Chick Corea: A Legend Passes

•February 18, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Chick Corea died last week, of an undisclosed form of cancer, aged 79. Strangely, I had been listening to his most recent album “Chick Corea Plays,” as background music, for the past few weeks. I find these short piano tunes (recorded live), deftly played, quite therapeutic during these difficult times. Such was the versatility of this great performer, there is scarcely any mood or situation that couldn’t be filled with Chick Corea’s music.

Corea was an Italian American, from the Boston exurbs, whose father was a traditional jazz musician. He began playing piano at a young age – and was a formally trained classical musician. Jazz was his calling. Arriving in New York City in the early 1960s he found work as a sideman in jazz clubs contributing to the hard bop scene. He performed on a multitude of recordings by Blue Mitchell (“The Thing You Do” is a Blue Note classic), Herbie Mann, Dave Pike, Sonny Stitt and others. “Sweet Rain” with Stan Getz is a stone cold classic (he later played on “Captain Marvel”). Corea’s Blue Note debut – “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” was as one of the first Tone Poet reissues and it is fabulous – straight ahead jazz – bebop, post bop, hard bop – it is almost a preview of the 1980s in the 60s! But, before Corea could be pigeonholed into one style – he ventured off into the avant guard – and into a series of “groups” for which his long term reputation is derived.

On funked up electric piano, Chick Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in the Miles Davis group – and he performed on all of those seminal early jazz-rock fusion albums: “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew,”” Jack Johnson,” “On the Corner” etc. He then joined up with Anthony Braxton, David Holland and Barry Altschul to form “Circle” a true free jazz fusion band. I spent a year once trying to source a copy of the (unbelievably powerful) “Paris Concert” – but had to settle for “Circulus” until ECM re-issued the former in 2017 (alongside Holland’s exceptional “Conference of the Birds“).
In 1972 – Corea went commercial – and recorded two albums “Return to Forever” (ECM released in 1975) and “Light as a Feather” (Polydor) – a latin tinged fusion-vocal album released, to rave reviews, in 1972. I must confess that I don’t particularly like either album – but they were important as the albums established (arguably) the most enduring partnership in jazz fusion history – between Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke – subsequently called the “Return to Forever (RTF)” band. Confusingly, there is a 1973 album called “Children of Forever” that, while under the leadership of Clarke, is essentially a RTF record, that included Lenny White.

Although jazz rock fusion has a mixed reputation these days (principally due to the hyper-retromania that tends to drag jazz back to the 1950s and early 1960s, that started with Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s), fusion was vastly more commercially successful than straight ahead jazz in the 1970s. It allowed versatile musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to earn a good living while keeping one foot in the electric world and one in the acoustic one. RTF released a bunch of commercially successful albums in the 1970s. The most popular album was “Romantic Warrior” – my favorite is “Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy.” The second soloist was initially Bill Connors, and then Al DiMeola. Clarke played on everything, and White on everything worth hearing. In general, I find these 1970s RTF albums a bit “dated” to listen to. Hence, the first port of call for a new listener should be the three RTF reconvened albums released between 2009 and 2012: “Returns,” “Forever” and “The Mothership Returns.” These are all live albums featuring Corea/Clark/White and a differing cast of support musicians. “Returns” featured Al Di Meola (this is available on DVD/Blu Ray and CD). “Forever” is a trio – mostly unplugged – and it is fantastic. “The Mothership Returns” is my favorite of all of the RTF albums: Di Meola was replaced by Frank Gambale (guitar) and Jean Luc Ponty (violin) for the 2012 tour and it really rocks. There is a gorgeous 3xLP + DVD set available.

While all of the fusion stuff was going on, Corea had an independent solo career. Everything recorded on ECM and Concord Jazz is fantastic. The late 1980s “contemporary jazz” material on GNP – hmm – not so much. Alongside vibraphonist Gary Burton – Corea released a series of recordings “Crystal Silence” – between 1972 and 1979 on ECM and “New Crystal Silence” (2008) on Concord. Gorgeous straight ahead “modern” (in the ECM sense – “chamber” may be a better term) jazz. “Children’s Songs” from 1984 is a wonderful collection of simple piano tunes – that Corea revisited over and over. “Trio Music” from the same year paired him with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haines, another bombastic live album that showcased that modern European-American approach to modern jazz.
Chick Corea played with, literally, everybody: “Rendezvous in New York” (2003) included, amongst others, Bobby McFerrin and Joshua Redman. “Five Peace Band” was like a Bitches Brew reunion with John McLaughlin. “Further Explorations” was a Bill Evans tribute album – that included in the trio Paul Motion and Eddie Gomez. In “Orvieto” Corea plays piano duets with Stefan Bollani. In more recent years he released two sumptious “Trilogy” albums with Brian Blade and Christian McBride.
If you don’t like jazz or fusion – don’t worry there was Corea the classical musician – he released a bunch of records featuring his own compositions, Debussy, Mozart – then there are the latin influenced records……He even found time to record a Scientology tribute fusion record “The Vigil” with a whole group of younger musicians, in 2013. A very late career partial fusion album “Chinese Butterfly” with Steve Gadd, is worth a shout out.

Corea, Jarrett, Hancock – will we ever see their like again? Musicians who have transcended musical genres and have had a massive impact on modern music over the last 60 years. Now Corea has passed, Jarrett is out of action and Herbie appears to have retired, it is time for the baton to pass.

Tina Brooks – Tone Poet – ‘Bout Time

•February 11, 2021 • Leave a Comment

The history of 1950s and 1960s jazz is littered with horrible stories of gifted musicians whose lives were blighted by opioids and alcohol. Some lived to produce great artworks – Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Grant Green. Some made minor comebacks in the 1970s – Frank Morgan. Others vanished into the mirth. Tina Brooks was one such musician. A phenomenal tenor saxophonists – whose lyricism and light tone is instantly identifiable. He had many outings as a side man, easily melding into the leaders framework, complimenting rather than competing. Brooks suffered the indignity (and poverty) of having most of his recorded output shelved for decades and would have remained a footnote in jazz history were it not for Michael Cuscana.

Born in North Carolina in 1932 – Brooks (nicknamed Tina – for, presumably “Teeny” or “Tiny”) spent part of his adolescence in New York, but was badly bullied due to his nerdy and shy demeanor, so he went back to Fayetteville until 1949. As an adult, he returned to New York and started working as a professional musician. Like all saxophone players of the era, he would have been influenced by the deep bluesy tones of Lester Young and the lyricism of Coleman Hawkins. Brooks played R&B and jam sessions in jazz clubs developing a prototypical blues based hard bop sound. He eventually found work as a sideman for Blue Note – particularly on recordings by Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell – between 1957 and 1960, having been introduced to Alfred Lion by Benny Harris.

Brooks’ first Blue Note album, Minor Move, was recorded in 1958 and featured an all star cast – Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Doug Watkins and Art Blakey. It is a great record – that was mastered, sequenced, liner notes written, artwork produced and – shelved for decades. Why? Nobody seems to know.

Two years later, Brooks led another session – that featured Freddy Hubbard – then 22 and the bright young thing of Blue Note. The album “True Blue” was released – but does not seem to have been promoted to the same extent as the very well known “Open Sesame” session, recorded 7 days earlier, with Hubbard as the leader. Brooks provided solos and two of the seven compositions in that album. To my regret – I did not buy “True Blue” from Music Matters (although it is still available for $100). But, after hearing the 24/192 version on Qobuz, I rushed out and bought the 1984 Mosaic 4LP Tina Brooks box set (that contains all four of his Blue Note albums).

Brooks recorded two more albums for Blue Note: “Back to the Tracks” (recorded in 1960) and “The Waiting Game” (recorded in 1961). Both albums shelved and forgotten in the Blue Note vaults, until Michael Cuscana went digging in the the 1970s.

Few jazz musicians from the late 1950s and early 1960s got to record for Blue Note. “True Blue” could and should have made Tina Brooks a major league jazz musician. Had he been treated better by the company, perhaps – just perhaps – Brooks may have attained the legendary status of Joe Henderson or Dexter Gordon. But that was not to be, and the likely cause of his demise was heroin. It would be easy to imagine a movie made about Tina Brooks’ life – a tragedy of course – Tina, shuffling into the Blue Note offices – asking when his records would be released, trying to scrounge some money to eat or get a fix. For a musician – record releases are more than just a product, they are a reputation. To a club owner, having an album out from Blue Note would be an endorsement of quality, likely to ensure bookings. With two albums on the shelf including -the astonishingly named “Waiting Game” – well, that would have to wait until well after Brooks died, of renal failure and cachexia – in 1974: 13 years after his last recording.

Fortunately, the endlessly excellent Tone Poet series has now issued two of the four Tina Brooks albums – [Minor Move and The Waiting Game] really the first time that they have been widely issued on vinyl. And boy have Joe Harley, Kevin Gray et al outdone themselves. I am unlikely to ever own an original 1950s or 1960s pressing of a Blue Note album – but, in these cases, I have the “original:” the Mosaic box set. Now, it must be said, in 1984 these Mosaic boxes must have looked amazing – but today they are 140g records with ugly (non Blue Note) labels in a flimsy box. The sound, however, is excellent: true audiophile AAA pressings in relatively small batches (7500). I have often listened to all of the Brooks’ Mosaic records – they are well balanced, clear (without the digital edge) and pleasant to listen to. However, compared to the Cohearant versions – in gorgeous glossy covers – well it is no contest. The Tone Poet albums are louder brighter bigger – just – fabulous – deep and wide soundstaging, clear instrumental separation, just excellent. Every decibel of dynamic range has been squeezed from these (likely) pristine tapes (no wow and flutter). I really hope that “Back to the Tracks” gets a TP release and “True Blue” gets the 80th anniversary treatment.

The upcoming Tone Poet releases for 2021-22 are listed below. I am very excited about the Pacific Jazz releases (particularly Katanga by Curtis Amy – been trying to source a copy of this for years). Thankfully only one Art Blakey release. At last some Art Pepper – unfortunately it is Playboys/Pictures of Heath – which is great – but there is already a nice version available on Pure Pleasure.

March 12, 2021

  • Charles Lloyd & The Marvels – Tone Poem (Blue Note, 2021) warning – digitally mastered – no better than the ususal BN Charles Lloyd release but €20 more expensive.

May 7, 2021

June 4, 2021

  • Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – The Witch Doctor (Blue Note, 1961)
  • Curtis Amy & Dupree Bolton – Katanga! (Pacific Jazz, 1963)

July 9, 2021

  • Sonny Clark – My Conception (Blue Note, 1959)
  • McCoy Tyner – Expansions (Blue Note, 1968)

August 6, 2021

  • Lee Konitz & Gerry Mulligan – Lee Konitz Plays With The Gerry Mulligan Quartet (Pacific Jazz, 1953)
  • Wayne Shorter – The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note, 1965)

September 10, 2021

  • Joe Pass – For Django (Pacific Jazz, 1964)
  • Stanley Turrentine – Rough ‘N Tumble (Blue Note, 1966)

October 8, 2021

  • Sonny Red – Out of the Blue (Blue Note, 1959-60)
  • Grant Green – The Latin Bit (Blue Note, 1962)

November 5, 2021

  • Hank Mobley – Curtain Call (Blue Note, 1957)
  • Jackie McLean – Tippin’ The Scales (Blue Note, 1962)

December 3, 2021

  • Gerald Wilson – Moment of Truth (Pacific Jazz, 1962)
  • Freddie Hubbard – Breaking Point! (Blue Note, 1964)

January 7, 2022

  • Kenny Burrell – Kenny Burrell (Blue Note, 1956)
  • Grant Green – Feelin’ The Spirit (Blue Note, 1962)

February 4, 2022

  • Harold Vick – Steppin’ Out (Blue Note, 1963)
  • Bobby Hutcherson – Stick Up! (Blue Note, 1966)

March 4, 2022

  • Chet Baker & Art Pepper – Picture of Heath (Pacific Jazz, 1956)
  • Blue Mitchell – Bring It Home To Me (Blue Note, 1966)

April 1, 2022

  • Donald Byrd – At The Half Note Cafe, Vol. 1 (Blue Note, 1960)
  • ScoLoHoFo (Scofield-Lovano-Holland-Foster) – Oh! (Blue Note, 2002)

Experience Audio #1: One Microphone Part 1

•February 8, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Ever since the advent of hi-fi, audiophiles and audio dealers have kept a stack of records nearby that they believe will show off their “system” and impress people. Unfortunately, if you google “audiophile recordings” you will get a list like this, or this, or this. While I accept that some of these records are exceptionally well recorded and sound great – mostly they are just popular records. I mean, much as I love “Kind of Blue” – it wouldn’t end up in my top 500 audiophile jazz records. Stereophile magazine run a regular “records to die for” series – which is, really, records that the staff enjoy listening to; a lot. So, I though that I would write a series of semi-reviews of albums that I think demonstrate the great value of a decent hifi setup. I will list the best (easily available) version and I will limit the records to ones that can be streamed from most services.
So, first up…..


It was early 1989 and I was visiting a friends house, idling away time in the family’s living room, inspecting the various family photos and trophies, when I spied a cassette sitting on the mantle – by a band that I’d never heard before called “Cowboy Junkies.” Aside from identifying the most appalling name of a band to come out of Canada until New Pornographers, the tape had that intriguing acoustic-y look of similar era recordings by Del Amitri, Tanita Takaram, the Levellers and others. I slid the cassette into the family’s trusty old 3-in-1 stereo, hit play and sat on the couch. I was mesmerized. The room filled up with an extraordinary ethereal sound that bounced and reverberated off the walls. The songs were extra-ordinarily slow, bluesy, gospley, folksy, jazzy – I’m still not sure. A powerful voice, sparse instrumentation – Patsy Cline songs, Hank Williams songs – songs of love and loss. It was the sound that, at the time, so called “new age” artists (such as Enya) tried and failed miserably to find. Powerful, emotionally connected. No fuss. No showing off. Just….perfect. I remember the day well, and remember considering if I could get away with “borrowing” (i.e. nicking) the tape and getting away with it. Unfortunately, the owner showed up, glowing with delight regarding my great taste. So, I dropped £16 of precious cash on the CD and never regretted my purchase; not for a second.

The “Trinity Session” – as this, the second album by Canadian band Cowboy Junkies, is known – was recorded (mostly) during one session at the Church of the Holy Trinity in central Toronto. Michael Timmins has written a nice series of essays on the production of this recording – and it is worth reading. Click here for a great review. Suffice to say – the band was broke- they weren’t exactly truthful about their reasons for hiring the venue and had a single microphone and a two track DAT machine (16/48) to record the session. They spent hours positioning the equipment and microphone – and – clearly – the band got it exactly right.

The first time I visited Toronto was 2003 – I walked straight past the Eaton Center to see this hallowed church. It was locked. Same every time since.

Versions – the original CD is terrific. It is the only version you need to own. I have a 1988 vinyl copy on Cooking Vinyl that, sinfully, omits “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” and “Working on a Building”- and is just – disappointing. An “audiophile” 2 LP (200g) version was released by Analogue Productions in 2017. The company makes loads of disclaimers about why it uses a lowly CD level source to master an audiophile records. Doesn’t matter. It sounds great. A facsimile version, presumably digitally sourced, was released by Music on Vinyl later the same year. Again, I’m sure it sounds significantly better than the original record.

Interestingly, in 2007 the band, together with Vic Chestnut, Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams, attempted to recreate the album – filming the experience and releasing the product as “Trinity Revisited” on DVD. Needless to say, I bought the DVD the day it came out – rushed home – put it on and was nearly bored to death. I’m sure if you saw the same event live it would have been hugely enjoyable, but on video – it was just a bunch of people playing slow songs sitting in a circle. Lightning doesn’t necessarily strike twice.

Listen with: a very large glass red wine – by the fireside in partial darkness. Strangely, this album also plays well in the car.

If you enjoy this kind of recording:
1. May I recommend the amazing one microphoned debut (at this time only) album by Applewood Road – a true lo-fi audiophile delight.
2. If you like the reverberating sound of multi-harmony and limited instrumentation – Clannad “Live at Christchurch Cathedral” is worth a listen.

VMP – WTF!!!?

•January 31, 2021 • 1 Comment
VMP Bethlehem Bundle

A few months ago I succumbed to the charms of Vinyl Me Please and signed up for a subscription. Each month a slab of vinyl arrives – nicely curated, usually AAA by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, pressed at RTI or QRP– with nice little add ons such as – a listening guide, stickers, artwork and….um…..a suggested cocktail. Whatever – the records, so far, are marvelous. So when I received an email for the “Bethlehem Records Bundle” for $120 – I jumped at the opportunity. Bethlehem records from the 1950s and 1960s were really well recorded and packaged – grossly under-rated in the history of jazz (Creed Taylor was involved at the inception). Although I already owned an excellent version of “Daddy Plays the Horn” by Dexter Gordon, released by Pure Pleasure in 2013 – I did not have “Motor City Scene” (Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams and a superstar line up) or “The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus” – and, I quite fancied the Booker Ervin album as well. I pre-ordered and waited.

Last week the bundle arrived alongside John Prine’s debut album (beautifully mastered, pressed, presented – just fabulous). There were 4 records – all pressed on different colored vinyl – something that I am ambivalent about. All had black “Bethlehem” labels – again – not consistent with modern reissues practices – ok you paid the license – but the original label was red. The cover art – let’s say it is not Tone Poet quality – mediocre reproductions from lowish resolution digital files. No bother – what do the records sound like?
First up was Booker Ervin: nice thumping bass coming out of the right channel – good early stereo – and then <<<shrink>>>> no soundstage, no atmosphere – I felt like I was listening to an MP3. Maybe, I thought, it was my phono stage (new one still hasn’t arrived from Germany, another victim of COVID). So, on went “Daddy Plays the Horn.”

The Pure Pleasure Version Has Superior Artwork – better color reproduction

“Daddy” is a very interesting record from Dexter; he had spent most of the 1950s in jail or strung out on drugs and this is one of his few leader sessions. It is terrific. The VMP record is pressed on bright yellow vinyl – and it is very noticeable that there is a 3cm or so sized run out groove on the album. This is never a good sign: a expert mastering engineer will try and use every bit of the record to fill with music – getting the grooves as wide as possible to ensure maximal loudness and deep bass (hence the 45rpm x 12″ records during the disco era). This album looks like it was mastered by a machine. Onto my turntable – pleasant – level a bit low – reasonable instrument separation – ok – sounds like a 1950s recording – and I would have been reasonably happy except that I already had an audiophile version on the shelf. This was the 2013 Pure Pleasure version mentioned above. First appearance: the PP version’s cover is a far superior reproduction – brighter colors, better quality cardboard, the album – feels heavier -red labels (still not the originals), tiny run out groove. Needle drop. Wham! I had to jump up to turn down the volume as this was mastered much louder. The sound – the pure pleasure version “Blows” the VMP album out of the water. Literally the difference between true audiophile analogue audio – and some strange hybrid between vinyl and digital. Hmm. Huge soundstage – deep bass, clear but not brittle treble – and fully immersive. Really, the PP version is spectacular.

Ok – now I’m struggling with disappointment. On goes Pepper Adams, and then Charles Mingus – and, frankly – I’m struggling. I compared with two records with 24/96 files on Qobuz – and there was no comparison – the digital versions were far far better. If VMP had used these files – the two should have sounded more or less the same (with a bit of coloration – some might prefer the vinyl). High res digital was a big winner here (by the way a later comparison of the Dexter album with the Qobuz version was easily won by the PP release). And, what is the point of buying a Charles Mingus record – if you can’t hear the bass?

SO – VMP – WHF? I went back to the promotional page – and, hang on here – no reference to Ryan Smith or RTI. No information about mastering or pressing whatsoever. Suspicious…..have I been suckered into a bit of bait and switch (although in fairness to VMP – they never made any audiophile claims – I bought this based on reputation and branding). If I saw these records in a record shop – and there are gazillions of color pressings of 1950s jazz in every record shop in Europe – I would assume that these were “pressed from CD-public domain recordings” or bootlegs – from wherever Jazz track or Waxtime (amongst other) press their records. I would not touch them – particularly for $30 a piece. With a bit of gooogling – it wasn’t hard to find out that these albums were cut from (unidentified) digital source files by DMM (direct metal mastering – something I can’t stand) and GZ in the Czech republic. This is not Pallas or Optimal – it is the world’s biggest record pressing plant and it is a non fave for audiophiles.

There is a lot of commercial possibility for DMM in the 2020s – where the Father stamper is cut direct by the lathe – removing a step or two from the process – due to the world shortage of acetates. DMM became popular in the 1980s when CD arrived and folks discovered and liked the crisp high end treble of early players – something that DMM produced also. Sony-Philips developed 1-Bit and SACD specifically to remove such brittleness from digital recordings – but it is a problem with DMM. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the technology – similar to direct-to-disc it has great potential: I just have never heard a particularly audiophile DMM record.

All of these titles, and many more, were remastered from the original tapes in 2013: they were released as 24/96 files and on vinyl (presumably from those files). The cost of the 2013 records – less than $€20. Likely significantly better than these VMP DMM GZ reissues.

I did order myself another “Christmas Present” from VMP – that was the Jazz Dispensary Bundle – which I briefly considered cancelling until I read the credits: Kevin Gray, Cohearant Audio, RTI. All is forgiven!

Finally, note that the forthcoming, and expensive Herbie Hancock anthology from VMP will also be pressed at GZ – so – be careful before you order it: I would wait for a reliable review (I don’t have any great interest in this set – BTW – I love Herbie, but – the late stage stuff is a bit….meh).

A Short Note on West Coast Jazz….

•January 28, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[I started writing this last summer and never posted it ]

In the years to come everyone will ask you – “what did you do during lockdown?” and I’m sure everyone will talk about how they beat boredom, learned to cook properly, watched countless murders and assaults on Netflix, took up sea swimming, drank themselves senseless, wrote their first novel etc. I worked. But, to keep myself sane – I immersed myself obsessively in the world of American Jazz from 1954 to 1964, principally, but not exclusively, that much forgotten – and often derided – variant “West Coast Jazz.”

jazz books

To most fans jazz is about New Orleans in the 1920s and New York from the 1940s onwards. In between was god-awful “swing” that was really pop music played with a little bit of syncopation. Modern jazz started with Charlie Parker and the stuff played on the West Coast was by white guys who sold out and went into the studios. Oh and jazz is an American art-form and Europeans are just copycats. WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Following World War II the swing bands and orchestras limped along and finally disbanded, due to the falloff in popularity and loss of revenue. Many musicians took advantage of the GI bill and went to college, studying music and had a desire to become both musically adventurous and to compose and orchestrate. Some relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco, to take advantage of the burgeoning club scene (Central Avenue in LA) and agreeable climate. Simultaneously, following late night jam sessions in Mintons and other clubs, a group of artists (Gillespie, Parker, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell etc.) who felt less constrained by harmonic structure developed “bebop”  – characterized by rapid fire solos of almost impossible verve. Slightly later, a more orchestrated or laid back version of modern jazz was developed in New York – by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and others that acquired the label “cool jazz.” This tarnished moniker subsequently became associated with the more melodic music of the West coast that combined the urgency of bebop, the counterpoint of dixieland, the complex arrangements of swing, and the airiness of chamber jazz. In many ways, West Coast Jazz (WCJ) was the fore-runner of ECM, ACT, Steeplechase, Black Saint and other European labels. Moreover, WCJ evolved into Post Bop, Hard Bop and Avant guard – but not Soul Jazz or Funk, mostly because jazz on the coast was all but dead by 1964: its major musicians had emigrated to New York or Europe, were locked up in jail or dead, worked in the Hollywood studios or abandoned Jazz altogether.

Musicians from the West Coast who made their names elsewhere:

  • Dave Brubeck
  • Eric Dolphy
  • Dexter Gordon
  • Charles Mingus
  • Chet Baker
  • Art Farmer
  • Paul Desmond

Musicians from the West Coast who stayed by still became legends

  • Art Pepper
  • Hampton Hawes
  • Chico Hamilton
  • Andre Previn

Musicians from the West Coast who should have become legends

  • Sonny Criss
  • Buddy Collette
  • Teddy Edwards
  • Harold Land
  • Wardell Gray

Musicians who settled on the West Coast and recorded there (at least for a while)

  • Jimmy Giuffre
  • Clifford Brown
  • Shelly Manne
  • Gerry Mulligan
  • John Lewis
  • Barney Kessel
  • Sonny Clarke
  • Jim Hall
  • Bud Shank
  • Bill Perkins
  • Conte Condoli
  • Curtis Counce
  • Lawrence Marable
  • Frank Rosolino
  • Herb Geller
  • Jack Sheldon
  • Herb Geller
  • Benny Golson
  • Stan Getz
  • Jack Montrose
  • Bob Gordon
  • Howard McGee
  • Benny Golson
  • Bill Holman
  • Phineas Newborn jr
  • Red Mitchell
  • Cy Touff

Legendary West Coast Sidemen (who also made leader records)

  • Leroy Vinneger
  • Stan Levy
  • Russ Freeman
  • Red Mitchell
  • Carl Perkins
  • Richie Kamuca
  • Chuck Flores
  • Frank Butler
  • Bob Cooper
  • Frank Morgan
  • Claud Williamson
  • Bill Watrous
  • Jimmy Knepper

At some stage I will post a list of “must have” WCJ recordings.

Favorite Recording Engineer? You’ve probably never heard of him!

•January 28, 2021 • Leave a Comment

April 2019 – still in the throws of a major Art Pepper obsession, I ordered a bunch of records from a Discogs retailer in the UK: the order included records by Wardell Gray, Sonny Rollins, Brew Moore, Tadd Dameron, Clark Terry, and, for £10, the record pictured here (minus the obi strip). Although the leader of that session was Shelly Manne – all of his recordings as a leader are good – the reason I bought this recording was because it featured -> Art Pepper (more about this later). So, I spun each of those records in order until I came to the 1981 recording on a weird japanese label (Atlas) that featured a bad photo of a bunch of middle aged guys on the cover (Frank Wollfe era Blue Note this was not). There was an impressive insert in Japanese with an interesting illustration of the positioning of the instruments in the studio – that included the models of microphones and their positioning. I had never seen this before. I spun the record, expectation fairly low and, holy crap, I was transported to the front row of the Haig nightclub circa 1956. Each instrument was perfectly placed in three dimensional space, the bass rumbled and plucked along shimmering in front of my face, the timbre of the brass instruments was pitch perfect, the piano (Pete Jolly) actually sounded like a piano. Eureka – I had never heard jazz reproduced so perfectly – on 120g vinyl on a Japanese label.

Insert from typical S&S Atlas recording: note the positioning graphic in the bottom left hand corner

After a little bit of digging – and I presume that this story is true – I discovered that Art and Laurie Pepper made a deal with Atlas/Yupiteru records to cut a series of traditional 1950s style jazz albums for the Japanese market, using mostly the original west coast jazz (WCJ) musicians from 30 years earlier. The only catch was that Pepper was signed to an exclusive contract to Fantasy/Galaxy records. No mind – the records would be recorded with other nominal leaders and he would be the sideman. The “Leaders” were Bill Watrous, Sonny Stitt, Jack Sheldon, Lee Konitz, Pete Jolly and, as mentioned, Shelly Manne. All really excellent audiophile recordings. The musicians were a who’s who of 1950s LA (Hampton Hawes had died in 1977, and Bob Magnusson – who is phenomenal – plays bass on a lot of these recordings). Fortunately, Laurie Pepper teamed up with Omnivore records a few years ago and re-released these recordings on CD – known as “West Coast Sessions” and you can find them on most streaming services.

Having acquired the Pepper sides – I remained intrigued – was it the Japanese production or the recording studio that was responsible for the remarkable sound of these records? If you pore over the credits – two things jump out – Sage & Sound Recording Studios (S&S), Hollywood Ca. and James (Jim) Mooney (JM) engineer. It turns out that Jim Mooney and the studio were one and the same. So I started buying JM engineered records that were recorded at S&S.

I presumed that there would be a shrine somewhere on the internet to this audiophile jazz recording genius – after all, virtually everyone has heard of Van Gelder – and I believe that Mooney’s 1970s & 1980s recordings sound better. But no. No shrine. WTF? So – here is what I can piece together (more information about this legend would be appreciated).

Art Pepper out side Sage & Sound 1981

Jim Mooney was born in 1934 in Kansas City, but grew up in San Gabriel California – about 10 miles outside Los Angeles. He was an avid jazz fan – playing trumpet in various combos, while working for the Pacific Bell telephone company in the 1950s. He developed an interest in recording, particularly jazz – in a garage in the back of the building in which he worked. Eventually he took a job at a recording studio owned by Woodie Fleener – at  Selma Avenue. The studio was called Sage and Sand, and Fleener combined recording with music publishing. In late 1969 Fleener and a co-worker were stabbed in a robbery attempt. Fleener was paralysed and died a couple of years later of his injuries. Jim Mooney bought the studio title and masters– changing it to “Sage & Sound” – and moved it to Gordon Avenue. He built the new studio himself, and it remains in that location until this day. Mooney ran the studio for almost 30 years. Early recordings (from about 1972) featured a variety of different jazz artists that included Lew Tabakin, his wife – the legendary Toshiko Akiyoshi and their big band, Gary Bartz, Sonny Stitt – and quite a few others (who are not household names) mostly for Catalyst records – a short lived west coast jazz label. At the end of the 1970s and early 1980s a new breed of west coast jazz musician emerged – Bill Watrous, Bobby Shew, Cal Collins, Mark Murphy – and Mooney recorded them all. The Yupiteru Records/Atlas connection started in 1979 with a Bill Watrous record, featuring Art Pepper – but I am dubious, based on timing, if this album is really part of the west coast-Pepper suite (a Shelly Manne trio album came out almost simultanously). Around this time George Cables seems to have signed an exclusive contract with Atlas/Yupiteru – and he recorded many albums at S&S. The “West Coast Sound” series ran up until about 1986. A variety of other labels, including Fresh Sounds records (Barcelona Spain – behind the Jazz Workshop reissues) recorded both revival and nostalgia related jazz sides at the studio right into the 1990s. The studio also recorded standard Hollywood fare – TV and movie soundtracks, college bands etc.

Some very notable artists recorded at S&S. Horace Silver split from Blue Note for a while and formed his own Silveto record label – and recorded or remixed 4 or 5 albums with Mooney. Harold Land recorded the wonderful Xocia’s Dance there. If you like the bluesy piano jazz of Red Garland – I would strongly recommend “Misty Red” (1983). Chet Baker recorded (at least part of) his last album with Mooney. Freddie Hubbard is reported to have recorded there – I just can’t identify the record. Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, Jack Sheldon, Shorty Rodgers, Herb Geller, the Candoli brothers, Terry Gibbs – quite a number of west coast legends recorded late career highlights at S&S with Jim Mooney. What they have in common is that the albums sound great and look absolutely awful – just horrible horrible cover art. In fact of the 45 or so Mooney/S&S albums that I have on vinyl (see some of them below) – the only cover that I like is “Old Acquaintance” by Conte Candoli & Phil Woods – because the cover contains a picture of the musicians in the studio. Otherwise it is – yuck! In fact I would argue that the collectability of these records is seriously hindered by their awful cover art (nobody is going to confuse S&S recordings with Blue Notes, Prestige, ECM or ACT). Hard to believe but a Bill Perkins tribute album, to Lester Young, is attributed to Bill Parkins – seriously – they (the producers, not Mooney, obviously) couldn’t even spell his name! The cover photo- one of the better ones – appears to be of a shore in the middle of a street at sunset (it could be a hubcap).

Although a number of excellent blues revival albums of the 1980s (Robert Cray/Joe Louis Walker etc.) were recorded at Sage & Sound, they were not engineered by Jim Mooney. And you can tell…..!

In the late 1990s, the writing was on the wall for recording studios – digital recording became inexpensive and young bands started recording their albums on personal computers using Pro Tools and other programs [and the sound quality dropped commensurate with that]. Owning a studio became an expensive business, and Jim and his wife Laverne sold up. Mooney continued to work as a freelance engineer, but retired in 1998 to play golf and enjoy the weather. He died in 2015. If ever they get around (and they should) to opening a West Coast Jazz Hall of Fame – there should be a exhibit for Jim Mooney who, along with Roy DuNann, has left us a great legacy of jazz recordings.

As I have mentioned – all the Mooney records are worth a listen – they are listed on Discogs under both James and Jim – which is a bit annoying. I would strongly recommend the “West Coast Jazz Today” collection (with the blue obi).

The current owners of Sage & Sound, who seem like really nice people have made a series of entertaining videos – with reference to Jim Mooney in the first 2. Please view here (episode 1 from 20 mins) and here (episode 2 from 22 minutes). It would be really great if they could put up a page in memory of Jim Mooney, with a decent biography and a few reference recordings.

So, if you’re in a record store and having a dig thru a second hand jazz bin and you come across a record that was clearly made in the 70s or 80s with an appalling cover, featuring a bad photo of middle aged men, STOP; turn the cover around – look for the name James Mooney, engineer – and if his name is there – BUY IT – you won’t be disappointed.

Portable Audiophilia – now is the time

•January 21, 2021 • 1 Comment

For a month or so in about 1993 or 1994, I stopped each day to look in the window of an electronic shop that was selling a Philips (semi) portable CD player with rectangular shaped wireless headphones. The price £500 (three or four times the price of the Sony Discman). Philips had developed “bitstream” 1-bit sampling technology that was supposed to make CDs sound more analogue. That heralded the era of 1-Bit CD players and ultimately led to SACD using the same process. But back then, what was tantalizing about that player was that it could, possibly, replicate high end audio for a relatively (but unaffordable for me) modest price. It starts with the headphones, though.

People often forget that the early to mid 90s was a golden era for hi-fi. If you had any self respect you needed to have a “system” – preferably separates, but those radio/CD/tape deck things from Aiwa or Pioneer were ok (mini or midi systems). For portability you had cassette or CD Walkmans and crappy headphones. I always bought good headphones – I have boxes of them – all still working. Headphones are the least expensive route to an audiophile experience. I am frequently asked – I want headphones – good ones – which is the best headphone brand?

Headphones are “in” these days – some are astonishingly expensive. I must confess that I am a bit snobby about “cans” – I believe that you should get the highest fidelity sound for the amount of money that you spend. Seeing people wearing “Beats” brand headphones – just disappoints me <“you could have gotten so much better for your money.”>

So what is the best headphone brand? I haven’t heard them all but I have had every conceivable type of headphone from Grado, Sennheiser, Bowers & Wilkins, Bayer Dynamic, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, AudioTechnica, Shure, Klipsch and others. Essentially you have a choice between in ear (ear buds) and over the ear (sitting on top or enclosing the ear) headphones. Over the ear phones are bigger, heavier and may be open backed or closed backed. It is believed that open backed headphones giver an airier sound and sense of space. On the other had – such is the degree of annoying noise leakage – you are unlikely to live to appreciate it.

I have discovered that there is absolutely no correlation between ear buds’ sound quality and price. It is nearly 40 years since ear buds first arrived. Even €30 wired bud from a reputable brand sound very good. Higher end earbuds are now mostly wireless (due to Apple killing off the 3.5mm jack in the iPhone). If you want the combination of good (but not audiophile – but get real here – you are out jogging or on public transport) sound, utility, flexibility and desirability – it is impossible to beat the Apple Air-Pod Pro. This is the best product that Apple has produced since Steve Job’s death. I have tried – and hated – a variety of other Bluetooth enabled ear buds.

The best headphone manufacturer? Hmmmmmmmmmmm……. having given this considerable thought – I have no doubt that it is, hands down, no question……Sony. Yes they are a mammoth electronics corporation that produce all kinds of gadgets – but Sony have been in the headphone business for decades and, at any price level, the Sony product is always good. Whether it is a €20 pair of over the ear semi disposable headphones or the €2000 MDR-Z1s – the product is engineered to the best sound quality that can be produced for the price. The company has been in the hi-fi business for a long time – but they have never been considered a “cool” brand. I, personally, prefer Bowers & Wilkins headphones for day to day listening (particularly the P7 wired or wireless). Regardless – if you buy an expensive pair of headphones – plug them into a stereo, push play and keep it running for a couple of days to “burn them in.” It really does make a difference (I took me 2 weeks to break in a pair of Grado GS1000s). Out of the box most traditional headphones sound harsh.

Ok, back to my quest – the portable audiophile experience:

When the SACD came out in the late 1990s – I really hoped that either Sony or Philips would release a portable CD player capable of outputting high resolution audio through the headphone jack. Instead – we got CD players that played MP3s and then the iPod – and high quality portable audio receded into low priority land. When I say “portable,” I mean something that you might listen to at home or on holidays – you can take it with you – but you might not walk around with it. In the current situation, with home schooling, remote working, zoom meetings etc., I am sure that many audiophiles are struggling to listen to their expensive hi-fi systems either due to a member of the family using the space or objections to loud music in the house or apartment. So – there is a need for the “portable audiophile” system.

To have a portable hi-fi systems you need a music source, good set of headphones and something to amplify them. You no longer need something that plays physical discs; everything has simplified over the past 25 years. An obvious place to start is a DAP – digital audio player. There are lots of these available – from astonishingly expensive devices from Astell & Kern (a posh brand name subsidiary of iRiver – a South Korean consumer electronics company, like Lexus to Toyota) to the inexpensive Fiio devices – such as the excellent M9 that I own. These devices are handy, portable – they fit easily into your pocket – and sound great. As long as you have, on hand, lots of music to fill up the players. For streaming from your network and from the internet using wi-fi, they are thoroughly mediocre.

An alternative approach is to use your laptop/desktop as a source. The major advantage is that a fully functional computer (in particular Windows 10 devices) can store and play any music file, stream from any service and can output to an external DAC at any resolution. You can buy any of the Dragonfly DACs for reasonable money and have a decent audio experience (I’m told that the Cobalt is really excellent – I have one of the early models and it’s pretty good – but crucially the Cobalt it is limited to 24/96 and doesn’t decode DSD).

The best system – I think – is less complicated and works well (for me at least). An iPhone or an iPad with the camera adapter (€30) – is a close to perfect streaming source. I believe that the current, bog standard, €400 iPad is the best value and most flexible portable computing product on the market. I am not a great fan of Android tablets – as I have never encountered one that doesn’t leak battery charge – or get into some kind of funk from time to time. Into the iPad (or iPhone) via the camera adapter you can plug any USB DAC. I have chosen the Chord Mojo.

The Mojo is the size of the original iPod – encased in aluminum – with a reassuring “made in England” sticker (the Brits have always made great hifi). It has three led lights – that are used to signify charge and sample rate. It decodes everything – not surprising as the same company has serious skin in the digital audio game. Plugged into the iPad camera-USB cable (via the only weakness of the device – a hideous micro-USB plug), the Mojo happily decoded everything I threw at it (including DSD) – with no fiddling. If you view the picture below you will see that the iPad will wirelessly stream 24/192 from Qobuz and the Mojo will decode it (blue light = 192kHz). As a Roon endpoint attached to the Mojo – the iPad + mojo bears remarkable resemblance to the Meridan Sooloos that I used to dream about (at about 1/5th the price).

iPad > Chord Mojo >Sennheiser HD800

The big advantage here is that you likely already have a tablet or a large phone (maybe one just sitting in the drawer since you upgraded) and a good set of headphones. All you need is a Mojo (or equivalent) and a HiRes streaming service (Qobuz or Tidal) or Roon (for your own files). I’m sure there are a hundred different ways of making this type of “system” work. What is really important, though, is the rock solid wifi connection on the iPad. Unfortunately – if you want to surf the internet with your iPad while streaming – the site (e.g. Allmusic guide) often hijacks the audio output (which is really annoying). There is an add-on streamer for the Mojo – the Poly – but that doubles the price and, honestly, I can find an advantage – you still need a tablet or phone to control the streamer. The major drawback of the iPad is lack of expansion storage for your off line high resolution files – such as the do exist – they use the lightning connector – so no DAC.

So there it is – audiophile portable digital audio at a reasonable price.

UPDATE 8/2/2021

I obtained a USB C to micro USB connector – and plugged it into my Fiio M9: the DAP happily outputted raw data (DSD, 24/192) to the Mojo DAC – and there was a tremendous improvement in sound quality versus the DAP’s DAC and headphone amp. If the M9 had a bigger screen (or I had better eyesight), had more solid streaming, and didn’t leak charge while on standby – it would be an ideal partner for the Mojo – due to its micro SD (i.e. unlimited storage) capability.

I would strongly recommend the Mojo as a versatile portable DAC for laptops, mobile phones, tablets etc. It is probably a pretty good upgrade for most home CD players and streamers (although it does need to be charged intermittently).

Fantasy and Artificial Scarcity

•January 15, 2021 • 3 Comments

Ok – so I’m a bit bummed. After posting a teaser last week via Michael Fermer (and others) Craft/Concord/Fantasy records released an impressive one step new formula vinyl in deluxe packaging of John Coltrane’s “Lush Life.” Price $99 / £80 / €90. 1000 copies. It sold out in about 2 minutes. I had been watching to see what they were selling – but I missed the pre-order availability because I seem to be one of the few people left on this planet who still goes to work. Sold out. 1000 copies – seems very few.

The business model for small batch super-deluxe vinyl releases was created by Mobile Fidelity as few years ago – their “One Step” program. I commented on these releases briefly and own a few of the titles. Like “Lush Life”, the first One Step Mofi title – “Abraxas” by Santana – 1000 copies – sold out immediately and started commanding massive prices on eBay. Subsequent releases increased both the price – $100 to $125 (with a massive import markup for Europe) – and the number of copies. There have been 12 releases so far – the current one – Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” is easily available for $125 – part of a “limited series” of 7000 copies. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was pressed 6500 times and “Blood On the Tracks” 9000 times. These releases are (painful) 2 x 45rpm and each stamper is created from a single lacquer – so that 4 lacquers are required to press – probably 500 copies, maybe 1000 (they don’t tell us). There is a bit of a world shortage of lacquers at present. These records sound great – but – the boxes are BIG – and they take up the same space as, for example, the Kraftwerk vinyl box set (9 albums). Space for new records in my house is extremely limited; so instead of the Mingus Ah Um (fantastic record) on one-step – I elected to buy the SACD (for 1/4th the price).

While there is no doubt that “One Step” is a tremendous sounding product [Music Matters released a product call SRX vinyl using a similar (?the same) formula (and they all sold out at about $70 a piece) ]- $125 is a lot of money to pay for a record. The equivalent CD is only about $5. How much are you willing to pay for the ultimate sound experience – and is vinyl really that experience?

A UK business, the Electric Recording Company, purports to produce hand crafted exquisitely produced vinyl records, in tiny batches of 300, for £350 (previously £300). Thus far, their dozen or so releases have sold out. Is this “artificial scarcity” or are these records so good that they should sell for 10 times the price of similar products by Analogue Productions?Ok – here is an admission – during one of our lock-downs last year – when I was seriously disappointed by the total lack of out of house entertainment – I bought one. “Way Out West” by Sonny Rollins, on Contemporary (my favorite label) – at the previous lower price. A beautifully presented product – everything looks like the original pressing. The vinyl was absolutely filthy. I thought, initially, that it was a bad pressing due to all the surface noise and skipping. I was actually going to send it back – but ran it through my vinyl cleaning machine a couple of times – and – voila – perfect. The sound? Amazing. Worth more than 20 times the OJC version that I already had or the 24/192 version that I bought (but you can stream) from Qobuz? No. It is superb – not spectacular (I will compare versions at some stage when my new phono stage arrives from Germany). There are, maybe, 30 recordings in history that you might pay that kind of money to obtain. Mal Waldron’s Mal 2 is not one of them. It has sold out. Do you need to spend £350 for a copy of “Forever Changes” by Love from ERC – when you can buy the AAA Rhino vinyl version for about €20 – and it sounds absolutely great (never audiophile to begin with). You can buy a near mint version of the original pressing for <€250.

So, there is a market for super deluxe vinyl. Particularly 1950s jazz (the Blue Note Tone Poet, Analogue Productions Blue Notes, Music Matters etc.) – most of that era’s original fans are dead. What is the attraction for Gen X and Millennials? It is strange that audiophiles are willing to pay £350 for a 60 year old recording on inferior equipment – and have close to no knowledge of far superior sounding recordings from the 1970s and 1980s – by similar artists – that you can buy for very little money.

I have a personal interest in Concord Music Group. The own the copyrights to most of the West Coast Jazz recordings from the 1950s, along with the Prestige recordings and many other labels that I love. They were able to buy up all those great record labels from the profits made from an exploitative contract with Credence Clearwater Revival – essentially ripping off John Fogerty (they have since made up).

Concord constructed the luxury brand “Craft” a few years ago for deluxe reissues. Early releases were digitally sourced – but – over the last year they have been embracing AAA. So – a super-deluxe vinyl reissue program – no brainer! But c’mon – 1000 copies – what’s that about? They could easily sold 5000 copies of “Lush Life.” So why the 1000 units? Either Craft underestimated demand or were trying to create artificial scarcity. This is a common phenomenon around Christmas where high demand items are restricted – and parents end up having to buy them in January due to the sudden deluge of availability. Short supply the first release – encourage enthusiasm – then they will flock to the 5000 unit subsequent releases. It is what it is. I have major issues with the whole psychological manipulation of artificial scarcity – it is an almost uniquely American concept – this article is word reading and the arguments are hard to refute. Artificial scarcity is the reason why I am completely ambivalent about Record Store Day. It is open season for in-the-know e-bayers.

Popular music – is the music of the masses. It was never supposed to be elitist. Why do I have to fork out £350 for a record when I should be able to buy high quality virgin vinyl from an analogue source for €20? You can stream the same music for free. The whole super-deluxe audiophile thing is – frankly – a bit obnoxious. Nevertheless, I am really looking forward to what Craft releases next – and will be quicker on the draw next time!

Sonos Arc – the Perfect Soundbar?

•January 14, 2021 • Leave a Comment
Sonos Arc in Preferred Position

New Year – new soundbar and Donald Trump has damaged my TV.

So, I was given a lovely present – the new Sonos Arc soundbar – which presented a problem: I had decided to boycott the company due to their abandonment and attempted “bricking” of earlier products. However, they relented, introduced the S1 app and everything kept working. That was – until I needed to use the S2 app.

Let’s get this out of the way immediately – the Arc is a fantastic piece of equipment. Combined with the Sonos Sub (still works) and a couple of Play 1s (they work too) – the quality of surround sound is easily as good as one would have gotten from an early 2000s wired system. It might be better – but – my 2018 (maybe its the 2017 model) LG OLED TV doesn’t seem to output the Dolby Atmos information through HDMI-ARC – but there does seem to be high resolution audio. Yes – HDMI – the previous Playbar was hugely handicapped by only using digital optical audio output (max 16/44 – good sound for CD – but no high resolution) and really fiddly audio remote control (causing endless domestic disputes, I’m sure, the world over). None of this with the Arc. TV on – Arc On – any remote – volume up and down – regardless of the source: it is literally an extension of the television. On top of that Alexa and “Hey Google” are built in – meaning that you don’t have to look for the remote control (down the side of the sofa or under the dog) to turn up the volume or turn off the TV.

There is a degree of precision to the Arc that was not present in the Playbar – no boominess, much more distinct and dialogue (there were multiple complaints in our household that “we can’t hear the talk” – volume up and then your are blown out of it by an action scene). Sometimes voices seems a little too crisp – perhaps due to the source rather than the speaker. Sound separation with the Arc is far superior to the Playbar and there seems to be a lot more activity in the satellite speakers and Sub than before. The soundstage is wider and deeper. Watching the Blu-Ray of Roger Waters’ “Us & Them” was a truly immersive experience. The concert movie had been screened on BBC a while ago – and I watched it out of the corner of my eye while surfing the internet. That did not happen with the Blu-Ray – the sound quality was just – spectacular – along with the visuals (although Jonathan Wilson could wash his hair once in a while). Waters uses the <middle of the crowd> screen that U2 utilized for their recent tours: it featured Battersea Power Station (cover of Animals) – and wow those concerts must have been impressive to attend. I was glued to the screen. Watching ordinary TV channels and streaming services (with their lower end Dolby Digital 5.1) – the sound just jumps out of the screen. Even the fake crowd noise at NFL/EPL matches sounds better on the Arc.

So, two thumbs up for the ARC and it’s sound, and if you are a Sonos virgin and don’t want the hassle and marital disharmony of a properly wired surround system (which, incidentally would cost less than Arc, Sub and 2 x Play 1s and sound better) – then it’s a no brainer. Quibbles? Not many.You need a relatively new TV to use the Arc. Without HDMI-ARC it is no better than the Playbar. Without HDMI-eARC (very new TVs 2018 and later) – there is no Dolby Atmos or True-HD. The soundbar should be ideally placed in front of the TV – with no side obstructions.There may be an issue if the TV stand is low: you might need a 1.5 inch riser (such as an Ikea Lack in wall shelf – or equivalent – I got something similar for €15 in local hardware). The setup – as used to be the case with Sonos – was simple seamless and really well executed. Room tuning made a difference as well.

So – Sonos back in the good books? No they are very much on my shit list. Why? Because they seem to think that, by making the operation of our old Sonos (S1) gear so difficult, that we will ditch it for the new stuff. To operate the S2-app-world – one has to disconnect and disable the previously installed (and fully functioning – due to last year’s outcry) Sonos hardware – and set the “non compatible” gear up as a separate system. No problem – I have a couple of Play 5s, a ZD 90 and my old Playbar that I can use with Roon (no library limit and Roon transcodes HiRes and DSD). But, compared with setting up the S2 system – building a new S1 system has been (and remains) and complete nightmare. For example, the S2 app sees a Play 5 (first generation/Zone Player S5) – tells you that it’s incompatible – advises you to open the S1 app – that can’t see it! The damm thing is plugged directly into my router. I have spent hours fruitlessly trying to get the S5 speakers working. Occasionally, I’m given a nudge by Sonos to upgrade to the new S5 speaker (that only sounds marginally better than my old one – which used to work fine). This is passive aggression by any definition. My Play 3 speakers – which are compatible – refused to work with either app – until I realized that they needed a hard reset. Subsequently the S2 setup was very simple indeed.

Why do we need two apps? Because Sonos says so. Sonopad – an independent one-person created App – can see and operate all my Sonos gear – from one App (including the equipment the S1 is refusing to install). The argument that one app cannot drive all of the Sonos gear is completely bogus. If Stefan Hansel can develop a combined app from his apartment – Sonos, a billion dollar company, can surely do the same. Interestingly – their stock price fell dramatically after Sonos announced the “old hardware cull” and improved after they relented. So, perhaps they should take note that by pissing off long term customers like me with shoddy S1 apps, support and clear coercion to upgrade – that they are stifling new business. The multi-room streaming market is fairly saturated – and – let’s face it – most people don’t actually need any higher end gear than the original Sonos S1 cohort.

One final note: Donald Trump has damaged my TV. Yes – its true. Consequent of the abject craziness over the last couple of years resulting in low level news addiction, CNNs “Breaking News” byline has burnt itself into our LG-OLED screen. We first noticed this during the extraordinarily artistic “hell” scene of that exquisite masterpiece of modern cinema “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Then it was evident when looking at the green and fairways during the US Masters. Sometimes it bugs me. Sometimes not. CNet have provided some advice how to avoid this horrible situation (computer companies came up with screensavers decades ago to prevent burn in affecting VGA screens). The comments suggest that it is a major problem that has affected a large number of LG-OLED buyers – I would avoid buying one second hand. The problem looks permanent. Instead of MAGA – we should put together a group “MOTNA” (make our TVs new again!). We weren’t exactly warned – class action lawsuit – anybody – or maybe a trade in for a more recent model with…em….eARC?

Similar to my TV – this image is from this site.

$1000 to listen to jailbreak* your own music

•December 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Three decades or so ago, Sony (principally but not exclusively), became so paranoid about people copying music from each other that they hobbled and, frankly destroyed really exciting audio products that they developed/marketed: Digital Audio Tape (DAT), MiniDisc, Digital Compact Cassette (Philips), Super Audio CD (SACD), Dual Disc, DVD-Audio and Blu-Ray Audio. Serial copy protection or just plain copy protection was hard coded into each of these products – and many of them, I believe, bombed as a consequence. A completely moronic attempt at CD copy protection – nearly wiped out the only successful new physical musical medium in the past 50 years.

You Music Locked Up in Your Discs

Folks – people who buy physical product these days are not criminals. They would like to rip their digital audio products to hard disc so that they can stream their music around their houses, preferably before the disc either becomes unplayable or obsolete. If we buy a physical music product – we own the right to play that product. As times change, the way we listen to our products change also. Hardly anyone I know has a standalone CD player in their home (I don’t even have one in my car) and go and try and find a CD or DVD/Blu-Ray/UHD Blu-Ray player in your local electrical store: you might find a dusty one in a corner somewhere. The physical disc era is OVER. People keep their CDs in boxes in their attics these days. Maybe – in 20 years time – people will get all nostalgic about (low resolution) DVDs or Blu-Rays – but there is a big difference resurrecting digital discs versus vinyl records: the latter is simple technology – virtually anyone with a bit of mechanical knowhow could start making turntables today. Do you really think that anyone will be making decks in 20 years time that will play your SACDs? Don’t believe me. Ok – think about those 3D Blu-Ray discs you may have bought in the 2010s: do you still have a TV and disc player that support those products? Even if you still have the TV – do you know where the 3D glasses are?

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to extract the digital data from DVD-A and BR-A discs. SACDs – that’s a different story. A couple of methods have been developed to extract the ISO image of SACDs using the Playstation 2 (original firmware) and later the Oppo-BD105 (good luck getting one – Oppo pulled out of the digital player market a couple of years ago – despite making the best consumer Blu-Ray players), and a variety of other BluRay players (listed here). I have a couple of Oppo players – an early 2000s DVD and the BD95EU (can’t rip discs) players and a couple of Sony Blu-Ray/UHD BR players – all of which will output the DSD layer to a home cinema amplifier (the Sony ones anyway). This is really frustrating for me as home cinema amplifiers are generally not audiophile products. Most pre-existing SACD players or Universal players (including my own) – do not have the same quality in-built digital analogue converters (DAC) as one would find in a high quality standalone DAC. As many audiophiles, these days, and most into the future – are or will be streaming music through their DACs, it is infuriating that their potentially fantastic SACDs are locked into the ludicrous Sony/Philips copy protected universe of 20 years ago. Surely somebody, anybody, would produce a box that would take the encrypted DSD (or DVD-A or BR-A) data from the universal disc player (from the HDMI output) – strip off all of the useless blocking code – and then send the bitstream out to a DAC using the optical output.

GeerFab Digital Breakout Box

Thankfully somebody has. Unfortunately it costs the same as a high quality home theater amplifier. The product is the Gear Fab audio digital break out box. Price $999. The device outputs standard DSD64 via the DoP protocol and PCM up to 24-bit/192Hz through S/PDIF coax (and up to 24-bit/176kHz through S/PDIF Toslink outputs) to an external DAC. This is all you really need. Is it legal? The company claims so – and frankly who actually cares. So few people have SACDs – and, let’s face it, if you really wanted to steal high resolution digital music files – I’m sure that it wouldn’t cost much to capture high res streams from Qobuz or Tidal or go to a dodgy download site. The Napster/Home Taping is killing music paradigm died long ago when Alex Ferguson was still managing Man Utd, Donald Trump was a reality show star and David Cameron hadn’t yet become prime minister. In fact – this product and it’s clones could breathe new life into the SACD market – as audiophiles and physical product lovers may be more likely to pick up new titles from Analogue Productions, Mofi and other audiophile labels – if they could actually hear the sound quality.

Geerfab has certainly filled a hole in the market – created by Sony/Philips – who must bear some responsibility to ensure that customers who have bought SACDs/Blu-Ray Audio discs can actually access the music that they have bought – for the duration of their lifetimes. The decent thing, of course, would be to allow owners to register their discs with Sony, and for the company to give us download links to our DSD files – a bit like the downloads that come with Vinyl records. I’m not holding my breath on this. In virtually every consumer electronics market, Sony has produced outstanding products (Vaio computers, electronic books before the Kindle or Kobo, all kinds of Walkmans, excellent headphones and hi-fi etc.) and still managed to shoot themselves in the foot. Just look at this range of products – mouth-wateringly gorgeous – but you will hesitate and wonder what they have done to screw it up (the price the price the price).

The product is reviewed here and and is an Absolute Sound product of the year.

*You are only partially jailbreaking the music – you still can’t copy it to a hard drive with this device. Of course, if you have a Sony/Pioneer/Oppo/Denon Blu-Ray player that’s a few years old, you could – and I’m not promoting illegal activity here – consider using it for ripping your SACDs for your own use – using the information published here.