Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Trenner & Friedl Sun Loudspeakers Reviewed in Stereophile!

Trenner & Friedl just received a rave review on their tiny Sun mini-monitors in Stereophile! I'm excited about this since I had a chance to play with the Suns a couple of years ago. (You can read up on my impressions here and here.) The reviewer was Ken Micallef, who gave a thorough and thoughtful review to our Unison Research Unico integrated amplifier last year. He evaluated the little Suns with the equally diminutive Heed Elixir integrated amplifier, which is also one of my favorite hi-fi products in the world. Together they were a satisfying, surprising and extremely musical combination.

Over the last year or so I've received a number of comments on this blog about the Suns. These comments seem to be divided into two camps--one group maintains that a tiny speaker you can pick up easily with one hand can't possibly offer such a big sound (they can), and the other group knows Trenner & Friedl products and want to hear more. The price for the Suns have been set at $3450/pair, which seems crazy when you see them. But alas, this is one of those hi-fi products where you have to shut up, sit down and listen and then decide whether or not they justify the price. The Suns pass that test effortlessly.

Congratulations to Bob Clarke of Profundo, the US distributor for Trenner & Friedl, as well as Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery (who also got a mention for helping out with the review). Kudos also go to Peter Trenner and Andreas Friedl, who make such incredible products. It's nice to see my audio buddies get some love in Stereophile!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rafe Arnott's Top Album Picks for 2016 at Part-Time Audiophile

My good buddy Rafe Arnott, who is a fellow scribe at Part-Time Audiophile, just published an article on Top 5 albums pics from a variety of audiophiles. He surveyed a few people--including me! I'll try to follow this up right here with a list of my Top
20 for 2016, soon to be published at Perfect Sound Forever.

You can read Rafe's article here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Lasse Thoresen's Sea of Names on Hybrid CD/SACD

There's always a certain unique delight in receiving a new disc from 2L Recordings, a delight where you open the envelope from Norway and the disc falls out and you look at its name and wonder "What kind of music is this?" You can say that about a lot of recordings, I suppose, but 2L is always challenging in a way where the cover of the album is an invitation to a mystery. You might get a few clues here and there--a Norwegian string quartet listed on the cover here, a well-known composer in the title there--but every once in a while a title falls out of that padded shipping envelope and you say to yourself "I have no idea what this could be...let's put this in the CD player immediately so we can find out."

So it is with Sea of Names. This selection of music from composer Lasse Thoresen features minimalist art work on the cover that suggests calmness and tranquility; digging into the sparse notes on the back you'll discover that this is Thoresen's chamber music for flute and piano, so the peaceful motif continues. When the music starts, however, the mystery dissolves and the tranquil facade quickly fades away. The title piece, which starts the album, is "a meditation over the loss of a close member of [Thoresen's] family." Evidently these feelings are complex--the dynamic interplay between flautist Maiken Mathisen Schau and pianist Trond Schau covers such a wide range of emotions from anger to despair to eventual acceptance (following the classic Five Stages) in a tumultuous 17 minutes. Both performers push the physical structures of their respective instruments to an almost mechanical breaking point, all while infusing the music with a rolling and flowing rhythm that conjures Debussy's La Mer.

These two musicians invest so much pure effort into the performances that you can easily imagine the drops of perspiration flying into the air and landing on the soundboard of the piano and on the wooden floors of the Sofienberg Church in Norway. Maiken Mathisen Schau, in particular, uses her whole body to produce her fevered notes so that her voice often slips into the music like a ghost. This isn't showmanship a la Ian Anderson, it's complete commitment. Trond Schau's piano is also a sonic revelation--his notes are a seamless partnership of those churning maritime rhythms and unexpectedly sharp punctuation marks that perfectly reveal the inner chambers of his instrument.

As Sea of Names progresses, the palette expands and contracts so that each piece is embedded with a different level of emotional turmoil and excitement. Throughout the rest of the album, flautist and pianist generously take turns to explore the composer's reflections on interpersonal communication, the beauty of nature and conflicts within the inner self. One piece, "Solspill," offers a different take on the classic Pictures at an Exhibition by outlining Thoresen's individual reactions to a series of photographs taken by a friend. By the end of the album the two musicians have again joined together to produce the deliberate longing of "Interplay." It's a lovely and beautiful finale that ends the album on an optimistic note.

I've already mentioned the Sofienberg Church, the venue for this recording and so many others from 2L's Morten Lindberg. It's a superb space for projecting the strengths of individual performers and allowing their notes to bloom into the rafters. At the same time, Sea of Names projects an unusual sonic phantom. When Maiken and Trond perform together, you can tell they are standing so close together that the timbres of their instruments intertwine. During the solo performances, however, that unity is still there, that central focus in intact as if the other musicians is still there, on stage, for emotional support.

Is that a crazy observation? Perhaps. But so it is with 2L Recordings, where you often find yourself hearing seemingly impossible details in the music. They might be there, and they might not, but the magic is the merest suggestion that puts them there.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Al Strong's Love Strong Vol. 1 on CD

I really have been listening to a lot of jazz these days, mostly from artists I've never heard of before 2016. As I've been submitting my year-end Top 10 lists to various associated sites, I've been able to include a couple of contemporary jazz entries from performers I know from previous reviews--Todd Hunter and Jane Ira Bloom--but a few of these new artists haven't made the cut for one reason or another. The biggest reason, of course, is that it was a stellar year for music and I'm usually confined to five, ten or twenty picks.

Al Strong's exclusion from my year end lists is merely an issue of timing--I started listening to Love Strong Vol. 1 a day or two after my deadlines. Would Al have made the list if I had waited a little longer? Would I even be mentioning this otherwise?

Strong is one of those young and promising musicians, in this case a composer and trumpeter, who has been paying his dues in the jazz world for many years. This album is sort of a calling card for Al, that he's been in the shadows for far too long, and now it's time to push him to the front of the stage into the spotlight because the world needs to sit up and take notice. That's certainly the theme of Love Strong, Vol. 1--the idea is that we should already making room on our shelves for Vol. 2--but that sounds a little cynical. Al's prodigious talents are, ahem, trumpeted on this album, and what a pleasurable debut it is. He deserves this showcase.

Vol. 1 is nothing too revolutionary. Al's playing a lot of standards such as "Blue Monk," "My Favorite Things" and Kenny Baron's "Voyage," with a distinct focus on songs with a strong emotional wallop. What stands out is his horn playing, which is full and smooth and dynamic. He's a romantic trumpeter, reveling in the softer passages that form a foundation for the occasional fireworks. Backed by a large revolving ensemble, Strong excels at being a generous leader--this is an album full of amazing solo improvisations from performers such as pianist Joey Calderazzo and guitarist JC Martin. If you listened to the entire album without any info about the performers, you might even be surprised that the trumpet player is the leader rather than just a featured performer. Strong is more crafty and subtle that than, however. He leads with a gentle touch and a superb sense of rhythm--something that isn't said that often about horn players.

I only have one reservation about Love Strong. It isn't the recording quality, which is absolute dynamite. It comes along early in the album, a cover of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" that leaves me feeling a little perplexed. The song begins (and ends) with a children's chorus reciting the nursery rhyme before the band kicks in and starts with the basic theme. I have to admit I winced a little the first time I listened to it. But after a minute or so the improvisation takes over and this is one great, propulsive jam. At that point, with the kids outside for recess, it makes sense. But for the first minute or so, you might get a little anxious. It's like eating half a Twinkie, moving onto a absolutely perfect filet mignon, and then finishing off the Twinkie.

Or perhaps it's just me being curmudgeonly during the holidays. So much of this LP is pure love and delight--a great horn player, a great band and some real production skills, and yeah, let me know when Love Strong Vol. 2 comes out. I'll be waiting.

The Latest Smoking Jacket Column Is Now Online at Part-Time Audiophile

It's been a few months, but another one of my cigar columns for Part-Time Audiophile has just gone live. This installment of The Smoking Jacket concerns flavored and infused cigars and why they're such big sellers. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Brian Kastan's Roll the Dice on Life on CD

Sometimes I get some strange stuff in for review. Sometimes I think people are just messing with me, sending me copies of The Emperor's New Clothes just to see if I break the fourth wall for a quick WTF. "We've got a box-set of Tibetan monks farting...let's see if Phillips gives it a good review!" Then again, to stroke my own ego, maybe I'm just one of the few people who can still listen to utter strangeness and cull the artistic merits. Or, people are just messing with me. Yeah, that's it.

From the cover, Brian Kastan's Roll the Dice on Life looks like a fairly straightforward jazz album. Brian, a perfectly normal-looking young man with a shaved head sits cross-legged on the ground holding his guitar in front of a pair of steel doors that feature a couple of stenciled-in dice. The cover also says that bassist Steve Rust, drummer Peter O'Brien and vocalist Miles Griffith are featured. Seems legit. So I popped this into my CD player and WTF? What's going on here? Is this for real?

What I heard, for about ten full seconds before I hit the stop button, was full-force free-jazz-rock-funk, not too distant from what you'd hear on some of Frank Zappa's more experimental releases, but with vocal improvisations that were, to say the least, very interesting. I'm not talking about Ella Fitzgerald scatting in that lovely little-girl voice of hers. I'm not talking about Liz Fraser and her ethereal and nonsensical vocalizations on old Cocteau Twins albums. I'm not talking about the involuntary humming and singing that comes from pure artistic expressions of someone like Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett. I'm talking vocal improvisations that sound like Dave Chappelle doing his Edgar G. Robinson impersonation. I'm talking about the Cookie Monster eating an entire jar of cookies while wearing a mic.

Ah, Miles Griffith. Who are you? The press release talks of his "rich provocative vocals," which are not the words I would use. Griffith turns out to be one of those guys who's been a part of the NYC jazz scene for a couple of decades and has quite the reputation as both a musician and a band leader. Kastan, Rust and O'Brien are also serious musicians with some serious chops. Kastan's also a licensed hypnotist--but I'll bet he doesn't play this album for clients.

But here's the thing. Ten seconds of Roll the Dice on Life can be off-putting and disconcerting. But if you hang in there, crawl into this particular crazy madman vibe, you start to relax and inhabit the space. Your shoulders start to lower. You start realizing that every minute or so, things really start to click between Miles' cartoonish ramblings. Then before you know it the CD is over and wait! Look! There's TWO CDs! Awesome! By the time you make it through to the end you'll have laughed quite a bit because this odd, odd music does have a logic to it that's above and beyond the "raw energy" of outlandish improvisation. Griffith even speaks actual words at certain points, providing an even heavier anchor to the swirling and chaotic mix, especially with the two closing cuts--"Black Lives Matter" and "Black Lives Matter 2" which addresses all the craziness we've had to endure in 2016.

It's a grounded way to end an album like this, one that makes its own rules as you go along. As for me, I liked it. As for you, well, there are two types of people--those who hear ten seconds of Roll the Dice on Life and say "WTF?" and hit the stop button, and those who hear the same ten seconds, say "WTF?" and then sit down and listen to the whole thing. Or maybe, like me, you're a little of both.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column Now Available at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now online. This column, #112, is my annual wrap-up--the 18th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence.

You can read it here. Enjoy!