Saturday, January 14, 2017

Zarabande's El Toro on CD

It's not unusual to say that the performance of a particular jazz ensemble might be greater than the sum of its parts, even though jazz is a musical genre that is often defined by the strengths of its solos. But with Zarabande's new CD, El Toro, familiar motifs and arrangements start to break off and meld together in strange and haunting ways. I think it's because of the unusual mix of instruments in this San Antonio-based ensemble--marimba, vibraphone, piano, bass and plenty of percussion. This may not seem unusual considering that Zarabande specializes in Latin Jazz--the opening track, "Ogun," is very grounded to malleted Caribbean rhythms. But as this adventurous quintet works its way through these nine original tracks, those familiar themes seem to melt away and fuse into something that's playful and sinister in nearly equal portions.

Alfred Flores, known as "El Toro," is a marimba and MalletKat master who spearheaded this project (he also produced this album). While these songs are all composed by vibraphone/percussionist Joe Caploe and pianist Mark Little, El Toro is the guiding force exploring the "tandem mallet" approach favored by such legends as Cal Tjader, David Freidman and Dave Samuels. With a skilled rhythm section consisting of bassist Pete Ojeda and drummer Dean Macomber, Zarabande becomes a whirlwind of sticks, mallets and cymbals. So when the motifs drift into what might be called light jazz, the unusual instrumentation steers the mood away from the lighthearted into something darker and edgier.

That's fortunate; a casual listening session can be dismissive, since this can sound like the sort of music you expect to hear on a cruise ship. It's fun, it's lively and you can imagine well-dressed elderly people dancing to it. And then a feeling starts to creep in. Maybe it's the MalletKat, a programmable MIDI "mallet controller" that can sound just like a marimba, a steel drum, or something in between. It's a crystal clear and seems to float ominously above the stage. By the enthusiastic fifth track, "Judah Memphis," you start to feel like the party has left the cruise ship and has moved into a mysterious port and you're about to have a very memorable evening--for better or worse. You might hear a funky bass line that you've definitely heard before, or you might even hear some dreamy '80s style synthesizer that pulls you out of the moment, but you never quite regain your footing.

This is a brilliant recording, which is part of the reason why it can be so unsettling at times. Play just one of these tracks, without context, on a light jazz FM station, and it might blend in. Listen to the entire album straight through late at night, and you'll wake up the next morning with these strange melodies in your head, unfettered.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Nordic Brass Ensemble's European Tour on 2L Recordings

My love for Early Music came rather late in life, possibly because I had a college music professor who strongly believed great classical music began (and possibly ended) with Johann Sebastian Bach. Since then, I've dismissed that bias and I've discovered jewel after pre-Baroque musical jewel...Frescobaldi, Brumel and much, much more. In my mind, this music came before all the Western European formalities so there's more freedom to be emotional and to deliver absolute music. Even more importantly, there's that historical window thing I often bring up--it's one thing to marvel at a beautiful jazz recording from the late 1950s, but it's quite another thing to hear a piece of music that's 500 years old and think, a la Sideways, about what people were doing and thinking while it was composed.

This latest release from 2L Recordings in Norway delves deeply into the growth of European music in the Late Middle Ages and shows how new ideas were influenced by such factors as the Black Death, the Crusades and the subsequent cultural impact of Islam and how it replaced the long-established traditions of the Roman Empire. These are heady concepts for a relatively small brass ensemble to tackle, but European Tour is certainly one of those 2L Recordings where 2L comes up with a cerebral theme or connection within the program that's worth exploring. In this particular case, producer Jørn Simenstad worked with the Nordic Brass Ensemble to realize this goal. If you're a serious musical scholar, you can run with these ideas. If you're not, you can sit back and indulge yourself with beautiful music that's been recorded by the most skilled and thoughtful people in the music business.

To me, a brass ensemble often evokes pomp, majesty and heraldry, and there's certainly plenty of those moments here. But what's surprising is how many of these passages are somber, reflective and even tinged with sorrow. The main idea in European Tour is that European music during the Renaissance was strongly influenced by military marches brought by Janissaries--elite soldiers from the Ottoman Empire. Before the culture clash, European music was focused on religious traditions, and that accounts for the more sacred passages. But these quiet moments are constantly juxtaposed with military drum cadences and a steady one-two beat. Jørn Simenstad and the ensemble then challenge you to think about how this moment in time, where two musical sensibilities collided, transformed history.

So if you're one of those aforementioned music scholars, that may inspire you to investigate these pieces and how classical music evolved into an art form that would culminate in such works as The 1812 Overture. However, I lean back toward those "historical windows" and discard the clipboard that contains all my notes and simply think about the fact that composers such as Francisco Correa de Arauxo, Carlo Gesualdo, Claude Le Jeune, Adriano Banchieri and Anthony Holborne lived in a world almost unrecognizable to us today, and they wrote music to accompany what was happening in that world. And here it is, ready for us to listen.

The sheer intelligence behind this project may overshadow the fact that the Nordic Brass Ensemble plays these selections so beautifully. With all the sudden emotional shifts that occur during this album, there's a certain understated discipline among these musicians. I started off with a discussion of the lack of formality in Early Music compared to the Baroque Era, but there's no doubt that the precision of the Nordic Ensemble and the extraordinary care of their performance preserves the so-called layers of the onion and allows the listener to enjoy this substantial work on whatever level that is desired.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Steve Slagle's Alto Manhattan on CD

Just a couple of weeks ago I was discussing jazz with an audiophile friend of mine, and he made a statement that most great jazz was sloppy, out of control and spontaneous, and that most musicians were flying by the seats of their pants when they came up with their most memorable improvisations. I played the devil's advocate here only because I had just been reading about the modal jazz explored in Kind of Blue. Couple that very precise way of developing melodies with the unusually difficult time signatures of another classic from the era...say, Time Out, and you have a pretty good contrary one-two punch.

Steve Slagle's new album, Alto Manhattan, brought me back around to my buddy's point of view. I'm not going to call this vibrant, exciting collection of jazz standards "sloppy" so to speak, but it's certainly wild and fuzzy around the edges, more Webster and Pepper than Davis and Brubeck. Slagle is an alto saxophonist and flautist who plays with swagger and attitude and sexiness, and he surrounds himself with experienced NYC musicians who are equally dismissive of formalities and just want to play until they're close to passing out.

The album's title, of course, refers to the heavily Latino neighborhood where Slagle grew up and learned his chops--also known as "The Heights." This sort of ethnic influence is surprisingly mellow and restrained, however--it's just there enough to be interesting but subtle enough to highlight the fact that this is an album of standards ("Body and Soul," "Guess I'll Hang My Tear Out to Dry" and McCoy Tyner's "Inception") as well as plenty of Slagle originals that show off his big, sultry style. When he's center stage, as when he plays solo through "Body and Soul," he's amazingly disciplined. You won't hear a single displaced note. But Slagle positions himself front in center in a furious storm of percussion (Roman Diaz's congas and Bill Stewart's drums create a dizzy, wild ride in "Family" and "Holiday") and you'll hear this frenzy build as the performers feed off each other.

My only reservation is when Slagle switches to flute in the last two tracks, the aforementioned "Holiday" and "Viva La Familia," and Alto Manhattan shifts gears. Slagle's sax is beefy and confrontational, but his flute playing is more reserved. Perhaps it's a personal thing, and perhaps it's better to finish this forceful and energetic album on a more restrained note. Even so, Alto Manhattan impressed me with its breathlessness, its furor. And, of course, the sound quality is superb.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Trenner & Friedl Sun Loudspeakers Reviewed in Stereophile!

Trenner & Friedl just received a rave review on their tiny Sun mini-monitors in Stereophile! I'm excited about this since I had a chance to play with the Suns a couple of years ago. (You can read up on my impressions here and here.) The reviewer was Ken Micallef, who gave a thorough and thoughtful review to our Unison Research Unico integrated amplifier last year. He evaluated the little Suns with the equally diminutive Heed Elixir integrated amplifier, which is also one of my favorite hi-fi products in the world. Together they were a satisfying, surprising and extremely musical combination.

Over the last year or so I've received a number of comments on this blog about the Suns. These comments seem to be divided into two camps--one group maintains that a tiny speaker you can pick up easily with one hand can't possibly offer such a big sound (they can), and the other group knows Trenner & Friedl products and want to hear more. The price for the Suns have been set at $3450/pair, which seems crazy when you see them. But alas, this is one of those hi-fi products where you have to shut up, sit down and listen and then decide whether or not they justify the price. The Suns pass that test effortlessly.

Congratulations to Bob Clarke of Profundo, the US distributor for Trenner & Friedl, as well as Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery (who also got a mention for helping out with the review). Kudos also go to Peter Trenner and Andreas Friedl, who make such incredible products. It's nice to see my audio buddies get some love in Stereophile!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rafe Arnott's Top Album Picks for 2016 at Part-Time Audiophile

My good buddy Rafe Arnott, who is a fellow scribe at Part-Time Audiophile, just published an article on Top 5 albums pics from a variety of audiophiles. He surveyed a few people--including me! I'll try to follow this up right here with a list of my Top
20 for 2016, soon to be published at Perfect Sound Forever.

You can read Rafe's article here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Lasse Thoresen's Sea of Names on Hybrid CD/SACD

There's always a certain unique delight in receiving a new disc from 2L Recordings, a delight where you open the envelope from Norway and the disc falls out and you look at its name and wonder "What kind of music is this?" You can say that about a lot of recordings, I suppose, but 2L is always challenging in a way where the cover of the album is an invitation to a mystery. You might get a few clues here and there--a Norwegian string quartet listed on the cover here, a well-known composer in the title there--but every once in a while a title falls out of that padded shipping envelope and you say to yourself "I have no idea what this could be...let's put this in the CD player immediately so we can find out."

So it is with Sea of Names. This selection of music from composer Lasse Thoresen features minimalist art work on the cover that suggests calmness and tranquility; digging into the sparse notes on the back you'll discover that this is Thoresen's chamber music for flute and piano, so the peaceful motif continues. When the music starts, however, the mystery dissolves and the tranquil facade quickly fades away. The title piece, which starts the album, is "a meditation over the loss of a close member of [Thoresen's] family." Evidently these feelings are complex--the dynamic interplay between flautist Maiken Mathisen Schau and pianist Trond Schau covers such a wide range of emotions from anger to despair to eventual acceptance (following the classic Five Stages) in a tumultuous 17 minutes. Both performers push the physical structures of their respective instruments to an almost mechanical breaking point, all while infusing the music with a rolling and flowing rhythm that conjures Debussy's La Mer.

These two musicians invest so much pure effort into the performances that you can easily imagine the drops of perspiration flying into the air and landing on the soundboard of the piano and on the wooden floors of the Sofienberg Church in Norway. Maiken Mathisen Schau, in particular, uses her whole body to produce her fevered notes so that her voice often slips into the music like a ghost. This isn't showmanship a la Ian Anderson, it's complete commitment. Trond Schau's piano is also a sonic revelation--his notes are a seamless partnership of those churning maritime rhythms and unexpectedly sharp punctuation marks that perfectly reveal the inner chambers of his instrument.

As Sea of Names progresses, the palette expands and contracts so that each piece is embedded with a different level of emotional turmoil and excitement. Throughout the rest of the album, flautist and pianist generously take turns to explore the composer's reflections on interpersonal communication, the beauty of nature and conflicts within the inner self. One piece, "Solspill," offers a different take on the classic Pictures at an Exhibition by outlining Thoresen's individual reactions to a series of photographs taken by a friend. By the end of the album the two musicians have again joined together to produce the deliberate longing of "Interplay." It's a lovely and beautiful finale that ends the album on an optimistic note.

I've already mentioned the Sofienberg Church, the venue for this recording and so many others from 2L's Morten Lindberg. It's a superb space for projecting the strengths of individual performers and allowing their notes to bloom into the rafters. At the same time, Sea of Names projects an unusual sonic phantom. When Maiken and Trond perform together, you can tell they are standing so close together that the timbres of their instruments intertwine. During the solo performances, however, that unity is still there, that central focus in intact as if the other musicians is still there, on stage, for emotional support.

Is that a crazy observation? Perhaps. But so it is with 2L Recordings, where you often find yourself hearing seemingly impossible details in the music. They might be there, and they might not, but the magic is the merest suggestion that puts them there.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Al Strong's Love Strong Vol. 1 on CD

I really have been listening to a lot of jazz these days, mostly from artists I've never heard of before 2016. As I've been submitting my year-end Top 10 lists to various associated sites, I've been able to include a couple of contemporary jazz entries from performers I know from previous reviews--Todd Hunter and Jane Ira Bloom--but a few of these new artists haven't made the cut for one reason or another. The biggest reason, of course, is that it was a stellar year for music and I'm usually confined to five, ten or twenty picks.

Al Strong's exclusion from my year end lists is merely an issue of timing--I started listening to Love Strong Vol. 1 a day or two after my deadlines. Would Al have made the list if I had waited a little longer? Would I even be mentioning this otherwise?

Strong is one of those young and promising musicians, in this case a composer and trumpeter, who has been paying his dues in the jazz world for many years. This album is sort of a calling card for Al, that he's been in the shadows for far too long, and now it's time to push him to the front of the stage into the spotlight because the world needs to sit up and take notice. That's certainly the theme of Love Strong, Vol. 1--the idea is that we should already making room on our shelves for Vol. 2--but that sounds a little cynical. Al's prodigious talents are, ahem, trumpeted on this album, and what a pleasurable debut it is. He deserves this showcase.

Vol. 1 is nothing too revolutionary. Al's playing a lot of standards such as "Blue Monk," "My Favorite Things" and Kenny Baron's "Voyage," with a distinct focus on songs with a strong emotional wallop. What stands out is his horn playing, which is full and smooth and dynamic. He's a romantic trumpeter, reveling in the softer passages that form a foundation for the occasional fireworks. Backed by a large revolving ensemble, Strong excels at being a generous leader--this is an album full of amazing solo improvisations from performers such as pianist Joey Calderazzo and guitarist JC Martin. If you listened to the entire album without any info about the performers, you might even be surprised that the trumpet player is the leader rather than just a featured performer. Strong is more crafty and subtle that than, however. He leads with a gentle touch and a superb sense of rhythm--something that isn't said that often about horn players.

I only have one reservation about Love Strong. It isn't the recording quality, which is absolute dynamite. It comes along early in the album, a cover of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" that leaves me feeling a little perplexed. The song begins (and ends) with a children's chorus reciting the nursery rhyme before the band kicks in and starts with the basic theme. I have to admit I winced a little the first time I listened to it. But after a minute or so the improvisation takes over and this is one great, propulsive jam. At that point, with the kids outside for recess, it makes sense. But for the first minute or so, you might get a little anxious. It's like eating half a Twinkie, moving onto a absolutely perfect filet mignon, and then finishing off the Twinkie.

Or perhaps it's just me being curmudgeonly during the holidays. So much of this LP is pure love and delight--a great horn player, a great band and some real production skills, and yeah, let me know when Love Strong Vol. 2 comes out. I'll be waiting.