Top Jazz Albums 2016 – the Critics

•December 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I have my own selection of best jazz albums – but there are always a few that I haven’t heard. It is remarkable how dissonant the critics are with their best-of lists. It all feels very subjective. Here are a few that I googled.

Jazzwise

  1. Tim Garland – One
  2. Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling – Upward Spiral
  3. Dinosaur – Together, As One
  4. Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now
  5. Brad Mehldau – Ballads and Blues
  6. Charles Lloyd & The Marvels – I Long To See You
  7. EST Symphony – EST Symphony
  8. Impossible Gentlemen – Let’s Get Deluxe
  9. Aziza – Aziza
  10. Phronesis – Parallax
  11. Kit Downes & Tom Challenger – Vyamanikal
  12. Jazz At Lincoln Centre – Live In Cuba
  13. Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau – Nearness
  14. John Scofield – Country For Old Men
  15. Jeremy Pelt – Jive Culture
  16. Bill Frisell – When You Wish Upon A Star
  17. Dhafer Youssef – Diwan of Beauty and Odd
  18. Barnes/O’Higgins & The Sax Section – Oh Gee!
  19. Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison In Movement
  20. Michael Wollny Trio – Klangspuren

The Observer

10) John Scofield, Country for Old Men (Impulse!)

9) The Robert Glasper Experiment, ArtScience (Blue Note)

8) AZIZA, Aziza (Dare2)

7) Donny McCaslin, Beyond Now (Motema Music)

6) Kris Davis, Duopoly (Pyroclastic)

5) Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord)

4) MAST, Love and War (Alpha Pup)

3) Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, In Movement (ECM)

2) Julian Lage, Arclight / Live in Los Angeles (Mack Avenue)

1) Jeff Parker, The New Breed (International Anthem, Ltd.)

Stereogum

10 Vijay Iyer & Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM)

9 Battle Trance – Blade Of Love (New Amsterdam)

8 Tyshawn Sorey – The Inner Spectrum Of Variables (Pi)

7 Jeremy Pelt – #jiveculture (HighNote)

6 Freddie Hendrix – Jersey Cat (Sunnyside)

5 John Raymond – Real Feels (Shifting Paradigm)

4 Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now (Motema)

3 Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus – The Distance (ECM)

2 Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann – Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann (Shhpuma)

1 JD Allen – Americana (Savant)

 

Stereophile

  • Henry Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi).
  • Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam).
  • Frank Kimbrough, Solstice (Pirouet).
  • Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto).
  • Brad Mehldau Trio, Blues and Ballads (Nonesuch).
  • Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform, 2 CDs).
  • Dave Douglas & Frank Woeste, Dada People (Greenleaf).
  • Krakauer’s Ancestral Groove, Checkpoint (Table Pounding Records).
  • Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!).
  • Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto).

The Telegraph

1: Greg Abate & Phil Woods: Kindrid Spirits Live (Whaling City Sound)

2: Bucky Pizzarelli: Renaissance (Arbors Records)

4: Dr Lonnie Smith: Evolution (Blue Note)

5: Nils Landgren With Janis Siegel: Some Other Time, A Tribute To Leonard Bernstein (Act)

6: Aly Keïta, Jan Galega Brönnimann, Lucas Niggli: Kalo-Yele  (Intakt Records)

7: Sam Crockatt Quartet: Mells Bells (Whirlwind Recordings)

8: Ian Shaw: The Theory Of Joy (Jazz Village)

9: Huw V Williams: Hon (Chaos)

11: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra: All My Yesterdays (Resonance)

12:  Avisghai Cohen: Into The Silence (Ecm)

14: Herlin Riley: New Direction (Mack Avenue)

15: Aldevis Tibaldi: Twentysix Three (Galetone Records)

17: Snarky Puppy: Culcha Vulcha (Decca)

NPR

  1. Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, ‘Old Locks and Irregular Verbs’
  2. Wadada Leo Smith, ‘America’s National Parks’
  3. Jack DeJohnette / Matt Garrison / Ravi Coltrane, ‘In Movement’
  4. Mary Halvorson Octet, ‘Away With You’
  5. Michael Formanek / Ensemble Kolossus, ‘The Distance’
  6. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, ‘A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke’
  7. Nels Cline, ‘Lovers’
  8. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, ‘Beginning of a Memory’
  9. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, ‘Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)’
  10. Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone, ‘Sélébéyone’

 

State.Com

  1. Henry Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi)
  2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)
  3. Frank Kimbrough, Solstice (Pirouet)
  4. Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto)
  5. Brad Mehldau Trio, Blues and Ballads (Nonesuch)
  6. Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform, 2 CDs)
  7. Dave Douglas & Frank Woeste, Dada People (Greenleaf)
  8. Krakauer’s Ancestral Groove, Checkpoint (Table Pounding Records)
  9. Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!)
  10. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto)

2017 -50 years – an album a day

•December 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

50-yearsOk – I must confess that I’ll be 50 at the tail end of 2017. So I thought that I would listen to my life in music by choosing an album a day to listen to. Starting on Sunday Jan 1st I plan to listen to 1 album each day from the year assigned to that week. If I have time I’ll listen to a second album (so I have a list of 600 or so records) – but only 350 are guaranteed.

These won’t be my favorite records, rather albums that reflect the rock and pop world of that reflect the sound of that particular year. Unfortunately, as I really don’t like urban music, smooth R&B or rap – much popular current music has been jettisoned. During the 1960s and 1970s, the best records were also the most popular ones. Not today. So no Beyonce, boy bands, Brittney, American Idol winners or any other crap that no-one will be listening to in 50 years. Compiling the list was quite arduous – immediately I realized that the years 1967-71 were staggeringly good years for albums, 1972 not great, 73-77 excellent, 78 not great etc. Some years were great for singles, but brutally bad for albums. The following years are particularly bad: 1981, ’83, ’87, ’89, 1990, ’92, ’96, 2004, ’05, ’07, ’08 (2009-10 weren’t great) and 2012. I’m not saying that there were no great albums in those years, but not many. 1990 was particularly horrific – I really struggled to come up with 10 albums from that year.

I decided that I would only choose 1 album by an artist, unless, like Springsteen or Neil Young – they have had very long careers and albums that have defined different eras. I have generally excluded Irish artists (unless they had international reputations) and Jazz – as I’ll probably come up with a list of 50 jazz albums for the 50 years: this will take a lot of work as jazz records are less temporarily fixed in my mind.

Although I have vinyl versions of the majority of these albums, I have decided to listen them through my home Sonos player, unless the records are at hand. That way I can plan a weekly playlist and listen to the albums at any time, anywhere in the house.

Date Artist Album Year
01/01/17 The Beatles Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967
01/02/17 The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground & Nico 1967
01/03/17 The Doors The Doors 1967
01/04/17 The Kinks Something Else 1967
01/05/17 Love Forever Changes 1967
01/06/17 The Moody Blues Days of Our Future Past 1967
01/07/17 Tim Buckley Goodbye and Hello 1967
01/08/17 Van Morrison Astral Weeks 1968
01/09/17 Jimi Hendrix Electric Ladyland 1968
01/10/17 The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet 1968
01/11/17 The Band Music From the Big Pink 1968
01/12/17 Big Brother & The Holding Company Cheap Thrills 1968
01/13/17 Blood Sweat & Tears Blood, Sweat & Tears 1968
01/14/17 The Byrds Notorious Byrd Brothers 1968

Springsteen Biography – Insightful but a little self indulgent

•December 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

springsteenI waited for the audiobook version of “Born to Run,” the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, to become available, despite buying the hardback version of on its day of release. I am delighted that I waited. The audiobook is narrated by Springsteen himself and it is a very unusual rock biography (I have read a lot of them). Most rock biographies drag us through 60 or so pages of boring working class childhood memories – then there is the chance meeting and formation of the band, followed by 200 pages of hedonism, failed relationships, rehab and the inevitable decline. In Springsteen’s case, he uses his childhood and, in particular, his relationship with his father, to frame the entire narrative. It is compelling. The story takes us from his youth in Freehold, New Jersey, right up to the present day, including the death and eventual replacement of Clarence Clemons. There are a rich variety of characters in the story, and despite this being a rock biography, many of Springsteen’s fans will identify with his stories of his father’s failing mental health, doting on his own children and the sometimes difficult relationships with band members who were, in fact, employees.
I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the records, the locations, the personalities involved in Bruce’s recording career and his own observations of particular events that many of us will remember fondly (the Dancing in the Dark video, Artists Against Apartheid, the Superbowl even the bootleg concert at Bryn Mawr in 1974). At last I get what Tom Joab was all about and how it fits into his discography (although Human Touch and Lucky Town are completely discarded in the narrative).
Springsteen is frank about his relationships, his depression & anxiety and, to a degree, about his family. Clearly, being an autobiography, lots of information about friends and family has been withheld – and there is probably an overemphasis on his own mental health as a consequence. At times this can be a little self indulgent – did we really need a vivid description of a panic attack, cured by a clonazepam tablet, that occurred in Dublin? Possibly the most disappointing component is how he airbrushes over the 3 year career hiatus (1975-78) that could (and for most artists would) have torpedoed his career. This was a time when Springsteen was involved extensive litigation against Mike Appel – his original manager and publisher, and was unable to tour or record. What did he actually do? This story is well documented in the book “Bruce” by Peter Ames Carlin (which, in fairness, plugs most of the other gaps). Conversely, I thought he handled his major controversy, the ending of his marriage with Julianne Philips, with tremendous dignity and grace.
petty-bookMost refreshingly, this was a biography that was not full of drug fuelled hedonism; it is a portrait of an extraordinary-ordinary guy. If you were to read only one chapter – the one about “My Voice” towards the end tells you everything.
Petty: The Biography” – the Tom Petty biography by Warren Zanes is a remarkably similar book. Petty, of course is from Florida, and he also served a long, painful apprenticeship before becoming successful. Similar to Springsteen he had problems with management, the band, his wife etc. He also became a celebrity buddy of George Harrison, Roy Orbison etc. in The Travelling Wilburys and remains one of the few 70s rock stars to continue to make good records well into this decade.
Both Books strongly recommended.

Albums of the Year 2016

•November 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Here are my albums of the year 2016 (so far). I would unreservedly recommend the top 20. The remainder, I enjoyed, but it is unlikely that they will receive a lot of repeat plays over the year. Also listed are the reissues of the year, from my perspective.

Rock Pop & Country

  1. Applewood Road – Applewood Road
  2. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
  3. Sturgil Simpson – a Sailor’s Guide to Earth
  4. David Bowie – Blackstar
  5. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
  6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
  7. Case / Lang / Viers – Case, Lang & Viers
  8. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  9. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
  10. Wilco – Schmilco
  11. Teenage Fanclub – Here
  12. Suede – Night Thoughts
  13. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tre
  14. Max Jury – Max Jury
  15. Colvin & Earle – Colvin & Earle
  16. Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
  17. Steve Mason – Meet the Humans
  18. Loretta Lynn – Full Circle
  19. Wolf People – Ruins
  20. Michael Kiwanula – Love & Hate

Best Jazz (that I have heard so far) 2016

  1. Tim Garland – One
  2. Dinosaur – Together, As One
  3. E.S.T. Symphony – Symphony
  4. John Scofield – No country for old men
  5. Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Matthew Garrison – In Movement
  6. Avishai Cohen – Into the Silence
  7. Dr. Lonnie Smith – Evolution
  8. Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau – Nearness (Nonesuch – 555845-1)
  9. Michael Formanek – The Distance
  10. Marius Neset – Snow Melt

I also enjoyed:

  • Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Person A
  • Brian Eno – The Ship
  • Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones – Little Windows
  • The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust
  • PJ Harvey – Hope Six Demolition Project
  • Cate Le Bon – Crab Day
  • Turin Brakes – Lost Music
  • Field Music – Commontime
  • Parquet Courts – Human Performance
  • M Ward – More Rain
  • The Coral – Distance InBetween
  • Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
  • Mogwai – Atomic
  • The Gloaming – The Gloaming 2
  • Weezer – White Album
  • Damian Jurado – Visions of Us on the Land
  • Lucinda Williams – ghosts of the highway
  • Chris Forsyth – The Rarity of Experience
  • Eric Clapton – I still do
  • Michael Franti & Spearhead – Soulrocker
  • Emily Jane White – They Moved in the Shadow…
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
  • Lambchop – Flotus
  • Cass McCombs – Mangy Love
  • Julia Jacklin – Don’t Let the Kids Win
  • Drive-By Truckers = American Band
  • Mudcrutch – 2
  • Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis
  • Brigid Mae Power – Brigid Mae Power
  • The Felice Brothers – Life In The Dark
  • Okkervil River – Away
  • Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories
  • Bill Frisell – When You Wish Upon A Star
  • The Monkees – Good Times (surprisingly good)

Soundtrack:

  • Hell or High Water – Nick Cave / Warren Ellis

Reissues :

  • XTC – Skylarking (Ape House – APELPD108)
    [Both the Blu-Ray and the 45rpm vinyl versions]
  • XTC – English Settlement (Ape House – APELPD105)
  • Impulse – 1961-1974 box set (UMA)
  • Roy Harper Stormcock (SFLP001)
  • Black Grape – It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah (Radioactive, Geffen Records – 5373030)
  • Super Furry Animals – Fuzzy Logic (BMG – BMGCATLP77)
  • Steve Earle – Guitar Town, Exit O & The Hard Way
  • John Abercrombie – Timeless (ECM 1047)
  • Pink Floyd – Early Years and Vinyl Reissues
  • Bruce Springsteen – Ties that Bind
  • Terry Reid – The Other Side of the River (Future Days Recordings – FDR 629)
  • The Kinks – Mono Box Set
  • Jack White Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 (Third Man Records – TMR-387)
  • Bert Jansch – Avocet (Earth (13) – EARTHLP010)

 

Why are audiophile vinyl manufacturers ignoring Europe?

•November 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Here’s a strange question – how many premium American brands can you name? Although the United States dominates the technology world with companies like Apple, Facebook and Google, there are few American branded products (with the exception of Tesla cars, Grado headphones and Benchmark Hi-Fi) that appeals to me. One thing (from my perspective) that they do have is fantastic audiophile vinyl labels: Music Matters, Analogue Productions, Mobile Fidelity, Impex, Org etc. In Europe, we have Speakers Corner and Pure Pleasure but little else. To buy AP or MM records in Europe is frighteningly expensive – if you can get them the price is approximately twice that in the USA – presumably due to tariffs, duties etc. Many of the records I buy, for normal prices are pressed in the US ( as in “pressed at RTI”) on the label, so it must be possible to source vinyl from the States without it costing the earth. I am sure that there are lots of record enthusiasts, like me, who would love to subscribe to any of the Music Matters series, at American prices, but are prohibited by our overly aggressive customs and excise folks (I’m sure people walk through airports each day wearing jewellery that costs thousands , but try and buy $50 worth of vinyl from Amazon!). 

So, here’s a suggestion. Now that Music Matters have basically ceased their Blue Note series – why not partner up with Speakers Corner, send over their stampers, press lots of great vinyl at Pallas and make lots of money from us Europeans? “There’s cash in that attic.”

Aside: why not make do with the UMG blue note reissues. Here is an example: I have 3 or 4 copies of “Something Else” by Cannonball Adderley on vinyl, 2 or 3 CD versions and the 24-192 version available on HD tracks. A few months ago I bought a copy of the De Augustini “Jazz at 33” magazine that included “Something Else.” I was surprised how good the record sounded – certainly better than any of the CDs; better than the high res digital version and a 2008 US reissue. Then I noticed a Music Matters 180g 33rpm reissue available for €50 or €60 on Amazon.de. I had to know – are these audiohpile reissues really that good. They are. Aside from the unbelievable quality of the sleeve and flag pressing of the record, the sound on this release is breath-taking. It is warm, with a full-phat 3 dimensional soundstage. In comparison, the high resolution version sounds thin and stiff. If ever a record was produced to demonstrate the value of vinyl, this is it. I, having no alternative, have bought several of the 75th anniversary Blue Note releases. For some of these I also made use of Qobuz sublime to buy the high res version (for less than the price of a CD). They sound the same. This is particularly distressing considering that I am currently listening to vinyl from a €400 Project Debut Carbon turntable, and the digital  files through the Benchmark DAC 2 HGC. They sound the same: a bit thin, a bit flat, not much soundstage. Are Music Matters 33rpm worth twice the price. Yes, absolutely, no doubt.

Death Becomes Us

•November 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Last autumn I decided to go on a “see them before they die” campaign – to see, in concert, any of the legendary artists that are touring, that I hadn’t seen before or for a while. It started with a reformed Fleetwood Mac and included The Who, Van Morrison, U2, Bruce Springsteen, London Wainwright III, Squeeze,  Buzzcocks, Neil Young, Jean Michel Jarre, Status Quo, Suede (twice), Joe Jackson, Preston Reed, Ron Sexsmith and, this week, Rod Stewart. Of course, the one artist I would like to have seen, one last time, was Leonard Cohen. The news of his death, last week, sent me into a state of grief that was quite surprising. Perhaps the grief resulted from Cohen being the soundtrack of a part of my life – long ago – between 1989 and 1992.

Like most music lovers, my first encounter with Leonard Cohen was those well known 60s tracks on “Songs of love and hate” which I heard relentlessly in a hostel in Germany during the summer of 1987. Nice songs, but they didn’t speak to me. And then, one day, in 1989, I caught a glimpse of a picture of a cool older guy eating a banana on the cover of a cassette in a record shop at a “nice price.” I bought the album (“I’m your man”), put it in my Walkman, and my music listening changed forever. It is still one of my favourite albums (almost perfect except for “Jazz Police”) – I have listened to it countless times and bought dozens of copies for friends and relations. Soon after, I picked up a copy of “Various Positions”- which is nearly as good. Subsequently I bought all of the previous albums – all good except for “Death of a ladies man,” ruined, typically, by Phil Spector. What is remarkable is the change in Cohen’s voice, probably by half an octave, between the 1970s and 1980s – he was like a new and different artist – who spoke to me in my early 20s. “The Future” arrived in 1992 and it was good, but not truely great. 

Many years passes and eventually I got to see the gat man, decked out in Fedora, in Dublin about 4 years ago. I brought my two young sons – so that one day they can boast that they saw the legend in the flesh. He played for 3 hours; we nearly froze to death. It was awesome.

I buy a lot of records by young bands and go and see then in concert. None have the skill, the songs and stagecraft and the energy of the “geriatric” acts that I have seen in the past year. When you see the Stones, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon still touring – don’t slag them off – go and see them. “We will never see their like again….” 

RIP Leonard, Bowie, Leon Russell,  Merle Haggard, Prince and all of the others who have passed on this year, but leave behind their treasured recordings.

Bye Bye Apple

•September 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

In November 2014 I bought my 3rd iPhone (and probably my 8th or 9th iPod) – the iPhone 6 Plus. Literally 1 year after I bought it, the ca,era stopped focusing. Two months later the screen became unresponsive. I didn’t drop the phone, kept it in a protective case: externally it looks perfect. Functionally it is dead. I went back to the shop – “sorry 1 year warranty – 2 year contract – pity you didn’t buy insurance.” I phoned Apple – same story. From the Internet it appears that this is a common problem with that particular phone – associated with “bend gate” – Apple refuses to admit the clear fault with the phone leaving many of us with €900 bricks. Apple used to be a company that sold premium products for premium prices – now they seem to be selling shoddy products at ludicrous prices. It is unacceptable that a phone should die from an internal fault within the contract period and not be replaced. I choose to insure a phone in case I do something stupid like dropping it down the toilet – not to idemnify Apple for a poorly designed product.

So, I decided to abandon them and go with Android. I preordered the Galaxy Note 7 – and then battery gate happened. On Friday, I couldn’t take any more of my 4 year old iPhone 4S (bad signal, bad connection and about a 6 hour battery life) – so I went into my local phone shop (due an upgrade). Guess what – iPhone 7 release date. On the rack was the 7 side by side with the Galaxy S7 edge. What a contrast – the Edge is a 5.5″ beauty – a real object of desire – or for €50 more I could buy a really boring looking iPhone – that looks like last years’ phone without the headphone jack. Why in God’s name would anybody buy a portable entertainment system into which you cannot plug headphones? There is a reason why headphones have been around so long – they work dummy. High end headphones are just about the only high fidelity products making money these days – and the iPod/pad/phone are largely responsible. Didn’t Apple spend a few billion dollars buying shitty headphone brand (they didn’t even design them) Beats? Obviously nobody at Apple knows what decent headphones are otherwise they would have bought Sennheiser, AKG, Grado, B&W or some other hi fi company. I have had dozens of wireless headphones over the years and use none of them now – the sound is lousy, you have to charge them and they are fiddly. “You can use the dongle” and attach it to your $1000 Grados – I’m sure that there is an amazing DAC built into that wire – not! A lot of people forgave Apple for making their iPod/phone docks redundant (I have a fairly expensive Wadia one) a few years ago – but killing off the analogue headphone market is sheer hubris. 

So iPhone 7 or S7 Edge:

Advantages of iPhone – I can use my old apps (most of them are free). I know how it works. That’s all: nothing special. 

Advantages of S7Edge – it is bigger, and looks really good, great camera, high res music – that doesn’t require annoying iTunes sync nonsense, SD card slot to increase memory, and A HEADPHONE connector. The latter did it for me. Hello Android. Strange, though, I am typing this blog on my iPad Air 2!