Thursday, November 30, 2017
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one features my annual year-end wrap up including my favorite new LPs, reissues, phono cartridge and turntable. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Reviewing the Dave Askren and Jeff Benedict CD earlier today made me instantly think of Paul Moran's new CD, and how both recordings have so much in common. Both are mellow, smooth and cool. Both prominently feature the Hammond B3 organ. Both contain covers of The Beatles' "Come Together." If these two albums were films, they'd make a great double feature.
Paul Moran is known for being Van Morrison's musical director for many years and playing keyboards and brass on many of Morrison's albums. The liner notes hint at the idea of what kind of music Moran, or any other longtime professional musician, might make when left to his own devices. The answer is decidedly NOT Morrison-like. Moran, who is based in London, is the proverbial jazzman, someone who wants to pay tribute to a wide spectrum of influence that includes Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and even Rodgers & Hart.
Moran's B3 work is remarkable. He can coax those long notes into profound statements of love and desire, or his fingers can fly quickly up and down the keyboard and barely trigger those little puffs of air that can be so expressive on their own. He's the kind of performer who makes you sit up and say dammit, I love the B3 and the waves of nostalgia it summons with ease. He's also wise enough to surround himself with a game collection of fellow musicians such as guitarist Nigel Price, bassist Laurence Cottle, drummer Mez Clough and many others.
Compared to the Askren/Benedict disc, this has a bit more energy and a wider range of moods. The R&B classic "Have You Seen Her" is lush and romantic and almost sexy, despite a theme sunk deeply into having the blues. Moran's own "Scallywag" sounds like a lost hit from The Ventures with its slow, barely evolving melody and relaxed tempo. The band can also inject plenty of energy into these performances--I think Moran's version of "Come Together" has a little more zip than Askren and Benedict. If you have a free afternoon or evening, I strongly suggest listening to both CDs one after the other. It'll put you into that aforementioned "jazz mood," whatever that is.
A friend of mine recently brought up the idea of a "jazz mood." When I asked him what he meant, he replied something about cool, relaxed and mellow, something to be enjoyed while wearing dark sunglasses. Indoors. At night. He's not really a jazz fan, but I kind of understood what he meant--jazz is supposed to be cool and hip. I don't want to suggest that it's not, but over the last year I've been submerged in the stuff and I think it's not mellow at all. It's dynamic and punchy and exciting at times, but I don't experience many old-school jazz moods these days. Besides, cool and relaxed leads you directly into that palace of sin known as "lite jazz." Let's not be that "cool," okay?
Here's a surprise, however--guitarist Dave Askren and sax player Jeff Benedict, along with organ player Joe Bagg and drummer Paul Romain, have come up with a pure jazz album that is cool, relaxed and mellow in a completely undorky way. Come Together stands out from the crowd, and not because it's doing crazy things that have never been done before. This collection of standards, centered around the epic yet understated Beatles track in the title, exists in its own world where you can put on a pair of sunglasses at night and no one will say a word about it.
Askren is the de facto leader here--he's one of those jazz guitarists who's been around forever and has what they call an "impeccable pedigree." (He's the guy who once recorded a fabulous tribute to Bill Evans--on guitar.) Benedict, despite the nature of his instrument, is the quiet core of the group. His sax performances are solid and understated and keep the quartet firmly grounded--a good idea since there is no bass player per se. That's where Joe Bagg's earthy and gritty Hammond B-3 comes in, supplying the lower foundation while almost single-handedly providing layer after layer of cool. Paul Romain's drumming is also fantastic in that same subtle way. He's not flying all over the place with macrodynamic flamboyance, but creating new depths of rhythm and shine.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the sound quality of Come Together is uniformly excellent, but it has a dash of that live feel as if the audience was present but had their hands tied behind their backs. The immediacy of the performances and the chemistry within the quartet are fleshy and vibrant. But because the music is so calm, so confident, you might not recognize the greatness. It's there, however, sitting in the corner, wearing a pair of Wayfarers.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
The theme of this particular 2L release is quite simple. Beethoven's Quartet no. 11 in F minor is indeed in a minor key, but as a fairly short piece it is often overlooked as one of his most important works. Schubert's Quartet no. 15 in G major is in a major key, and it is also considered to be a major work, one of imposing length and substantial impact. The idea here is to boldly place these two works on the same album and let the listener come up with an answer to the question "What is truly minor and what is truly major when it comes to music?"
Both pieces are played by the Oslo String Quartet, a 2L mainstay. Violinists Geir Inge Lotsberg and Liv Hilde Klokk, violist Are Sandbakken and cellist Oystein Sonstad take a purist approach to this music, playing it with precision and yet with all of the appropriate emotions intact. They understand, for instance, that one of the most intriguing characteristics of the Beethoven quartet is that despite the minor key it is not a sad or sorrowful work. Think about that for a second, because I certainly had to wrap my head around it. Back in college, my Music 101 professor told us that minor keys expressed sadness, regret, danger, anger...all the negative emotions. In about twenty-two blissful minutes, he is proven wrong.
The Schubert quartet does not prompt the same sort of musical revelation and re-evaluation; it is merely ambitious and grand. The Oslo String Quartet is up to what must have been a physically challenging performance for them--there is so much furious energy here, and you can definitely hear the musicians breathing hard and pushing their bodies to the limits in order to deliver a flawless performance. As usual this is where 2L excels, at reminding the listener of the intimate relationship between musician and instrument (something I obsess over every time I get one of these spectacular Norwegian recordings), and how mere humans have to push themselves to the brink to commit to perfection.
Finally, I want to throw out an idea--string quartets are a perfect match with 2-way speakers. 2L Recordings' Morten Lindberg might disagree with this since he's a pioneer when it comes to using such technologies as 9.1 Dolby Atmos and 9.1 Auro 3D 96 khz and MQA for even a "simple" quartet recording. (It's obvious that these surround-sound technologies come in handy when it comes to placing a small quartet in a large Norwegian church.) But I use several high-quality 2-way loudspeakers as a reference in my two channel set-ups, and for me this is the ultimate in realism. I've heard plenty of bigger speakers enlarge the size of small ensembles to the point where each musician is ten feet tall. Excellent two-way monitors really prove their worth when it comes to this kind of music, which is why I could spend my golden years listening to recordings like this--quite simply, it approaches sonic perfection.
Monday, November 20, 2017
I've been a little grouchy over some of this '80s jazz-funk-r&b stuff I've been getting lately. Twinkly keyboards, plonky bass lines, mindless danceability--it's just not my thing. It's dated, and back in the day I didn't like it, either. It's not holding up well. Stop it.
Then, of course, something comes in to change my mind. Trumpet and flugelhorn player Harold Little has just released Akoben, a funky blast of '80s fun that rises above the genre through his superb horn work. He captures the best of the era--hot, sultry playing that boasts hidden depths, sort of like Miles Davis' strange yet pioneering Tutu and Amandla. Little's supporting band is a little less enigmatic than Miles' crew, however--this is mainstream jazz that is far more entertaining than challenging. But it's a lot more interesting than most of the lite/cool jazz I've been evaluating.
Little's been around for a while, playing with contemporary jazz greats such Chuck Brown, Butch Warren and Calvin Jones. He definitely inhabits a specific place and a time with this music, playing it straight and without irony. Normally I would wince at a jazz/funk cover of "Step," something that just isn't necessary under most circumstances, but Little's version slowly evolves into something vital and different. On "We Need Love," which features gorgeous vocals from Karen Linette and a slew of backup singers, Little's sudden and dynamic horn blasts will remind you of Hugh Masakela.
Look at it this way--this album won't single handedly change my mind about this sub-genre of music. But I've already mentioned two of my favorite horn players, Miles Davis and Hugh Masakela, so it's clear that there's a serious and intriguing undercurrent in this music that gives it an added layer of meaning. Plus, and I've mentioned this once or twice before in the last month, the sound quality here is absolutely pure and gorgeous. It lacks the digital glaze that would coat Akoben if it had come out in 1988 or so. Perhaps that's what elevates the recording, but I'm really fond of the way Little plays as well.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
My review of Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 2 is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.
If you want to read my blog review of the first volume of The Moonlight Sessions, you can find that here.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Chris Parker is only 20 years old!
I'm not sure if that should be your lead-in. The protagonist in Whiplash was about that age, right? He was a jazz drummer. The Beatles were teenagers when they started their campaign of world domination. Mozart was an old grizzled vet by the time he started his third decade on this planet. Child prodigies are nothing new in the world of music.
Chris Parker is a hell of a jazz drummer, that's true. On his new album, Moving Forward Now, he's not flashy and precocious like you'd expect a 20-year-old drummer to be. He's steady, measured and has a light touch with his kit. He's generous with his fellow musicians and knows when to step out of the way to let them shine. In that respect alone he is an enormously mature performer.
As a composer, he's just as impressive. While he knows how to arrange music such as Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Rachmaninoff's Adaigio Sustenuto and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" into new jazz standards, half of this album contains Parker's original compositions. These new tunes blend seamlessly with the rest of the album--even a distinctive rendering of "Autumn Leaves." These choices reveal either an old soul or an apt pupil. Parker isn't trying to reinvent the wheel his first time out. He's proving one thing--he deserves to be out in front no matter his age, and he hopefully has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. And that's a gift to all of us.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
I went through a New Age phase about twenty years ago, a temporary enthusiasm that was prompted by a girlfriend at the time. I browse through my CD collection and I can still pick out all the titles from that era. A handful of them were genuinely interesting--Mychael Danna and Robert Rich, for example--but for the most part I think of them as dated, anchor-less precursors to the more highly structured genres of electronica that would soon appear on the musical horizon and capture my interest.
This new CD from oboe player Paul McCandless and the Paul Winter Consort, Morning Sun: Adventures with Oboe, reminds me of those twenty-year-old CDs. It's ambitious without being edgy, and it's full of beautiful melodies wrapped in an ethereal package rife with babbling brooks and other sounds of nature. It's an anachronism, albeit one performed with heart and skill.
McCandless has been playing with the Paul Winter Consort for 45 years, and this recording is a celebration of that partnership. He even formed Oregon with three of the consort's members, which now qualifies as the longest running jazz ensemble in the world. This familiarity creates a warm, relaxed and natural feel to this mixture of originals and covers. The trick, I suppose, is removing the temporal element of the music and enjoying it at face value--maybe you were really into this sound twenty or thirty years ago and you wish there was more of it. Maybe you'll dig the fact that the sound quality is far better than the stuff from the late '80s and early '90s--less of that digital glaze and more of that expansive and properly textured sound that's taken for granted these days.
So I don't want to come out and say that this CD isn't my thing. It's full of great ideas, strong melodies and exquisite performances. McCandless' oboe exudes an incredible amount of feeling during the slower passages, and this album clearly focuses on these impressive performances. This is, after all, a retrospective. If it was 1993, I'd probably be playing it a lot. But in 2017, I need a little more risk and a little less warm blanket freshly retrieved from a box in the attic.
Audiophiles love the female voice. So much so, in fact, that my review pile is currently flooded with jazz releases from women singers. I'm not about to say this is a new thing, especially since I've been gorging myself on a steady diet of Ella, Judy and Billie for the last couple of years. But I'm meeting quite a few chanteuses over the last year--talented singers who have clearly been around for a while, even though I've never heard of them until now.
I just received a double shot of Laura Ainsworth in the mail--both an LP and a CD. What's unusual is that it isn't the same release--Top Shelf is on LP, and New Vintage is on CD. Both were released within a few days of each other last August. Why the distinction? Well, Top Shelf is sort of a greatest hits album for Ainsworth, who hails from Dallas. It's aimed squarely at audiophiles or, more accurately, the trade show circuit where audiophiles wander from room to room and ask to hear Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jennifer Warnes. New Vintage is merely her latest release.
Ainsworth has a playful, almost cheery delivery. You can almost see her smile as she sings. While the cover of Top Shelf is clearly a tribute to those wonderful old Julie London albums I love, I wouldn't call Ainsworth's voice sultry. It's enthusiastic, vivid and quick. She also gravitates toward lyrics that are meant to evoke knowing smiles and soft chuckles rather than longing and heartbreak. Both of these albums are fun and uplifting, which is not quite in the spirit of the traditional torch song. This isn't the blues. This is a celebration.
Ainsworth employs the same band for both albums--pianist Brian Piper, bassist John Adams, drummers Mike Drake and Steve Barnes, woodwind player Chris McGuire, trumpeter Rodney Booth, flutist Pete Brewer and vibraphone player Dana Sudborough--and they are a tight and skilled ensemble across the board. But I favor Top Shelf over New Vintage for a number of reasons. The sound quality on the latter is smoother and richer and adds a layer of seriousness that counters the liveliness of Ainsworth's voice. While "New Vintage" is cheerful and exciting, the LP is the one I'd bring to a trade show and show off to the attendees. It's more "classic" in its approach, which is what I want from my female voice audiophile recordings.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Have you ever been blind-sided by something that's quiet, gentle and disarmingly familiar? I have. It happened with this modest little CD from a guy named Dylan Hicks who is sort of an amalgam of '70s singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and a half-dozen other guys who possess an easygoing and subtle intelligence. Hicks, who hails from Minnesota, fancies himself as a "singer, songwriter, minor novelist, folk pianist, essayist and odd-jobber." His lyrics express simple pleasures of love and companionship, but they're also very literate in a direct way--this guy knows how to turn a phrase in a very precise way. His stories aren't vaguely poetic--they name people and places and times with alarming specificity.
That's right, he's one of those guys who's still a storyteller. Whether he's talking about bartenders named Amanda, your father's charcoal suit or a set of rumble strips where your girlfriend used to ride her bike, Hicks zeroes in on the little details in life that stick in your mind for a long time after the song is over. That's the novelist in him, adding important details--the Swiftian "two shoes, not mates." It's a relaxed sort of genius, one that might slip by unnoticed.
Hicks band is interesting as well, with lots of banjos and pedal steel guitars dancing around a basic mid-temp rock ensemble that centers mostly around his friendly, likeable voice and his piano. His songs adhere to a certain pop economy, but he can also shift into Steely Dan jazz-rock with a sudden appearance of a big horn section. He does country-rock especially well--the twang is used sparingly yet effectively. There's a consistency to the core of his songs so that he can dabble with different arrangements and still sound like Dylan Hicks, singer-songwriter.
The sound quality of this album is surprisingly good for what is basically a small label release. It feels live and genuine. These songs feel borne from the bars and the small clubs and the taverns. Hicks has created a small gem here, and it deserves notice.
It sounds really juvenile, I know, but my attitude toward jazz flute has been ruthlessly compromised by Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story. I suppose the jokes hit upon some ancient nerve, the one that suggest that a certain musical instrument might be unsuitable for a certain musical genre because it sounds a little too carefree, lightweight and capricious. I tend to agree with that, especially when I see a jazz release that prominently features someone on the flute.
I felt that twinge when I grabbed this CD and put it into the CD transport. My preconceptions were immediately kicked to the curb. Nestor Torres released this live album as a tribute to flutists such as Frank Wess and Moe Koffman who "were playing the instrument when it was still showing up in the 'miscellaneous' categories of major categories of major 1950s polls." (He's also focusing on more modern flute players such as Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws and Yuself Lateef.) These eleven standards, performed live, are bolder and more substantive than I could have imagined. While there is a rare moment or two that borders on cliche, this is a bold and rich release that redefines the instrument and shows it can be capable of gravitas and an infinite range of expression.
Torres and his band--pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Jamie Ousley, drummers Michael Piolet and Marcus Grant, percussionists Jose Gregorio Hernandez and Miguel Russell and alto saxophonist Ian Munoz--deliver these tracks in a sultry manner, one heavy with earthy and romantic themes. As you can see from the line-up, the focus is heavy on rhythm. But Torres' serious and passionate flute floats above the Latin percussion with an almost contradictory sense of freedom.
Sound quality is strong, even with the rather small audience sounding isolated and contained to the side. The sonic colors are warm and inviting--they ooze with a honest sexiness that can't be trivialized. Veronica Corningstone be damned...I like this one a lot.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Like most jazz lovers, I have a ton of Duke Ellington recordings in my collection. That includes original live and studio recordings, of course, but also a lot of tributes from other artists. Once you start becoming an Ellington completist, there's seemingly no end to the recordings you can find. So when I see a new CD that is subtitled "New Takes on Duke's Rare and Unheard Music," I instantly think that I've still probably heard it all before--just not in this particular package.
This new CD, Rediscovered Ellington, from arrangers Garry Dial, Dick Oatts and Rich DeRosa, is meant to pay tribute to the lesser known Ellington songs by offering them with totally new arrangements. Dial, Oattes and DeRosa are purists somewhat, and their goal was to preserve the essence of what made Ellington such an original. In other words, they aren't revisionists--it's almost as if they're adding an extra ingredient to the recipe in order to elevate these nine tracks into something more whole. These songs, as a result, as perfectly rendered as Ellington tunes and even casual fans should recognize them as such. You've just never heard them before...unless you're one of those crazy completists.
The result is highly polished and precise, of course. Oatts, who was in charge of arranging these tunes for the WDR Big Band, paid special attention to selecting soloists whose style matched the tone of each passage. When you hear a particular solo improvisation, it sounds relaxed and natural as if the musician was famous for playing that specific song in his own unique way. And when you have three arrangers working together on a big project like this, you bet the pieces all fit together perfectly.
My only reservation is the sound quality, which is merely good. This album is from the Zoho label, which has released some sonic gems over the last year. Rediscovered Ellington is a little bright, a little flat and it just doesn't open up like a big band recording should with a sense of almost unlimited dynamics. But if you're an Ellington fan, you won't mind. Seeing these "lesser" tunes get their chance in the spotlight is very exciting, which is certainly the point.