Tuesday, October 30, 2018

New Trenner & Friedl ART Monitors!

A few months ago, maybe a year, I found out that Austrian speaker manufacturer Trenner & Friedl was going to update my beloved ART monitors. I've wanted to put this news into my blog for a long time now, but I kept forgetting. I first received my ARTs way back in April of 2011, when I was still living in Texas. Since then they've been one of my most consistent references, and I love everything about these loudspeakers.

The photo above is the new version, which still have the same dimensions but different drivers, different materials and many improvements on the inside. That is not a stock photo of the new ART, however--yes, a pair just showed up at my door thanks to my friend Bob Clarke at Profundo, the US distributor! I'm about 30 minutes into listening to them right now, and I won't say anything until they have settled in--let's just say I'm smiling.

The new ARTs will be my first official equipment review for Part-Time Audiophile, and of course I will be comparing them directly to my older version. I don't believe in direct comparisons between two products, but as you can imagine this will be quite different. We Trenner & Friedl ART owners in the US are few but proud, and we know this monitor is one of the best-kept secrets in audio. All of my ART buddies are dying to know what the differences are, and I am in the unique position of being able to do that thanks to Bob, Peter Trenner and Andreas Friedl.

Very, very excited.

Rich Halley 3's The Literature

Saxophonist Rich Halley has released twenty albums of original compositions, and for release #21 he has decided to pay tribute to his mentors, legendary jazz performers and composers such as Monk, Coleman, Mingus, Ellington, Sun Ra and Miles Davis. This sounds like a fairly straightforward project, but Halley isn't a by-the-books kind of arranger. He and his trio (bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley) live on the cusp of free jazz. That means Halley likes to preserve the original themes, often starting out with a coherent interpretation that is eventually and sometimes suddenly deconstructed in very unusual ways.

Sure, there a wild moments of chaos here and there, but the surprise here is that Halley's brand of free jazz is more introspective than most. This is, for lack of a better word, intimate free jazz borne from a stripped down trio where every instrument is dissected and laid out on the table for the listener to examine. Most trio albums have what I like to call a "crawl around inside" feel to the instrumentation. On The Literature, however, you get to explore every nook and cranny of tenor sax, bass and drums. In addition, you're treated to a clarity of thought that makes these tunes far more accessible than you'd expect.

That means you're getting complex renderings of these three musicians during their solos--there's a starkness to this recording that lets you dig right in and hear details that are often buried in more commercial jazz recordings. Halley's sax is perfectly melodic for most of these songs--the press kit mentions Sonny Rollins and I definitely hear those honey-dipped phrasings. The younger Halley is Rich's son, and he can deliver in a number of jazz styles, but I'm most impressed when he lets his tribal side emerge and he lets loose with a rolling, thunderous beat that creates plenty of tension. His work on his loose and snappy snare is also a pleasure to hear. It's also a pleasure to spend plenty of time in the cavernous recess of Reed's bass. I feel like I've been neglecting bassists lately--I realize that my last couple of reviews completely failed to mention them, which was not on purpose. But Reed is given plenty of opportunities in the spotlight, and his bass is earthy and he extracts a unique tone during his solos.

The Literature is not one of those wild and out-of-control free jazz albums that I periodically tackle. If you're flummoxed by one song, don't give up--there are different degrees of deconstruction here and you might be surprised when one clicks with your sensibilities. The trio's take on Ellington's "Mood Indigo," for example, consists of a very unusual arrangement that nevertheless preserves that one-of-a-kind melody, one that usually disconnects me from my troubles and causes me to float off into the distant past. Free jazz, after all, is about finding an entry point and jumping into the fray. There are plenty of spots to jump into here, and that makes The Literature one of the most intriguing and enjoyable free jazz expeditions I've joined.

RMAF 2018: Zesto Audio's Feast for the Ears and Eyes

Another of my Rocky Mountain Audio Fest show reports is now online at Part-Time Audiophile. This one features the beautiful tube amplification from Zesto Audio. You can read it here.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018: The Voice That Is!

Here's the latest from my show reports at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, this one about the spectacular sound from audio dealer The Voice That Is! You can read about it here.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra's Down a Rabbit Hole

Of all the big band jazz recordings I've reviewed over the last year, this might be the first orchestra led by a woman. I'm presenting this as objectively as possible, but shouldn't women bandleaders be more of a thing? There are plenty of female jazz musicians and certainly singers, not to mention composers. I'm a bit surprised by this. Other than Carla Bley and Maria Schneider, I can't think of another.

With Down a Rabbit Hole, we have a leader in Ayn Inserto, a composer, arranger and educator who was born in Singapore but was raised in Bay Area and now is a fundamental part of the Boston jazz scene. As her biography reveals, she started taking piano lessons as a child and "learned to read chords from a book of Disney tunes and soon started substituting her own chord choices to make the songs sound more interesting." That certain sounds like the birth of an exciting new talent, and soon she was studying jazz piano while playing the organ for her church choir, a venue where she was able to learn how to improvise, strangely enough. Her history sounds like a primer for independent musical thinking, and that shows up in her arrangements. She has a distinctly melodic approach to big band jazz, and her signature is bright and colorful.

"The trick about falling down rabbit holes is knowing how to get back out," the liner notes explain, and Inserto's gift is cleverness--especially the way her compositions constantly shift in unexpected ways. With the help of gifted soloists Sean Jones (trumpet), John Fedchock (trombone) and George Garzone (tenor sax), her music is always playful and positive without pandering to the audience or depriving the content of emotional depth. There is a happiness throughout these seven songs--mostly originals except for a stunningly original take on Berry Gordy's "I'll Be There"--and Inserto's approach is always one of enthusiasm and gusto. As I've said before, big band jazz is supposed to be somewhat flashy and dynamic with only occasional sojourns into ballads and sad songs, but her orchestra is downright vivacious.

I'm also impressed with the sound quality on this recording, which was captured on the Shames Family Scoring Stage at Berklee in Boston. Take the opening moments of the first track, "Three and Me," and the way drummer Austim McMahon's ride cymbal sounds so intimate and pure--as in a trio recording. There's a sensitivity to scale here, which goes hand in hand with Inserto's keen sense of dynamic control, and that helps to spread out that big band sound so the individual components aren't buried in a wall of sound. While much of this is in the realm of recording engineer and mixer Mark Wessel and mastering engineer Rich Breen, it's Inserto herself who has produced this album as well, along with co-producers Fedchock and Jeff Claassen. This places Inserto in the "force of nature" category, where she has mastered a vision of big band jazz that is exciting and original and worth seeking out.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Roland Hanna's Perugia--Live at Montreux '74

ORG Music has been confusing me a lot lately with a wide variety of jazz releases that seem, in the words of Kilgore Trout, unstuck in time. For example, I've received albums from Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 and Sunny War that I thought were lost classics, but they weren't. They were brand new recordings. I've also received some incredible LPs, such as Shirley Horn's Softly, that I thought were a good twenty or thirty years older than they actually are. (Softly is from 1988, a strange year for a jazz classic.) These ORG LPs have been quite stunning, especially the pressings themselves. These slabs of vinyl are quiet and smooth--I haven't had any issues with surface noise or other defects. Kudos to the pressing plant that ORG uses, which is the Pallas Group in Germany.

Roland Hanna's Perugia does not have that same temporal mystery--it's subtitled Live at Montreux '74, so we can be pretty sure about its origin. In addition, the early '70s weren't really known for sonic masterpieces as much as pure creative energy, with the lone exception of the Three Blind Mice label from Japan and perhaps Opus3 from Sweden. Perugia isn't necessarily known as a reference disc as much as a time machine, a capturing of a brilliant performance from a pianist who known more for his work in trios than all by himself. This was a rare performance for the unsuspecting folks at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on the night of July 2, 1974. On a night devoted to tributes of Duke Ellington, Roland Hanna walked onto the stage and started off with an electric (figuratively, not literally) performance of "Take the A-Train" that immediately grabbed everyone's attention.

Hanna was originally trained as a classical pianist, and that attention to detail defines his style on the keyboards. As I mentioned, he is lightning quick and full of bristling energy and there's a uplifting ragtime vibe to almost everything he plays. On this recording, Hanna sounds like a very small pianist playing in a very large space, which might have been the case. The sound of his piano is distant, and the listener has the perspective of someone halfway back in the audience. That doesn't mean the fidelity to the original performance isn't there, and you can hear deep into the physical confines of the piano as he delivers each note thanks to the wonderful remastering job done at Infrasonic. But you are part of an event here, a large one, and Perugia does remind you of that all the way through. In addition, the applause is distant as well, a homogeneous sea of clapping hands, so the listener of this album becomes one of the corners of an equilateral triangle. This setting, by the way, was fairly common for live jazz recordings back in the early '70s, so ORG is being faithful to the original tapes.

None of this detracts from the soul and the emotion of Roland Hanna's piano. All this vast space is ameliorated by Hanna's verbal cues--like Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett, Hanna was prone to humming while he played. It's much more subtle than with the other two--at first I thought it was some sort of distortion creeping into my system, but it's the big man himself, forcing that beautiful music out into the air. That adds a human quality to this recording that helps to overcome the vast sonic landscape in front of you, aligning this performance into a single line that flows easily front Point A (Hanna's fingertips) to Point B (you).

If you're not familiar with Roland Hanna--I only have a passing familiarity with his work with other artists--Perugia is the best opportunity to get closer to this incredible pianist. Hanna plays with a huge heart, a sense of joy and a daunting sense of excitement. ORG's mission with these latest jazz recordings is becoming ever clearer--these folks want you to hear important things that you might have missed the first time. Perugia is an important document of a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime performance, and you shouldn't miss it.

Greg Yasinitsky's YAZZ Band

Here's another big band jazz album from an academic, this time from the Pacific Northwest--my old stomping grounds. Saxophonist Greg Yasinitsky teaches composition, jazz studies and the finer points of his musical instrument at Washington State University. As with most of these professors in jazz studies programs across the United States, Yasinitsky has one of those long resumes where he's played with everybody worth playing with--Randy Brecker, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Louie Bellson, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme and Clark Terry. In other words, he's no journeyman. His new album, YAZZ Band, is strictly big band jazz, which always seems like a natural choice for musicians who are mentoring the next generation of young musicians.

As you might imagine, this is a very professional affair with lots of superb featured soloists such as drummers David Jarvis and Dan Bukvich, trumpeter Vern Sielert, flugelhorn player John Harbaugh and many more. What's intriguing is this beautiful recording was captured right in the studios at WSU, which seems to underline that premise I've been pushing all year--that college jazz programs are doing more than their share to keep jazz alive in the United States. This recording, like many others of its kind, sounds just as dynamic and clean and realistic as anything that might have been laid down at a professional studio with some guy at the board who's been doing the same thing for several decades. The line between "Jazz Studies" and "Jazz in the Real World" is getting mighty blurry.

It makes sense that these are original Yasinitsky compositions since he teaches the subject at WSU, and he does have a classic style that melds a nostalgic feel from the post-war era with a big, dynamic sound that's suited for modern big band audiences. Yasinitsky leads the band much of the way while he's blowing his sax, and he has a sultry delivery that reinforces that old-fashioned yet sexy mood. There's only a few times that Yasinitsky steps back and lets someone else take the wheel, and that someone is usually pianist Brian Ward. Ward shares Yasinitsky's taste for sweeping romantic notions, and his lyrical phrasing digs deep into the beating heart of songs such as "New York Confidential" and "Sideways."

Many of Yasinitsky's compositions were commissioned for the 30th anniversary of the British Columbia Interior Jazz Festival. Most of the musicians in the YAZZ Band are also from the Pacific Northwest. I'd like to say that the YAZZ Band plays in the traditional style of PNW jazz, but as far as I know there is no such thing. What this geography reveals is that big band jazz is experiencing quite a lot of exposure these days, whether the musicians are from the University of North Texas, the University of South Florida or Washington State University. It's American music, played all over the world, and young people are still signing up in droves to learn it and play it--and that's exciting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Ar-Kaics' In This Time

Have you ever watched a movie where they show some "archival footage," all scratched up and made to look ancient, but it's not convincing because the quality of the print lacks that patina that the real old stuff has? There are a lot of indie bands out there doing the same thing, making music in 2018 that's supposed to sound like music from 1967, but there's something lost in the translation, something that gives the whole thing away.

When I first received The Ar-Kaics' new album, In This Time, I assumed it was another one of those fabulous Light In The Attic reissues, something found in the vaults of some recording studio that didn't quite gel at the time but now has a real prescient value. The Ar-Kaics' sound is prime late-sixties garage band, heavy on reverb to the point where the buzzing of the guitar amps become a fifth member of the band, and it all sounds like a fantastic discovery from a quartet of musicians who spent their summers learning songs from early The Who, the Velvet Underground and The Animals. But they're not. They're a new band from Virginia, and this is their sophomore album. It's killer.

Yes, the Ar-Kaics have mastered this classic grungy studio sound to the point where even seasoned ears will instantly believe this recording is at least 50 years old. Thanks to producer Wayne Gordon, who's worked with everyone from Black Lips to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, these four young musicians--guitarist/vocalist Kevin Longendyke, guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Johnny Ward, bassist Tim Abbondelo and drummer Patty Conway--have completely mastered garage band sound to the point where this not only feels like a lost classic, it feels like an album that would have been an influential and beloved release if it had come out way back when. Longendyke and Ward's two-guitar attack is simple yet inspired and sounds like something you've heard before but can't put your finger on. The comparison of Conway to Mo Tucker seems a little on the nose, but it's probably intentional since she has such a catchy and primitive style.

The Ar-Kaic's fidelity to this old sound was partially due to the execution. Recorded in just three days in Montrose Studios, In This Time sounds like an album that was caught on the fly, between gigs, since the band needed to pay rent before they were thrown out on the street. If you're a dedicated rock and roll fan and you crave that raw energy that seems to be in short supply among today's indie bands, this album will be a revelation. The songs are strong, memorable and grimy, and you'll keep playing it over and over.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Randy Waldman's SuperHeroes

By definition, big band jazz albums should be a lot of fun. This new CD from pianist Randy Waldman, famous for his work with Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble and The Manhattan Transfer, uses a big band setting for this huge project that's centered around superhero themes. We're talking "The Adventures of Superman," "The Mighty Mouse Theme," "Spiderman" and eight more familiar tunes, all played by a star-studded cast (did I actually just use that term?) that includes Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Gadd, Randy Brecker, George Benson and the vocal group Take 6. Waldman also uses cameos from celebrities such as John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Buble, James Brolin, Jeff Goldblum and Josh Groban to push the narration forward. It took five years for Waldman to put this all together, and the result is the ultimate big budget, big band release--polished, fun and professional.

As Waldman explains the genesis of this product, he was sitting next to Adam West at an event when the two of them started talking about jazz. West was a big jazz aficionado, and Waldman walked away from the conversation thinking that "West was an actaul jazz superhero." He then enlisted the help of his own "jazz superheroes" to make this album. He uses his own jazz trio, which also includes drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, to provide the core for the jazz arrangements of this famous music, which makes the overall feel less "big band" and far more intimate and focused. The big horn section provides punctuation, not to mention affirmations of the well-known themes, but the heart of the music belongs to three swinging jazz musicians.

That's an excellent strategy, of course--there's a lot of people walking in and out of these songs, and it could easily devolve into chaos. Waldman keeps his piano at the center of it all, and his distinctive and melodic style is the glue that holds it all together. What makes this product live and breathe far beyond gimmickry is found in the improvisation, and how Waldman's arrangements start off with a very recognizable tune such as the theme for Batman (both from the TV show and the 1989 film), The Six Million Dollar Man and even Super Chicken and use it as a launching point for some intriguing tangents that travel great distances to highlight the musical validity of each piece. This is pretty much standard for jazz, of course--theme, improvisation, reprise--but Waldman takes it a step further by winding up at some surprising destinations. Sometimes you forget the origins along the way, but when it's all wrapped up at the end it makes perfect sense.

On the surface, SuperHeroes doesn't seem like serious jazz, and serious jazz aficionados might scoff at the idea of turning these old tunes into something that can be called legitimate. What makes this album so surprising and rewarding, however, is that it does feature some great performances, and these arrangements are inventive and skilled in their execution--even Super Chicken. The novelty is only obvious for a minute or two of each track, and then you're rewarded with some top-notch jazz from some of the best musicians in the world.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Carlos Averhoff Jr's Qba!--Jazz Meets Cuban Timba

Many years ago I purchased, on a whim, a copy of Gonzalo Rubalcaba's Suite 4 Y 20. Not only did that 1993 LP introduce me to Cuban jazz and its many sub-genres years before Buena Vista Social Club came along, but it also helped to cement my love for all jazz during a period of my life where I had become bored with pop and rock. To this day I still have a warm spot in my heart for that album, especially in the way those subtle afro-Cuban polyrhythms burrowed their way into my deep subconscious and still occasionally emerge as delightful little earworms. Saxophonist Carlos Averhoff Jr. has helped me to revisit some of that magic in his new album Qba!. He has subtitled the album Jazz Meets Cuban Timba, which refers to one of those Cuban sub-genres that blends Cuban folk music with salsa, funk and R&B. It's a sound that instantly takes me back 25 years to Rubalcaba, back to when jazz was a largely unspoiled frontier for me.

While the overall flavor of the album is fairly straightforward jazz, heavy on improvisation, Averhoff has enlisted the help of Cuban jazz musicians who have played with plenty of Timba dance bands, folks such as trumpeter Alexis Baro, pianist Rolando Luna, bassist Nestor Del Prado and drummer Oliver Valdes. That gives these eight tunes, classic compositions that have all been arranged by Averhoff, space to reflect the Timba approach. The result is romantic, abetted by plenty of liveliness that isn't necessarily spurred on by huge dollops of percussion. Averhoff is able to suggest these native rhythms through a pure lyricism, especially when it comes to his saxophone and Baro's trumpet. Their phrasing is distinctly Cuban in feel and transports standards such as Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No" and Jimmy Van-Heusen's "It Could Happen to You" right into a public square in the middle of Havana.

It's exciting to watch the two halves of this music come together, the sweetness and longing of the exquisite melodies and the pulsating rhythms, although they're not necessarily competing with each other at the same time. Qba! ebbs and flows with its energy, and it's designed to be enjoyed whole in a single sitting--almost like a travelogue. While Averhoff's arrangements fuse these disparate elements together with grace, it's Valdes' drumming that truly forms the bridge. He is able to communicate the idea of complex percussion while sitting behind his kit, often sounding like at least two men and sometimes even three.

Many of today's jazz fans are already primed for this type of music by Buena Vista, but the most illuminating part of Qba! is how the music chronicles Averhoff's love for Timba throughout his life, especially when he was a young boy and this type of music was being played all through his neighborhood in Cuba. Averhoff has come a long way from those days--he studied for years in the top conservatories in Cuba before moving to the United States and graduating from the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. That rich, sultry sound coming from his saxophone will always be his touchstone, however, since it's so evocative of Cuban jazz. Once you hear it, you'll never forget it.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mark Masters Ensemble's Our Metier

While listening to trumpeter Mark Masters' new album, Our Metier, I started thinking about European influences in jazz and how to properly define them--a fool's errand, of course. Perhaps it's because of the impressionist painting on the cover, or Masters' propensity for using ethereal elements in his music such as voice and vibes, but these ten original compositions are dense and complex and moody and because of that they seem to be from somewhere else, somewhere more cultured. Masters is known for re-imagining the music of others into jazz idioms, most notably his adaptations of Steely Dan, but here he seems to be traveling abroad, at least in his mind, soaking his forward-thinking jazz in a sea of pastels.

That's the key here, colors, because that's what I hear when I listen to Our Metier. I'm not talking about synesthesia, of course, but the simple act of ascribing colors to moods. That apt cover was wisely chosen and sets those moods, and Masters has assembled what he calls a "free bop" large ensemble that can move and improvise in a way that highlights those natural and light-filled hues. There's a lightness to his music, the sense that everything is floating in space as one despite the focus on improvisation.

These impressions are mostly due to Masters' vivid arrangements, and his ensemble is unique enough to bring the composition and the execution together. He's enlisted two trumpets (Scott Englebright and Les Lovitt, a French horn (Stephanie O'Keefe), two trombones (Les Benedict and Ryan Dragon, plenty of woodwinds, including a bass clarinet (Kirsten Edkins and Bob Carr,. a piano (Ed Czach and thate ghostly, shimmering vibraphone (Craig Fundyga). That implies a horn-heavy presentation, which is certainly true at times, but that ethereal sheen levels the playing field so that the horn and woodwinds are balanced with the core sextet of soloists and the lovely, wordless vocals of Anna Mjoll. That's right, each track contains a solo from what Masters calls The Sextet: drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Putter Smith, trumpeter Tim Hogans and saxophone players Gary Foster, Oliver Lake and Mark Turner.

That's almost a big band right there, and at times it sounds like one. For the most part Our Metier has a much more intimate feel to it, however, a softer countenance that, despite all those horns, is smoother and lighter than you'd expect from such a large ensemble. For me this music offers only a passing resemblance to big band jazz--it is far more subtle and moody, and far more loose and exploratory. Perhaps that's why I keep thinking of this album as European in character--it seems to me that European big bands such as the WDR are far more willing to go beyond the boundaries of any particular jazz genre and give in to intuition. This is jazz from an impressionist master, with all those wonderful colors intact.

John Daversa Big Band's American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom

It's not often that you can call a big band jazz recording timely or topical, but here we are with American Dreamers, a project from John Daversa's Big Band that brings together DACA artists who can also play musical instruments and otherwise perform within a big band setting. Daversa worked with several non-profit immigrant organizations and was able to locate 53 Dreamers in 17 states, children of immigrants from such countries as Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and even Canada. American Dreamers, in its final form, is a busy, ambitious mixture of songs chosen by the Dreamers, songs such as "Living In America," "Immigrant Song," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "America" from West Side Story, all interspersed with stories of growing up in America from the Dreamers themselves.

As you can guess, this is a very unique big band recording, and not just because of the themes. Musically, Daversa's band is willing to take all kinds of crazy risks. You probably noticed that I mentioned "Immigrant Song"--yes, we're talking about the Led Zeppelin song, and it blends the big band sound with lots of churning, electric guitars and--wait for it--sections of pure hip-hop. It's wonderful and exciting and like nothing you've heard. In other tracks these dreamers perform musical and vocal solos, complex percussion grooves, spoken word poetry and more rapping. Did I say this project was ambitious?

The beating heart of this album, however, is the stories. One Dreamer talks of earning a university scholarship and being unable to take advantage of it because of his immigration status. Another explains that she became a drummer and percussionist because it helped to alleviate her stress about her immigration status. Another describes how her family came to America to get medical help for her sister. These stories are not casually told, but conveyed with heart and emotion.

"Music has always been tied to the fight for justice." This quote from U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, along with another from Senator Lindsey Graham, are featured prominently on the back cover of American Dreamers, and that provides the momentum for the album, the call to action. To appropriate an old musical cliche, Daversa's big band plays with feeling, but it's more real and sincere than usual. This album could have been shrouded in earnestness, but the skill and cohesiveness of these arrangements brings the cause to another level, one that should garner significant attention once the word gets out. Listening to American Dreamers also begs the question: why don't they take this on the road? Put it on Broadway! Keep fighting the fight.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Sunny War's With the Sun Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of Sunny War's extraordinary new LP on ORG, With the Sun, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Marshall Gilkes and the WDR Big Band's Always Forward

"I've never been a huge fan of those purists that think jazz stopped after 1960."

That's why trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes has named his latest album Always Forward, to push the idea that big band needs to evolve just as much as it needs to honor traditions. He's enlisted the help of the Germany-based WDR Big Band, which I've previously reviewed in the Zoho Records release Rediscovering Ellington. While I was floored by the WDR's precision and grace, I was less impressed with the overall sound quality of the release--a rare occurrence for the otherwise excellent Zoho.

Always Forward is on a different label, Alternate Side Records, and this is a whole new ball game (sorry, but it's the MLB playoffs right now). My first reaction to hearing this big band play Gilkes' stunning original compositions is how wonderful it all sounds, especially from the point of view of an audiophile. Big band jazz can sound fantastic, of course, but if you don't have huge speakers and a big room you can lose the illusion of a BIG BAND, if you know what I mean. Gilkes and the WDR are so seamlessly joined together that the music, whether dynamic or intimate, is incredibly cohesive and easy to absorb. The best way to describe the sound of Always Forward is that you are swept up in its ocean of sound, as opposed to being constantly jolted by the obligatory crescendos from the horn section.

The superb sound quality of this recording is the key to this sense of unity. It helps that Gilkes' music is beautiful and lush, particularly by big band standards, but my current test for the fidelity of these recordings is whether or not intimate moments can be conveyed with the same honesty and realism as those maximum-impact blasts. Gilkes' trombone, for instance, is a marvel in the way it can sound so soft and fluid and full of emotion when it's isolated from WDR. His horn just floats easily in space, a few feet off the floor, backed by all those other musicians on the stage who know it's better to let this man blow his beautiful horn without a lot of fanfare or artificial excitement.

In this way, Always Forward is revolutionary. It takes careful listening to determine what makes a big band recording unique and worthwhile, but here the excellence is nebulous since it all feels so right. There's a flow, a sublime feeling of perfection that comes from this album which is created through the synergy of a trombone, a big band, and a man who knows how to bring it all together without succumbing to the temptations of too big of a presentation. If that's the future of big band jazz, I'm all for it.

The Adam Price Group's House Ghosts

There isn't much to clarinet player Adam Price's bio sheet. It contains just the basics--where he grew up, where he studied music and what he's doing now (teaching clarinet and theory at the Ferrwood Music Camp in Pennsylvania). Oh yes, it also mentions that in addition to the clarinet he is also proficient "on all saxophones and flutes, and has recently been deeply exploring ethnic woodwinds such as the Native American flute and didgeridoo." That seems like plenty of information, I know, but there's something missing. His new album, House Ghosts, is an enormously engaging debut album, surprising in the broadness of its scope of jazz clarinet. Where's all the copy about his dreams, aspirations and hopes for his wonderful vision of jazz?

This is one way of saying that we should let the music speak for itself. Price and his core quartet--pianist Isamu MacGregor, bassist Jack Synoski and drummer Spencer Inch--aren't reinventing the wheel here, but they do have an honest and lyrical approach to these tunes that's charming and affable without glossing over the details. MacGregor, who coincidentally was featured on the Orkestra Eustoria album I reviewed yesterday, adds the same melodic strength and conviction through his detailed style, while Synoski and Inch are a capable and focused rhythm section. Jeff Hatcher's additional percussion adds texture and depth, and Kristina Rajgelj's gorgeous and seductive voice graces "Chameleon Colored Eyes" and "Summer Thunder." But this album is centered around one thing--Price's powerful and forward clarinet.

Personally, I have strong feelings about the clarinet. My youngest son played it for many years, and I was surprised that I was able to catch on quite quickly thanks to some basic training I had with saxophones many years ago. The clarinet, therefore, is relatively easy to play compared to other woodwinds and brass instruments--I still can't manage to produce a single smooth note on a flute--but the secret in the art of the clarinet is to capture that unique and evocative timbre of the instrument and convey feelings and emotions that are extremely specific. Price excels at this. Every note from his clarinet establishes the mood, the direction for others to follow.

House Ghosts, therefore, is a love letter to the clarinet, an album to listen to when you really want to hear this instrument soar. It's a pleasure to hear a talent like this emerge so confident and masterful the first time out, and I look forward to what Price attempts in the future--even if it's with a didgeridoo.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Orkestra Eustoria's HyperGiant Hi-Fi

Orkestra Eustoria sounds like an exotic jazz ensemble based in a far away land--there's something about the "eu" and the "k" that reminds me of the Basque Country--but this space-age modern fusion ensemble is based in Astoria, Queens. Saxophonist Peter Sparacino, the leader of the Orkestra, has adopted this esoteric moniker in honor of Astoria, which is home to a very diverse population. That theme carries over into the music, of course, with its melding of styles and influences from all over the planet. Sparacino grabbed a few of his friends, musicians who represented "some of the most innovative and internationally recognized tour musicians working today," and started rehearsing with them extensively so that he could "solve his own musical shortcomings."

That's an odd thing for a band leader to admit, but it's not a reflection of his own sax playing, which is superb. It does refer to Sparacino's interest in odd time signatures, however, and his attraction to organic compositions with difficult time signatures such as 11/8 and 5/4. He took a lesson from legendary NYC pianist Fred Hersch and wrote compositions in 45 minutes or less, which is Hersch's "antidote" to excess in his own compositions. That's not to say that Orkestra Eustoria sounds like Hersch and his angular yet effortless style. But this method does create a loose style of music that is busy and spontaneous without losing its accessibility.

On this debut album, HyperGiant Hi-Fi, the Blue Plate Special is a dense fusion with liberal doses of pure funk, wild and brash and yet contained in a loose wrapper. Sparacino's sax is front and center most of the way, but the overall theme is one of a strange cohesion among the band members. It's weird to state that these musicians are simultaneously loose and yet contained, but there is a complicated structure that lurks just beneath the surface, a scaffold that affords each member to explore and wander while paying attention to those challenging time signatures. It sounds like a tough listen, akin to free jazz, but it's not. This is the kind of jazz that Weather Report used to accomplish more than thirty years ago, swinging, wild stuff that does have a firm foundation in jazz traditions--even when producer David Binney adds a steady diet of synthesizer throughout these 11 originals.

The other band members are based in New York as well but bring all those worldly influences into focus--bassist Panagiotis Andreou and drummer Engin Gunaydin are members of the Gypsy All-Stars, guitarist Aki Ishiguro can play in a variety of styles and isn't afraid to shred on occasion, and keyboardist Isamu MacGregor isn't so much a world traveler as a time traveler, delving into classic modes that come straight out of the '70s. This is the kind of album that attracted so many jazz fans to fusion all those decades ago, a bridge from intelligent rock towards mainstream forms of jazz. HyperGiant Hi-Fi jams and rocks all the way through, and you can enjoy the exciting tension on the surface even if you're not quite able to crawl into the catacombs and discover its hidden treasures.

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018--Old Forge Studio at Part-Time Audiophile

My first show report in nearly eight years is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. Over the next two or three weeks I'll have a couple of dozen reports published on the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This first one is on the Old Forge Audio room, featuring PureAudio, The Wand and Rethm loudspeakers. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018!

It's been more than a year since I've been to a high-end audio show, and about seven years since I went to one wearing a press badge instead of an exhibitor badge. But tomorrow I leave for Colorado to attend the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This is one of my favorite shows to attend because it's in Colorado, where I lived for a few years, and where my parents have retired. So I mix business with pleasure every time I go.

I'll be covering the show for Part-Time Audiophile, so watch for my coverage. Eric Franklin Shook, my colleague, has gotten the ball rolling with this preview.

I'm be roaming the halls, camera around my neck, so if you see me say hello!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Enrique Haneine's The Mind's Mural

It's been at least a couple of months since I've tackled any free jazz. It's interesting how jazz recordings seem to come in waves sometimes, one genre or another. I can think of a period, maybe a year ago or so, where I was inundated with free jazz releases. At first I felt challenged by this avalanche of chaos and doing my best--as I always say--to extract the structure from the cacophony. A funny thing happens when you dive into difficult music, however. It comes together. It makes sense. You don't shy from it. You might look around, as I often do, to see if anyone's nearby who's silently judging you. But my initial questions of who still listens to free jazz for enjoyment have been slowly replaced by the notion that every music has its place, and you just need to find the right mindset to explore that.

I mention this because I have this new CD from Enrique Heneine, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who was born in Mexico City but now plays in New York City. Haneine's new CD, The Mind's Mural, is free jazz by definition, but it is incredibly easy to digest--perhaps even to newbies. I couldn't put my finger on the reason until I read the liner notes. "[Through] the use of innovative rhythms in odd meter contexts and driving intervallic yet lyrical melodies, the free jazz conversation is achieved in a high caliber, sensitive linear setting." That hits the nail on the noggin, because Haneine's unusual compositions are framed in a percussive strategy that borrows from Latin and Middle East influences. (Haneine is also Lebanese.) Once those motifs are set, Haneine slowly builds the tension until he reaches those free jazz crescendos of noise, but the momentum is sure and helps to guide through the wilder ideas.

While Haneine plays the piano, he is also a thoughtful and curious drummer--he chooses drums, cymbals and an udu drum to push sax players Anna Webber and Catherine Sikora, along with bassist Carlo de Rosa, down this treacherous and exciting road. It's his drum work that stands out as the driving force since he's so fast and exact. It's quite simple--his drumming acts as the hand that's holding yours, while his sax players dance around and tempt you to stray off the main path. Drums and bass are forged together at points in a guttural conversation that whispers in your ear and tells you to keep moving forward.

In many ways, this free jazz is about vibration and resonance, which makes it intriguing on an almost subconscious level. Regardless of your feeling toward free jazz, you might find yourself surprised at Haneine's seductive instincts, that building of tension that echoes the faraway beating of drums somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle. I won't blame you if your cautious about free jazz, especially if you've been burned in the past, but this is such a mesmerizing entry point, one that will beckon you to come closer while it slowly unleashes the fury in a confident, measured way.

Javon Jackson's For You

Everything about saxophonist Javon Jackson's new album, For You, is so simple and direct that it's incredibly refreshing. The cover, the name of the album, the straightforward approach to these standards--it's all sounds like my early days of exploring jazz, back in college, when I hit the record stores and started buying all the Davis, Coltrane, Rollins and Pepper I could find. Perhaps that's because Jackson has such strong ties to the past. He used to be a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for one, and he's also played with Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. Those are some serious credentials in the world of jazz, of course, but it's also important to note that For You is Jackson's 20th album as leader. He's worked with the best because he is the best.

For You is a mixture of original compositions and standards, and I write those words down quite often. The difference here is that Jackson has this type of jazz flowing through his veins, and it's just a matter of getting it out into the world. There is such a timeless ease to his originals, and he excels at blending those seamlessly with standards like "I'm Old-Fashioned," and "Backstage Sally." But let's go back to the Kern-Mercer tune, which opens the album. It is old-fashioned in spirit, so gentle and calm of a ballad, but it's also old-fashioned in the way it digs deep into the ground and finds something ancient and untouched. This isn't jazz that's trying to find something new, an angle or innovation. It is pure and from the past and there's a wildness about it that is just as exciting as it would have been in 1958.

I do come across jazz albums like this once in a while, albums that are so beautifully ensconced with the past that they exist on a different plane of existence. Jackson, who is a youthful 53-years-old, accomplishes this magic with a quartet that includes pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter--all seasoned jazz musicians as well. That's probably another reason why this album is so timeless--it's one of those superstar albums you used to see fifty or sixty years ago. Everyone has been somewhere else, learned a few things, and have come back around to learn a few more. Manasia's been playing with Jackson at the Village Vanguard for the last few years, Williams was a long-time fixture with Cedar Walton Trio and McClenty Hunter is, well, a young man who has been making quite a splash in the last few years. His debut as leader, The Groove Hunter, is one of the stand-out jazz albums of 2018.

For You is clearly a jazz album for people who know their jazz. To the uninitiated, it might seem polished and perfect, but the real jazz aficionado will instantly recognize how masterful these four musicians are, and how they settle into a unified whole that is a living, breathing definition of the finest of the genre. If you're looking for that next lost jazz classic that's been remastered and is selling for $50, try this out instead. It's everything you need.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Jeff Rupert & Richard Drexler's R&D

Example #2,776 of how not to judge an album by its cover--I give you saxophonist Jeff Rupert and pianist Richard Drexler's R&D. Maybe it's Drexler's long ZZ Top-style beard, or the dark, smoky black and white photo on the cover, but when I first looked at this CD I thought one thing, and that's blues. You know, rough-and-tumble jazz with an edge, with maybe an all-electric ensemble that included one or more guitar players who really knows how to shred, within the parameters of jazz of course. What I didn't expect was this thoughtful, somewhat introspective live album, recorded at the Timucua Arts White House back in 2015. It's just the two men, veterans in the jazz world, playing a handful of standards with uncommon chemistry. It's an intimate performance, with a small but enthusiastic audience present, and it's one of those crystalline moments in jazz that's not just about a piano and a tenor saxophone. It's about the men behind the instruments and how they interact with each other and the rest of the world.

This is one of those splendid live performances that's so much more than tone. These two men have been playing together since the 1980s, and they are completely comfortable in each other's company. Both have played with the greats--Rupert has worked with Maynard Ferguson, Bob Berg and Kenny Drew Jr., and Drexler has played with Mose Allyson, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Diahann Carroll, Vic Damone, Amy Grant and Al Jarreau. Rupert's better known as the founder of Flying Horse records, and director of the Flying Horse Band from the University of Central Florida. I've reviewed two of their albums: Big Man on Campus and The Bat Swings!. Drexler is also part of the faculty at UCF.

It's a pleasure to hear these two musicians apart from their usual big band surroundings. This is the type of recording I usually hear from the likes of 2L Recordings, that deep sense of being able to walk among these two performers and hear their human presences deliver this wonderful music. Rupert has a soft, breathy way with his sax, full of the personal mechanisms that are usually associated with greats such as Stan Getz. Drexler's piano is lush and emotive, and his reach across the keys is impressive in its agility. They share their space with an enormous amount of vivaciousness, always sensitive to what the other is feeling. In other words, this is an ideal recording for gauging that aforementioned chemistry, that magic that only happens between old friends.

Was I disappointed that this album was so different than what I expected? No, I was delighted. I'm listening to this on a cold, rainy day, that time of the year when we can finally say that summer is gone and now we can look forward to another deep winter in Western New York. This is yet another wonderful and simple recording that begs you to move closer and dig around, to bask in the closeness and yes, the love these two performers have for each other, the music and the audience.

Vinyl Anachronist #123 Now Live at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This column is about tonearms, and how they contribute to the overall analog system--based upon my recent experiences with mounting The Wand tonearm from New Zealand. You can read about it here.