Universal Audiophile Jazz Reissues

•July 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Universal (UMG) own Verve and most other great jazz labels from the peak era 1948 to 1968. After the success of the Blue Note Tone Poet series – UMG decided to release audiophile versions of back catalogue recordings  – but of course nobody trusts the provenance after the fire, so they got Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions to curate.  UMG are releasing a couple of titles every month, presumably pressed at QRP and expected to sell well. It seems that each month a different label will be selected – Verve, Philips, Impulse!, EmArcy etc. and the titles are very attractive, particularly if you are only starting a collection. Month one, for example, features an excellent 1959 Oscar Peterson / Louis Armstrong set alongside Jazz Samba by Stan Getz. But month 2 really piqued my interest – “Ballads” and “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane – both of which I already have but – hmm a 33rpm AP style reissue (despite the €44 pricetag) seems very tempting. Co-incidentally, I was flicking through a 2003 (! yes I know, see previous post) copy of MOJO and read an article by Ashley Khan about Coltrane and Impulse records (basically a prequel for the book “The House That Trane Built” – which is excellent). Below is a comment from the article, that now seem prescient:

ashley khan

Apparently, fortuitously, the two Coltrane albums (were there more) were “out” at the time (for what – ? the 2010 AP Love Supreme maybe, ? 2009 ORG version of Ballads), and Kassem stands by the masters. I wonder, however, how much of this is “bait and switch”: the Tone Poet series are from (presumably) newly AAA remastered acetates from the original “master” tapes. There are issues with wow and flutter. Perhaps Blue Note would have been better digging up old metal parts from really good mastering sessions and re-pressing. However, with the AP – well all they say is that the titles are from the original masters – nothing about whether they are repressed or not (but the packaging will be gorgeous). According to Fermer the Getz Gilberto release will be from a pre-existing 33rpm master – possibly one the George Marino did while putting together the 2 x 45rpm 2011 AP version. Its a great record, everyone should have a copy. A recent Ahmed Jamal – At the Pershing release from AP used metalwork from 1983 (and doesn’t sound a whole lot better than the 2013 DeAgostini version). I do think that “audiophile” labels need to be careful and be “straight up” with the provenance of their product.

The other releases in this series that have me excited are “Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown,” “Clifford Brown & Max Roach – Study in Brown” & George Russell’s “New York, NY”: I have at least 2 (in SV case 3) copies of each and would dearly love a true audiophile version. But, realistically – will the George Russell album sound better than the 1993 version that I paid a lot for (and still don’t know if it is digital or analogue sourced) or the 2-fer French copy that I have from 1978 – that sounds great? Hopefully they will be really good, really successful and will keep going for a few years (and will include a reissue “Jazz in the Space Age” – and all of the other phenomenal Russell albums).

 

 

New Blue Note – No Really

•July 22, 2020 • Comments Off on New Blue Note – No Really

Art-Blakey-Just-Coolin-cover-artSuch has been the sheer volume of Blue Note reissues over the past 18 months, weary jazz fans may have missed a truly important new release that came out in July – a never before pressed album by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – “Just Coolin'”. The album, that featured a very short lived version of the JM that featured Hank Mobley on tenor (replaced soon after by Wayne Shorter), Lee Morgan on Trumpet, Blakey on drums, Jymie Merritt on bass and Bobby Timmons on piano, was recorded by Van Gelder in March 1959 but was never released (not even on Mosaic in the 1980s). The story is that Blue Note recorded the group a couple of weeks later at  Birdland, playing four of the tunes in this studio set, released as “Meet you at the jazz corner of the world” in two volumes (recently reissued as a Blue Note 80) and the perceived superiority of the live versions made the studio album redundant. So, off the shelf have come these pristine tapes (that haven’t been run through machines 100 times like all the other BN albums), with new cover art and liner notes by Bob Blumenthal (it must have been a singular honour to write the notes for an original 1950s Blue Note!).

So, what’s it like? Firstly – recent BN reissues have had two quality levels – the beautifully pressed, gatefolded Music Matters-like Tone Poets, and the extremely variable quality, 140g (sometimes in sandpaper) Blue Note 80s. This album is a hefty flat 180g, in a plastic lined inner sleeve wrapped in a cheap cardboard cover that was dented in creasemarks when delivered to me in a plastic envelope from Amazon (weird right? Often single records arrive in gargantuan boxes from Amazon). Mastered for vinyl (but not CD or streaming) by Kevin Gray, the sound is exceptional for the era. The songs – 4 by Hank Mobley and 1 by Bobby Timmons (plus one of unknown provenance) are exciting straight ahead hard bop originals that will be familiar to those who enjoyed “Meet Me”. The studio versions are shorter, but easily as enjoyable.

This album is great, and strongly recommended. It will sell by the truckload – but be careful – pressed at Optimal (Germany), there will be a few duds out there (I was not impressed with Optimal’s quality control for the first round of BN 80s – it has definately improved with subsequent releases). Finally, I know Art Blakey would have been 100 this year – but 5 releases with another Tone Poet to go this year? Perhaps Don Was might look around at other BN artists – plus those on allied labels (how about “Modern Art” by Art Pepper – that was reissued at one stage on BN – or any of the Pacific Jazz releases?).

The end of the cue….Q

•July 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

q 8-1988September 1988, I’m browsing through a newsagent in Boston and a magazine catches my eye – “the modern guide to music and more:” Pink Floyd and Hothouse Flowers on the cover of a  glossy, full of photographs and jam packed with reviews. It was love at first sight – Q magazine, a UK based music mag that I have bought religiously for the past 32 years. Founded by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, who had made Smash Hits required reading for my generation (until we decided it was too teenybopper), Q was the antidote to the music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds – which I had grown up with, but, by then was tired of the “cool cynicism” of the reviews, the relentless pursuit of the next big thing (Zig Zig Sputnick – anyone?). Q was great – it carried articles on modern groups like the Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout, the Sugarcubes, Morrissey, U2, Tracy Chapman, REM, Nina Cherry, Bjork, Simply Red –  alongside articles about Sting, Dylan, Bowie, Mark Knopfler, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney etc. There were reviews of books, movies and hi-fi. Albums received between one and five stars (the latter was a a rare event in the early days; I remember a particularly embarrassing 5 star review of Terence Trent D’Arby’s at best 2 star sophomore recording). There were funny articles such as “who the hell does…..think he is.” My favourite was an article about “euphemisms in rock music” – where terms like “split because of artistic differences” was translated to “broke up over lead singers’ heroin habit.” I still have a pile of those early issues – albeit the music taste now looks a bit staid. The mag was thick – roughly twice the size of recent iterations. Of course, the quality dropped off: the movies were spun off to Empire, and a second, and better magazine, MOJO, picked up the classic rock features.

Fortunately, Q jumped on the Britpop bandwagon early – starting with features on Inspiral Carpets, James and the Stone Roses (whose debut album only got 3 stars!). The magazine then became champions of Suede, Elastica, the Charlatans, Blur, Pulp, Radiohead, Oasis etc. and the audience for those acts stayed with the magazine through thick and thin. Unfortunately this resulted in one or both of the Gallagher brothers or Paul Weller appearing on the cover (what appeared to be) every second month.

A strong competitor emerged in about 1990 from the NME stable – Vox magazine – that was slightly more contemporary than Q, but less teenager focused than Select. Vox disappeared in about 1997, to be replaced (directly or indirectly – I’ve never been sure) by UNCUT, which exists to this day. UNCUT combined the best bits of Q (relatively modern – but not the NME), and MOJO (retromania) while exploring other fields of music that had been ignored by the UK music press – American indie and alt-country – nowadays referred to as “Americana”. Somewhere around 2003, Hepworth started “Word” magazine – which combined the best of all of those mags (a little light on reviews, mind) and could be read from cover to cover: it was the best music mag of my lifetime, now sadly gone. NME bit the dust a few years ago; Record Mirror, Sounds, Melody Maker, Select, Vox – are all in the music press graveyard.

Q pioneered modern music lists (yes I know NME and Rolling Stone were doing this since the 60s), particularly the end of year “best albums” – which I have religiously followed since the 1980s. This morphed into the “120 greatest stories in rock n roll” – “250 best albums of Qs lifetime” – “1001 Songs” “100 greatest frontmen” (inevitable Liam Gallagher cover), “Artists of the Century,” “the 50 most exciting tunes ever!” etc. etc. All great fun.

music centralThe most valuable commodity in Q was the review section. Because the magazine coincided with the CD era (hence it’s name – cue literally), everything that was re-issued on CD was reviewed. As a result, by the mid 1990s they had a massive archive of reviews. This was before the All Music Guide was fully operational online (it was still in book format then). Microsoft came calling and licensed the reviews for “Music Central” (a CDROM product that sold for about £75) – which meant that you could call up the reviews on most popular recordings on your computer – at home – so convenient!

For many years I bought Q, UNCUT, MOJO, Word and Record Collector until there was a domestic revolt regarding the towers of magazines that were piled up all over the house (it was so hard to throw them out – there were articles that I might read – someday). I went into music mag detox about 4 or 5 years ago – coinciding with the marked deterioration in the quality and quantity of rock based recordings. I took out a digital subscription to Q (along with Prog, Hifi News, Absolute Sound, Stereophile, Sound and Vision, Long Live Vinyl, Downbeat and Jazzwise – all for about the price of a years’ hard copy of any of the music mags). I must confess, I did not enjoy the style of modern Q: it lacked humour, was a bit fawning, didn’t really introduce me to any new bands – it was – honestly boring. From the early 2000s they started draping scantily clad female stars on the cover, that reeked of desperation. And how many articles can you write about the goddam Gallagher brothers (who haven’t released a decent album between them since 1995)? However – I read the reviews religiously (nearly everything seemed to get 4 stars – virtually nothing deserved that score). The reissues section became embarrassing – two pages and not worth reading.

Next week, Q will release its final final issue (the last one looked pretty final). It really represents the end of an era. Q’s generation X readership has lost interest – hardly any stadium filling bands have emerged in the 21st century. We have been waiting for the new Stone Roses album for 26 years. The process of identifying oneself with the kind of music you are “into” seems horribly anachronistic (remember “heavy metal”, “ska”, “punk” etc). It would be an awful shame if those 34 years of reviews and articles are forever lost to music kind. Scribd or an equivalent media salvage site should license all of the back issues (and do the same for all the other UK music mags with mediocre websites (look at Rolling Stone guys) – so that they are searchable: I would definitely buy a license.

So long Q, old friend, I am praying that you brother (MOJO) and cousin (UNCUT) last a few more years.

Gadget of the Year – FiiO M9

•February 13, 2020 • Leave a Comment
fiiom9(ok so this item is a bit late – written at end of 2019 but forgot to post!)

Since the advent of the digital audio age – I have had, literally dozens of different digital audio players (DAPs). This really started with CD Walkmans that played MP3 files, the stick like MP3 players and then the all conquering iPod. Nowadays, the majority of people use their mobile phones for audio playback. Audiophile they are not. Neil Young, with his Pono, tried to kickstart a market for high resolution playback devices, but this was a failure, principally because he and his group did not forsee the streaming revolution.

The ideal portable DAP would have the following features:

1. Fits in your pocket and has a headphone jack.
2. Plays 24/192 and DSD natively (and MQA if it suits your needs).
3. Unlimited storage – not the unfortunate 16 or 32gb inbuilt storage that fills instantaneously.
4. Wifi and Bluetooth and, preferably, Android operating system.
5. Streaming support for Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Apple Music and Qobuz
6. Download support for offline listening to streaming services.
7. A high quality DAC
8. Good battery life.
9. A screen that can be read without a magnifying glass.
10. Streaming from home network.

I have bought a couple of high resolution players in the past – principally the Astell & Kern JR – which sounded good, but was limited to playback of tracks saved into the device. A&K will sell you all kinds of DAPs for all kinds of prices – but none of which fulfill my criteria above.

After an exhaustive search, I realized that FiiO – a company who sold me a good laptop DAC a few years ago, sell DAPs that more or less fulfill the criteria above. I went for the M9 – which appeared to be inexpensive but fully featured. It is quite an extraordinary device – capable of playing just about any audio file, streaming, 2 directional Bluetooth, USB computer DAC, streamer etc. The memory is bare-bones – just 2GB of onboard memory – but you can add a micro-SD card. For less than €300 you can but the DAP and a 512GB micro SD – and you’re good to go.

The good:

  1. It plays everything.
  2. Sounds great.
  3. Streaming from Deezer perfect – streaming hires from Qobuz disappointing so far.
  4. Very portable
  5. Works well as a clunky external DAC on PC.

The not so good:

  1. Screen is a bit small and fiddly for middle aged eyes.
  2. Can’t figure out how to get Roon to work properly – due to proprietary version of Android.
  3. Very hard to figure out how to preserve the battery in stand by mode, in comparison, for example with the iPad.

Frank Zappa – The Hot Rats Sessions

•February 13, 2020 • Leave a Comment

img_3554.jpgIt may have been the grunting vocals, the avant guard sax solos, the thumping beat or the snarling guitars, but I had never heard anything similar and I liked it. It was in Tower records, sometime late 80s or early 90s. In the pre Shazam era, you had to ask the sales clerk – “who or what is that?” – a knowing grin, a nod of approval – “Hot Rats” by Frank Zappa. Tape acquired, inserted into Walkman, and it stayed on continuous play for weeks. The love affair has never faded. Over the years, I have acquired, mostly on CD, all of the official Zappa releases, and a good few of the official bootlegs as well (“Road Tapes”), always hoping to hear a little bit more of the “Rats” magic. In the early years, the encounters were disappointing – albums filled with puerile pop songs, vulgarity (that wasn’t funny) and general weirdness. But sometimes, you hit pay-dirt – or “Sleep Dirt” to be precise.  That record, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo – all shared the Jazz Rock blueprint. There never seemed to be any “Hot Rats” bootlegs around, with forsaken or demo tracks – but we all knew they were recorded (Zappa never discarded anything). When the “deluxe edition” period arrived, about 10 or 15 years ago, I hoped that we would be treated to the outtakes. Nada. Finally, in the guise of a 6 CD set (“The Hot Rats Sessions”), they are here: just in time to miss Christmas 2019.

The Backstory:

In 1969, Frank broke up the Mothers, retaining only Ian Underhill and set about constructing a solo album using a variety of musicians and a 16 track recording console. At the time, for most bands, it was 4 tracks, so, in many ways, Hot Rats heralded the beginning of the Prog Rock era. Nothing was wasted. Tracks were pieced together from fragments, pieces discarded were used in later albums. The final record has been very popular with fans, but was not as commercially successful as his 1970s peak albums. Each of the six tracks is a classic – Peaches en Regalia was as close to a “standard” as Zappa was ever to record. “Willie the Pimp” features a wonderful growling vocal by Captain Beefheart.

The Album:

Side 1

  1. “Peaches en Regalia” 3:38
  2. “Willie the Pimp” 9:21
  3. “Son of Mr. Green Genes” 8:58

Side 2

  1. “Little Umbrellas” 3:06
  2. “The Gumbo Variations” 12:53*
  3. “It Must Be a Camel” 5:15

Total length:      43:11

*This was 4 minutes longer in the 1987 iteration

Musicians:

  • Frank Zappa: guitar, octave bass, percussion
  • Ian Underwood: piano, organus maximus, flute, all clarinets, all saxes.
  • Captain Beefheart—vocal on “Willie The Pimp” (courtesy Straight Records)
  • Sugar Cane Harris—violin on “Willie The Pimp” & “The Gumbo Variations”
  • Jean Luc Ponty—violin on “It Must Be A Camel” (courtesy World Pacific Records)
  • John Guerin—drums on “Willie The Pimp,” “Little Umbrellas” & “It Must Be A Camel”
  • Paul Humphrey—drums on “Son Of Mr. Green Genes” & “The Gumbo Variations”
  • Ron Selico—drums on “Peaches En Regalia”
  • Max Bennett—bass on “Willie The Pimp,” “Son Of Mr. Green Genes,” “Little Umbrellas,” “The Gumbo Variations” & “It Must Be A Camel”
  • Shuggy Otis—bass on “Peaches En Regalia”

The Sessions Box Set:

Overview:

Included in the box, alongside a wholly un-necessary board game, are six CDs full of outtakes and the 1987 version – all presented in a 28 page “book”. There are many many versions or parts of, for example “Peaches in Regalia” – and it rapidly becomes tiresome. I must confess that the box set became available on streaming about 2 weeks before my “hard” copy arrived – and I left it on for the full 8 hours the first day – dipping in an out as I did household chores. What I was really looking for was juicy full tracks that didn’t make the original album. Eventually, I made a playlist of those tracks (abaresque, Bognor Regis, Natasha, Another Walz, Directly from my heart to you etc.) – and listened a few times, and now I know why they were outtakes. I think a two disc version may have been better.

Criticisms:

1. The Board Game is a complete waste of time and money: I can think of 100 things I would rather have found inside the box.

2. For >€100 – where the hell is the 24 bit version of “Hot Rats”. Note to Universal Music – why did you not contact Steven Wilson to produce a 24 bit and 5.1 mix of the album – presented on Blu-Ray – complete with a flat transfer of the original 1969 album?

3. The only complete version of the album is the god-awful 1987 mix – which most of us, who love the album, already have – and only realized that it was inferior to the original mix when the album was remixed (true to 1969) and remastered in 2012.

4. Are there no live recordings of “Hot Rats” ? Surely, the Zappa family trust could have cobbled together a “live” version of the album from the (literally) hundreds of live tapes in the vault, to give us a live version.

5. Although listening to all of the noodling and demos was fun, ONCE, it is unlikely that I will ever plough through the whole thing again. It would have been wise to just put the major outtakes onto one or two CDs and fill the rest with the 20 or so versions of “Peaches in Regalia”.

6. Because there is no 24 bit content, the game is a joke and the liner notes while nice – don’t add a lot – can someone explain to me why I have to pay $125 for physical product over $60 for 16 bit download from Qobuz or, essentially, free streaming.

7. The best part of the product – “The Hot Rats Book” – is not even included – it will set you back $35 (backordered – even if you could lay your hands on it). The Pink Vinyl release will cost you another $30 (I bought the black version of exactly the same product for €18 a few years ago). Be aware that the vinyl record is definitely worth buying: I bought the Classic Records 200g version 10 years ago.

 

img_3555.jpg

Disappointed. I think I have a lowered opinion of the album after listening to the box set.

Vinyl Armageddon

•February 12, 2020 • Leave a Comment

I was browsing around a record shop a few days ago, and rapidly came to the conclusion that there was in inverse relationship between the price of new music on vinyl and its quality. Most new titles are pushing €30 – records that you know will likely be discounted at some stage by 50% or more. I left empty handed – for €20 there were a few titles such as Green Day, Field Music and Bombay Bicycle Club that may have tempted me, but not last week.

I arrived home to discover that the factory that produces most of the lacquers for vinyl production in the world, Apollo-Transco, had burned to the ground. Lacquers are the first step in traditional record manufacturing – the mastering engineer literally cuts the music from tape (or other source) onto a disc covered in soft plastic (lacquer) over an aluminium base plate. It then is sent to another location to be electroplated – to produce the first “father” from which the “mother” stampers are made. Theoretically, limitless numbers of mothers can be made from a single father. In the one-step process (as popularised by Mobile Fidelity), the mother is made directly from the acetate – something that suddenly feels very wasteful indeed.

Strangely, despite the big upsurge in the production of vinyl records worldwide, the increase in the number of pressing plants and the high profile of “Record Store Day” etc. a situation was allowed to exist, despite ongoing concerns, whereby only two lacquer manufacturers existed in the world, Apollo-Transco in California, USA, and MDC in Japan. Moreover, it appears that Apollo-Transco made most of the lacquer cutting needles in the world.

It appears that, once current lacquer stocks are depleted, vinyl production will be curtailed severely. That is bad news for young bands, who make a little profit from vinyl, older bands  – whose reissues on vinyl must be a financial god-send, for the music industry and, importantly for the people who work in the pressing plants. I have often wondered why so many 1960s and 1970s LPs have been reissued, cut freshly from digital sources. Might the music industry start looking for old metalware in their vaults and factories and repress from the original “fathers?” If there was any decency in the music industry, the small supply of new lacquers would be reserved for new music that has never been released on vinyl. Unfortunately, it is more likely to be used for the 40th anniversary edition of “Breakfast in America,” “The Long Run” or the 200th reissue of the Beatles Albums.

Now I’m feeling guilty that I did not buy the new Field Music album.

Favorite New Jazz Albums of 2010s

•January 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

JazzAlbums2010sThe 2010s was a great era to be a fan of both recorded and live jazz. The re-emergence of jazz as a popular music form has much to do with the collapse of the quality of rock music,  a generalized fatigue with hip hop, the preponderance of manufactured pop and the retreat of electronic music to the underground. I’m not suggesting for one moment that jazz has become pop music, but it is becoming economically viable again. Moreover, musicians of all colors, creeds and backgrounds have learned to improvise over their traditional music and traditional instruments to create jazz. It is important to recognize the value of new music and young musicians – they have the whole history of recorded music to draw in, are amazingly well educated, and, in general produce original recordings that they compose themselves. Compare this with a large cohort of “great recordings” from the 50s and 60’s – during which musicians gathered, unrehearsed, for a four hour session and belted our two albums of “standards”. Twenty first century jazz is indeed a different paradigm – it doesn’t swing as much; it is more likely to be ambient or atmospheric and is scripted and sculpted into place.

The decade started with a slew of CD box sets – such as a colossal box of Miles Davis’ recordings for Columbia – and various other sampler boxes from Impulse, CBS, Concorde etc. Smaller boxes of 5 CDs could be picked up for the price of a single CD 10 years previously. You could have an amazing jazz CD collection for a couple of hundred dollars. But this activity gradually wound down as full resolution streaming became available from Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz: you no longer need a collection – it is all there, in-line, practically everything. Your carefully curated CD collection became completely obsolete around 2015. Even ECM eventually came onboard the streaming revolution. Enter the vinyl renaissance and the appearance of medley audiophile titles on vinyl. My favorite jazz reissue series was the Prestige/New Jazz series from Analogue Productions. Modern jazz releases frequently, but not universally, appear on vinyl – or as a high resolution download alternative (i.e. the master file). There have been some really great recordings released over the past decade (the long list of my favorites is below – but it could have been twice as long!). With streaming, there is no excuse for not (at the very least) giving younger or returning musicians a listen.

These are my absolute favorite jazz albums of the 2010s (included are links to review and the physical format available) – I am not suggesting, for one moment that these are the best jazz albums or that I have heard even a fraction of the releases, merely my favs – which may change at any minute:

  1. Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard –  Andando el Tiempo (CD, vinyl)
  2. Marius Neset – Golden Xplosion (CD)
  3. John Surman – Invisible Threads (CD)
  4. Ambrose Akinmusire – When The Heart Emerges Glistening (CD, on “vinyl me please”)
  5. Wayne Shorter – Without A Net (CD)
  6. Pat Metheny – Unity Band (CD)
  7. Tim Garland – One (CD)
  8. Get The Blessing – Oc Dc (CD, vinyl)
  9. Jack De Johnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison – In Movement (CD, vinyl)
  10. John Abercrombie – Within A Song (CD)
  11. Wallace Roney – A Place in Time (CD, vinyl)
  12. Brad Mehldau – Blues and Ballads (CD, vinyl)
  13. Christian Scott –Stretch Music (CD, vinyl)
  14. Joshua Redman – Still Dreaming (CD)
  15. Blue Note All Stars – Our Point of View (CD, vinyl)

The Full List is Below:

  • Ahmed Jamal – Sunday Morning (2013) & Marseille (2015)
  • Al Di Meola – Elysium (2015)
  • Ambrose Akinmusire – When The Heart Emerges (2011)
  • Andrew Cyrille – Lebroba (2018, v)
  • Andy Sheppard – Surrounded By Sea (2015)
  • Anouar Brahem – Souvenance (2015)
  • Bill Frisell – Guitar in the Space Age (2014)
  • Billy Childs – Rebirth (2017)
  • Billy Harte – All Our Reasons (2012)
  • Blue Note All Stars – Our Point of View (2017)
  • Bobby Hutcherson – Enjoy the View (2014)
  • Brad Mehldau – Blues and Ballads (2016, v)
  • Branford Marsalis Quartet – The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul (2019,v)
  • Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard –  Trios (2013)  & Andando el Tiempo (2016, v)
  • Charlie Haden – Jim Hall – Time/Life (2016)
  • Charles Lloyd – Passin’ Thru (live) (2017, v) and I Long to See You (2016, v0
  • Chic Corea/Eddie Gomez/Paul Motion – Further Explorations (2010)
  • Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Brian Blade – Trilogy 2 (2019)
  • Chris Potter – The Dreamer is the Dream (2017, v)
  • Christian Scott – Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (2010), Stretch Music (2015), Emancipation Procastination (2017), Ancestral Recall (2019)
  • The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery (2019,v)
  • Courtney Pine – Song (the Ballad Book) (2015)
  • Dave Holland – Prism (2013)
  • Dave Stapleton – Flight (2012)
  • De Johnette/Frenadier/Medeski/Scofield – Hudson (2018, v)
  • Dinosaur – Together, As One (2017)
  • Dylan Howe – Subterranean – New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin (2014)
  • Dr Lonnie Smith – Evolution (2016)
  • Enrico Rava – Tribe (2011)
  • Esbjörn Svensson Trio e.s.t.  – E.S.T. Symphony (2016, v)
  • Fire! Orchestra – Enter (2017)
  • Gary Husband – Dirty & Beautiful, Vol. 1 (2010)
  • Get The Blessing – Oc Dc (2012, v)
  • Gilad Hekselman – Hearts Wide Open (2017)
  • Ginger Baker – Why? (2014)
  • Gmilym Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau (2011)
  • Henry Butler / Steven Bernstein – Viper’s Drag (2014)
  • The Impossible Gentlemen – The Impossible Gentlemen (2011)
  • Jack De Johnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison – In Movement (2016, v)
  • Jacob Bro – Streams (2016, v)
  • Jacob Young – Forever Young (2014)
  • Jason Moran – All Rise (Fats Waller Tribute) (2014)
  • John Abercrombie – Within A Song (2012)
  • John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once (2018)
  • John McLaughlin & 4th Dimension – The Boston Record (2014)
  • John Scofield – Past Present (2015)
  • John Surman – Invisible Threads (2018)
  • Joshua Redman – Walking Shadows (2013) and Still Dreaming (2018  v)
  • Kamasi Washington – The Epic (2015)
  • Keith Jarrett – Rio (2011)
  • Kenny Garrett – Seeds From The Underground (2012)
  • Kristjan Randalu – Absence (2018)
  • Kurt Elling – The Gate (2011)
  • Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Haden/Motion – Live At Birdland (2011)
  • Logan Richardson – Shift (2016)
  • Marc Johnson/Elaine Elias – Swept Away (2012)
  • Marcus Miller – Renaissance (2012), Tutu Revisited (2011)
  • Marius Neset – Golden Xplosion (2011) & Birds (2013)
  • Michael Formanek – The Rub and Spare Change (2010)
  • Nels Cline – Lovers
  • New Gary Burton Quartet – Common Ground (2011, v)
  • Pat Metheny/Jan Garbarek/Gary Burton etc –  Homage A Eberhard Weber (2015)
  • Pat Metheny – Unity Band (2012)
  • Paul Motion – Lost In A Dream (2010)
  • Phronesis – The Behemoth (2017)
  • Polar Bear – Peepers (2010)
  • Portico Quartet – Isla (2010)
  • Return To Forever – The Mothership Returns (2012)
  • Roscoe Mitchell – Bells for the South Side (2017)
  • Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls (2015)
  • SEED Ensemble – Driftglass (2019,v)
  • Sonny Rollins Road Shows Vol. 2 (2011)
  • Sons Of Kemet – Burn (2013) & Your Queen is a Reptile (2018, v)
  • Stanley Clarke / Bireli Lagrene / Jean-Luc Ponty – D-Stringz (2015)
  • Stefano Bollani – Joy in Spite of Everything (2014)
  • Stefon Harris/Sanbchez/Scott – Ninety Miles (2011)
  • Steve Kuhn Trio – Wisteria (2012)
  • Terje Rypdal – Crime Scene (2010)
  • Tim Berne – Snakeoil (2012)
  • Tim Garland – One (2016)
  • Vijay Iver – Far From Over (2017)
  • Vijay Iver / Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016)
  • Vince Mendoza – Nights on Earth (2011)
  • Wallace Roney – A Place in Time (2016, v)
  • Wayne Shorter – Without A Net (2013), Emanon (2018, v)
  • Wolfgang Muthspeil – Where the River Goes (2018)

Sonos – thanks for your business – but we are letting you go!

•January 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

PLAY-51-400x300I received an email from Sonos this week to inform me that they had obsoleted a long list of my Sonos products – the ZD90, the original Connect Amp, several bridges, controllers and, seriously annoyingly, the two Play 5 speaker units that I bought soon after they came out. Generally, I have no problem with programmed obsolescence (PO) – based on the fact that products are made and sold inexpensively – they die, they are replaced and we move on. Thus was the way with computers in the 80s, 90s and 00s. My worse experience of PO was my generation 1 iPad – that was rendered obsolete (i.e. no longer supported by Apple) after a mere 18 months. I have a pile of Sonos products – many of which died not long after the warranty expired – in particular the excellent controller 200 devices (I had 3 of them @ €250) – and they all gradually stopped working. Indeed, looking back, my Bundle 250 (pictured below) – which cost €1000 in 2009 hardly lasted into the 2010s! Nevertheless, the various devices that I currently have – Play 5s, Play 1s, Play 3s, the Soundbar and Woofer work well. I have a ZD90 plugged into my hifi, and occasionally use it (that device was available for €350 until 2 years ago). Suddenly the company has obsoleted them – i.e. will no longer support these devices with software ungrades – so the system will either be frozen in time, or the speaker units will be frozen out. Here’s the rub- the Play 5 speakers still sound pretty good – and I like that they have a headphone socket: they are and remain Sonos’ best product for the price. Nevertheless, our kitchen Play 5 is now used very infrequently since Alexa (Amazon Echo) showed up you no longer have to look around for a phone or iPad to turn on the radio.

sonos-bundle-250_sp7g.1280

Pictured: Original Sonos 250 Bundle from 2009 – The Controller was particularly good but died after 18 months (followed by two others – which also died)

In fairness to Sonos – their products have always been reasonably well made and work well as a wireless multi-room setup. The sound is generally ok – but certainly not audiophile. I use the Soundbar/Woofer and a couple of Play 1s to give us surround sound in one room- Dolby Atmos it is not, but the movie watching experience is enhanced, somewhat (I always knew that paying €800 for a woofer that would only work with a single service was risky). All of the streaming services are supported, and that works very well, as does Tune-In radio. However the 65K track library has always been pathetic (I have never been able to include my whole digital collection – and had to, annoyingly, construct a limited library on a separate server for Sonos – having to add and subtract albums to fit the limit as new music arrived. In addition, there has never been, and probably never will be, any support for 24 bit and DSD files, so 24 bit purchases had to be transcoded and saved to work with Sonos. I’m not sure what the company is thinking when they say that the memory and the processor power of older devices is inadequate – any half decent computer from 2006 can play any audio file from now. Their backend software was out of date the day it launched! Oh, but there is good news – Sonos have told Gizmodo that they plan to support their products for 5 years – wow – that truly is impressive – I have a 1986 B&O CD player (34 years) that works PERFECTLY.

Sonos has offered a 30% discount (basically covers the VAT where I live) on replacement devices – I clicked on the offering for my Play 5s and was offered the battery driven outdoor speaker rather than the Play 6 (which will be obsolete fairly soon also, I’m sure). I have been strangely kept entangled in the Sonos universe, principally because everything worked together – now this is gone – I feel a certain degree of freedom. I will NEVER have to buy another Sonos product. And likely never will.

So why am I not particularly bothered by this whole obsolescence thing? Firstly, as I have mentioned in previous posts, it is absolutely pointless spending a lot of money on Media Streamers – as the technology moves on too fast. The “state of the Art” Benchmark DAC 1 preamp that I bought in 2010 doesn’t play DSD/MQA or sample rates above 96mHz (it still sounds great). An inexpensive Cubox and Project or Arcam DAC will have you streaming just about anything. Beware of digital amplifiers with built in DACS – these become obsolete quickly – a decent integrated amp from the 1970s with analogue speakers will still work and may sound great.

The second reason is that I long ago stopped using the Sonos app to run most of my Sonos speakers – Roon resolves all of the limitations of Sonos. Roon will create a library and metatag everything. It will stream to any device in your home. I use Roon to stream to Sonos devices all the time. One only needs one version of an album – Roon will transcode DSD or 24/192 to 16 bit to work on Sonos devices. Now every audio company is making wireless speakers, often with their own app or multiroom system – but the majority are supported by Roon.

I suspect that, with this decision, Sonos will lose it’s audiophile (not that they ever cared – the ZD90 was the same for 15 years) and longterm supporters. They stated as much in their Q4 2019 filings: “If we no longer provide extensive backward capability for our products, we may damage our relationship with our existing customers, as well as our reputation, brand loyalty and ability to attract new customers.” Yes – an you can kiss my ass!

By breaking the link with their older devices, I believe that the cult will also be broken – and this might make their future plans murkier. Of course, Apple have been obsoleting their iPads and iPhones for years, without looking back. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows 7 (an excellent operating system) last week. It is the way of the technology company world. So, stick with Quad, Linn, B&W, Marantz, Denon, Yamaha, Sony etc. they have been in the audio game for decades and make products that will last.

The problem for Sonos is that, as compared with 2006, there are myriad ways of streaming music around your home – in particular the convenience of Bluetooth speakers. Apple Music has gone 24 bit, and I suspect, if they are clever, Amazon will start selling audiophile products at knock down rates to lock customers into their music/streaming/Alexa service via Amazon Prime. They already have the Echo Link (half the price of the ZD90) and Echo Link Amp (again significantly less expensive than the Sonos product).

Music Matters SRX vinyl: the verdict is in!

•December 27, 2019 • 2 Comments

IMG_3544There was a lot of action in the Blue Note vinyl world this year – the much touted Tone Poet series – which was excellent despite the releases emanating from the “lesser” part of the catalog. The Blue Note 80 vinyl series has also sold well – although I have my own misgivings about the quality of the product. I have now returned my fifth record due to quality control issues: in this case as soon as I opened the long awaited Lee Konitz release – I noticed a long gash on the record crossing the first track (see picture on left) and yep – I was audible. I know that Optimal has a great reputation as a record pressing plant – but I have grave doubts (see below).

In any case, after waiting a year – I obtained the holy grail of Blue Note reissues, the one less talked about – the Music Matters SRX vinyl set. This came out in January and featured 12 33rpm Blue Notes pressed onto a new vinyl product – SRX. Here is the blurb from their website:

IMG_3543“SRX stands for “Silent Running Xperience.” SRX is our own formula, conceived and developed by Rick Hashimoto of Record Technology and manufactured by NEOTECH. Its noise floor is fathoms lower than any other vinyl we know of out there past or present. Records pressed with it look like normal black discs until you hold them up to the light and see that they are translucent and smoky, silvery gray in color.” [see image to the right – it is indeed silvery gray transluncent plastic]

“The near-perfect silence of SRX Vinyl virtually frees the music from groove noise and draws you further into the listening space, setting it in relieve so distinct, full and spacious it’s nearly sculptural. You hear more of what’s on the original tapes, not only of the notes played on the instruments but the experience of the event itself. That’s why we call it Silent Running Xperience.”

Big talk – indeed – this is almost certainly the same product – a carbon free translucent vinyl record – that Mobile Fidelity are promoting for their Ultradisc Releases. When MOFI switched to the new formula for new one step releases, they increased the price by 25% (remember this is 2x45rpm). The SRX series is 1x33rpm, standard pressing system, and retails at about $60 (50% more than the original price of the 33rpms, and about the same price as the 45rpm releases). Aside from the vinyl, the product is indistinguishable from the MM 33rpm series, gorgeously presented and packaged – now familiar to those who have bought the Tone Poet series.

And so to the music: the first record I spun was Sonny Rollins (vol 1.). This record sounded reasonably good – but the centering of the musicians was a little odd – panned slightly to the left – on a mono recording – where Rollins and Donald Byrd should not be. I listened to the   excellent 24/192 file(s) that I bought from Qobuz a few years ago and the musicians were dead center – and, honestly, I think the digital version sounded better.  Horace Silvers’ “Song For My Father” is instantaneously familiar to Blue Note (and Steely Dan – “Ricki Don’t Lose that Number”) fans. I have listened to the album hundreds of times in all kinds of formats. After a quick skip, a lot of pops and crackles – leading to a good deep cleaning – the album opened up to me, and yes – that slick buttery appearance of the vinyl emerged. It is certainly the best version that I have heard to date.

I also listened to “A Night at Tunisia” by Art Blakey, “Afrocubism” by Kenny Dorham and “Blues Walk” by Lou Donaldson. The latter, I have been listening to a lot at 24/192 recently, and the vinyl record was more engaging, more spacious with better dynamics. The Blakey and Dorham records were staggeringly good.

The two records that were of most interest to me, were “A Blowing Session” and “Introducing…” both by Johnny Griffin. Why? Because I have a 2x45rpm version of the former (Music Matters 2011) and a BN 80 version of the latter (mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant) – so any potential  difference in sound between the records would be due to the quality of the pressing and the vinyl.

img_3538.jpg

Introducing Johnny Griffin: the first thing that you notice when you put the two albums side-by-side is the remarkable difference in the appearance of the cover (the BN 80 cover is on the left above). The Music Matters cover, featuring a picture of the great sax man, has a bluish red background (thanks to Discogs and a 2009 reissue from Analogue Productions – this is the correct color), the BN 80 cover is a kind of fluorescent pink. Likewise, the back cover of the MM-SRX is an excellent reproduction of the original – the BN 80 is ok – the font isn’t the same and it looks a little bit amateur (thankfully without the sentence repetition and syntax errors of earlier releases – does anybody proof read the liner notes?). Inside the MM-SRX is packaged in a plastic inner sleeve – reasonably good, the BN 80 is in sandpaper (honestly – Waxtime, Jazz Train and all of those copyright free companies at least press the vinyl flat, without scratches, well centered and with plastic lined paper inner sleeves).

IMG_3540

BN 80 left, MM-SRX right

Taking the records out – the BN 80 has a sharpish edge and needs a bit of a push to get it loaded on the turntable (the center hole isn’t punched through very well), the SRX has a smooth outer edge and looks distinctly different. The matrix numbers are different – so it is likely that Kevin Gray cut different lacquers for the two releases.

img_3542.jpg

BN 80 left, MM-SRX right

So, more importantly, onto playing. First up was the BN 80: the record sounds a little thin, with narrow soundstaging, ok dynamics – almost CD sounding. I didn’t feel at all involved, and noted that I had only listened to the album once before, the day it arrived. In comparison, the MM-SRX immediately reminded me of previous MM records: huge soundstage great three dimensionality – fabulous reproduction of the horns, in particular. It was thoroughly involving – so much so that I didn’t want to get out of my seat to test side 2 of the BN 80 version, which was again comparatively disappointing. Winner by a mile, MM SRX.

The other comparison that I did was Johnny Griffin’s “Blowing Sesssion.” What a lineup – Griffin, Morgan, Mobley Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Blakey and Chambers – Los Galacticos of the time! I have both the 2011 2x45rpm and the new SRX version. Interestingly, the 2×45 is significantly less expensive on the Music Matters website ($45) than the 33prm SRX version ($60). The record covers and liners are the same. Both records sound great – but the SRX version has better mid-range reproduction and bass depth (and boy the bass goes deep – remarkably so, given that this is a 33rpm album). The sonic differences are particularly notable on “All the Things You Are.” There is one proviso here – I believe that the 2×45 was mastered at Acoustech (Gray and Hoffman) – and, generally, I don’t think that these records sound as good as later Cohearant releases.

Overall, it is a win for Music Matters SRX – they are likely the best sounding versions of popular Blue Note recordings from the 1950s that you will be able to afford. Are they worth $60? I don’t know. Probably,

It seems to me that the Blue Note 80s are looking more and more to be a false economy – principally down to the pressing plant, I would assume. I had hoped that any Kevin Gray product would be great, from my own experiences with Analogue Productions and Music Matters – but pressing definitely matters more than you would think. Of course there may be better sounding versions of the BN 80 Johnny Griffin out there (as I learned from the Herbie Hancock release)……

Best Albums of the 2010s

•December 19, 2019 • 1 Comment

The end of the 2010s is strange – it doesn’t feel like an event – as was the case in 1979, ’89 and ’99 (’09 was similar). Overall, I think it a very weak era for popular music. Starting 2010, CD was on it’s last legs – principally down to downloading (iTunes), the vinyl “revolution” was only starting, and, with the great recession, surround sound died a silent death in favor of soundbars. SACD and DVDA were, and remain, niche markets. Streaming, pioneered really by Rhapsody, but mainstreamed by Spotify, eventually, and I believe permanently, became the de-facto way to consume music. Bands became poor and the “Hit Factory” dominated the popular charts. The result has been – meh! In fact, I have plotted a year on year deterioration in the quality (not the quantity) of music since 2000 – and the second decade has been noticeable for it lack of ideas – either novel or retro. I believe that, if all of the popular music from the 2010s was suddenly deleted or forgotten – nobody would really notice. Or care. 2018 was a complete stinker of a year (2012 wasn’t much better).

Anyway – these are the albums from the 2010s that I continue to enjoy – I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, and will update at a later stage (to make up an even 100). My favorite favorites – for reasons I cannot explain – are highlighted in red:

John Grant – Queen of Denmark (2010)

These New Puritans – Hidden (2010)

Spoon – Transference (2010)

Foals – Total Life Forever (2010)

Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void (2010)

Wolf People – Steeple (2010)

Field Music – Measure (2010)

The National – High Violet (2010)

Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness  Rock Record (2010)

Kanye West – My Beautiful Twisted (2010)

Tame Impala – Innerspeaker (2011)

The Black Keys – EL Camino (2011)

The Dears – Degeneration Street (2011)

Jonathan Jeremiah- A Solitary Man (2011)

Singing Adams – Everything (2011)

The Dears – Degeneration Street (2011)

Alexander – Alexander (2011)

Decemberists- The King is Dead (2011)

Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Sprit (2011)

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other (2011)

Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011)

The Vaccines – What Do You Expect from the Vaccines?    (2011)

Lana Del Ray – Born to Die (2012)

Howlin’ Rain – Russian Wilds (2012)

Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (2012)

Dr John – Locked Up (2012)

Mark Lanegan – Blues Funeral (2012)

Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park (2013)

Ron Sexsmith – Forever Endeavor (2013)

Roy Harper – Man & Myth (2013)

Low – The Invisible Way (2013)

Devandra Banhart – Mala (2013)

Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare (2013)

I am Kloot – Let ‘em all in (2013)

Palma Violets – 180 (2013)

Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time (2013)

Caitlin Rose – The Stand In (2013)

Arctic Monkeys – AM (2013)

Jason Isbell – Southwestern (2013)

Steven Wilson   The Raven that refused to sing…..(2013)

Matthew E White – Big Inner (2013)

Angel Olsen – Burn your fire for no witness (2014)

Temples – Sun Structures (2014)

U2 – Songs of Innocence (2014)

Flying Lotus – You’re Dead (2014)

Mogwai – Rave Tapes (2014)

Roddy Frame – Seven Dials (2014)

Drive By Truckers – English Oceans (2014)

The Felice Brothers – Favorite Waitress   (2014)

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds of Modern Country (2014)

Hiss Golden Messenger  – Lateness of Dancers (2014)

Grimes – Art Angels (2015)

Father John Misty – I Love You Honeybear (2015)

Joe Jackson – Fast Forward (2015)

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I sit and Think (2015)

Gretchen Peters – Blackbird (2015)

Jamie XX – In Colour (2015)

Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool (2015)

D’Angelo – Black Messiah (2015)

Riley Walker – Primrose Green (2015)

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (2016)

Michael Kiwanula – Love and Hate (2016)

Case, Lange, Viers – Case, Lange, Viers (2016)

Suede – Night Thoughts (2016)

Applewood Road – Applewood Road (2016)

Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker (2016)

Sturgil Simpson – a Sailor’s Guide to Earth (2016)

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

Cass McCombs – Mangy Love (2016)

Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (2016)

John Bramwell – Leave Alone The Empty Spaces (2017)

Molly Burch – Please Be Mine (2017)

Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now (2017)

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (2017)

Beck – Colors (2017)

Wolf Alice – Visions Of A Life (2017)

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (2017)

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (2017)

Japandroids – Near To The Wild Heart Of Life (2017)

Iron & Wine – Beast Epic (2017)

Villagers ‎– The Art Of Pretending To Swim (2018)

Bodega – Endless Scroll (2018)

Parquet Courts – Wide Awake (2018)

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019)

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising (2019)

David Crosby, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, Michael League – Here If You Listen (2019)

Jesca Hoop – Stonechild (2019)

Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka (2019)

Fontaines DC – Dogrel (2019)

Angel Olson – All Mirrors (2019)

Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance (2019)