Friday, December 14, 2018
With a name like Auld Lang Syne, I assumed that this going to be an album for the afterparty and not the main event. But Laura Dickinson's holiday album is firm in its commitment to Christmas and this album's focus is on the more modern holiday repertoire performed in a big-budget extravaganza style. Dickinson is a music producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and a vocal contractor--a term I'm not familiar with--so this project makes her seem like the Alan Parsons of big band jazz. Unlike Parsons, however, Dickinson's voice is front and center through these 11 songs, each one arranged by a different music industry professional.
The idea behind Auld Lang Syne, therefore, is complex. Dickinson's voice is a bit of a commodity in the entertainment world since her talents have been heard in films, TV shows and even video games. Her singing voice is unique, a light, sweet and ethereal entity that projects a lot of warmth. It's a bit delicate, something that comes through when she tries to really belt out a note and her appealing vulnerability seeps through. She can hit those impossibly high notes when necessarily, which at first sounds strange because so many of her jazz contemporaries are adamant about adding a little more heft and texture, a bit more growl. She, in contrast, is floating on the breeze.
As you move through these tracks, however, something might occur to you--what started off as a big band jazz Christmas album turns into something else, an omnibus of different approaches to holiday music. The title track, which concludes the album, borrows from Scottish folk music, as it probably should, and many of the other tracks are more aligned with musical theater than big band jazz. It's that first track, a medley of "Happy Holiday and "The Holiday Season," that tricks you with its nods to the Andrew Sisters and those rollicking TV Christmas specials from big stars that were so common just a few decades ago.
Auld Lang Syne is set on making a big impact, so this is another exciting holiday recording that will rev up the energy level at your family get-together. It is polished, slick and produced to the hilt, which may or may not complement your holiday theme, but it will make a big impression on your guests.
I'm determined not to make the same mistake I made last year concerning Christmas releases. I had three holiday recordings sent to me last year, and through a series of mishaps they didn't appear in Part-Time Audiophile until a couple of days before Christmas. So the whole idea of buying these three CDs in time for the holidays was kind of shot. This year, however, I have exactly two holiday recordings for review. I received them a long time ago and quickly put them at the bottom of the pile--I thought wow, the holidays are a long way off. Today is December 14, and I need to get both reviews posted, so here we go.
The first holiday recording is Jake Ehrenreich's A Treasury of Jewish Christmas Songs, and if you know anything about the Great American Songbook you'll know that plenty of our most celebrated songwriters were indeed of the Jewish faith. In other words, this isn't a collection of songs that Jewish people sing on Christmas Day, because as far as I know there is no such thing. Ehrenreich, who is well-known for his Broadway performances, has teamed with Grammy-winning pianist and arranger Roger Kellaway to sing these well-known Christmas songs that were written, incidentally, by Jewish songwriters. (On a side note, Kellaway was nominated for an Oscar for the score of A Star Is Born--the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand.)
That means you get pretty straightforward, jazzy renditions of such tunes as "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (Johnny Marks), "Winter Wonderland" (Felix Bernard) and of course "White Christmas," which was written by Irving Berlin. Ehrenreich is accompanied by a simple, stripped down jazz trio consisting of Kellaway on piano, Dan Lutz on bass and Bruce Forman on guitar. (Kevin Winard supplies percussion on a few tracks.) This is a talented ensemble, however, and if you're a jazz fan looking for some musical respite while preserving the spirit of the occasion, I think this will be an enormous treat for you.
I like Ehrenreich's voice a lot--it's a tad gruff around the edges, so you aren't getting one of those dull crooners who try to evoke the gentlest of memories that will bore you into a long winter's nap. There's something in his delivery that reminds me of Burl Ives, an outgoing personality that fleshes out the emotions in these songs. He's obviously not as avuncular as Burl--this is a guy who can sing love songs and be quite convincing. But there's a warmth to his voice that is comforting without being bland.
If you're looking for something new to play on Christmas, this is a great choice. And remember that I'm a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to these recordings, so if I sound a little too objective here it's purely because I can't wait for December 26 to arrive. This is a first-class recording for you and your loved ones to enjoy.
My latest Deep End music column for Part-Time Audiophile is now live. This one is about the stunning LP pressings from Newvelle Records in France, and how they are reviving subscription-based music services in 2018. You can read it here.
Thursday, December 13, 2018
My review of Somesh Mathur's amazing Time Stood Still is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here!
I think I've figured something out about big band jazz: I tend to really like performances that are led by the drummer. I can say the same thing, and often do, about smaller ensembles, but there's something about a drummer leading a big band that just seems so dynamic and exciting. These drummers are leading by their rhythms, so I think they have to be extra expressive in the way they play. If you love drummers like I love drummers, you'll probably have a very favorable reaction to these types of performances.
Bernie Dresel has been doing this for a long time, and he's pretty well-known within the Los Angeles music scene, and not just in jazz. Bernie was the drummer for the Brian Setzer Orchestra for fourteen years, which means I've seen him perform live at least a couple of times. He's been the leader of The BBB, which stands for Bernin' Big Band, for the last couple of years. (That's right, the full title of this album is The Bernin' Big Band Featuring Bernie Dresel's Bern Bern Bern.) Perhaps that's also the reason why I responded so favorably to this album after just a few minutes of listening--Dresel has a classic rock and roll soul that carries over into these 14 tracks.
As I just mentioned in my Kenny Carr review yesterday, the intersection between rock and jazz can be very subtle. While Carr's excellent album uses this cross-referencing as a foundation, it's icing on the cake for The BBB. Bern Bern Bern is 95% big band jazz, played with confidence and swagger. That remaining 5% is overt such as the addition of a distorted electric guitar solo from Andrew Synowiec or a very steady rock beat from Dresel. Synowiec even gets to evoke Setzer on a couple of tracks, a homage to Dresel's roots perhaps--it's so satisfying to hear a rockabilly twang in the middle of a big band performance.
It's obvious this album is focused on one thing, and that's Bern. He's a magnificent drummer, fluid and blindingly fast when he needs to be. When I would see the Brian Setzer Orchestra perform, my initial reaction would always be this: "Man, I forget just how great Brian is on guitar." With this album, I feel the same way about Dresel's drumming. It's front and center, and it leads like a whirlwind.
"Driving down on an unlit highway, my headlights flashed upon the bleeding carcass of a deer."
So begins the liner notes of Jason Kao Hwang's new album, Blood. Whenever I see Hwang's name attached to a musical project, I know it's going to be a challenge, I know it's going to be out there. Hwang, an avant-garde violinist, has crossed my path before with Sing House, which prompted me to conclude that "I'm still working on it. One day I may work it out in my mind, or I might just go back to my Dean Martin, Julie London and Harry Belafonte albums." He also performed on Michael Moss' Heli, a free jazz fever dream that I called "a daunting task, especially when you consider that most mainstream jazz fans might night make it through to the end."
Blood, performed with the Burning Bridge ensemble, starts off just as jagged, a series of sonic blasts and noises created by an interesting cross-section of instrumentation including cornet, flugelhorn, pipa, erhu, trombone, drums, bass and tuba. As you might imagine, this can be a fascinating cacophony. But it's also surprising in the way it eventually irons itself out and starts a cohesive narrative. Hwang's tale of roadkill is a starting point--the sudden and shocking image of that deer triggers something deeper in his soul and reminds him of his mother's "harrowing experiences in China during World War II." Hwang explains the connection like this: "Through Blood the violence of deeply held memories are not relived but transposed into our sound."
This is a heady idea, yes, but once we pass through the angry free jazz of "Breath Within the Bomb," the 12-minute opener, Hwang combines a classic jazz sound, equal parts free and be-bop, with the Chinese instrumentation. Here he shows that connection between the two worlds, the carcass of the present and the horrors of the past, all happening across vast chasms of time and space. These middle passages are taut and musical--the liner notes suggest a cinematic approach that can be easily digested by the listener.
Despite your reservations about exploring yet another free jazz nightmare, you could find Blood to be utterly absorbing--especially in the way it paints such vivid pictures. Hwang's story is sophisticated and expansive, the tale of his mother surviving a bomb blast in a pharmacy is juxtaposed with his sadness for two fellow jazz musicians, Americans who fought in Vietnam where "the magnitude of pain and sorrow that they endured is unimaginable." Blood, as the title implies, is as far from lighthearted as it gets. But it is fascinating in its cerebral approach, which is wrapped in a thoroughly accessible veneer.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
Everybody here's heard of hard rock, but I wonder...is there such a thing as hard jazz? I'm not talking about a hard rock/jazz hybrid--I'm talking about jazz played with same power, the same sense of scale and drama of your typical hard rock band. I'm talking about tight song structures fortified with a Spector-esque wall of sound, you know, a slow build and an explosive climax. I wondered this, almost aloud, the first time I heard guitarist Kenny Carr's Departure. This is jazz through and through, but the way he and his band rip through these original compositions, you might think they all started a rock band decades ago and then suddenly decided that jazz was more worthy of their efforts and this was Day One.
Carr did start off in a different guitar genre, but it was classical music. He's been known for his distinctive blend of jazz, blues and fusion for many years--this is his sixth album--but I can't hear a lick of classical guitar anywhere. Carr has rock in his blood, it seems; it's in the way he stretches out notes during his solos and the way he carefully sets the mood with his riffs. You hear it when his quartet--which also includes bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Kenny Wollesen and sax player Donny McCaslin--really starts to push the dense momentum toward the ends of songs. It doesn't even have to be loud or thunderous, since the quiet moments are as plentiful as the maelstroms. There's just a sensibility here, one that may appeal to you if you're a bigger fan or rock than jazz.
Let me clarify: this doesn't sound just like rock and roll. That's not what I'm saying. But there are structures underneath it all, an energy that really isn't that common in jazz. Rock was so controversial during its infancy because the rhythms were almost sexual--it certainly reminded too many of its critics of that, anyway. That same tension floats in Carr's music, that tightness that binds the music into a more manageable whole. Jazz is so often about being loose, about having the space to explore. While Departure contains a wealth of jazz solos--McCaslin's are stunning in the way he angrily manipulates his mouthpiece--it's just so propulsive. Perhaps this is why Carr gave this album the title that he did.
When I look at what I've just written, I can almost hear the voices in my head asking me if I'm merely describing fusion jazz in its purest form. That might be the case, objectively, but that's not what I'm feeling. This is either a rock band exploring jazz or it's a jazz ensemble exploring rock, albeit in a very subtle way. The more you listen to Departure, the more you feel it. This is jazz that will make you "rock out."
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
The idea of paying tribute to Ornette Coleman, as well as his collaborator Don Cherry, might seem like a thorny enterprise to some. Coleman invented such a new language for jazz in his heyday, one that would eventually be known as free jazz, but the simple fact is that Coleman's compositions often straddled that chasm and afforded a proper entry point into the form. Trumpeter Chris Pasin understands this, and his new album Ornettiquette is surprisingly accessible and even delightful at times. Pasin, through his spiritual kinship with fellow trumpeter Cherry, guides his band toward the pure joy of Coleman, the energy and the mystery that has challenged and yet intrigued jazz fans for decades.
Much of the cheery attitude in the CD can be traced to Karl Berger's work on vibes. That distinctive shimmer puts a spotlight on the playfulness in the compositions in a way that can quite be conveyed by other instruments. Pasin and alto sax player Adam Siegel do bring lightness into the mix with their bright, energetic horns--they often provide an effective counterpoint--but Berger is the one who truly swings here. He is not the most extroverted of vibraphone players, nor does he need to be, but he does supply that aforementioned mystery to the set, that feeling that everyone might get into a bit of trouble later on that night.
Pasin may keep a low profile through much of Ornettiquette, but he provides some meaty innovations if you pay close attention. His steady cries during "Ghost" become vaguely animalistic, like a wolf howling to its mate across a wintry field. Vocalist Ingrid Sertso might just play the role of that mate, the way she whispers back with the slightest touch of a growl. All of this tension is pushed into the foreground by a splendid rhythm section of drummer Harvey Sorgen and bassist Michael Bisio--they never seem to stop, and that smooths out the edges.
I know people who are reluctant when it comes to enjoying Ornette Coleman--they know plenty of fans but they fear the music is far too difficult to dig on a purely musical level. This is the album to start that journey. If Pasin and his cohorts have succeeded in any one aspect, it's making Coleman's music fun and energetic and free (pun not intended) of chaos. Coleman might have helped found the movement--he coined the phrase--but he was a bridge, and he, along with Don Cherry, knew how to play a tune. So does Pasin.
Here's the penultimate show report from the 2018 Capital Audiofest--this one covers the room of my buddy Shayne Tenace at Tenacious Sound. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Saturday, December 8, 2018
Here's another show report from the Capital Audiofest--ModWright Instruments and Fritz Speakers. You can read about it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Friday, December 7, 2018
Here's another show report from the 2018 Capital Audiofest--this one is about a very simple system from Paradigm and Anthem that still managed to be very impressive. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
This new album from trumpeter Michael C. Lewis sounds like a throwback, but not a throwback in typical jazz terms. We're not talking about be-bop and big band or any of that, but a more recent past where the sound is brighter and glassier and more, well, digital. I'm talking about '80s jazz, which has sort of this Patrick Nagel sheen covering it, with lots of electric keyboards and electric basses and smooth horn sections. We're getting uncomfortably close to terms like "lite jazz" or "smooth jazz," which is not my thing. But Michael C. Lewis and his horn start doing something else in Intimate Journey, something almost subversive.
When so-called smooth jazz started popping up about thirty years ago, it tried to do just one thing--it tried to update the traditional jazz forms into something that would appeal to larger pop-oriented audiences. You've heard of the old adage of trying to please everyone and therefore pleasing no one? That's what smooth jazz did in the '80s. But let's face it, lots of people did like it, and they still do. What Lewis is doing is taking that sound as a jumping-off point and adding all of the things we've heard since, especially when it comes to hip-hop production and even electronica. I'm not saying that Intimate Journey sounds anything like hip-hop, but you will hear those modern approaches in the synthesizers and percussion, steady and truncated beats that simply weren't around thirty years ago.
Lewis the man is quite talented--he also sings with a rich and deep voice that is made for old-fashioned love songs in the classic R&B style. And he plays the trumpet and the flugelhorn in that distant, shimmering and dipped-in-sugar way that was big in the '80s. This side of the music will sound familiar to you. But dig deeply into songs like "Miles to Go," with his muted horn obviously paying homage to a certain trumpeter, and you'll hear the new, the trip-hop expansions and the beats that are real but almost sound programmed.
When Lewis dives into the funk later in the album, he's definitely at his creative peak. Those are the elements that lift him into relevance, as opposed to being a confection for all those people who are still addicted to cool, smooth jazz. He's stretching across this bridge, almost slyly, bringing these two disparate crowds of fans together under one beat. You'll hear this as Intimate Journey moves along from track to track, getting ever more adventurous. You'll be caught up by the end once you learn there's another layer hiding deep in the mix, waiting to see if you notice.
I need to get hoppin' on these new LP reissues from ORG Music--a big box arrived yesterday with a load of new titles from many different genres, everything from classic R&B to hardcore punk to something really bizarre from a guy named Tav Falco. (I mean bizarre in a really nice way, because it's very unique and fun.) In my new role as managing editor of The Occasional, I've been very busy covering trade shows and running to the west coast for events and even receiving and organizing a pile of audio equipment to review, all while my mailbox is still filled almost daily with new music. Last month I made 41 blog entries, a record for The Vinyl Anachronist, but less than half were actual music reviews. I've had Hank Jones' Arigato waiting patiently for far too long, and that's a shame because it's really good.
Hank Jones is one of those jazz pianists who is considered among the greats, but I feel like I rarely hear about him. He's the gentleman who plays piano on Cannonball Adderley's legendary Somethin' Else, and he's also the pianist who accompanied Marilyn Monroe when she sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK. (As a side note, his full name is Henry Jones Jr., which makes me wonder if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were quietly paying tribute to him.) He's recorded 60 albums as a leader/front man, and I don't own any of them. Younger brothers Thad Jones and Elvin Jones, yes. Hank Jones, no. That's my bad.
Arigato was recorded and released in 1976 during his second wind of recording in the studio. In the '50s and '60s he was everywhere, playing with everyone, and he found a solid gig as the "staff pianist" for CBS from 1959 to 1975. He experienced a renewal of interest in his work in the '70s due to his involvement in the musical Ain't Misbehavin', and Arigato comes from that period. This is a simple collection of standards, performed by a stellar trio that included bassist Richard Davis and drummer Ronnie Bedford. What you'll notice first about this album is the sheer energy--Jones has a quick, lyrical style that has been described as "impeccable," and his two cohorts are game to turn the key and start the engines. This is a fast jazz album in the sense that it just speeds by, and it leaves you wanting more.
I'm starting to wax rhapsodic about these ORG Music reissues in the same way I gush about 2L Recordings, but for a slightly different reason. ORG is doing a fantastic job of preserving those countless historic windows no matter the view. There are a few great-sounding jazz albums from late '70s--a couple from Chico Freeman come to mind--but there's a thin quality that often seeps in, a digital clarity that suggests the recording engineers were turning their backs on the pure and effective methods used in the '50s and '60s and looking to bring out more detail at the cost of warmth. I noticed this on the ORG reissue of Roland Hanna's Perugia. These ORG reissues from that period shine, however, because they're both faithful to the original recording and yet there's just a tad more warmth and humanity than in the original pressings.
That means Arigato sounds a little light on its feet, but at the same time you get to dig deep into what makes Hank Jones tick. For someone like me, who is being introduced to such a skilled and fascinating pianist, that's a gift.
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
St. Paul, Minnesota, isn't known for being a hotbed of Brazilian music--or maybe it is since I know very little about the place--but pianist Rebecca Hass is doing something very special up there with the recording of her debut album, Florescer. Haas describes herself as "addicted to Brazilian rhythms" and she reached out to me after reading my review of Alexandra Jackson's new album a couple of weeks ago. At first she seems like someone new to the game, a young pianist and composer who's trying to get a foothold in the industry through Kickstarter, email blasts and whatever works in this day and age, but she's actually been performing for quite some time--she's been playing with the percussion group Batucada do Norte for a dozen years.
Florescer, which is Brazilian for bloom, instantly reveals those ties to percussion and South American rhythms. Hass originally conceived these compositions as solo piano works, but she enlisted the help of her friend Tim O'Keefe, who is an expert on all types of hand-drumming techniques. That's what you get with Florescer--Hass' piano, which is strong, steady and even a bit muscular, paired with O'Keefe's exotic drums. O'Keefe is just as steady--his style is measured and seems so coupled to Hass' dynamics that they chug along like a machine with two engines.
As a result, the music here is unusually focused--the first song, "Maracatu do Manitim," is angular in the way it takes modern Brazilian themes and sets them on their side, deconstructing the rhythms and laying them out so the listener can see how they're built. She's also fond of the lower registers of the piano in many of her songs, which gives the proceedings a certain weight that is not necessarily common to the genre. When she speeds up the momentum, such as "Baiao da Bicicleta," that's when the parts fit back together seamlessly. There's even a tango, "Naquele Tempo," which indeed uses a slightly slower tempo than usual to once again reveal some of the genre's secrets.
Florescer does have that "square one" feeling that comes from getting out there and taking a chance--I think Hass might benefit from a larger ensemble around her in future recordings, but that requires time and perhaps more hard work. This album shows that this pianist/composer has unusual ideas about Brazilian music, and she isn't content to just play it the same way as everyone else. This is a snapshot of an artist at the beginning of a long and exciting journey, and I'm happy that she reached out.
You can download Florescer at her website.
Monday, December 3, 2018
Classic bop. I like that label. It's the stuff that got me into jazz once I was in college, the stuff that's invented on the fly, music that soars and wails and has more pure momentum than any other genre in jazz. I cover a lot of jazz in this blog--big band, organ trios, women vocalists, Latin and Caribbean jazz--but the jazz that really excites me is this. Christopher Hollyday's new album, Telepathy, didn't seem to stand out when it invaded my review pile, or even when I played it on the big system for the first time. But here, now, on this fabulous new headphone rig, this is magic.
You know altor saxophonist Christopher Hollyday is the real thing when his bio notes that he's "back" after an extended hiatus, that he was huge in the '80s and '90s and is now ready "to start a new phase of his career." That can mean a lot of different things, none of which are revealed in the press kit, but from listening to these six standards, everything from Freddie Hubbard's "One of Another Kind" to "Autumn in New York," I think I know. I think Hollyday's been out there, living life, playing when he can.
Jazz, of course, is about experience. You don't have to be old to play jazz, but you need to have lived through some things for those meaningful emotions to come out in the notes that you play. They need to sound real and honest. Hollyday's alto sax is a swirling, dense messenger, with more weight than you'd imagine, and it recalls a lot of different horn players who might be playing even bigger instruments. Ultimately this is about an original soul who should have never stopped recording. In his wisdom, Hollyday has realized that it's not all about him, since trumpet player Gilbert Castellanos is right up at the edge of the stage, standing next to his friend. These two bounce off each other, not in counterpoint but in a distinct way that echoes while it diverges. They remind me at times of those great sax-trumpet tandems in the old days--I don't have to name names.
The remaining members of this quintet--pianist Joshua White, bassist Rob Thorson and drummer Tyler Kreutel--aren't wallflowers. They understand the endeavor, that they re-staking a claim. As you might have already guessed, this is as pure as jazz gets. It's equal parts melody and improvisation, and while it's grounded in the past it obviously wants to remind everyone of the power of "classic bop" and how it influenced everything that came afterward.
Monika Wall is a delightful anachronism, a singer-songwriter who seems to have stepped out of the 1970s to deliver a gentle, mid-tempo folk rock that is from the same mold as Carole King and even Joni Mitchell. She's been traveling the world for inspiration, from "an African American gospel choir to majestic 1000 year old cathedrals, country churches and concert halls." I feel like I grew up with this sound, pulled from Southern California's mellow past, the birth of FM, the signature warmth that is dipped in love for nature, God, being at peace.
The word hippie comes to mind, but Monika Wall is not that unless you're going to use it in the kindest way. In her new album Earth, Wall shows off a number of styles that slowly veer away from that template--by the time she gets to the fourth song on this EP, "One Step," she's right in the middle of jazz, and that's about as far from the classic '70s sound as it gets. But she returns to her home by the end with the Anne Bisson-esque "Season of Rain" and "We Will Rise," which is, of course, an anthem.
I have to be honest--I wasn't listening to this music even in the '70s. I was always a wild child in my musical tastes, preferring music that was loud, fast and threatening to the old folks. (My older brother constantly foisted the quieter music on me such as Loggins and Messina, Seals and Croft, etc., and I didn't bite.) As someone who seems to be flying through his fifties at a breakneck pace, however, I enjoy two specific things--the strong recording quality of Earth, much better than the music it evokes, and a sense of nostalgic that may not have been mine but still floated through the air when I was young. It's a common thing to gravitate toward the music of your youth, and I feel that Monika Wall might be doing that very same thing.
Uh oh, I thought.
You got one of them red caps on the album cover, you start off with "America, the Beautiful" and you follow up with original compositions with titles such as "Fake News," "Repeal and Replace" and "The Great Wall"...what am I getting myself into here? Fortunately, Make Big Band Great Again is not what you think, or it's exactly what you think, depending upon your views. "It made no sense to me that Donald Trump aimed to dismantle the progress of the Obama era while simultaneously presenting himself as a man of the people," composer and arranger Elliot Deutsch explains.
This EP--outside of the patriotic intro, there are only four compositions here--is Deutsch's musical reaction to the 2016 election as someone who depends upon Obamacare and the NEA. He originally intended this album as a tribute to Los Angeles, which is why the final song is titled "Pink Sunset (Over Gray Skies)." You can listen to these four main pieces without attaching any message to them, since this is a bright, jazzy big band performance with a tight groove and solid melodies. If you dig deep into Deutsch's intentions, the music changes.
"Repeal and Replace," for instance, alternates between a tighter groove that represents Trump's vision for health care, and wild sections that describe the actual mess he created. A lone trumpet represents a single citizen trying to navigate the chasm. "The Great Wall" has an enthusiastic and celebratory feel to it which is meant to symbolize the idea of a "migrant-free utopia" while secretly presenting the idea that an easier path to immigration would be the wiser solution.
This is a brave album, just like John Daversa's American Dreamers--one has to think that a majority of big band jazz fans are older and possibly conservative in their views. That brings you back to the title, about making big band great again, and how that might occur in one of two ways--by enlightening the current fans or by bringing in the younger folks who are more in tune with this approach. Then again, music has always been an effective medium for those who cherish free speech. If that brings more people to big jazz, or if that makes some people re-evaluate their values, it's a good thing.
Sunday, December 2, 2018
Here's the reason why I went to San Diego a couple of weeks ago--to see the North American debut of the $265,900/system YG Acoustics loudspeakers and the $250,000/pair Dan D'Agostino monoblock amplifiers at Alma Audio! You can read all about it here.
Saturday, December 1, 2018
I haven't mentioned this yet, but I have a new headphone rig in for review--an Inspire Dragon IHA-1 tubed amplifier from Dennis Had, and a pair of Focal Clear headphones. I have this hooked up to my Unison Research CDE CD player as well as my laptop where I have access to Tidal and Roon and now Qobuz. The only reason I'm bring this up now is Secret Treetop from the Annie Chen Octet is playing this evening. I've been listening to it on my main system in the living room before now, and I've been intrigued.
This new headphone rig is pretty special, by the way. It's revealing and yet easy on the ears.
Well, I just listened to Secret Treetop on this rig for the first time, and I literally jumped out of my chair during the first track, "Ozledim Seni." This track begins like an outtake from Peter Gabriel's Passion, filled with Middle Eastern themes and lots of unusual percussion. I'm not sure what percussion instrument startled me so--it sounded like some kind of wooden chimes--but it wasn't in the headphones. It was out in the room. I thought something had fallen behind me, to the left, all around. I thought something was going to land on my head. It was the music, this exotic hybrid of jazz and world music and, most significantly, Chinese poetry. And stuff was falling and crashing all around me.
So far this sounds more like a review of the hardware than the software, but I did want to illustrate just how unusual this album is and how there are multiple surprises around every corner. Annie Chen was born in Beijing and now lives in New York. She was trained to be a classical pianist but fell in love with jazz, as the story so often goes. She sings as well, and this exciting album, her second, is wonderfully eclectic and filled with so many fascinating ideas that come from both classical and jazz. Her poetry is the bridge between the media, mostly sung in Chinese (English lyrics are supplied), full of distinct imagery that is on a very different level than mere lyrics in an ordinary song. I've called this poetry, and it is:
I'll stay in bed, there might be a man next to me.
More often left, I'm just alone,
Just me and the express way, running right next to my room.
There is a profound richness to this project, and exciting attention to detail that consumes both the music and the vocals. Chen's voice is both personable and lovely--she's telling stories here but you are also lulled by the beauty of her voice. While much of the music performed by these eight musicians is based primarily within jazz motifs, there is a freedom to explore that will remind you of a small classical ensemble. It's the words, however, that will command your attention. Chen has even borrowed rhythmic structures from other cultures--Japan and Italy and Turkey are also influences--and there isn't a single idea expressed that is not a deliberate choice from someone who understands language just as much as music. Secret Treetop is intelligent and mysterious, and it sounds wonderful on headphones, too.
Friday, November 30, 2018
Vinyl Anachronist #124 is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is my annual wrap-up, with awards for best vinyl releases, turntables and more! You can read it here.
Thursday, November 29, 2018
My latest review for Positive Feedback, the ORG reissue of the 1988 Shirley Horn album Softly, is now live. You can read it here.
This latest show report from the Capital Audiofest concerns a little speaker that kicked a lot of butt--the KEF Reference 1. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Another day, another show report from the 2018 Capital Audiofest about a big system that blew my mind. This one featured Bricasti and Tidal Audio, and you can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
"I am privileged to have spent my life studying world music cultures," begins Dr. Paul Austerlitz on the liner notes for his new album, Water Prayer for Bass Clarinet, and that sets everything up perfectly. Austerlitz, who plays a variety of instruments, has focused squarely on the wonderful, under-represented bass clarinet and how it can slide effortlessly into a number of jazz styles--especially when those genres are specific to a certain geography. A mix of originals and arrangements of originals, this album makes a brilliant case for this beautifully textured instrument, this enormous brute with a kind spirit and a big heart.
From the very first time I heard a bass clarinet sing--I have no idea about the when and where--I loved it. There are some musical instruments that have such a warm and forgiving timbre, and this woodwind has some of the same affable characteristics as the bassoon and contrabassoon, such as range. But the bass clarinet, despite its size, also has that playful tone of the smaller clarinets, a keen sense of swing that encourages everyone else on stage to keep up. By the time this album is over, you'll have a new affection for this instrument--and I think that's what Dr. Austerlitz had in mind the whole time.
Most of these arrangements dive straight in, jazz-wise. Austerlitz is cunning in the way he brings those world music cultures into the mix. The influences are deep and tricky, everything from Haitian "Rara" ("Rara Indivisible") to Finnish folk music ("Finnish Waltz") to Jimi Hendrix' guitar ("Funk-Ay-Be-Sea"). Nigeria, Romania and Cuba are also represented--so much of this man's interesting and rich life winds up on the stage, surrounded by fellow musicians with equally strong instincts and diverse tastes.
This is about jazz, the bass clarinet and world music, and the precise points where they intersect in the universe, and that makes this an album that may prompt you to explore these different forms so that you can learn while you listen. Most of all, this is about the love of a voice, a distinct tone that isn't quite heard enough. This recording sounds fabulous, which means it's very informative in the way it lays out the core bass clarinet sound, its range, what it's capable of doing. I love recordings like this. It's more than education, it's about opening up new parts of your brain and filling it with splendid noises that make your life more interesting.
Pay Your Dues Fondue. Hand Rolled Drum Rug with Perspiration Reduction. Finger Snap Peas with Second Hand Emulsion. Mixed Sorbets with Freshly Grated Cymbal Stand Felts. These are the menu selections for drummer Bill Stewart's new trio recording. Along with bassist Larry Grenadier and tenor sax player Walter Smith III, Stewart has created a sly take on three jazz guys hammering it out and improvising like madmen. I want to call Band Menu an exercise in free jazz, but it is far too coherent to be called anything else than pure be-bop, perhaps minus the theme-improv-theme structure. Let's face it, this is highly listenable stuff, defined by its freedom but also carried by a quiet dedication to melody that turns out to be quite subversive.
Stewart is obviously an original jazz drummer. He's able to extract an encyclopedia of noise from his kit, and he isn't afraid to wander--it's been a long time since I've heard a wood block strike sound so inventive. He has a definite "I can do anything I want to" vibe, and each of these compositions are led by his curiosity, mated to a bad attitude. That's what makes this recording different than most--it's as if these guys don't care what you think. Either you get in the car or you miss out on the time of your life. Step on it.
The wry humor here isn't just confined to the menu. The songs wear the ideas on their lapels, the most obvious being "F U Donald." There's also "Hair and Teeth," "Good Goat" and "Think Before You Think." Here's the tricky question, however--does this humor invade the actual music? That's hard to determine since these are jazz instrumentals, played with poise and skill. There aren't any obvious clues, such as pennywhistles or other Spike Jonesian conceits. But I think that attitude, and the way these three brandish it, is comedy of the highest order and meant to entertain the few.
It keeps coming back to this sublime sense of obstinance, this growing sense that Stewart, Grenadier and Smith are telling jokes just to see if you can get them, to see if you are hip, to see if you're "jazz" enough. There's nothing goofy or trivial about Band Menu, just a gloriously layered amusement wrapped up in stunning, serious performances.
As for me, I'll take the Wilted Recording Contract Salad.
Here's another show report from the Capital Audiofest, this one concerning a new speaker driver technology that sounded quite wonderful. You can read about it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Monday, November 26, 2018
Which city is the "Old City"? If you're hung up on the answer to this question while listening to the Julian Gerstin Sextet's new album, you might be missing the point. That's the first thing I did. I looked at the cover, I checked the liner notes, and I came up empty. The simple truth is that "the Old City" is a state of mind, an "imaginary locale." Percussionist Julian Gerstin wanted the title to reflect a certain state of mind, a distant place where the pace is slower and the history is richer. He's borrowed primarily from Afro-Cuban genres of jazz to create a sound that is both relaxed and filled with exciting rhythms.
Gerstin's sextet also includes clarinet player Anna Patton, horn player Don Anderson, pianist Eugene Uman, bassist Wes Brown and drummer Ben James, and he enlists many guest stars such as violinist Lissa Schneckenburger and guitarist Keith Murphy to broaden the scope of these originals. This sounds like a busy ensemble, heavy on horn and polyrhythms, and you wouldn't be far off with that assessment. But the surprising things about The Old City is the air and the space around all these musicians. Gerstin's arrangements are clean and straightforward, as uncluttered as an empty bus station. This allows the melodies to leap forward and reveal their worldly influences--not only Cuba but Columbia and the Balkans and even Iran.
These exotic tinges are usually introduced by Gerstin himself. He uses percussion instruments from all over the world to play Cuban music, adding another layer of intrigue. That's partially due to the focus on Afro-Cuban traditions, since Gerstin has studies in places such as Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. He's successful at this blending of influences because he knows them so well, and he knows where they intersect. He also a sanguine drummer, light with his touch, so while you marvel at the speed of his fingers on drum heads, you're leaning forward into the music instead of backwards.
This is a fantastic set, full of the requisite amount of energy needed for Latin and Caribbean jazz. But you'll walk away from The Old City thinking about Gerstin's light touch on percussion. It dances along nearly every second like a charismatic actor who's in every scene of a movie. It's unusual that he's not the lead character but someone working hard in the background to inspire everyone else on stage. His arms must get tired. That said, you never get tired of his presence, and you'll miss him when the record is over and he stops playing.
There's a difference between nostalgia and finding yourself somewhere you haven't been in a long time. The Odd Dogs, a group of jazz fusion musicians from Los Angeles, do come from another time, a period in jazz history when everything broke loose and intrepid musicians gathered up the pieces, scooping up bits of rock and funk and plugging everything into a wall outlet. The old jazz tropes weren't exactly discarded--they became important ingredients in a very new recipe. I was but a kid when this happened, back when Al Di Meola and Weather Report and others were creating a new sound that attracted a new generation of fans, ones that grew up on experimental rock in the '60s and '70s and were already prepped for entry into this musical frontier.
The Odd Dogs aren't a throwback to the first wave of jazz fusion, but they will remind you of the best stuff from the past. This quintet--guitarist Jeff Miley, bassist Steve Billman, saxophonist/keyboardist Andy Suzuki, drummer Ralph Humphrey and percussionist Billy Hulting--are creating a new type of fusion that belongs squarely in 2018. You can hear those old fusion strains ducking in and out of these tracks, just bumping up against classic Santana, Zappa or even Chicago, but you can also hear the oh-so-modern influence of math rock. We're not talking about the unusual time signatures, of which there are many, but rather the lean and clean aesthetic that's more contemporary.
The Odd Dogs were originally thought of as a "power trio," formed by longtime friends Billman and Miley. I'm glad they expanded a bit since it's the unique textures that make Beneath the Surface so intriguing. The quintet is able to shift moods effortlessly--one song will be a total shred, aggressive and mean, and the next will dial back the snarl and be far more easygoing than any fusion song from the late '70s and early '80s. These five men are versatile beyond belief--there are even a few stray moments when they play straight jazz and they do it exceptionally well.
Another plus is the extraordinary sound quality of this recording. It's clean and yet natural--you'll never dig deeper into an electric bass guitar than you will here. This is the type of fun, dynamic fusion recording that's also strong on detail, with one little moment after another creating distinct visions and ideas. The Odd Dogs are a natural extension of that fascinating music that appeared thirty or forty years ago, so different and yet so appealing. If you're a big fan of fusion and you're still obsessing over Heavy Weather, this album will take you back and make you smile.
Here's another show report from the Capital Audiofest, this one on Amphion's new range of loudspeakers. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Sunday, November 25, 2018
We've just completed our coverage of the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest at Part-Time Audiophile, so I've just put up my wrap-up of the show and my overall impressions. You can read it here.
Here's another show report from the 2018 Capital Audiofest, this one concerning a controversy about the sonic signature of one of my favorite speakers in the world--the Harbeth 30.2 Anniversary. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Saturday, November 24, 2018
This show report from the Capital Audiofest discusses a truly wild, innovative little $54,000 box that might portend a change in the future of audio. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.
Friday, November 23, 2018
Here's another show report from the Capital Audiofest on a frigid Black Friday (it hit zero degrees Fahrenheit overnight here in Rochester, so I ain't leaving the house!). This one takes me back to my days in Texas, where it does not get anywhere this cold. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.