Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Swedish Pop Music Break

jj is a Swedish mystery. Band members are unknown.

There are no photos or videos of the band.

jj does not have a MySpace page.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Listening Session: Miles Davis And The Modern Jazz Giants

Prestige Records PRLP 7150, released in 1958.

Side A: 1. The Man I Love (Take 2); 2. Swing Spring

Side B: 1. 'Round Midnight*; 2. Bemsha Swing; The Man I Love (Take 1)

Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Milt Jackson, vibes; Thelonious Monk, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Recorded 12/54.

*Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drum. Recorded 10/56.

Each week, I’ve decided to select an album or two to play multiple times—to really get to know an album, shall we say. This week I’ve been spinning Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. What happens when you get “modern jazz giants” together for a blowing session? A fight breaks out, according to some. In this instance, there were stories of an altercation between Miles and Monk. Ira Gitler, in the liner notes to the album, dispels this story, quoting Monk himself, “Miles’d got killed if he hit me.”

This album is the only studio recording of Miles playing with Monk. Even though a fight may not have broken out, it seems to be common knowledge that tensions existed between the two jazz giants. The AllMusic Guide to Jazz states that Mile would not let Monk play behind him while he soloed. This is true on only one of the songs. On the other songs, Monk is heard playing with the rest of the rhythm section during Miles’ solos. My guess is the stories of how Miles and Monk couldn’t stand each other have been exaggerated over the years.

What is clearly evident is the different playing styles of the jazz giants. For example, the opening track of the album, Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” starts with a lyrical intro by Milt Jackson, quickly followed by Miles’ statement of the melody. His playing is easy and laid back at a slow tempo. When Jackson enters for his solo, the pace and energy pick up. Jackson is all bravado compared to Miles. Monk is next and he’s unusually reticent. He plays a few chords straight, embellished with some arpeggios followed by rests, almost in a classical style. He does this a few times until the final rest lasts an unusually long time. This is an amazing moment on the album when the soloist includes silence in his solo. Considering Monk’s sly sense of humor, I think his solo may be a parody of Miles’ playing style which has a lot space between the notes. After a few measures where Monk stops playing, Miles finally blows a few notes in the background as if saying, “I get it, now get on with the solo.” Monk responds with a short burst before Miles re-enters for the final statement. 

Although there are three very different styles displayed by the soloists on this and the other songs on the album, the music never seems disjointed. Part of the credit goes to Heath and Clarke who provide a steady rhythmic foundation throughout. This is jazz that tests the stylistic elasticity of a song. The fact that it all hangs together is a testament to the talents of the individual musicians.

It's interesting to compare the second take of "The Man I Love" with the first take, which is included as the final track on the album. The first take is a much more straight-forward reading of the song and lacks the creative improvisations found on the second take. The first take actually starts off with some studio chatter, with Monk questioning when he should start playing. There's a good-natured exchange with a few laughs, evidence that the session wasn't all sturm and drang in the studio. The final words are from Miles in his hoarse voice, "Rudy, put this on the record. All of it!" Which Rudy did.

"'Round Midnight" is the only song on the album from the 1956 session with Miles' first classic quintet. The ensemble-playing is more cohesive and in sync than on the 1954 recording. The major similarity with the 1954 session is the hard contrast between the soloists. Miles still plays in his cool, laid back style. The tenor of the song (pardon the pun) changes when Coltrane starts into his solo in his restless, energetic style. The effect is like the moment Milt Jackson starts his solo on "The Man I Love" but without the dramatic tempo change. This contrast in style is a crucial ingredient in Miles' best bands. One could generalize that such stylistic tensions benefit most bands, whether it's Miles and 'Trane or Lennon and McCartney or Mould and Hart. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Annals of Reading and Listening

Nicholson Baker is a writer who enlightens the reader on the most commonplace subjects. His latest article in The New Yorker had me nodding in recognition as his essays usually do. The subject of the article was the Amazon Kindle electronic book. The broader subject was the physical act of reading. Baker is decidedly critical of the Kindle, stating its effect of draining the pleasure of reading. An example he cites is a passage from Robert Benchley's "Love Conquers All" that made him laugh when reading it on the printed page. Reading the same passage on the Kindle screen did not make him laugh.

He points out specific features that he dislikes—such as the gray color of the background, the text font, and the way one “turns” the page—that undermine his reading enjoyment. The words are the same on the Kindle, but the reading experience is not.

I nodded in recognition to the article, not because I’ve shared the same experience reading the Kindle, but because I was translating his criticisms into audio terms. Baker's criticisms of the Kindle also apply to digital music. Just as the words are the same on the Kindle and a conventional book, the notes are the same on a digital recording and an analog LP, but the listening experience can be significantly different. The medium affects how engaging the experience is.

If you think of a musical note as a letter in the “text” of a song, the quality of the recording determines the shape of the note. The basic shape of the note is the same on a digital recording, so it’s recognizable as that note. But there are subtle differences between the sound of notes on a digital and analog recording that ultimately add up to creating a qualitatively different experience. Think of a note on a digital recording as a sans-serif font like Arial. It’s clean and crisp. A note on an analog recording is more like a serif font such as Georgia, each note/letter has a more elaborate shape. On an analog recording, a musical note has more of a leading transient and decay, like small aural tails trailing off the main note. These secondary “sounds” of a note give the music a better sense of flow. They make cymbals shimmer more and notes played on a saxophone breathier. The subtle transient sounds of notes are among the first things lost on a digital recording because of the limitation on information that can be transferred onto a CD or a digital file. For each avid reader such as Nicholson Baker who can appreciate the difference between reading a book with serif fonts compared to the same book printed with sans-serif fonts, there is an audiophile who can appreciate the difference between listening to an album in its analog form compared to the same album in a digital format.

Then there is the space between notes. Audiophiles talk about the air around instruments that give the impression one is listening to musicians occupying a physical space. This is additional information that is often lost on a digital recording in which notes appear to float, unconnected to any kind of physical space. The “air” around the notes is like the space on a page. The slightly creamy physicality of the pages in a high quality book will provide a different reading experience than the flimsy grays of newsprint and the Kindle screen, just as the sense of air on an analog recording will provide a different listening experience than the airless background of a digital recording.

There are also the physical similarities between a printed book and a record: the experience of holding a tactile object, reading the liner notes on the back cover of an album, and seeing the records lined up on a shelf. Although these are secondary features, they strengthen one's connection to the music.

A thought crossed my mind that the decline in sales of recorded music may not be solely attributable to illegal file-sharing, but perhaps digital music has degraded the experience of listening to music and people just aren’t aware how music has become so less enjoyable because of it. Will the printed page go the way of the vinyl record? My advice is to save the printed books that you love.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Five Percent Solution

I’ve found the perfect pair of chinos. The fit and cut are flawless. They’re sold at J. Crew for $60. Target sells chinos with a similar fit and cut. The main discernible difference is the waist sits slightly higher than the J. Crew chinos, i.e., slightly higher than to my liking. The Target chinos sells for $20 and possesses 95% of what I’m looking for in a pair of chinos. I gladly pay the difference to get the extra 5% for an item that I’m completely happy with.

There are few things in life that one finds perfect. An extra forty dollars seems a pittance to get something that brings one complete satisfaction. Perfection in a product, if attainable, tends to be expensive. Usually one can get a comparable product, slightly less than one’s idea of perfection, for a lot less. It’s that last 5% where things get so damn expensive.

So it is for records. The benchmark for records now are the 45 rpm pressings issued by audiophile record labels. They sell for $50 to $60. One can buy a 33 rpm audiophile pressing of the same album for $30 and get about 95% of the sound quality of the 45 rpm pressing. One can also buy a non-audiophile pressing of the same album for $12 and get 85% of the sound quality of the 45 rpm pressing.

Chinos and records are two things I can afford to buy what I consider the very best. My stereo system, modest in the eyes of audiophiles, but probably ridiculously expensive in the eyes of everyone else, can deliver 90 to 95% of the sound quality of a reference quality stereo system. I would probably have to spend six figures to get that last 5 to 10% of sonic perfection. A reference quality stereo system and a Porsche 911 are not in my future. But that’s okay. I can listen to my 45 rpm pressing of Blue Train in my J. Crew chinos while drinking a glass of Balvenie whisky. That level of perfection is good enough for me.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Recent Acquisitions: Jazz Records Plus (8-3-09)

Now that the pop/rock albums are cataloged (see below), it's time to list the rest of the tremendous July haul.

Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (Prestige/Analogue Productions, reissue on 180-gm vinyl, $8). I hadn’t listened to this album in years, which I have on CD. I used to think it was a very good album, not a great one—maybe because I had never listened to it on vinyl. It’s a great album. Rollins’ playing is out of this world.
Bill Evans, Waltz for Debby (Riverside/Analogue Productions, reissue on 180-gm vinyl, $15). This has got to be one of the most frequently misspelled album titles in jazz history. It’s Debby with a “y”. It’s amazing how different old Bill Evans records can sound depending on the mixing and mastering. This version is mastered by Doug Sax. You feel like you’re at the Village Vanguard, with people chattering during the performance and dishes clattering on the tables. It makes you want to say “please shut the fuck up” out loud. (If you’re wondering why there’s been so much profanity lately on the TOGblog, I just want to remind the gentle reader that it’s Tourette Syndrome Awareness Month.)
Horace Silver, Silver’s Serenade (Blue Note, New York address on label, mono pressing, $5). I have no idea why this original pressing of an early 60s Blue Note record was priced so cheaply. Sure, there’s a small seam split on the spine, but the front cover is in excellent shape. The record has some scuffs, but plays beautifully. Horace Silver albums are like potato chips. . . .
Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, Division of Liberty Records, 2nd pressing, $15). The album has “Cantaloupe Island”, which has one of the most famous grooves in all of jazz. This very clean second pressing will be replacing a later pressing that will be going on the sell pile.
Jackie McLean, Jackie’s Bag (Blue Note/King reissue, Japanese pressing, $13). Bought mainly because it’s the first King reissue of a jazz record I like that I’ve come across. Some folks think the King Blue Notes sound great. Others think they’re just alright. Now I can find out the truth for myself.
Wayne Shorter, Etcetera (Blue Note, 90s reissue, Wally in the dead wax, $10). Capitol Records reissued several Blue Note titles in the 90s on 180-gram vinyl. I bought a few when they came out. They sound great and are a relative bargain. The hand-written “Wally” in the dead wax refers to Wally Traugot, an excellent mastering engineer. This BN album was shelved for decades. I'm not sure what to expect, except I know the music will be challenging considering it's Wayne Shorter.
Dexter Gordon, A Swingin' Affair (Blue Note/Classic Records reissue, stereo pressing, $13). This leaves one more album to complete my Dexter Gordon on Blue Note collection. Only one of his BN albums has been a disappointment, Dexter Calling, which should have been titled Dexter Calling It In.
Ben Webster, Ben Webster Encounters Coleman Hawkins (Verve/Classic Records reissue, 180-gm vinyl, $10). This album is like Superman meets Batman, Babe Ruth meets Hank Aaron, Godzilla meets King Kong, Albert Einstein meets Isaac Newton!
Ike Quebec, Blue & Sentimental (Blue Note/Pathe Marconi reissue, French pressing, still sealed with OBI, $8). Ike Quebec was a lesser known saxophonist on Blue Note. I'm always curious to hear Blue Note artists for the first time. I just have to get over my phobia of opening sealed old stock records. The French Pathe Marconi pressings of Blue Note albums are supposed to be decent, although they don't have the same reputation as the Japanese King pressings.
Modern Jazz Quartet, Django (Prestige/Analogue Productions, 45-rpm 2-LP reissue, $25). The MJQ are out of favor now, which sometimes makes one hesitant to buy their records. Django is my first MJQ album and I found it to be quite good.
Vince Guaraldi Trio, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (Fantasy/Analogue Productions, 45-rpm 2-LP reissue, $20). I picked up an original pressing of this popular jazz album earlier this year. To be honest, I bought this reissue just for collecting purposes. All the Analogue Productions 45-rpm reissues are limited to 1,000 copies and you can be sure they'll be worth more than a bag of peanuts as long as vinyl LPs and jazz are around.
Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, This One's for Blanton! (Pablo/Analogue Productions, 45-rpm 2-LP reissue, $20). This is a rare duo recording for the Duke, just him on piano and Ray Brown on bass, playing songs associated with Jimmy Blanton, the late bassist for Duke's orchestra during its heyday.
Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, Take Love Easy (Pablo/Analogue Productions, 45-rpm 2-LP reissue, $20). Ella in her 50s still sounds great although not as impeccable as she did during her prime. Unfortunately Joe Pass provides pedestrian backing on guitar.
Ella Fitzgerald, Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book (Verve/Speakers Corner reissue, German pressing, 2-LP, $25). This is Ella in her prime.
Holly Cole, Don't Smoke in Bed (Blue Note/Classic Records, $13). Cautionary jazz for careless smoking hipsters.
Peggy Lee, Basin Street East (Capitol, black label with color band, $1). I never understood why Sarah Vaughan was called Sassy. It's a more fitting nickname for Peggy Lee.
Bing Crosby, Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings (Verve, original pressing, $3). The Bregman in the title refers to the band leader Bunny Bregman, which begs the question, what kind of name is that for a guy? Then you start questioning the title, what's meant by "swings"? Is it a double entendre? Did Bing know what was going on? Or was he just glad to be with someone other than the very unfunny Bob Hope?
Frank Sinatra, Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (Capitol, grey label, original pressing, $2). Judging by the title, I don't think this album was meant for me. Maybe it was meant for Bunny Bregman. It's still one of my favorite Sinatra albums. Now unwittingly I have two copies.
Frank Sinatra, Sings for Only the Lonely (Capitol, black label with color band, $4). OK, this one might've been meant for me.

Looking back on the July haul, I think I could be quite content if these were the only albums I had on a desert island.