hymnals like these, and I won't deny their effect on my disposition.

The idea behind Himmelrand is, as usual, intriguing. These 17 hymnals have been resurrected (pun not intended) by modern Norwegian composers such as Aage Samuelsen and 2L mainstay Ola Gjeilo. As the liner notes explain, "An old hymn in a fresh musical setting loses none of its power; it simply undergoes a change--sometimes small, sometimes more substantial--to its character." The result is a collection of hymnals that seem to occupy an intriguing place between the sheer beauty and joy of the classic versions with more adventurous interpretations from these modern masters. That said, truly atonal moments are few and far between, and Himmelrand sounds more like a volume of undiscovered gems than anything else. Coupled with the goosebump inducing sonics, Himmelrand becomes something incredibly rare for me, a church service I would gladly attend.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dave Stryker's Eight Track II on CD

Dave Stryker's Eight Track II sounds sort of like Paul Schaffer's band on the Letterman Show--not the CBS Orchestra but the smaller ensemble that played back in the NBC days. I'm not saying that as any sort of diss. It's just that ten seconds into the first cut, an ebullient yet smooth cover of the Isley Brothers' "Harvest for the World," you'll easily imagine Paul hovering over his keyboards, head bobbing in rhythm, while the other three or four musicians on that little side stage play with oodles of their trademark confidence and professionalism. Part of this vibe comes from heavy doses of Jared Gold's Hammond B-3, but a surprising amount comes from the addition of Steve Nelson's vibraphone which serves the same role as Paul's second and third set of keyboards.

Eight Track II, in other words, isn't moody and soulful like Kind of Blue. It's bubbly, energetic and whimsical, the kind of music you might hear at one of those big fancy parties where everyone is dressed to the nines and yet not afraid to work up a sweat on the dance floor. From the title you'll quickly figure out that this is a follow-up--Stryker's first entry back in 2014 picked up on a novel idea to cover pop classics of the '70s with a jazz trio plus vibraphone. (Bass duties are covered by the B-3 pedals.) On the second pass, Stryker and his guitar expand the repertoire with very intriguing choices, everything from Prince's "When Doves Cry" to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" to even Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." It would seem like a gimmick if Stryker and his band didn't have the chops to carry it off.

Here's the funny thing about this album--those Schaffer parallels are strong in the beginning but they start to melt away about halfway through. The band's take on John Barry's theme from Midnight Cowboy would probably sound a little too reflective coming back from a commercial break, but from there it seems that McClenty Hunter's drums take over and build momentum through the end of the album. The result is somewhat schizophrenic--the familiar themes are introduced in the beginning of each tune and you nod your head affirmatively and think, oh now they're doing The Zombies of Stevie Wonder or The Temptations and then the solos start and those novel feelings get swallowed up in a fury of skillful improvisation.

The fantastic sound quality will also win you over. I'm especially fond of Hunter's crisp and explosive drumming throughout the album, and there's nothing quite as thrilling as the decay from a vibraphone captured with accuracy. In fact, a lot of these jazz CDs I've been getting lately are following that pattern. From the next room I'm relatively unmoved by what sounds like mainstream modern jazz but then I move in closer and start discovering hidden depths, especially when it comes to how well these CDs are recorded. Eight Track II is a perfect example of this--I smirked through the first listen, fixating on the Schaffer similarities, but repeated listenings really won me over.

Friday, November 11, 2016

TAVES and the Tale of Three LPs

I just returned from TAVES, the annual audio show held in Toronto. It's the first hi-fi show I've done outside of the US and I wish I had a bunch of stories to tell about my daring adventures in a foreign land. But I spent the entire show in the hotel which was located in the Richmond Hill area of Toronto, far out into the suburbs. Everyone told me how beautiful Toronto is and that I should check out the downtown area, but alas, Richmond Hill looked just like any sprawling metro area in any US city with its greenbelts and its traffic intersections and its road signs and its suburban neighborhoods and its industrial parks. It was clean and organized, but it didn't have that same exotic feel as Sydney. It looked like Irvine.

Not that I'm bashing Toronto. I didn't explore enough, and that's my fault. It's just that when people ask me "How was Canada?" I can only reply that it was fine and nothing bad happened to me, thanks for asking. If anything, the experience has prompted me to plan for a Montreal trip ASAP--that place has to be more unusual than Toronto. It HAS to be. They speak French there, after all.

Anyway, I wound up coming home with three new LPs. Each has its own little story.

The first album was a present from Vince Scalzitti, our distributor counterpart up in Canada, for basically showing up and giving him a hand running his five rooms for TAVES. It was this album, Raising Sand, from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I was gobsmacked. It's as if Vince stuck his fingers into my grubby little brain and pulled out a sad old story of mine and acted upon it. I reviewed the Raising Sand LP many years ago, basically when it first came out. I loved it, gave it a great review for a hi-fi mag and even chose it as my favorite album of the year for the annual writer's poll at Perfect Sound Forever.

Then, goddamnnit, the publisher of the mag (not PSF, by the way) asked for it back. He wanted it. I guess I was so used to keeping the LPs that I reviewed that I thought I was going to get to keep it, but no. Maybe this is why I now insist on getting hard copies of every piece of music I review. If I'm going to think that hard on a recording, it must become a part of my collection afterward. Does that sound weird? I don't care.

I actually went to buy it on LP, and I was mildly shocked that it was $30. I guess that was a deal-breaker back in 2007--now it's pretty much the going price for a new piece of 2-LP set. But as time went on I just resigned myself to the fact that I didn't actually own one of my favorite LPs released in the last decade, and my left eyelid would start spasming whenever the subject of Raising Sand came up. So thanks, Vince, for making me whole again.

I grew up in Southern California in the '60s and '70s, about nine miles from the ocean. So you probably know how I feel about The Beach Boys, and it's this:


Not my thing. Never was. People I grew up now think it's strange that I have utterly no love for The Beach Boys. But I remember back when we were young, o California peeps, and none of us were listening to the Beach Boys. NONE OF US. We were listening to the Beatles and the Stones and Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and The Who (the cool people) and Foreigner and Journey and Styx and REO Speedwagon (the dorks). Sure, they played a lot of Beach Boy tunes on the radio, and that's when I switched the station. I can't remember one person from my youth who loved the Beach Boys back then, but now they're all sappy and emotional whenever someone mentions Brian Wilson or "Good Vibrations" or even Pet Sounds. Whatever.

But here it is, Pet Sounds, a semi-permanent resident in my collection. How did this happen? Well, I went to TAVES with Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison Research and Opera, and this was his present from Vince. And he accidentally left it behind when he flew back to Italy, so now it's mine. But I can give it back to him in January when I see him at CES. I won't be sad.

The only saving grace here is that this Pet Sounds is the one recently remastered by Analogue Productions. (It's the mono version.) It sounds much better than any other version I've heard. I once had someone bring me their original copy from the '60s and the grooves were so worn out that it sounded like the music was coming out of a tinny transistor radio circa 1966. I thought to myself, really? This is the album that everyone thinks is so great? This is the album that inspired Paul McCartney to start work on Sgt. Pepper's?

Nevertheless, I have a copy of it for now. And it sounds pretty good for a fey, precious trifle about adolescence.

This is the only album I actually purchased at TAVES, and that's because I already planned on buying it. I love Anne Bisson--she's one of my very favorite "do you have any female voice?" artists. I do enjoy her singing voice, but I think I like her even more for personal reasons--I've met her a few times in the past and she is one of the sweetest, kindest, happiest human beings I've ever met. When she says hi to you while you're passing in the corridors of a hi-fi show--and she shows up to most of them--you'll have a smile on your face for the next hour. She's sunlight in a mason jar sitting high up on the shelf next to the window.

I own two of her albums on vinyl already--and they're absolutely beautiful pressings. This one is no different. But before I go on and on about the new Anne Bisson album I do have stop and say this is not hers alone. Conversations features Anne's voice and Vincent Belanger's cello, equal billing, and perhaps this is why I like it even more than the other two. It's more varied in tone and style because Belanger shines on his own for close to half of the album through his moody, evocative instrumentals. (It's a "conversation" between the two, after all.) I won't go into too much detail now since I may give it a more proper and thorough review later--I'm still rooting around in all the beauty and I'm still making discoveries.

One bummer about this album--I heard Anne was at the show and I was hoping she would come into our room. As it turns out, Anne had her own booth set up in the marketplace where she was selling the LP. I saw here sitting in her chair, talking to a half-dozen Canadian audiophiles who were clearly mesmerized, so I decided I'd come back later. When I finally had a moment, she wasn't there, so I bought the LP from the person who was manning the booth. I can't remember what that person looked like, or whether it was a man or a woman. I just knew it wasn't Anne.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Craig Hartley's Books on Tape Vol.2--Standard Edition on CD

I'm not sure if this is an "ask and ye shall receive" period or a "be careful what you ask for" period, but I'm suddenly buried in a pile of contemporary jazz CDs that are all, to one degree or another, recorded and performed beautifully. A company called Jazz Promo Services, as I might've mentioned, has opened the flood gates and my mailbox has been getting stuffed with new releases. Perhaps this was in response to assertions during my reviews of Todd Hunter and Jane Ira Bloom that it had been years since I heard a contemporary jazz release that truly moved me in the same way as some of the classic reissues I've been purchasing over the last couple of years. Someone over at JPS is determined to prove me wrong.

Some of these releases seem, well, modest. I don't mean that in a bad way, but in a way that suggests that there are a lot of jazz musicians still out there in 2016, trying to get noticed and waiting on that big break. A glass-half-empty kind of guy might posit that a big break in today's jazz scene might be an oxymoron considering the alleged waning interest in jazz in this country. But from the looks of some of these titles there are a lot of jazz musicians still out there hustling, playing a couple of hundred gigs per years, traveling from town to town and earning enough just money to get by just like they did fifty or sixty years ago.

I think about those hard-working, dedicated performers when I listen to Craig Hartley's new CD Books on Tape Vol.2--Standard Edition. I don't know this supremely talented jazz pianist, nor do I know bass player Carlo De Rosa or drummer Jeremy "Bean" Clemons. From the looks of the CD cover and packaging, I'd say these guys scrimped and saved to put out this CD. It's as simple as it gets, jam econo for the jazz set, but stick the CD in your player and hold on tight--the sound quality is nothing short of magnificent. This jazz trio recording is crisp and vibrant, with virtuoso performances that strongly remind me of Jane Ira Gross' Early Americans or even the Jacques Loussier Trio's classic recordings through the '60s and '70s.

Books on Tape Vol.2 is obviously a follow-up album. Vol. 1, which I obviously have not heard, contained original compositions from Hartley. Vol. 2 is mostly standard tunes, hence the subtitle. That means you get Hartley's takes on such tunes as Mood Indigo, a lively and thunderous Caravan and Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz. But you also get a lovely, serene version of Paul McCartney's Junk, as well as a couple of hybrid tunes that mix Bach and Miles Davis (hence the Loussier reference) and even John Lennon and Bill Evans. Hartley's fluid, romantic runs through the keys are perfectly suited for the Evans homage, by the way.

After quick perfunctory listens through this ever-growing pile of jazz CDs in my living room, Books on Tape Vol. 2 was the immediate stand-out in both sonics and performances. Produced by Hartley, recorded at Bunker Studio in Brooklyn and mastered by Greg DiCrosta, this is stunning jazz recording from a trio of guys I've never heard before. That goes to show that modern jazz is alive and well, and that more people--me included--should be paying attention.