See LP Covers Page

My Story: Musical Reminiscences: a brief history of my life with music.

History Link:

Why Does Only Paul Desmond Sound Like Paul Desmond?

Even as a pre-teen I knew the music of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. They were so popular that Dave had his picture on the cover of Time magazine. He was a bit embarrassed about this, as he thought his friend Duke Ellington should have appeared there before him! The three great albums are Time Out, Time Further Out, and Gone With The Wind. All feature the best lineup of players (there were a couple of changes prior to this): Dave on Piano, Paul Desmond on Alto Sax, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass.

I've continued to enjoy these discs on LP then CD since the 1950s, when my older brother started to buy LPs and play them at home. By the 1970s I was buying my own copies. Popular with the public, but not with the jazz commentariat would be a fair summary. I have been puzzling over this just recently, and particularly with respect to Paul Desmond. There have been plenty of sax players who took after (were influenced by) Charlie Parker or Ben Webster, and guitarists who adopt the style of Wes Montgomery, but whenever I hear the sound of Paul Desmond, which is quite recognisable, it is him, not some other guy who liked his style. What a puzzle this is! I have several other albums by Desmond in his post-Brubeck period, and they are all very enjoyable. He wrote a number of tunes himself, apart from the classic Take Five, and was a supremely talented individual.

So, I went looking for the answer via Mr. Google, and lucked in on a superb essay by Jon Dryden from the website: The Case For Paul Desmond*. I strongly recommend that you read it in full, as it's a great analysis of the why and wherefore surrounding not just Paul but the Brubeck phenomenon. I'll just giveyou the intro to whet your appetite!

"In the entire history of music there have been few figures whose influence affected nearly everyone around them. Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the revolutionary genius of bebop was one of those icons. Nearly every alto musician to emerge after World War two absorbed Parker's new melodic and harmonic conceptions, but fellow alto saxophonist Paul Desmond was the most notable exception.

He managed to sound nothing like Parker, avoiding any traces of bebop in his musical language. Yet while going against the grain and playing the way he wanted to, Desmond became one of the most popular and successful alto musicians of the second half of the 20th century. He is rarely mentioned in the pantheon of great alto saxophonists. Why is this the case? Why has this gifted melodist not received as much credit as he arguably deserves?"

*Go to the linked article for a free pdf download of the full story. The Case For Paul Desmond

Franz Scubert the Under-rated

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) has been undersold for far too long. He's best known as the composer of numerous songs, and some pretty tunes that students encounter in piano classes, such as Rosamunde. Some may know the piano quintet The Trout. He's so much more, and he achieved so much despite an early death at 31.

Precocious as a teenager he was already writing well-constructed symphonies. This large format part of his output culminated in three increasingly beautiful works, the 6th, 8th (the so-called Unfinished, in two movements) and the superlative 9th, the Great C major. The 9th is said to have inspired later composers including Bruckner, Mahler and Dvorak. It was first performed under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn after being found by Schumann in manuscript.

There were string quartets as well: enough to fill seven CDs - the Diogenes Quartet do a fine job with them. My old set of Symphonies are the Decca recordings featuring the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Istvan Kertesz. These date from nearly fifty years ago, but then again, the same record company and orchestra did the fabulous Wagner Ring even earlier than that, and they still scrub up pretty well.

For Lieder, the EMI set with Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore (available on SACD hybrid discs) is an evergreen benchmark set, but there are plenty of others. Schubert moved in fairly well-to-do and reasonably intellectual circles, and the songs were intended for performance in those more intimate settings, not in the concert hall. Each one is crafted to suit the poem, with the piano accompaniment adding nuanced touches, not just some supportive obligato.

I haven't explored the operas yet - they don't get much exposure, although Fierrabras did get a recording some years back. None of Scubert's stage works achieved great success, and some say the outstanding popularity of Italian operas such as Rossini's kept German opera in the shade back then.

Piano sonatas are another strong group, and one can safely say that Schubert's skills in three areas are supreme: chamber works, symphonies, and lieder.

Bohuslav Martinu

In the early 2000s I found it necessary to sell off quite a few of my much-loved classical LPs just to keep the family afloat at a time when wages were a bit depressed and the mortgage was biting hard. I decided to let go all the "easier" stuff and keep the things I felt I should grow into, given time. So out went the 19th Century violin concertos and many other things, but one lot of 15 LPs which stayed was the various works of Martinu, the great Czech composer who nobody has heard of these days. Dvorak, no problem, Janacek - not so much, Smetana - Ma Vlast but not much else.

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) lived his childhood in a state of near invalidity, and in a village clock tower apartment, but showed a talent for music early on. By 23 he was off to Paris on a scholarship to study with Roussel, and his talent for the violin was augmented by a talent for composition. He liked Stravinsky, was (like Stravinsky and Respighi) into neoclassicism too, and continued to evolve into larger orchestral forms when he escaped to America in 1941. To most listeners now he sounds modern but digestible. As an aside, among his students in America were Alan Hovhaness and Burt Bacharach.

I still haven't explored all my Martinu records, but have re-started the process recently. They are all fairly ordinary recordings from long ago, but serve as an intro. I'm going to update to more modern ones as time goes by, and the pictured CD set of 4 discs is a marvellous upgrade. Like some of the old Supraphon LPs the orchestra is the Czech Philharmonic, but it's a Hyperion edition and the conductor is the late Christopher Hogwood, who was not just an enthusiast but an authority on the many works of Martinu. As you can see from the back cover it's quite a collection, all the works featuring violin and orchestra. I've enjoyed the searingly good renditions of these works both from the orchestra and soloists, with the principle soloist on violin being Bohuslav Matousek. The recordings are top class.

Martinu had to compose all the time, it was simply in his mental makeup - in much the same way as some painters say they just have to paint every day. So there are about 400 works altogether in his catalogue, ranging from Symphonies and concertos to string quartets and other chamber formats.

Revisiting Elgar

The works of Edward Elgar (1857-1934) are thought of as stoutly British, exemplified by the Pomp & Circumstance marches. It's a big mistake, however, to think that this summarises the man. He was musically talented, certainly, but there's a lot more to him than that.

One of Ken Russell's portraits of composers that he did for the BBC back in 1962 was about Elgar. This was before Russell let loose his more over-the-top talents. It was no doubt done within strict BBC guidelines, and concentrated on the not-so-jingoistic nature of the man. It still fell short of covering all aspects of this very interesting character, but did feature his boyhood around Malvern and his love of riding a reliable pony across the hills. (Russell's other one on Frederick Delius (Song of Summer) was more dramatic, even though it was based only on that composer's later and somewhat infirm years. That's a story for another day.)

My latest listening sessions centred on the two symphonies. My guide, as with Vaughan Williams, is the great Adrian Boult, who was himself a bit of a relic from the first half of the 20th century, but by virtue of that had direct connections to the British composers in their heyday, and conducted numerous premieres. This 3CD box set has been lurking on my shelves for years, and it has been fascinating to revisit the works therein.

When contemplating British composers, symphonies are not the first thing that comes to mind. There are few who devoted themselves to this form. Elgar's first has that trademark grandness which you'll find in the Pomp & Circumstance marches, and in the Cockaigne overture. That overture refers to London (Cockneys) not to the "rev me up" drug of similar name. There's a reassuring "elgarishness" to it. The second is a horse of a different colour, a much more personal statement (he said) and more modern, if you like.

I'm sorry that this set doesn't include the brilliant "Alassio" (In the South) which sounds for all the world like Richard Strauss. It was composed while on holiday in the Riviera, and was one of those times when he could be said to have followed his own adage that "the music is there, in the air, all around you. Just take what you need". I'm sure that would irk many composers when suffering writer's block!

Fortunately another work regarded as somewhat Straussian, the Enigma Variations, are included. These are one of the best sets of orchestral variations you can hear, and they are enhanced by knowing that they each represent a friend or relative. Variations on An Original Theme, he called them, and the nature of that original theme has perplexed students of music ever since. Among his hobbies or interests was cryptography, and that title has proven to be very cryptic.

He was also a keen cyclist, and would ride for many miles in adulthood, instead of a pony. His love of horses was evident in another way, in a story I like. After recording his violin concerto with a very young Yehudi Menuhin, he took the lad off for an afternoon at the races!

Elgar was most amenable towards the then new technology of sound recording. He co-operated with Fred Gaisberg, the preeminent recording producer of those early days, and wrote reduced scores to be used in recordings of his works, which had to be limited in size/number of orchestral players back in the days of acoustic-only recording.

Opinions have been divided for many years as to which of his works are the best. Many say the Dream of Gerontius is the masterpiece, and they are supported by Elgar himself in that assessment. His instrument was the violin, and before his reputation as composer grew he had to fall back on that, teaching to earn a living. His violin concerto and his later, sadder, cello concerto - composed just after the tragedies of WW1 - are great works. Some favour the first symphony, others the Enigma variations. There have been times when hardly any of his major works were on the market as records; happily this has not been the case from the 1960s onwards, but there was a time when he was regarded as an Edwardian relic of no interest to the modern world.

Elgar was saddened by the adoption of his Pomp & Circumstance marches for jingoistic purposes, and he didn't approve of them being used as recruiting aids. I'm a bit saddened by hearing a couple of works performed at every Last Night of The Proms in the Albert Hall. Given the state of the UK these days there's some hollowness about Land of Hope and Glory, as well as Jerusalem. Lovely as they both are, they are a reminder of vanished greatness.

Mahler Symphonies

Years ago I had quite a few of the LP sets of Mahler Symphonies done by the London Philharmonic with conductor Georg Solti, on Decca. They were good, but it's been some time since I wanted to do a lot of Mahler listening. My EMI CD box set of Mahler's complete works was the first port of call. They decided for that set to use various conductors & orchestras, so there was some variety of approach. I wasn't enthused by them as a group, but will refrain from naming names: no names, no pack drill.

Perhaps I should go back to Solti, I thought. The Chicago Symphony set, not the London. After toying with this idea for a while I've started to do just that. The result was instant amazement at how good the Chicago/Solti performances are - and there are various reasons for that.

Not least of them is the style of the great Georg. He's ebullient, energetic, vivacious, and absolutely right for these works. There are so many gear changes: changes in tempi, mood, orchestral palette - even within one movement - that it requires constant and alert adaptation to maintain the forward momentum and the balance-on-tightrope that saves Mahler from ending up in a ditch. His writing is challenging and must be kept going along in exactly the right mode for each section. Brass has to be vivid and forceful in the bravura passages, or provide lilting horns in the slower ones. A trumpet or cornet floating above a "langsam" contemplative section has to be engaging but without stridency, an effect that Respighi also uses in The Pines of Rome.

The worst thing you can do with Mahler is go too slow. It becomes lugubrious, meandering, soporific. Solti won't put you to sleep, nor will he stumble when skipping surefootedly as a mountain goat through the faster sections. His speeds, said by some to be fast, sound spot on for my taste. The Chicago Symphony has it all happening just so, and the Decca recordings are brilliant.

There's no shortage of alternative versions, and over many years there have been no shortage of critics of the music of Mahler - one famously saying that it made him feel ill. But you can take it from an accomplished composer of the 20th Century (Lenny Bernstein) that Mahler is "the Master".

Leaving aside the evergreens or ever-greats from Haydn and Mozart onwards to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, who all seemed incapable of writing a bad symphony, Mahler is ahead (at last in my book) of the others I've written about in these pages. He may have learned from Bruckner and Wagner, but is unlike either in the way he ultimately presents us with scene after scene of musically interesting material and sonic treats - in the right hands!

For beginners the 1st is very approachable. The second may be a bit of a bigger bite, and subsequent ones remain at that longer length. But the majority of Mahler's symphonic works are most enjoyable when done well.

You can hear this set in full via Spotify if you want to try before you buy, or just enjoy via streaming. The "Premium" sound quality is very pleasing through my setup. The complete Solti/Chicago 10CD set can be had for $68 to $95 depending on where you shop.

Shostakovich Symphonies

The first Shostakovich record (on LP!) I bought was one now included in this set, the 5th, performed by the Concertgebouw orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. It's dramatic, colourful, and represents the point where I think Shostakovich really hit the mark as a symphonic composer. When asked early on what it was all about he said it was a portrait of a man, but many years later and more frankly he said it was as if a man was being beaten with a stick and told to go rejoicing, so he rises, shakily, and staggers off saying "I must go rejoicing." Yes, this is where the story really starts.

David Pownall back in the 1980s wrote a powerful play about an imagined meeting between Stalin and Shostakovish, plus Prokofiev, and also involving cultural commissar Zdanov - in Stalin's corner. The two composers are ridiculed, browbeaten, have their 78rpm records smashed, and are told to shape up and write good, patriotic music that the Russian people can hear without the usual sarcasm and doleful tones that the composers are accused of.

Being an artist in Soviet times was never going to be easy, whether you were a composer or a writer of novels, as Pasternak and Solzenitsyn would agree, were they still alive to consult. For a while, in the early post-revolutionary days, being a bit avan-guard and bringing a bit of western pizazz in was smiled upon. Nothing too good for the workers, and all that. But over time, the hierarchy became intolerant of dissent and suspicious of both locally grown and imported arts unless they were made totally subservient to the state.

The sound quality of these recordings, particularly those with the London Philharmonic, made in the famous Kingsway Hall, is superb. Instrumental textures, depth of soundstage, it's all there. The performances are impressive, and Haitink has their measure while imparting a mixture of brashness where needed, and smooth civility where appropriate.

The first youthful symphony is immediately enjoyable, and as the notes say, you'll hear echoes of Stravinsky's Petroushka (a favourite of mine) and various other major influences on the young composer when writing this work in 1925. I've skipped the second, for now, it being an atypical short work composed for a special occasion, and not in the usual symphonic structure. The third, while taking its inspiration from revolutionary themes, is modernist and striking, while the fourth is at times quite overwhelming in its cacophony. Indeed, it was shelved for thirty years after the first messy performance, allegedly because the forces available at the time couldn't keep it together, but possibly also due to an emerging control-freakishness on the part of those Stalinist masters. It was not performed properly until 1961.

So yes, the fifth is where his style and mastery is fully revealed, and from there on I know there's much in store for me to enjoy, despite the underlying sadness and tragedy in some of the later works.

Part Two

Continuing on with Shostakovich - can I recommend him to anyone and everyone**?

The next group of works, from #6 to #9 date from 1939-45 and include the dramatic "wartime" symphonies, 7 and 8, plus what was supposed to be a "victory" work (#9) in 1945. He started it, but part way through changed his mind and did a substantial rewrite, and changed its character entirely, we are told. It certainly has a distinctly different and somewhat irreverent character. More about that later.

Firstly, however, should the average listener to symphonies need to have them decoded or explained in order to enjoy them? I'm inclined to the view that if the listener can't see why the composer has bothered to put all those notes on the page, can't hear a musical idea that communicates for itself or is enjoyable for itself, for its form, he has been a tad self-indulgent.

Elgar was an amateur cryptographer, and experts have spent decades poring over his Enigma Variations to try and determine what the original motif was. But the music is enjoyable for itself. It can be made a little more so when you have the various sections explained in terms of who each one represents. Each section is a portrait of a friend. But you can enjoy the entire work as a suite without that inside knowledge.

And that leads us back to Russia, which Churchill famously described as "… a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." In the Stalin era, Shostakovich had to conceal to a degree his true feelings about how the nation was, and how it was being managed. He was expected to write uplifting works which didn't question the soviet system, but he often found it difficult to do so without cynicism making an appearance, albeit with some stage makeup on to disguise it.

So here we are, with two monumental and serious symphonies, 7 & 8, bookended by two more lively and superficially jolly ones, 6 & 9. Symphony #8 includes one of the most descriptive passages of war imaginable. The third movement lingers in the memory for its shrillness and percussive impacts. Once heard never forgotten. It's the musical equivalent of Picasso's "Guernica".

The composer often wrote alternative programmatic explanations later, when he felt safe doing so. But at the time, in 1945, he would have been expected to produce a victory symphony that would please the masses, to be uplifting, a celebration. He did that, but there's an abiding feeling that the show is almost a political clown show. We see enough of that even now.

So approach these symphonies with a sense of their place in the history of the USSR, and an understanding that Shostakovich had to wrap his often dim view in the suit of clothes that the authorities wanted to see. He was a bit of a double agent.

At times a bit Mahlerian, at others a bit like Prokofiev, but often very identifiably himself. **Beginners might prefer to take an easier path into Shostakovich, via the chamber works (trio and quintet)or piano concertoes, the Gadfly suite, and other lighter works.

Part Three

This where I admit I'm not going to try and cover every symphony, but make some observations about this man and his music.

Symphonies 11 and 12 are just what the Soviet bosses ordered. Extolling the preliminary stoush of 1905 (in which the civilians come off very badly, being shot down by troops with rifles outside the Winter Palace) or the real revolution of Lenin in 1917, the "state composer" was delivering works that the hierarchy could laud as right and proper.

But with Shostakovich there's always the double game. He's saying one thing to those who might treat him to the midnight knock on the door and have him exit stage left to the gulags, but saying another thing in code to his audience, who would have that typical Russian cynicism about all the state-sponsored hoopla and hubbub. This is particularly evident in the extended coda to the 12th's last movement, headed "Dawn of Humanity". The movement as a whole would be convincing enough to the soviet's ranked and titled philistines, but the coda strikes the inevitable cynical note through being repeated - and repeatedly drawn out - as if saying here's your triumph, it's fake and your iron rule is held in contempt and is boring. It's not the dawn of humanity any more, it's the continuing bondage and enforced sublimation of the people.

Symphonies 13 and 14 are vocal works with orchestra, based on poems which the authorities would have looked askance at in their time. It was not long after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Leonid Brezhnev's heavy-handed put down of the thaw, the "Prague Spring" of Mr. Dubcek. While the "Babi Yar" title references Nazi executions of jews, the double-entendre has to be the Soviet's own brutalities, which were many. I can't make any informed comment beyond that, because I don't have the texts and will have to hear them later.

Symphony 15, the last complete work has been described by some as enigmatic; no surprises there, but perhaps more tellingly as "Shostakovich melting or disintegrating before our eyes." This brings me to my conclusion.


I refrained from reading crits of these works and of the series as a whole until I was almost through them. Then I found that many wrote of them as extremely varied in quality - as well as length! Frustratingly, it is so. But how did this happen?

Being born into the early 20th century in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad, but now back to St. Petersburg) Shostakovich had to survive against incredible odds. His country was racked first by the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II, the execution of that entire family, the optimistic adoption of a supposedly enlightened new age. That new age was riven by factionalism which saw civil war for a time, and then eventually the iron rule of Stalin until his death after WW2.

Surviving the Stalin era was no mean feat, and it didn't end there, as the Kruschev era, while better, was still totalitarian. The subsequent big men like Brezhnev were tough too, and there was to be no real relief until long after Shostakovich's death and the Glaznost era of Gorbachov. The fall of the iron curtain in 1989 and the freeing up of eastern Europe took time to happen.

Shostakovich was quite capable of writing well, and writing for large symphonic forces with aplomb. The burning question for me is what he might have achieved if he was not torn by the conflicting needs of the Soviet state on the one hand, with the recognition of the horrors of it, and by the yearning to write exactly what he'd like to but could not. I think what we've ended up with are symphonic works which range from sublime all the way down to rubbish. But I don't mean to devalue him by that. He was the product of those times. His total work encompasses so many things, and many of them were not as high-profile as the symphonies and could be done with less onerous rules. You have to explore his chamber works, theatrical pieces and concertos to get the full gamit.

Someone also said, rather tellingly, that his face was like a bag of grimaces and ticks. Hardly surprising, given the stresses of his life. But despite all that, there are many good-humoured and beautifully constructed pieces you can explore.


The Vaughan Williams Symphonies

I've been listening to the whole set of nine symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The set I have is on LP, marked "newly transferred to LP" and pressed in Germany for EMI. The sound quality is very good, and I note that they were recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London, a favourite venue for such things. Sir Adrian Boult conducts with the authority of long acquaintance, having been the conductor for several of the premieres, and having started out with some early performances of the London Symphony (number two in VW's output) in 1918. From the Sea Symphony prior to WW1 through to No.9 in 1956-7, the series represents both productivity and longevity.

Back in the early 1970s there was a British TV series called A Family at War, which was very well done and may have sparked the local TV mob's inclination to make The Sullivans, also a very successful series and also set in the WW2 context. It ran from 1976 to 1983.

The theme music for A Family at War is drawn from Vaughan Williams' sixth symphony, towards the end of the first movement. A lovely (if a little mournful) tune, presented briefly and not dwelt on with repeats, simply leading to a dramatic fanfare coda for that movement. At the time my classical listening was still evolving, and ABC FM hadn't started - it went to air post 1976 to offer a broad range of music - and I knew little of VW beyond The Lark Ascending.

The first thing you notice about the symphonies is how many of them have names, not numbers. There's the Sea Symphony, the London Symphony, Pastoral Symphony, and Sinfonia Antarctica. With four out of nine quite clearly thematic, it was a bit rich of him to deny that he was "programmatic", which he did in reference to No. 6. Some people referred to it as the War Symphony, which is understandable given its nature, its timing just after WW2, and the cataclysmic opening.

While Beethoven's last symphony is the one that brings in soloists and a chorus, VW's first does the same, right through. Based on Walt Whitman's words, it has been described by some as analogous to life's journey. I find this a bit of a stretch, just as it's hard to condense satisfactorily a novel into a ninety minute film. It's a sequence of scenes and words with music, with the sea as the linking theme. Perhaps there's a reminder of our smallness in relation to the sea, the earth, and what lies beyond.

With any extended voyage through a series of symphonies, particularly the late nineteenth century and 20th century ones, there are plenty of times when you might wonder what they are on about, meandering hither and yon.

I won't give a running commentary on all nine. It's safe to say that many will find the London Symphony more approachable than some of the others. His most popular works are the shorter ones, such as The Lark Ascending, The Wasps (overture) and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Being a symphonist who made it to the magical number of 9 gives him status, but I have to admit to liking other composers in symphonic mode more than VW. In the genuinely "classical" period there are Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Then the later Schubert, and the later works of Dvorak, plus of course the extraordinary Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. The early Tchaikovsky works, 1, 2 and 3 are not given the exposure of the later ones, but all are marvellous despite over-exposure in the case of 4, 5 and 6.

Mahler is in a class of his own, and I am still a bit ambivalent about him and Bruckner. As with Wagner (not a symphonist as such, but a dab hand at orchestral works among his operas) there are some sensational bits and some not so in those two.

For most of the listening public, the difference between an orchestral suite in four movements and a symphony might be hard to explain. I'm particularly fond of Respighi's Roman Trilogy (Pines, Fountains, Festivals), whose scale and impressiveness are right up there.

Limiting it to 20th Century symphonic composers that I've been reviewing lately, I can't say that VW is ahead of Sibelius, Nielsen, or Shostakovich - and perhaps Dmitri S. has to be next in my list to revisit.

Carl Nielsen - Symphonies 1-6

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was a contemporary of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), and comparisons are inevitable. They were of the same age and from northern Europe. Both were best known for symphonic works.

On launching into this set of six symphonies I was mindful of those facts and had just completed listening to the seven Sibelius works. I’m not a music professional, just a consumer, so the technical talk of dotted rhythms and finer points of construction go right over my head. At first I agreed with the liner notes which said that, from the opening of symphony #1 we hear Nielsen’s own sound. But as I progressed through the first three I felt he was more in the Bruckner mould than resembling Sibelius at all. Harman & Mellers place him in the Beethovenian mode, which I wouldn't have realised!

By #4 Nielsen is really starting to hit his straps. It was the first one I owned many years back, and I’ve even used it as a riposte to neighbours playing their music way too loud. By #5 he’s into a bit of anarchic side drum which persists in crashing the party, and I was starting to feel he was pre-echoing Shostakovich. This impression was even more so in #6.

Fortunately, unlike Bruckner and Mahler, Nielsen keeps his symphonies to around the half hour mark. These are not “Classics for Pleasure”, not easy listening for the beginner, but there are plenty of other works which fit that purpose.

In summary I’d say that I find Sibelius preferable, more evocative, and with more passages that I rank in the top class for imaginative, evocative, strikingly beautiful work. But if you've had enough of the more archaic classics and want to get into some which surf from the late 19th into the "modern" 20th century, he has to be on the short list.

Jean Sibelius - The Symphonies

Continuing my listening to symphonies, a habit which has been on ice for some years! This time it’s the seven Sibelius works. For those unfamiliar I’d say start with 1, 2 and 3, skip 4 and then do the rest. Come back to 4 later. It’s a bit depressed due to his ill health at that stage of his life.

The famous one is #2, but really the ones either side of it are great as well. As one reviewer said, there’s something solid, carved in granite, about these works. That may sound a bit off-putting, but the truth is that he reflects nature and comes from a country way up there adjacent to Russia, Sweden and Norway! It can be harsh at times.

There’s a feeling in his work for the place, the grandeur and the wildlife. At times he adopts a light-hearted skipping tempo, with trills of wind instruments, bird calls, or more flowing themes of a folk music style such as you will find in Dvorak. His orchestration is masterful, many-hued, dynamic and grand where necessary, light and lyrical scenes interspersed.

Another benefit for those who might find Mahler a bit long-winded, is that Sibelius often keeps it short!

I’ve gone through Paavo Berglund’s DDD set with the Helsinki orchestra, but have the old Barbirolli/Halle orchestra set on LP to go to for comparison. There’s a pretty good set by the Adelaide Symphony on CD (accessible at Spotify). Let me know if you have particular favourites.

The Bruckner Symphonies

I heard an interview with Simone Young, who is back in Australia doing a series of concerts including the sixth symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. She was saying how she became a Bruckner fan when she went to Europe many years ago - and I suspect that working with Barenboim would have added to that, since he's an ardent exponent, recording the symphonies several times over the years - and she alluded to his style of orchestral writing at times resembling someone at a large cathedral organ.

Reading my Harman & Mellors I find that he was indeed a deeply convicted Christian, naïve and un-selfconscious, and that he composed for the glory of God - not at all like many others whose sense of secular drama, contrast, yin and yang, whatever, tends to give their output a bit more variety. Having done my survey of Mahler symphonies a little while ago (with various orchestras) I decided to get Barenboim's set with the Berlin Staatskapelle on DG. I only had two recordings on the shelf, conducted by Blomstedt, and very well done.

Straight away, with Symphony No. 1 yesterday, I was on familiar Bruckner ground. He does veer from gentle to strident, soft to loud, strings to brass, but there's a sense of homogeneity as well. It's like a range of carpet patterns from one manufacturer. There are differences and similarities, trills and blasts, extruding from the source like a production line.

Each composer has their signature sounds, their idiom, the set of phrases or twitches that give away the identity even when you turn on the FM mid-piece and it's something you can't readily identify. Mahler, whose music is more romantic and later than Bruckner, is easy to pick, as is Shostakovich. But running through Mahler recently I found some aspects a bit repetitive, and I think I'm going to have the same feeling with Bruckner.

It's really nice however to have arrived at a time of life when I can spend more time listening.

Stage Report 1&2

The first symphony flowed along quite well, and I wasn't hearing any of the darkness that Simone Young referred to. Indeed, as Harman & Mellers have described Bruckner as composing music to praise his God, it would be unexpected for him to spill out negativism onto the page. A man who could count stars could no doubt count his blessings.

The next disjoint with commentary came in the second subject of the first movement of symphony #2, which to me sounded like a pre-echo of something Mahler would later do; a nice, floating air above an arpeggio bass line. I can accept that Bruckner and Mahler are quite separate in their approaches and backgrounds, but surely Mahler was not ignorant of what came before Richard Strauss and Wagner any more than Bruckner should have been unaware of the long and flowing lines of Schubert's great 9th.

Symphony No. Three

With Bruckner #3 I did get some of the darkness Simone Young said was present in the early symphonies, although it hadn't seemed to me to be there before this. But in the first movement of #3 we have not so much "in praise of God" but something more like the soundtrack to Godzilla destructively swishing his/her tail.

The second movement is a bit ho-hum, but the third short one could be placed in a Mahler symphony without the novice noticing. The longer fourth is a mixed-tile effect, with wham-bam interspersed once again with a nice gentle tile that to me smacks of the later composer Mahler.

All that's missing are the cowbells and the jaunty jewish folk flourishes. So much for these two composers being not at all the same. I'd say Mahler was aware of what Bruckner had done.

The pity is that there are really no hummable tunes so far, or if there are they are fleeting.

Symphony Number 4

This is really the one I'm most familiar with, although the name "Romantic" is a bit over the top for what you'll hear. Perhaps marginally more approachable than the first three and I noted that some cycles in the past have started at 4!

Each movement has it's several parts, which get repeated, and the usual Bruckner wind-up is a louder crescendo with brass in full flight. He likes to finish on a bit of a blast.

Once again I'm hearing pre-echoes of Mahler, but there are still no hummable tunes!

Barenboim, undoubtedly a big enthusiast given his repeated efforts in doing cycles of Bruckner, said that if you listen to just a few of these symphonies they can sound same-ish. But if you listen to all of them the differences become apparent. I'll soldier on with that goal in mind!

Symphonies 5, 6, 7

Continuing to wade through. The same-ishness is there to a degree in the modus operandi. But I am noticing differences in flavour. Still reading Harman & Mellers as a reference, and still puzzled by them using the term "melody". There are themes, even one reminiscent of Maurice Jarre's music for Lawrence of Arabia in the first movement of #6 at about 8 mins. I'm often thinking that "this bit would be good as a movie soundtrack" - there's a mood and tonal thing happening, even if not strikingly memorable as a musical interlude. Sometimes a ship in full sail (but not quite up to Khatchaturian's balletic piece used in The Onedin Line) and sometime a bit Cape Fear.

Number 6 does have a lightened mood, as Simone said, but the real surprise has been 7, which was quite enjoyable despite a section which might have been a vision of hell. The more heavenly sections were quite good. Interesting to reflect that the two favourites so far are 4 and 7, which coincidentally are the two I already had on the shelf, with Blomstedt and the Staatskapelle Dresden - neither of which I've spent time listening to. I'll give them a run later for comparison purposes.

Just two more to go, then I can move on to Rachmaninov and revisit the Schubert 9th, which more than any other may be foundational for Bruckner, with its "heavenly length". Bruckner certainly loves his brass choirs.

Symphonies 8 & 9

I didn't get too excited about #8, may need to run through all of them again to get to know them better. But the surprise package was #9.

Bruckner saved the best for last, at least that's my feeling after the first run through the whole cycle. It's dramatic, right through the first and second movements, not just a flourish at the end of a movement which is often his trademark.

It's a double whammy, with two dramatic movements in a row - the second is a bit like Holst's Mars from The Planets. Almost Shostakovich in war mode. Then the final (3rd) movement goes all gentle and wafty. The amazing thing about this symphony for me, is that I've never owned it but found the first two movements sounded quite familiar. Must have heard them on Classic FM some time.

That's it for now. I might add some further thoughts when I run through them again, one day! I have a friend who's not nearly as into classical as I am - I told him I'm listening to them so he doesn't have to. He was pleased.

Charlie Apicella & Iron City

Here's a CD that has wide appeal. "Payin the cost to be the boss". It's bluesy, rocky and jazzy, with guitarist Charlie leading but backed by excellent side men on Trumpet and Sax, and organ accompaniment. Normally I don't react well to so many guitar tracks in the jazz genre having organists as part of the group, getting long solos. I want more guitar. But this group gets the seal of approval. Read on.

Essentially this is a tribute album to B.B. King, and right from the first track you can feel the dance moves welling up from goodness knows where inside you, while I also registered some amazement that the organist was causing bass notes to well up from somewhere inside my Velodyne VX-10se, notes I didn't know were in there! Try the track "Delia Soul" - it hits a few notes way lower than you get from bass guitar or acoustic bass, I'm guessing around 25Hz.

Those familiar with The Doors may recall that Ray Manzarek used the keyboard to cover for the bass too. Organist David Braham is a solid support for Iron City. The other top class personnel are Freddie Hendrix on Trumpet and Stephen Riley Sax, Alan Korzin drums and Mayra Casales percussion.

You can fid a longer review here. It looks like nobody wants to part with one on ebay, but Spotify have it. Also available, but only as MP3 download, from Amazon - but not yet reviewed! Update: I've done one for them.

All of these musicians have studied those who've gone before them, and absorbed the lessons. B.B. King himself told Charlie Apicella to listen to guitarists Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, because they were two of his favourites!

Revisiting Beethoven's Symphonies with Abbado

Classical music exploration often begins with some or all of the Beethoven symphonies, and it's probably a common feeling after a while that we've heard them so often they hold no surprises. It's a bit like having a favourite meal too often and finding that you're over it. Best to widen the search and listen to plenty of new music.

But after a long absence from the playlist, it can be rewarding to revisit great works and see what a particularly fine conductor can do with them. In my case this has been with Claudio Abbado. I didn't realise what a fan of his I had become over the years until I started to add up how many of his recordings I owned or had enjoyed in some form.

In my collection he has ranged from Bizet's Carmen through Rossini's Barber of Seville and The Journey to Rheims in the opera genre, but also Stravinsky's ballets and Prokofiev's orchestral works, and the box set of Mendelssohn symphonies. I've recently acquired the CD box set of all his opera recordings, and the Beethoven box which covers all the symphonies and all five piano concertos.

What has he done with the Beethoven symphonies? Firstly, he has worked with a reduced size Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. OK, you say, those players can do Beethoven in their sleep because they've done it so often. What will Abbado do with this project? The answer is something very satisfactory - to me, at least.

During my ten years as a purveyor of fine recordings, the fashion for authentic instrument performances and consulting the manuscripts grew apace. We had scratchier strings and faultypianos - sorry, that's fortepianos - natural Horns and faster tempi. But I felt something was lost. I think Abbado has created a blend of sounds which still has the grandeur when appropriate, but which shows the various parts in clear view. It's not a small chamber orchestra sound, but not a large and homogenised sound either.

He has dynamic variation, lovely textures, tempi which are finely judged, and impact when required.

If you have forsaken these works for some time, this might be the set that gets you back onboard. I bought the 10CD box for $40. Not sure if it's on Spotify but a quick search didn't find it.

Richard Osborne's review for Gramophone when these recordings first appeared is mixed, but he certainly likes some of them! I have yet to listen to the whole lot, but so far so good. He notes that all are live performances.

Footnote: Abbado died in 2014. I was already a fan of pianist Yuja Wang, but her star was further polished for me when she said she cried on hearing of Abbado's death.

New String Quartet To Enjoy

I only heard on ABC Classic FM the last two movements of them playing Beethoven's String Quartet No.7, a recording from the latest festival at Mudgee (I think - for some reason today's listings are not up yet), but it was enough to excite my interest. Here, quite clearly, is a quartet who can understand and play Beethoven with all the requisite qualities.

This is no easy task. Many have tried and done reasonably well, but few have done it to the degree that I find really satisfactory. Apart from the usual technical challenges of playing the notes on the page in some semblance of how they should be done, Beethoven's quartets throw so many things at the players in the form of mood swings, tempo changes, course alterations of all sorts - but the supreme challenge is to convey the emotional content of them. Some quartets who are highly regarded by the critics have come unstuck with these works.

So, who is this new quartet, this new phenomenon? They haven't, as far as I know, committed their Beethoven readings to disc yet, so I'll have to await that pleasure. In the meantime there are about a dozen discs of various works you can sample via Spotify, and some You Tube items too.

They are the Danish String Quartet. One to watch out for. Mostly still in their thirties so young enough to have a good career span ahead of them.

Oscar Peterson Trio with Sonny Stitt

Sonny Stitt is the star of this disc. His saxophone style is a little bit on the hard side but not as hard edged as Jon Coltrane, who I have some difficulty with, despite his being a megastar in the jazz world. Sonny can do a bit of vibrato from time to time. His dexterity is phenomenal and at times does Charlie-Parkeresque runs.

The trio take a back seat, with even Oscar himself adopting a low profile most of the time. He has always been able to do that, with long experience as an accompanist in his CV. You can hear this one via Spotify, or find it on ebay for around $14 from Importcds-au, who do postage included at that price.

The recording and performances are first rate, highly recommended.

29/7/2017 - Triology

This week's music recommendation is a small jazz group whose name gives the size of the group away - Triology.

It consists of Miles Black on piano, Bill Coon on guitar and Jodi Proznick on acoustic bass. They've been around as a trio since 2009, but I only recently heard them on, and followed up to find some more of their recordings.

The style is at once accessible but very accomplished. It's mainstream jazz, draws on some standard tunes plus some originals, and isn't the sort of testing, out there jazz that can put people off! All are absolutely virtuosic on their instruments, and the recording quality is top class. The self-titled CD Triology is available on ebay for $19.80 including delivery, or you can access it on Spotify.

Oscar Peterson - by Bill Charlap

I'm a big fan of Oscar Peterson, dating back to one of my first LP purchases in the jazz field - luckily it was one of those Saba-Conifer ones he did in Hans Brunner-Schwer's home studio in the 1960s.

But for decades various people (including critics who you can find online) have told me that Oscar was not the amazing pianist I thought he was. They didn't convince me, any more than they could convince me that Paul Desmond was not a sax player that anyone should imitate. (see below)

Carrying a torch for Oscar, and rejecting the many entreaties to crown Art Tatum above him in every way, is not easy, but it is a deeply held position based on the unparalleled range of things that Peterson could do with almost any tune.

So it was with some relief that I happened across this interview with Bill Charlap, one of the absolute first rank of jazz pianists of the modern era.

He not only grew up listening to everything he could get his hands on in the shape of jazz music, but has analytical ability fused to actual virtuosity that most of the "critics" can't muster.

His take on Oscar Peterson is a "must read" for anyone interested in this sort of thing, as is the Paul Desmond item below.

July 2017- Summer of Love, 1967

It was fifty years ago today …

Actually, not just today, but fifty years ago was the 1967 Summer of Love. Was it a fantasy, a cooked up advertising concept like Swingin' London had been earlier in that decade? I have my battered souvenir tin box of 3CDs (see picture) courtesy of Vinnies, and many other discs of the era.

Update: there are too many docos on this topic at the moment! The good one that I intended to linkto is in fact this one: If You're Going To San Francisco. Apologies for the confusion.

The BBC has a 58 minute podcast program about the period, a sort of sociological portrait of the UK at that time. It covers the realities of the UK during the "swingin' sixties". The other one (link now above) addresses the USA side. The quaint Haight-Ashbury district, which was known to us all, even in far flung Australia, by name and reputation. We were told that if we were going to San Francisco we should be sure to wear some flowers in our hair (Scott McKenzie), and to enjoy those "warm San Franciscan nights"(Eric Burdon).

Being a teenager in the 1960s was a heady experience. It became more so as that decade progressed, and there was a fair bit of folk lore about feeding your head, or taking drugs. The music of the sixties was varied and at times experimental, at other times pretty tame. There's quite a contrast between The Yardbirds Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and just about anything by those clean cut youths of Herman's Hermits. But it got us started on the road to owning a stereo and building up a record collection. Predictably, all those songs are getting another run as the Summer of Love is recalled.

But the kids who flocked there at the time were not all able to cope. They were often unprepared, underfunded, and unprotected from the things like veneral diseases, which accelerated in the free-love era.

Back here, we heard about the music and the lifestyle. We heard about the Monterey Pop Festival, also described very well (if a bit idealistically) in the song by Eric Burdon. And I have to admit that I was bowled over by the music of Jefferson Airplane and The Doors.

You'll hear various pieces like those used as background in both of the BBC docos. But you'll also hear about many other things. British society, the fashion industry, and then some of the harsher side effects amid the nirvana of San Fran.

The theatrical types were quick on the draw too, and "Hair" was produced in Australia pretty briskly by the standards of those days - I think it kicked off here in 1969.


More Jazzy CD Recommendations

I usually think that the leader of a small ensemble logically comes from the main instrument rather than the rhythm section - that's bass and drums - but there have been plenty of notable exceptions going back many years - even some big bands have had drummers as leaders. Think Chick Webb. Then later of course Mick Fleetwood in the pop field, or Art Blakey in smaller ensembles.

This time I'm recommending a group under the guidance of bassist Jamie Ousley. He's a true virtuoso of the double bass, and his associates are top class. Try the extended solo Tennesee Waltz*! There are at least three albums you can source with confidence: A Sea Of Voices, Back Home, and O Sorriso Dela*. All the musicians he works with are first class, the music is pleasant, easy to enjoy, but virtuosic as well. You'll hear excellent piano and persussion work, plus on some tracks a guest artist on trumpet or a vocalist. But for the bulk of them it will be piano trio. All three of the above are on Spotify, and also readily available to purchase via ebay.

A saxophonist who caught my attention recently is Rickey Woodard. There are two albums which have my stamp of approval, but you might like to explore further if you like these: Yazoo is the first, a Concord Jazz label release. The second (available on Spotify) is California Cooking. He's a bit more out there than Jamie Ousley, more energetic I guess, but still fairly easy to enjoy. The track that got me interested is Portrait of Jennie, a fairly relaxed rendition from the Yazoo album.

For drummers, one track called Mr. P.C., written originally as a tribute to bassist Paul Chambers and recorded rather a lot, but with a great drum intro on the version by Patrice Rushen. She's the pianist, and I'm not recommending her stuff unreservedly - a lot of it is a bit hyped up and funky for my taste - but this track is available from iTunes for $1.69. I haven't explored the entire album it comes from, which is a more straight jazz album than her others - it's called Piano, Bass, and Drums. It may have other good things on it but so far not available to try via Spotify. Some of her others are, but as I say, not really my style.

25/8/2016 - More Albums By The Bill Charlap Trio

Bill Charlap is a name you may not know - I have a couple of his CDs and did some checking on Spotify to see if I could put together a playlist of a few more. Success!

Bill is a very smooth jazz pianist from a musical family. He started playing at three and studied classical, something Oscar Peterson also did and valued the technique and discipline it imposed. He has appeared in company with many of the big names in the contemporary jazz scene, but it is in his own trio that I enjoy him most.

So here are some albums you need to look out for, whether as CDs or by streaming:

(I have to admit that not all of these are just the piano trio - but they are all very good!)

Live at The Village Vanguard

Thou Swell (by the New York Trio)

Written in the Stars

Stardust: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael

Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul

I'm Old Fashioned


Notes From New York

Update: add to that list the album "2gether" with Warren Vache - fabulous!

7/8/2016 - Revisiting Rigoletto

Revisiting an old favourite, Rigoletto by Guiseppe Verdi (or Joe Green to some). This version has imprinted on my brain since late teenage. Critics aren't always as impressed as I am, but this version really does it for me. Easily fitted to two CDs, it's a very dramatic story, with a lot of heartstrings tugged in both first and second parts (that's CD1 and CD2 - there are in fact three acts if we want to be precise!). There's really no recitative, which tends to slow down operas by Mozart and Rossini (and also I believe the original Carmen! It's now much leaner), lots of colour and movement (from orchestra and chorus too) and a host of fabulous arias, duets, and the crown jewel of a quartet towards the tragic finale.

Renata Scotto's big numbers are delivered with a searing emotional power - her cadenza towards the end of "caro nome" is a ripper, up there with the Queen of the Night's aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, which is regarded as fiendishly difficult. I don't recall other sopranos trying that same show-off line when they do caro nome. Someone might correct me. The cast is fully of big names like Bergonzi and Fischer-Dieskau, and the La Scala orchestra under Kubelik's direction has all the right moves. Verdi creates moods very readily, and gives the maximum dramatic impact exactly where required.

Right now you can get this version on 2 CD sent out from UK - via ebay - for about $13, or from the USA here, an absolute bargain. But if you have Spotify, you can find it by searching under albums "Rigoletto Kubelik".

Update: I see that Graham Abbott (whose Keys To Music programs on ABC Classic FM are very well put together and instructive) used this recording a few years ago when looking at Verdi. He used both caro nome and the quartet.

4/6/2016 - Joe Alterman - 3 x CDs

I see that Spotify now have three of jazz pianist Joe Alterman's albums: Give me The Simple Life, Georgia Sunset, and Piano Tracks Vol.1. He is well worth getting to know.


4/6/2016 - Easy Listening

Two albums whose principal performers cropped up on my listening to Jazz Radio's mellow jazz stream are Mason Embry (piano) and Monroe Quinn (guitar). Both are available on Spotify, and probably elsewhere. They don't do any of the more frantic stuff that some performers seem to do just to show off.

The Mason Embry trio's album Swing on a Star is subtitled "a jazz piano tribute to the great male crooners of the 20th century" and is entirely well-known standards. Monroe Quinn's I'll Dream of You has him fronting a quartet and doing pleasant but less well-known tunes.The track that hooked me is called Three on Four. If you like solo guitar he has another album called On Riverside Drive

Joe Pass & Red Mitchell

This is a delightful disc, featuring two of the best jazz musicians of the 20th century, Joe Pass on guitar and Red Mitchell on bass. That's it, just the two of them. I was alerted to it by my listening to, which I get streamed at 256k. Even at that level of resolution I find that with a good set of self-built speakers the sound quality I get is more than satisfactory, it's quite revealing of recording quality including the overall frequency range and the ambience of the venue.

I mention frequency range because Red Mitchell uses a very full range on his acoustic bass, and the recording captures some really low notes on most of the tracks. I use a subwoofer for music and recommend it for everyone. It doesn't add to baroque music, or even much of the classical repertoire, but once you get to Berlioz or Mahler and onwards, full orchestral music can include some quite low notes from the double basses and bass drums. Pipe organ pedal notes also require it. I first used a Yamaha NSW-1 many years ago to get the full sound of the Symphonie Fantasque by Berlioz, but the subwoofer has a role to play in a lot of jazz and popular music too.

Back to the disc. Tracks: The Shadow of Your Smile, Have You Met Ms Jones, I Thought About You, Doxy, All The Things You Are, These Foolish Things, Blue Moon, For Django, Finally, Pennies From Heaven, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.

The renditions are relaxed, easy listening, but with virtuoso performances by both of them. It's traditionally ok for jazz men to sing (even fairly ordinarily) from time to time, and Red does so on Finally (track 9), but not elsewhere.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of it, this CD is a great test of your subwoofer setup. The recording quality is such that the bass is captured very well, with no boominess. It's from a live gig in Stockholm back in 1992. There's audience applause, but they don't intrude otherwise. Recorded on a 2-track Sony 7010 DAT, using Sennheiser microphones. CD released by Verve/EmArcy, catalogue no. 512 603-2. It might be on Spotify but I couldn't find it.

Record Store Day - Here's My Top Ten

All over the country record stores are putting on promotions, live music, LPs in new and old editions, and generally celebrating the existence (now threatened) of the traditional Record Store. Good luck to them, they're up against it these days. There's always so much talk about what are the greatest albums, so I thought I'd put together my Top Ten.

But it's not the Top Ten you'd expect in a Nick Hornby "High Fidelity" scene. As a former Record Store founder and co-owner, what got me into it was anything but pop. But you'll find a pop recommendation (sort of) towards the end. All of them came out on LP, and most of them I still have on LP!

Early Music - There are a lot of contenders, even here in what to most people is a backwater of esoterica. My pick is the Libre Vermell de Montserrat (Red Book of Montserrat) which consists of arrangements of old pilgrim songs, performed by the Hesperion XX, featuring that incredible Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras, and the ensemble is led by Jordi Savall. Honorable mention must also go to the late David Munrow for a whole raft of early music, and also to Gregorio Paniagua and Atrium Musicae of Madrid for their sometimes zany but always good natured readings of offbeat items.

Baroque - Up against the perennial favourites of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi I put forward the great Telemann, whose Banquet Music (Tafelmusik) is superbly done by Concerto Amsterdam directed by Franz Bruggen. This is sheer pleasure from start to finish, appropriately hedonistic fare.

Classical - This group includes Haydn and Mozart, and again there is so much to admire, but I'm going to zero in on the Op.33 String Quartets of Haydn as performed by the Weller Quartet, a Decca 2LP box set.

Beethoven - He has to have a class of his own, having started out as an understudy to the classical greats, but finishing as an outstanding monument that all after him had to bow to, and arguably the progenitor of the Romantic period. To anyone who knows me there is only one choice here, the 1960s box set of the complete String Quartets as performed by the Hungarian Quartet, an EMI stereo recording. He threw the challenge out for generations to come in many ways, none more so than the Late Quartets, both technically accomplished and intensely emotional. The Hungarians really get this music down properly.

Romantic - A very rich field, from Berlioz, a Gluck and Beethoven admirer, through to Mahler, who verged on the modern - probably still sounds too modern for some. Who I choose here may please nobody, but publish and be damned. Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, Decca. Amazing performance, great sound, unique music.

Opera - Again, predictable for anyone who knows me, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Karl Bohm conducting, DGG recording, with an absolutely superb cast. Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Evelyn Lear, Roberta Peters. Honourable mentions also for the 1956 Marriage of Figaro on EMI, the Glyndebourne crew under Vittorio Gui, then the Bizet Carmen on DGG, conducted by Abbado, LSO and essentially the 1977 Edinburgh Festival cast including Berganza, Domingo, Cotrubas and Milnes.

20th Century Orchestral - While the Sibelius Symphonies are a strong contender here, the prize goes to another Abbado/LSO box set (DGG) of the Stravinsky Ballet music - Pulcinella, Jeux De Cartes, Rite of Spring, Petrouchka and Firebird (suite). It's vivacious, exciting, perfectly timed and I go back to it often. Honorable mentions to the Lyrita LP of Holst string music conducted by Imogen Holst, and Delius' Florida Suite with Beecham on EMI.

Piano - the instrument I try to play! The Decca LP of piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, played by Ivan Davis, is a totally amazing demonstration of the composer's dazzling scores and unbelievable virtuosity on the part of the pianist.

Jazz - I have to do two here, as difficult as it is to single out any LPs from the golden age of jazz. "Soulville" featuring the stupendous Ben Webster on Sax, supported by legends such as Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Then "Somethin' Else" with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Sam Jones and Art Blakey.

Popular? - Yes and no. I gave up on popular after leaving school, although it always gets to you one way or another. Going back and finding out what's still good is fun, so I'm gradually filling in the gaps in my education. There are the classic big names like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and The Doors, all of whom need no introduction from me. I was very keen on Jefferson Airplane, who, like the Doors, had a very different style and a musically fascinating ability to make tunes out of very thin bases. But once again I'm going to be off-the-wall and continue to campaign for one of the oddest albums, but one I have enjoyed for decades, despite most people just not getting it: Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Changing Woman", a mere 32 minutes of her own folksy songs, quirky, at time ultra-romantic, most unusual sounds, great backing, and a quavering vocal vibrato that had one guest asking (quite facetiously but very funny anyway) if it was The Chipmunks!

You don't need me to recommend all the usual suspects in the pop field, there are plenty of others doing that.

These lists are so inadequate, but if anyone discovers something out of it, I'll be well pleased. I note in passing that the Carmen/Abbado recording mentioned in Opera above got 40 reviews at Amazon, and some people said they thought Carmen had nothing left to show them until they heard that one. Another obsessive said it was the best of the seven versions he has!

Jazz: The Ken Burns Documentary

I've been watching the old (2000) series by Ken Burns on Jazz. It is a very good survey, starting way back when slaves were allowed to have a day a week when they paraded around a square in New Orleans, singing, dancing and playing whatever they had at the time.

New Orleans was the source of a great number of musicians who were influential at various stages in the development of what is termed "jazz". It's as loose a term as "classical", which strictly speaking should pertain to the period of Haydn and Mozart, perhaps early Beethoven, but not the later Romantics or 20th Century moderns.

There's Trad Jazz, Swing, Stride, Bebop, Fusion, Free, and as many variants as you want to impose on it. What emerges from the series is an education, as well as great entertainment. All the big names and some which have escaped our notice to date are placed chronologically, with reference to their background and who it was who influenced them. There are numerous surprises. Not so much the ones who "come from nuffink" but the ones, like Miles Davis, who came from quite prosperous and proper middle-class families. Bix Beiderbeck was also one of those.

A little side-trip back to my youth, which had reverberations later, then again now. I first heard the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the late 1950s or early 1960s because one of my older brothers bought LPs and they were played on the family radiogram. I liked that music, and by the time I was old enough to go to uni and start my own collection of LPs, Dave Brubeck was in it. I recall being a bit wounded by a friend (we'll call him Bob) who on hearing one of my LPs said it was "from the café nouveau riche genre" or words to that effect. Quite dismissive. Bob was more of a blues and counter-culture fan at that stage, as I recall, despite having been (like me) more "classically inclined" in prior years.

So, it was interesting to see how the series dealt with Dave Brubeck. There was new and old information. New was that he had been an entertainment musician in WW2 in Europe after being "discovered" when playing a piano brought in to entertain the troops by the Red Cross organisation. His Colonel saw the potential and made sure he was seconded to do more of the same, with a group.

Old info was that his famous quartet included the brilliant saxophonist Paul Desmond. Nothing much was said about the brilliant drummer Joe Morello, or their eventual, equallly brilliant (black) bassist Gene Wright - who got his spot (and kept it for the future) when the previous occupant didn't want to go on the Scandinavian Tour! But it was very interesting to hear that one of the great Stride pianists, Willy "The Lion" Smith, on hearing a recording of Brubeck and not knowing he was white, said "this guy plays like he's at the source of the blues".

Next: Brubeck admired Duke Ellington, and it was mutual. When Dave was pictured on the cover of Time magazine, it was Duke himself who delivered the fresh-off-the-stands copy to Dave's room. Dave was a bit upset by this happening. He said he would have preferred his hero Duke to get on that cover first.

The Brubeck legacy is one which, like Ellington's, had a mix of arrangements and improvisations at its heart. It wasn't as freestyle as the Charlie Parker school, or others like Gillespie, Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane. Some sledged his work as not jazz at all! They forgot that only a few years earlier all the big bands, who brought in the big bucks, used arrangements. It was the departure from the swing era and the transition to non-danceable "modern stuff" that meant audiences declined. Note well: Brubeck's Time Out album was the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

Back to the main story here. The Jazz series by Ken Burns is a magnificent effort. At every turn he has the right pictures, the right music, and the right set of commentators. The talking heads are a mix of musicians, some who actually played with the legends of the past, plus critics or commentators who have a deep grasp of this history at their beck and call. And while it is necessarily principally about the music, the life stories of the musicians are also most interesting. It is a series to be treasured and revisited.


Conductor Jiri Belohlavek & Composer Bohuslav Martinu

Jiri Belohlavek, a champion pof the music of Martinu, turned 70 on 24th January - see more here. You've never heard of either of them? Fair enough, the vast majority of people are the same. Jiri has been recognised a number of times by Gramophone Awards, and even a CBE from Queen Elizabeth II. The Czech government has given him a Lifetime Achievement Award, rarer than a CBE!

But what of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)? Born in what became Czechoslovakia after WW1, he developed gradually, not being a young prodigy, then moved to Paris where he spent the 1920s/1930s absorbing the new music of that era. A period in Provence was followed by escape (due to WW2 and his association with Czech resistance) to the USA, where he had various teaching positions, including some at Yale and Princeton. Two notable students were Alan Hovhaness and Burt Bacharach.

I first became aware of him in the same way I heard of Frederick Delius, via old black and white documentaries on the TV in the late 1960s. Later in life, when I was a secondhand LP dealer, I accumulated a pile of 16 records of his music, on Supraphon and featuring the Czech Philharmonic. I'm still working through those, as they are not all immediately accessible, but he certainly had a great gift, and apparently composed some 400 works! But a safe starting point is the Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Bassoon, Violin, Cello and small orchestra. You'll hear echoes of Stravinsky when in his better moods, in a neo-classical vein.

Once again, Spotify is a treasure trove for classical music lovers. There's a truckload of Martinu there.

Jazz Radio Adds Classical Channels

What's my most-used streaming service? No, not Spotify, although I have a Premium Account. The one I use literally every day is with 30 channels of curated (well-chosen) tracks divided into the many flavours - some of which will have more appeal than others, but snooping around can be good too. I tend to use Guitar Jazz, Piano Trios, Ballads and Mellow Jazz, not necessarily in that order. The ABC's jazz channel has to try to slot in all styles, so you get quite a mixed bag, some good, some awful. Likewise, the Classic FM channel can be good, ho-hum or downright terrible. Like the jazz channel, the classical one has to spread itself thinly. Its main benefit is that it's widely available, although I couldn't get it in Mudgee recently for some reason.

OK, so there was a gap in the market for a curated multi-channel classical service. (Those people who are more pop/rock oriented are already catered for by numerous services.)

It came as a nice surprise today to get an email from Jazz Radio saying they've started a Classical streaming service. It has over 30 channels, so you can choose from Chamber, Piano, Composers (the high-profile ones!), Concertos, or even Medieval & Renaissance. Since I have Premium membership of the Jazz stream, I get access to the Classical as well, ad-free and at 128k or 320k, which works well. But you can access the free service at lower bit rate and with periodic self-promo announcements. Just the thing in order to give it a trial run.

Hampton Hawes Trio

Dead before his time at just 48 (in 1977) Hampton Hawes was a big name in jazz during the late 1950s after some army service, only to run foul of the law due to heroin addiction and wind up in jail - but pardoned after three years by President Kennedy. He's said to have been an influence on others including Oscar Peterson, and he was influenced by Bud Powell and Nat King Cole (who was a great pianist, better known later as a singer) but in his own words his main influence was Charlie Parker!

Be that as it may, the opening track on this CD/download/stream (yes it's on Spotify) sounds very much like Art Tatum, with those long, ornamental arpeggios running up the keyboard. But as you progress through these standard tunes the Parker influence will become more evident. Instead of the orderly Tatum-esque arpeggios (which still pop up in some of the intros) you get the more bebop, sometimes staccato improvs that leap right away from the base tune and soar in their own stratum. They are technically and mentally demanding and even Charlie Parker himself sometimes had trouble keeping things under control. There's a scene early in the Clint Eastwood film "Bird" where he comes home and says to his wife that he'd slipped up in a solo and played to a different tune altogether. Many in the audience might not have noticed.

But Hampton Hawes has things very much sorted. You don't have to be an advanced jazz listener to enjoy this set. This is cool, civilised trio playing. You can hear what Oscar Peterson would have liked in the mixture of sometimes the left hand feeding chords and rhythm to a right hand that dances with precision wherever it wants to go, then two hands in sync for a bit more force.

The good news is that there are a lot of discs in his discography. This is a good place to start. He did for a while go to a custom-built Fender-Rhodes, but reverted to piano! He also had a quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, (see The All-night Sessions, several volumes) which should be a recommendation in itself - but I prefer the recorded sound, texture and balance he has on the trio recordings I've heard so far.

Next up, have a go at the trio album So In Love.

Another New Name!

Have you heard of Geordie F. O. Kelly, guitarist?

Neither had I until a track came through on Jazz Radio. It was Rachel's Bossa, and is from an album called Triple Play. He has a very smooth, relaxed style of playing and is accompanies by bass and drums. The recording is wide-range and via my speakers, which use a subwoofer, I hear the softly struck but firm, low frequency sound of a kick drum here and there. I am very fond of guitar trios, and some previous ones I've mentioned here include Graham Dechter and Jimmy Bruno. Kelly is not as high-energy as those guys, but very good anyway. This CD is available via his site or you can listen on Spotify. Someone in France wants a silly $59 plus $20 postage for it via ebay!

Here's a quote by Scott Yanow, from Geordie's website:

"Geordie F.O. Kelly has a quiet sound on the guitar and an introverted style that is subtle and sophisticated. On Triple Play, which was recorded in Virginia Beach, Virginia, he interacts with bassist Peter VenDeReit and drummer Christopher Koroshetz.

The group performs six of Kelly's intriguing originals, a version of "Doxy" that humorously alters a few of the melody notes, a rendition of "It Could Happen To You" that has an extension in each chorus, and a solo guitar showcase on "Beautiful Love." While none of the musicians are household names, they are talented players, especially Geordie F.O. Kelly whose sound and style are a little reminiscent but not derivative of Jim Hall."

Albums vs. Streamed "Curated" Music

I'd like to talk about curated audio streams, but first I've got to talk about LP albums. Why? Because there's this oft repeated thing about the need to experience the whole album. It has become one of the foundation themes of the vinyl revivalists.

Sure, there have been some concept albums, and others with a loose connection between tracks. But the vast majority do not follow a thematic pattern. When I started to listen to Fleetwood Mac's LP Rumours back in the 1970s, I had no clue that there was an underlying theme of relationships breaking down, and that this was what was happening in the group at that time - which was a mix of men and women. I only later found out that the Mamas & Papas had similar re-couplings going on.

But leaving that thematic idea aside for a moment, is there some particular reason why the tracks on any old album are sequenced the way they are? The album fans might think so, but I'd say there are some very practical reasons for the sequence. In some cases they might have decided to put their best foot forward and make sure the first track on each side is a winner, while hiding the also-rans or LP fillers inwards a bit.

Then there's the well-known innermost track problem. What problem? Well, it's about the amount of vinyl sliding under the stylus being a lot less at the centre than at the outer edge. You'd be mad to put a big dynamic sound in there. Most systems will distort if the signal on the inner tracks is too high. It's a bad move, but a lot of Holst's Planets Suite recordings did just that, and came out with good old Jupiter (the star planet, if you like) in that spot.

This hasn't been an issue with CD, since the spin rate is adjusted for inner tracks - in fact for all tracks - so the rate of data reading remains the same, and then it's buffered and (at least in the better players) re-clocked to make assurance doubly sure.

But getting back to the reality or otherwise of the album-as-a-whole thing, let's face facts. For musicians, putting together an album is really more about having enough good material to make up the 10, 12, or more, tracks that are involved. It's a matter of historical fact that when Big Brother and the Holding Company went into the studio with Janis Joplin to do their first album they hit a spot of bother, and needed some time to put it together. Never mind, it was an instant classic once it hit the shops. The late 1960's saw Sgt. Peppers (Beatles), Tommy by The Who, and Their Satanic Majesties Request (Rolling Stones)- said by Keith Richards to be a load of crap! Concept albums at times went beyond loose linkages, and The Who's Quadrophenia is one - but it's not one you'd want to play all the time.

Some point to Frank Sinatra's album In The Wee Small Hours as an early example, from 1955. It's a collection of songs about love, said to be after a breakup of a relationship. Some are depressing, but many of those 16 titles have a life of their own, before and after he included them on that album. From the 1970s onwards we got more of the "concept" concept. Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Yes, Rick Wakeman. Before long there was a fair bit of it about, even if the concept mainly related to the album artwork. The album as "a collection of songs we just wrote" remained alive and well, but marketing would put a gloss over that and come up with a presentation for the punters.

Here's the hard fact, concept or no concept. It's very, very difficult if not impossible to put together a new set of a dozen or more songs or tunes and have every damned one a "must hear", or even a "pretty good". Most discs have some tracks you really wouldn't miss if you never heard them again - e.g. George Harrison's Blue Jay Way. A lot have just one or two tracks that you really, really like, a couple that are pretty good, and a number that are ho-hum or actually unpleasant.

Why am I going on about this anyway? Well, I'm building the case for "curated" listening. This is, after all, what radio stations have been offering forever. But with modern technology you can do this yourself, with playlists, or you can set your collection of "liked" tracks to play randomly. Once Apple started the iTunes store everyone was free to buy only tracks, not albums. The trouble is that you get sick of your own playlists and your own albums!

As you probably know, I'm keen on jazz - classical too, but the approach for jazz is different. I can turn on Jazz any day of the week, and be confident that of their 30 channels I'll get a great flow of music I like from at least half a dozen of them. The hard lesson comes when you act on a hunch and actually buy an album by an artist you've heard one or two tracks by. This can be good in some cases, terrible in others. If you're extremely lucky you get a full disc of good stuff. The more normal outcome is that you'll like half to three quarters of them, and a bad result (and I've had quite a few) is where only the tracks you heard streamed off the web are any good, the rest varying from passable to awful.

So, curated music is the way to go. The people choosing the tracks for Jazz are very good indeed. Likewise The Jazz, although their audio quality isn't as good as Spotify Premium or Jazz Radio Premium.

When I recommend a disc/album on this music page, it has to pass muster first. I prefer to check out any artist new to me via Spotify, to see if they are consistently good, such that most of the disc, or a substantial amount of it, is worth hearing. Where I've gone wrong with my own buying in the past is where I can't check out the consistency, and go on faith or reviews - then purchase. I've also purchased things that I have found via Spotify to be excellent, so I have a hard copy too! Just in case.

So, I find that curated music is more consistently enjoyable, and I've learnt about a lot of performers for the first time that way - that's always a good thing.

Feel free to agree or disagree via email or facebook.

15/9/2015 - This Week's Recommended Jazz Discs

Linda Presgrave's Along The Path is a very nice small instrumental ensemble, while Kitty Margolis is a sultry vocalist with great backing, you might say hot and scatty! It's a live session. And yes, both are on Spotify.

11/9/2015 - Hifi Demo Discs!

In the September/October edition of Australian hi-fi magazine, the editor Greg Borrowman quite rightly has a go at those people at hifi shows who have the temerity to put up signs at their demo rooms saying "Diana Krall-Free Zone". As he says, it might have been a bit funny if not overdone, but it has been. Worse, some idiots have even gone so far as to belittle her music. That is just not on.

It's true that demo albums have always ended up being thrashed to death in the industry, from way back when the Telarc 1812 Overture was in use, or even before that, the Mercury one conducted by Antal Dorati. In the 1990s we had Jazz at the Pawnshop, Mary Black, Loreena McKennitt, and of course Enya!

I was working through that period I've come to label as the "female vocal era". Most salesmen will recall the numerous customers who came in, sat down, and when asked what they'd like to listen to, said "Have you got some female vocal?" - which of course we did have! For a while even Dusty Springfield got a "look" in with The Look of Love. Carol Kidd (on Linn Records) was big news then, just as Claire Martin is now. I'm sure the same group will recall the series "Best Audiophile Voices", which were all women!

Those with longer memories will recall Earl Klugh. "Finger Paintings" was probably done to death before I became involved, but I did own a copy from way back. It's still good, as is the one he did with Bob James called "Two of a Kind". But success sometimes leads to over-exposure, and not all Earl's albums are up to that standard.

Sheffield Lab became the touchstone label for a long time. Their direct-to-discs launched some names we'd not heard of before, like Adam Makowicz, Thelma Houston, Lincoln Mayorga, Amanda McBroom, and (for some anyway) Igor Stravinsky (/sarc). Dave Grusin was there too, before going with GRP.

In the surround sound era, the standout track has been the (remade for DVD) Eagles doing Hotel California. That one has probably been played more often than anything else since it appeared. In defence of this, it was something that most people were familiar with, and felt comfortable using it for assessment purposes.

I preferred to use a tried and true selection of tracks that varied from classical through jazz to a bit of pop and MOR - including Dave Grusin and Acoustic Alchemy. For orchestral colour I found the Mercury recording of Chabrier's Espana (Paul Paray) to be excellent. It also had handy repetitions which you could use for instant replay switches between competing speakers. For solo piano a couple of the Beethoven Bagatelles (Stephen Kovacevich), and for violin the Sarasate "Zigeunerweisen" with Anne-Sophie Mutter. And yes, I'd always have a Diana Krall track as well!

What's used in demos will continue to change with fashion, and so it should. One of the critical things in doing a good demo is to be in tune with your customer, which can be hard for someone approaching retirement if dealing with much younger people - unless they've brought their own tracks, which these days is so easy!

My introduction to new music now comes mainly from hearing tracks on internet radio which I then follow up via Spotify. I've just downloaded Allison Miller's group album "Live At Willisau" from CD Baby - it's available as a double LP for $US35 or FLAC download $US10 ($A15). Very modern jazz, heavy on the percussion (she's the drummer!) but with great sound and excellent work by acoustic bass, piano and violin.

For a more relaxed (mostly) jazz sound try Linda Presgrave's "Along The Path" on Spotify.

Bach's Brandenburgs - An Australian View

The six Brandenburg Concertos are among the most-loved works of J. S. Bach, and have been recorded on numerous occasions by orchestras large and small. When the "original instruments" approach gained currency back in the 1990s and I was running a record and hifi store, we would have carried at least two versions most of the time.

Back then, the Penguin Guide gave top billing to Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert group, which was a safe choice - they did most Baroque music very well indeed. Rheinhard Goebbel's set with Musica Antiqua of Cologne was almost ridiculed for their fast tempi, although it had to be admitted that the players coped very well.

I recently revisited an old Telefunken LP set, a version by Concentus Musicus Wien, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This would have, in its day, been a forerunner of the early instrument brigades. I have to say, however, that I was disappointed with both the sound and the interpretation. I resolved to find a new version.

By chance I had ABC Classic FM running the other day and heard one concerto being played by the Orchestra of the Antipodes. It sounded fresh, alive, and I thought this might be what I was looking for. It's a 2CD set on the ABC label, and it's also available via Spotify.

Now that I've heard all six, I can say that they do a marvellous job. You can hear all the instruments clearly, due to the small orchestra approach (note: each concerto has a different instrumental makeup). Everyone in this group sounds like a virtuoso, in complete control, at least to my self-taught ear! Tempi are well-sprung, not racing but achieving a lovely dance-like rhythm, not to fast, not too slow, just right.

This is now my recommended version of these fine works - ideal for even the classical beginner to get stuck into, as a next step from the usual Vivaldi Four Seasons!

Update: Here's Blair Sanderson's review from the AllMusic site: The Orchestra of the Antipodes' 2011 set of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos is certainly worth having for its exquisite period performances of these perennial favorites, but it is even more attractive for offering eight popular sinfonias from the cantatas, thereby giving listeners added value in an already excellent set. The Australia-based ensemble plays original instruments, and the performances are appropriate in textures, tempos, and ornamentation, so everything a fan of Baroque performance practice could want can be found here.

The pacing is fleet and efficient, the counterpoint is transparent, and the sonorities are bright, so the combination will certainly excite even the most experienced devotees of these works. Leadership of the performances is divided among music director Antony Walker, violinist Anna McDonald, organist Neal Peres da Costa, and harpsichordist Erin Helyard, so the changing perspectives have a positive effect on the vitality and freshness of the interpretations, and the music never settles into predictable or identifiable mannerisms. The audio quality is superb, so the marvelous timbres of the group are suitably enhanced by resonant acoustics and ABC's first-class engineering. Highly recommended.

Jacob Fischer in New York City

Came across this CD on Spotify while hunting for more things by bassist John Webber, after hearing a track from Webber's live gig "Down For The Count". Personnel on this one are Jacob Fischer - guitar. Chuck Redd - vibes. John Webber - bass. Matt Wilson - drums. This is an unusual combo, but one which works beautifully.

Nobody at Amazon USA has reviewed it yet, but it did get this mention from the Guardian newspaper: "The electrically amplified guitar has been ubiquitous in jazz for so long that the pure, acoustic sound of the unamplified instrument comes almost as a novelty. This is especially so when it’s in the hands of the Danish guitarist Jacob Fischer. He plays in the modern swing idiom with great virtuosity and harmonic awareness, but there’s a unique clarity and warmth about it. Leading a quartet completed by vibraphone, bass and drums, he finds some brilliant ways of combining the sounds of guitar and vibes, played by Chuck Redd. The interplay between them is greased lightning at times. Apart from one Fischer original, the 12 pieces are all standards, but with a fresh and sometimes radical approach."

It's lively without being frantic, best heard on a system with good upper detail. Veers more towards Gypsy Jazz perhaps, rather than any other style. Easy listening but not boring!


DGG Releasing Back Catalogue on Vinyl!

Some of my first LPs, bought with scarce cash while in first year uni, were Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG). They were so good I still revisit and play those versions on CD or via Spotify, but I don't have those original LPs any more - although I do still have quite a few DGG LPs in my collection.

Hit the link for a scan through what DGG are now reissuing. Use the little yellow slider button below the cover pictures and it'll do a "cover flow" for you.

The Mighty Haydn - The Complete Symphonies - on Spotify!

Joseph Haydn was a prolific composer, and also maintained a high standard. 104 symphonies is an achievement numerically, but when the quantity is matched by the quality of output, you know you've got a musical genius to explore. Haydn isn't usually the first, second or third composer most people propose when asked about the greatest composers in history. But he has a huge claim to be at least in the top five, along with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and … and, good question! Who would come in at five? As time goes by and his works become more appreciated, Schubert might be the one who passes muster as being a great deal more substantial than the lieder-writing party boy that has traditionally been his slot in the pantheon.

But we're talking here about the man who made both the symphony and the string quartet into forms that persist to this day, and were so enticing a format that they were embraced with gusto by those greats who followed. He was a dab hand with the piano trio too, and wrote cello and trumpet concertos that are still regularly performed and recorded.

But it's the symphonies I'm exploring at the moment, and the good news is that anyone who wants to can access all of them in a very good set that's available via Spotify (and possibly other online services), one which the Penguin Guide gave the top review and a Rosette back when I was in the record business. It's the Decca set with the Philharmonia Hungarica, conducted by Antal Dorati. You may not be familiar with Dorati, but suffice to say he was one of Mercury's top conductors, and went on to do a lot of great work with Decca as well.

There are at least three complete sets of the Haydn symphonies you could buy on CD. This Decca one, another conducted by Christopher Hogwood on the LÓiseau Lyre label (using a more "original instruments" approach), and a third one by Ivan Fischer, originally on Nimbus but now reissued on the Brilliant label. The cheapest quote I've had was around $A90 for the 33CD Fischer box, including delivery. Fish Fine Music have the Hogwood at present for $A115 plus delivery, but I'm not sure whether the Decca set with Dorati can be had at present. Decca did issue them on 33CDs. I used to have most of them on LP. They were issued in a series of box sets, and I believe Decca may have done a complete CD box, but haven't found one while writing this.

Starting at No.1 and listening through, I wondered when they would start to reach beyond that stage which even the greats can go through, which is competent and listenable, but not compelling. Beethoven's Early String Quartets do not scale the heights of the Middle ones, and the Late ones are stratospheric. Mozart's symphony writing commenced at a tender age, but my set with Neville Marriner conducting starts at No.21. His piano concertos start to kick along from 9 onwards. Haydn's symphonies have an early marker at 6/7/8 which are named Le Matin, Le Midi, and Le Soir - Morning, Midday and Night. But I felt the more interesting ones were more from about 20 or 21 onwards. One of the extraordinary things about modern streaming technology is that I can have these symphonies playing continuously (and the early ones don't take long), stop at any point, resume again, and all without changing a record or CD.

You may be aware that both Joseph and his brother Michael were friends of the Mozart family - little Wolfgang referred to Joseph as "Papa Haydn". I was not altogether surprised to hear the third movement of the Symphony No. 21 (Minuet & Trio) starting off in the same way as the third movement "Menuetto" from Mozart's famous serenade K.525 Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik. Mozart makes more of it than Haydn did, however.

There can be no doubt that Mozart learned his craft with influences from Haydn, the progenitor of what is correctly called the Classical period. That is to say it's the period after Baroque and before Romanticism. It has become commonplace to refer to all "serious" music as classical. Haydn himself acknowledged the influence of C.P.E. Bach, one of J.S. Bach's sons, but also working in a post-Baroque mode.

With each ten symphonies you'll hear a "gear change", such as at No.31, the "Horn Signal" which opens with a very definite horn motif, and uses that instrument prominently throughout. From the forties onwards, through to the 100+ symphonies, there are more "named" works, reflecting the tendency to give those works some singular feature. In the "Farewell" symphony (No.45) Haydn has the final adagio gradually shrink as the players one by one depart the stage. It was his way of giving the boss a hint that they'd worked too hard and too long!

Next up, in the fullness of time anyway, I'll have a listen to the complete string quartets - there are about 80 of them! All similarly available on Spotify, the classic Decca set with the Aeolian Quartet.


Eldar Djangirov - pianist extraordinaire!

He's been astonishing audiences for many years now, having been a child prodigy but is still only 28! His technique is second to none, and he's been compared to Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans, although I'd throw in a bit of Keith Jarrett as well. His style is at times very much in the Oscar Peterson mould, and those who disparaged Peterson might say "too flashy". But the important thing is that he has been maturing extremely well and will continue to do so.

A good place to start listening is his self-titled album "Eldar", which mixes small ensemble and some solo work. Some very fast, and some slow and lyrical. He can prove he's as fast and accurate as anybody, but as with Oscar Peterson, people will say "show us you can do solos and play with feeling". He does that. He exudes beauty as well as prodigy. This review by J. Redfield comes from Amazon, and is about the Live At The Blue Note CD, which gets mixed reviews from the readers there. From what I've heard so far, I agree with Mr Redfield, who is a jazz pianist himself.

Live At The Blue Note (by J. Redfield)

I first knew of Eldar when he was 13. By 16, he could hold his own, technically, harmonically and rhythmically with just about anyone. When he came out with the "Eldar" album, and I first heard Sweet Georgia Brown, I absolutely could not believe my ears. His tempo on that track exceeds anything I ever heard from Oscar or Tatum. And yet every note is crystal clear. And yet he can take a tune like "Nature Boy" and give it a gentle, moving treatment a la Bill Evans.

I saw Eldar in person at a Florida concert in early 2007. After the concert, my wife and I talked with him for quite a while. He was extremely polite--more so than most Americans. My wife was in a wheel chair at the time and at a moment where she teared up a bit, Eldar stepped over to her and gave her a hug. My wife spent a fair amount of time in Russia and the two of them hit it off quite well. I mention this because we've all seen musical prodigies before with awesome talents, but many times, arrogant attitudes--difficult to talk to (Keith Jarrett perhaps?). Eldar was as nice and mature as anyone I've ever met at that age.

I have been a jazz pianist since the late 1960's. My idols have always been Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. I know how hard it is to swing--to play rapid lines in perfect rhythm, maintaining the groove, regardless of the tempo. I know better than most just how truly incredible Eldar really is. He could emulate anyone's playing if he chose to. Most jazz pianists--if they practiced several hours a day for the rest of their lives--would not scale to the heights that Eldar has already reached.

This live at the Blue Note doesn't disappoint at all. One extraordinary track after another. And the musicians have remarkable affinity and creativity together. I recommend this, and all of Eldar's albums whole-heartedly, although I'm a bit disappointed with his recent forays into electronics. But like Herbie, Chick, Zawinul and many others, he's just being creative, and has a long lifetime to do his "thing", so I support his different directions. But I will always cherish his acoustic output the most.

Time will tell, but I think Eldar will someday rank with Oscar and Art as the greatest jazz pianists of all time.

When Albums Ruled the World - BBC Documentary

The LP was developed in the 1950s and started to become stereo by around 1955. But the pop music world was dominated by singles until well into the 1960s. When Albums Ruled The World tells in detail how albums evolved from a collection of singles into a more "concept" production, and how they became huge sellers. Runs for about 90 minutes (via You Tube) and has a lot of archival footage of the musicians, events and recording sessions, plus interviews with all sorts of people from that era, mainly from the 1960s and 1970s.

If you let it run on, it's followed by The Joy of the Single!

Ken Peplowski Discovered

Once again here's a name (less common than Harry Allen!) that keen jazz fans may be aware of, but was new to me. Ken Peplowski plays equally well on both clarinet and saxophone, and his backing group are of the highest standard. This album "In search of ..." is almost entirely of a relaxed style which everyone should be able to enjoy with a minimum of "getting to know you" repeat listening. I liked it first time through, and went back for more.

The good news is that this and many other of his recordings are available on Spotify, so I look forward to exploring his work further.

Wild About Harry

Google reveals that there are quite a few Harry Allens in the world. There's an industrial designer, a journalist, a retailer, a photographer, and actor, and even Britain's last hangman. But the one I've been paying attention to this week is the jazz saxophone player.

If you like Scott Hamilton (they've done a CD together), or Stan Getz, but don't really get into the more hard-tone of John Coltrane, then you'll appreciate Harry Allen. He's all the more appreciable because, being of the top echelon of jazz musos, he is surrounded by top talent on the other instruments.

I haven't listened to a huge number of discs yet, but here's a couple of recommendations to get you started - all available on Spotify. Firstly, the one called Love Songs Only, which is made up of standards with a love element - not that you'd know unless you've heard them sung! They vary in presentation: the opening track Do Nuthin' Til You Hear From Me is attacked with great vigour, while other ones are more calm and collected. The title track, Comes Love, contains a superb bass solo. It doesn't just show off the playing of … but will also plumb the depths your speakers can go to while retaining definition!

The other one is I Can See Forever, a nice laid-back selection with a Bossa Nova flavour. Have a go at these two CDs and I reckon you'll go on sampling the great music Harry and friends produce. He's been quite prolific. Oh, and the following Gene Lees quote was from about 1996; Harry was born in 1966.

Gene Lees writes, "Stan Getz was once asked his idea of the perfect tenor saxophone soloist. His answer was, 'My technique, Al Cohn's ideas, and Zoot's time.' The fulfillment of that ideal may well be embodied in thirty-year-old Harry Allen."

From His Website: Swing Bros. recording artist Harry Allen has over thirty recordings to his name. Three of Harry's CDs have won Gold Disc Awards from Japan's Swing Journal Magazine, and his CD Tenors Anyone? won both the Gold Disc Award and the New Star Award. His recordings have made the top ten list for favorite new releases in Swing Journal Magazine's reader's poll and Jazz Journal International's critic's poll for 1997, and Eu Nao Quero Dancar (I Won't Dance), the third Gold Disc Award winner, was voted second for album of the year for 1998 by Swing Journal Magazine's reader's poll. The Harry Allen - Joe Cohn Quartet won the New York Nightlife Award for Outstanding Jazz Combo Performance of 2006 and was nominated for Best Jazz Combo by the Jazz Journalists Association for the same year.

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio

The Three Blind Mice (TBM) label was one of those slightly offbeat audiophile LP labels back in the day when we were all chasing after the best that companies like Mobile Fidelity, Sheffield Lab and Direct Disc had to offer. Here in Australia there were some dedicated people like Les Simmonds, whose Eureka label did top class Direct-to-Disc recordings of musos like Dutch Tilders & Kevin Borich. I did some transfers of LPs to CD for Les a while back, and he liked the results.

Back to the TBM label and Mr. Yamamoto. I was listening to the Mellow Jazz channel on recently and his piano solo of Angel Eyes came up. That made me search for the album, which it turns out is one called Misty, available at huge expense from Amazon or Ebay, but also on iTunes for $12. Of course, for that you get a reduced quality version. The discs on sale are sometimes SACD/CD hybrids, but still a bit exxy at anyhting up to $70 or more! Spotify has some of his recordings too, and the one I'm recommending is Gentle Blues, which you can get by various means including Spotify.

It kicks off with Bye Bye Blackbird and continues on with another eight standards, such as Cheek to Cheek, Poinciana and Cry Me A River. This is one of those albums that lifts your spirits. It doesn't get too way out with any of the treatments, just states them and does a few nice improvs. Sound quality id superb even at 320k, and the musicianship is polished, good-natured, enticing. It will get regular play at my place, that's for sure.

Footnote: I am convinced that to fully enjoy jazz trios, and other small groups, you need to have a system which does justice to the double bass. My current setup (Audio Research SP14 pre, McIntosh vintage MC2100 power amp, and Alon V speakers) is sounding pretty much exactly how I like it to be. The bass is present and well defined, depth with no boominess, the piano realistic and at times so immediate it could be right there, with formidable bass, luscious midrange and treble that hits with the speed and purity of vibes when required. And the lovely small metallic effects that a skilled drummer does send a shiver down my spine.

Guitar Duets - Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene

Disc of The Week: They perform with no backing group, just the two of them. Sylvain Luc is a modernist, composes a bit, and has other albums both solo and in trio or small group sessions. Lagrene is more in the gypsy guitarist genre when performing on his own or as leader, but here he combines very well with Luc to produce a delightful assortment of arrangements.

Some tunes will be quite familiar, like Time After Time, Isn't She Lovely, Stompin'at the Savoy, and Lennon/McCartney's Blackbird. Recording quality is first rate. And yes, it's on Spotify, search under Bireli (one l) Lagrene.

Elgar The Cyclist

Sir Edward Elgar was highly accomplished composer, and he enthusiastically embraced that new-fangled recording industry in its earliest days. This often involved him doing reduced versions of his works so the orchestra could fit into the primitive early studios. Most people might know of some of his music, perhaps the Pomp & Circumstance Marches, but may have little knowledge of the rest of his output, which included two symphonies, the violin concerto, the cello concerto, the Enigma Variations (a series of portraits of friends, each one a variation on an unknown tune, the enigma), several oratorios, songs, chamber music and other assorted orchestral works.

What had escaped my attention until now was that he also took to cycling, which was a developing technology, and he regularly rode 50 miles or more along those lovely English country roads. There's a 53 minute radio program called "Elgar the Cyclist" which I can thoroughly recommend. It can be found at ABC FM's site and played back on your PC or downloaded. This will only be available until mid-October at most, as it was broadcast on 20th September 2014 and they don't keep them very long. It serves as an introduction to his music as well as a glimpse into a world that has all but disappeared. The advent of cars was a problem for him on those narrow roads!

"Elgar's first bike was a Royal Sunbeam fixed-wheel model that he named 'Mr Phoebus', bought from a shop that still exists today in Worcestershire's Malvern Link, and on which he rode up to 80 miles a day in the company of family and friends. Mornings would be spent at his desk writing music and in the afternoons he'd head out into the country on Mr Phoebus, where the fresh air, the birdsong, and the rhythm of his pedalling would inspire his greatest decade as a composer."

Gramophone Magazine's Awards 2014

Back in my record shop days we really had to stay on top of (i) what ABC Classic FM was playing, (ii) what the Penguin Guide recommended, and (iii) who won the Gramophone Awards this year!

It's peak season in the UK at the moment. You'll find a complete list of the 2014 awards here, while this coming Saturday 20th September on ABC Classic FM at 1pm you can catch the Last Night Of The Proms concert. This is always a mixture of fun, old favourites and something different. Last year's was notable for Nigel Kennedy's Hungarian sendup, but also for Joyce DiDionato's gorgeous rendition of Danny Boy.

I do enjoy a good string quartet or quintet, so I'll be chasing up the Chamber Music winner, Schubert's String Quintet & "Death & The Maiden" quartet, with the Pavel Haas Quartet and Danulo Ishizaka. It's in Spotify's library. The Prokofiev Piano Concertoes are not, but there are other works by the same pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The Brahms Symphonies with Chailly are there.

Update: The Schubert is now playing, and yes, very good indeed. I find the Hungarians and the Czechs are usually top notch in string ensembles.

Graham Dechter's "Right On Time"

(I'm lifting this one back up close to the top of the page, as I've been listening to it again and it really is up there with the best jazz on record)

One of my default setting for internet radio is Guitar Jazz at, and it has led me to a multitude of great guitarists. The latest one is Graham Dechter, and I can thoroughly recommend his album "Right On Time".

I'm not solely impressed by technical ability in musicians, it's more about whether they (as Maxwell Smart used to say) "use it for Good!" Having been brought up on the Standards, I never tire of hearing what jazz musos of sensitivity and skill do with them. Even Keith Jarrett does Standards!

Immediately in the opening track you can hear the influence of Wes Montgomery, which is welcome. Wes was prolific, but any amount of that style is easy to take. Dechter is accompanied by piano, bass and drums, and they are all first rate. Track listing is at the Amazon link below.

This review at Amazon by AK Paul sums it up neatly too: "It's refreshing to listen a CD where it's all about the music....the melody....the tune.....not technical proficiency. This is not to imply that Graham doesn't have chops out the ying-yang - he does. The point is that his style is tasteful, soulful and it swings in a way that will have your feet tappin', your head bobbin', and your ears wondering where he's going next. Great listening, and you don't have to have multiple advanced degrees in music theory to convince yourself that you like it.

$US9.80 (plus postage of course, which would make it about $20 delivered here) - or, free from Spotify in 320k once you've signed up for the premium service and linked it into your Sonos system. The $A12/month is great value for such a vast catalogue.

Tete Montoliu - A Spanish Treasure Indeed!

Tete Montoliu (1933-1997) was born blind, in Spain, but overcame his disability to become an awesome jazz pianist, up there with the best of them. Growing up under the influence of Art Tatum from recordings, and professionally taught in real life, he must have inherited some musical genes from his musician dad and music enthusiast mum.

I came across him fairly accidentally, and the album A Spanish Treasure (Concord Records label, 1992) is still the one I'd recommend at the top of the list. Other good ones are Blues for Myself, Tete-a-tete, and Tootie's Tempo. On some discs he's backed by Neils-Henning Orsted Pedersen, the swift Swede bass player long associated with Oscar Peterson, but not on my favourite Oscar discs "Exclusively for my friends".

On A Spanish Treasure his backing is excellent, Rufus Reid on bass and Akira Tana drums. Tracks are by various composers, from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to Cole Porter, and they really grow on you. The sound is also top notch.

Tete's style is free-flowing, inventive, at times a bit aggressive (try the Catalonian Fire disc for that!), sometimes more relaxed, but always putting energy and intelligence into what he's playing. At times he's reminiscent of Oscar Peterson, at other times he's more out there. Reviewers at Amazon certainly heap praise on him, with one saying he can play whatever he thinks of, and what he thinks of is derived from a complete absorption of the jazz repertoire and performers.

The albums above (apart from Spanish Treasure, which I own but couldn't locate on Spotify) and a lot more can be heard via Spotify. Check under his name alone, where most of them are, then also under Tete Montoliu Trio.

Poll:What's Your Favourite Audio Format?

Steve Guttenberg asked his readers about this, and it's interesting to see the mixture of responses, from lossy digital through lossless, SACD, CD, and of course LP. People are responding honestly for the most part, admitting what they actually use and when. Apple Lossless is great for when you're away from home, but at home when you're listening seriously it's going to more likely come down to the old CD vs. LP thing.

I even saw one commenter lamenting the disappearance of MD! I still have it, along with just about everything else. The only one I haven't got is DAT, no use for it as I can record direct to hard drive and then to CD on the Yamaha CDR-HD1500. The MD gets some use, good for off-air or fed direct from the computer for some things.

The reel to reel is like my model trains, there for playing around with, looks good, sounds good, and I have a stack of 10 inch tapes to explore including some live jazz band archival material. Cassette - only there to do transfers off these days. 78rpm - ditto, although I do have a box of 78 records that are as yet unplayed, so must get around to them some time. See more old gear on the Retro page.

For myself, SACD has to be the best actual physical format and of course there are HD Audio downloads, but both of these are limited by what's available. I use CD, LP and internet streams (256k Jazzradio and 320k Spotify) at home, Apple lossless on iPod Classic when away.

Mario Aguilar at Gizmodo - Vinyl Is The Way To Buy Music

I like this article. Mario talks about the experience of playing vinyl rather than being too adamant about whether it really sounds better. There are enough people who do that. As the owner of (at last count) six turntables and a wall full of LPs, I am not blind to their variability and many shortcomings.

He indulges in a bit of statistical optimism regarding the large percentage growth of LP sales. We know that this comes off a low base, and I outlined in another article why LP production facilities will never be as large as they were, just as the production of steam locos will never be as great as it was, fascinating as they are and as much beloved as LP. It's just too expensive. See "LPs - Join The Dots" on the Retro page.Scroll down a bit to find that one.

There is no doubt about it, the physical experience of handling and playing LP is part of the magic. I enjoy playing around with the gear too, as you'll see from that Retro page.

JAN 2014- Claudio Abbado's Legacy

The death of Claudio Abbado, one of the best conductors of the 20th Century, is noted by Gramophone magazine here, with some history of his appointments plus reference to the various orchestra groups which he founded, such as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

For my part, the works which I treasure are those he did with the London Symphony Orchestra: the Carmen opera with Domingo, Berganza, Cotrubas and Milnes, and his Stravinsky Ballet set from that same period, using similar vocal forces in the Pulcinella recording. These two are in my "best of" list, and I've owned them on LP and CD. I also like his Lt. Kije suite (Prokofiev) and have recently obtained but not yet played through his Mendelssohn Symphonies (LSO again) which are now available for a lot less than when they were issued at full price in the 1990s. You can get the Stravinsky set now on a two-CD at mid-price, or listen to it via Spotify. In fact all of the above are on Spotify, just search on the composer and Abbado, they pop up right away.

For anyone who hasn't got to grips with opera so far, that Carmen recording is a good place to start. Carmen is just one great song after another, a lot of variety, a gushing spring of creativity. Apparently it started life as a rather longer work with a lot of dialogue between songs. Over time it has been edited down, so the dialogue is at a minimum and the action flows along very well. The singers are all first rate, and the choruses (there are parts for men's chorus, boys, and at times a mixed chorus) are very well done too. From memory I think it was a production that had been running at the Edinburgh Festival, so was well rehearsed by the time they went into the studio to record it.

The Stravinsky set includes the Firebird Suite, Petrouchka, Pulcinella and Jeu De Cartes. The Firebird is reminiscent of the great Russian works of Rimsky-Korsakoff and Borodin, with their folk-tale influences and grand orchestration. There's more than a hint of those Eastern provinces in the flavour. Petrouchka at first sounds modern and disjointed - the story line adds a little to the understanding of it, but repeated listening is rewarded by enjoyment of the way Stravinsky builds the climactic moments, with some very striking thematic developments.

Pulcinella is a modern re-presentation of music styles of a bygone age, what is loosely called neo-classicism. Think Respighi and his borrowing of early music, or Carl Orff's Carmina Burana - which also uses vocals extensively. I'll stop, because neo-classicism is a whole area of study and enjoyment of its own, and enough for a separate article. Graham Abbott did a whole hour on it recently in his Keys To Music series, and that can be heard for a limited time on the ABC Classic FM site.

The Lt. Kije suite is derived from a film score -the movie was a farce involving a non-existent soldier - and has some good moments too, particularly the troika sleigh ride, at the gallop, or at least a very fast trot since it's a harness horse ride!

All of these recordings are by DGG, a label often bagged by audiophiles, (who swoon over Decca, are sniffy about Philips) but one which has fed my musical mind from the very first encounter with one of their box sets of LPs of classical favourites. The sound quality on all of the above is superb.

Update: Gramophone magazine nominates 10 great recordings with Abbado - includes the Mendelssohn, but none of my other favourites! Such is the nature of critical acclaim.

Update FEB 2015 - They now nominate two of the Abbado recordings of Stravinsky Ballets (Petrouchka and Pulcinella) as among their top ten Stravinsky recordings! Better late than never I guess.

One Last Fling With Hot Mrs. Robinson

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had a huge time during the 1960s and 1970s together, and then some more as separate artists for ages afterwards. Although both were songwriters, it's Simon who was the eminence on that front. Art had the better voice, which is why Paul insisted he take the lead in that anthem Bridge Over Troubled Water - to this day one of Paul's proudest achievements. All the tunes of their performing heyday are etched into the memories of all of us who lived through those decades - they were not just played by the popular radio stations, but were mainstream.

Jazz has always grabbed any tune that was lying around and done fun things with it. A familiarity with tunes from the era of Rodgers & Hart will find echoes in so many renditions by performers of the golden era, the 1940s-1950s and onwards. There are more jazz treatments of Beatles tunes than you'd believe until you start to keep score, so to speak.

Joe Chindamo is not just a world-class musician, a pianist of consummate skill. He's also got a keen ear for a good tune, from classical to popular. Down the page you'll find a review of his Duende: The Romantic Project, which uses two opera tunes to great effect.

My latest acquisition is his trio performing the Paul Simon song book, with Matt Clohessy on drums, and David Beck, bass. Tracks include America!, Feelin Groovy, El Condor Pasa, Mrs. Robinson, Keep the Customer Satisfied, Scarborough Fair, Cecilia, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and a rather noisy Sound of Silence. There's a good hour of this fare, very coolly and nicely done.

Don't think for a moment that the tunes are too easy and will not provide enough meat for these performers to feast on. With a trio of this calibre, the tune is nice but is just a launch-pad, a springboard for the creative process. You'll hear beautifully integrated work from all three. Some critics go so far as to compare Chindamo with Bill Evans, which is about as high praise as a pianist can hope for. He's certainly up there with the Bill Charlaps, Hank Jones's and Stefano Bollanis of this world. There are others who are and will remain in a class of their own for me - Oscar Peterson (despite what some critics have said he is, at his best, simply amazing), Jessica Williams and Keith Jarrett (no, not the Koln Concert, but the Blue Note Sessions). I've been challenged at time to deny that Art Tatum is the king of them all, but for me he's the king of the decorative glissando run, but not as enticing or involving as some of the others - my bad, I know.

Oscar Peterson used to say that you could tell right away if a pianist had had proper training - and I think he meant classical. Joe's mastery of the keyboard includes so many complex constructions, tossed off flawlessly in an instant, that speaks of that sort of training. Of course it's not much use in the jazz world if coupled to a brain that can only play what's on the page. Joe writes the page anew as he goes.

Anyway, you can get this disc direct from Newmarket Music; they say it's "back in stock!"

The Era Of Cheap Box Sets Continues

Fish Fine Music has a veritable tsunami of great box sets at the moment. Buy any two and you'll also qualify for free delivery, as all orders over $150 are. For that sort of money you'll end up paying $5 or less per disc, and what they have on offer is pretty damn good, I have to say, as a former record shop owner.

For myself, I have some of those already, but there's temptation in the Schubert piano works with Schiff and the complete Shostakovich Symphonies (Haitink/Concertgebouw).

Guitarist Jim Hall - Gone!

So many of the great jazz musicians of the golden era are gone already, and now guitarist Jim Hall has died at 83. He played in the company of so many big names, and the obituaries around the news sites are citing him as an important influence on Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell.

None of the appraisals I've read so far mention the work he did with Paul Desmond, the super-cool saxophonist of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet. One story has it that on leaving the Brubeck group and going on with other things, he had said to Dave that he would not join another piano-based quartet.

But he did team up with Jim Hall, and I have two lovely albums that they did together, pictured above. Both are available on Spotify, Easy Living under Paul Desmond, and the other one under Paul Desmond Quartet. There are others on the market, and with players of their calibre you can probably buy any of them with confidence.

Some of the reviewers at Amazon feel that Easy Living is the best album they did together. If you like Paul Desmond (and what's not to like?) the Paul Desmond Quartet Live is another great recording to chase up. I've had it on LP for many years.

The "Secret" Vinyl Collection

ABC online has started a series of short video blogs by musicians, talking about their LP collections. The batch of four listed so far is made up of Davey Lane (up now), and they'll release one a week. On 16th December Catherine Britt, 23rd Kate Ceberano, 30th Jane Rutter. From what you can see of Davey Lane's gear, and the still shots for the future ones, none of them have even a half-decent stereo system!

I'm not sure where the "secret" thing comes in; maybe it just sounds better for promotional purposes! I recently did a piece on the ever-present resurgence of vinyl, which you might like to read while in a vinyl mood. See Everything Old Is ... Well, Old! LPs - Join The Dots on the Retro Page - scroll dow a bit to see it.

Joe Chindamo's Romance

You've probably hear of Joe Chindamo by now. He's been around for quite a while, and has a string of lovely discs (about twenty!) to his name, recorded here and overseas - such as Solo Live At Unbria Jazz05, recorded in 2005. But he's also been a session man for some of the biggets names in the business. The sole review for the Umbria Jazz solo disc at Amazon reads:

A Joe Chindamo comes along once or twice in several scores of years.

"Peterson was great as was Garner and of course there's Peter Nero. But Joe has innovations and technique beyond anything that can be expected. His bass notes 'runs' are as good as his fantastic 'right hand.' This disc was worth the price and then some."

The disc I'm listening to today is "Duende: The Romantic Project". It's a live concert recording (from 2008), so the players have nowhere to hide if things go a little off. But as Joe says in the notes, everyone was switched on that night. It's a must have!

The players are Joe Chindamo (piano), Doug Devries (guitar), Nigel Maclean (violin), Sam Anning (bass), but the sleeve notes omit the drummer. Note: On the subject of drummers Joe was partnering none other than Billy Cobham for some years while working o/s.

It's a singular program, with two opera tunes getting a Guernsey in amongst the more usual jazz standards like Besame Mucho and Corcovado, and six tracks are by Chindamo himself. He's a remarkable talent.

Recently you may have heard him with partner Zoe Black on violin doing classical sonatas for piano and violin. Is there nothing this man can't do? He was also playing the piano backing Anne-Sophie Von Otter at the Sydney Opera House last year when my wife and I were pleased to be in the audience. She did Songs of The Auvergne in the first half, and then jazzed it up in the second half. Great concert.

I first heard a track off this album on ABC Classic FM as I drove home after work one day. Of course it was one of the operatic numbers. I had to get it, and it's a firm recommendation for all jazz or classical music lovers.

The Real Boss - Wes Montgomery

I've written about Wes Montgomery before - he's a jazz guitar legend, of course, probably the most influential of the lot. I raise him again because I've listened to the album "Boss Guitar" (1963) again today, and it brought home to me (for the nth time!) just what an extraordinary player he was. If you scroll down to my previous piece about the album "Full House", I said there that I've been listening to this guy since the old days with Arch McKirdy on ABC radio "Relax With Me". That's when Wes was still around!

This one features a trio with guitar, organ and drums, and the organ is suitably mellow - one of my pet hates is organists who are shrieky and take over! No problems here, the organ is as mellifluous as Wes is on guitar.

Checking the reviews at Amazon - start at this main page - shows what respect this album has among Montgomery fans. If you haven't heard this, you may not have heard just how good he was.

Some of his later work was, due to pressure to produce recordings, more MOR and bland, with orchestral backing, but the magic of Wes always showed through to some degree. "Boss Guitar" has no such shortcomings.

Janet Seidel - Far Away Places

Back in my days in the record and hifi store, during the 1990s, Janet's CD The Art Of Lounge was a big seller, and for good reason. Her smooth vocal delivery is matched by her excellent piano playing, and her brother David Seidel on bass is a fixture in the changing groups from trio to quintet and beyond. I saw her at Parramatta Riverside a few years back, with Ben Jones on sax, Chuck Morgan guitar, and the characterful John Morrison on drums - he's always an entertainment in the varied ways he coaxes effects from his kit, or even the other gear, the piano lid, or the walls of the venue, as he used to do when on tour with James Morrison!

They're hard-working people and do of lots of live gigs, some around Sydney, others in regional centres, and often overseas too. Well worth catching anywhere, performing whatever!

The discography now runs to more than 20 CDs, and the latest one to come my way is Far Away Places, a classic collection of tunes beginning with La Paloma and continuing with 14 further tracks with exotic locations. The trio is made up with David on bass and Chuck on guitar and ukulele - where needed! The there are "friends" brought in as required: Paul Furniss (clarinet), Ben Jones (tenor sax), Bob Henderson (trumpet), Fabian Hevia (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums), and Mitchell Morgan adding soprano ukulele - something I now know exists!

Each track is given its own sound by the judicious addition of one or more of these friends and their instrumental talents. But throughout it is principally Janet's gorgeous vocal quality that sends you on a journey to Java, Cuba, Hawaii, Paris, or to New York in Autumn. It's first class travel, so just sink into a comfy P&O chair, grab a cocktail of your choosing, and enjoy the ride. My copy arrived accompanied by the signed photo, originally used on the cover of the album Little Jazz Bird. A lovely touch, thanks Janet! I'll be framing that for the media room.

The recording quality is also first rate!

For more CD listings and links to reviews, go here.


Michelle Nicolle's Unique Talent

Michelle is an ardent jazz singer, using her voice as an improvisational instrument. To call this style "scat", given the alternate meaning of the word, seems disrespectful. But that's the jazz idiom or shorthand for wordless singing, done as if your voice were some other wind instrument. Michelle's voice is clear, wide ranging, and perfectly controlled. After an initial statement of the song (which is usually uniquely her own too!) she can fling it around like an Olympic gymnast, always hitting the marks and always landing correctly. She has the soul of a free-form musician, and never gives the impression of someone just following the written notes. Her takes on the standard songs, those evergreen launching pads for musos over many decades, are always striking. She's up there with Patricia Barber. Her backing group does spare but extremely classy support, not overshadowing her but adding just the right amount of guitar, bass, drums to weave a pleasing tapestry from moment to moment..

If you listen to the regular jazz programs on ABC Classic FM, 2MBS, or go to the Wangarratta Jazz Festival, you'll probably have heard her already. But if not, her album Pure Imagination is a good place to start, or After The Rain, or Keep Your Heart Right, all available on Spotify.

Michelle is not just a marvellous singer, but a band leader and a composer. You can find more at her website including CD reviews, background info and gig updates.


Records vs. Live Event

I know I've written about this before - somewhere! Can't find it right now. It's one of those ongoing arguments like digital versus analogue that has a very long life. I'm prompted to revisit it because Martin Cullingford raised it in his blog in the context of the latest Gramophone Awards. Which is better: sitting listening to great recordings played on a good system, or attending a live concert?

I've been to some concerts which were special, and a lot which were not particularly special in either sound or performance terms. Sure, there can be a sense of occasion, a frisson of excitement at actually being there. If you're in the right spot in the hall, the sound can be great. If you're not (and I have read others in Stereophile/TAS magazines agreeing on this) it can sound ordinary, even poor.

I know a number of people who buy tickets to lots of visiting pop, rock or blues performers who come to Australia, often at $100-200 a seat. The last time I went to a concert at the Sydney opera house it was a $300 night out for myself and the wife. Good show, great performers, but an extravagance. Then there's the trip home afterwards, which not only adds fatigue to an already late night, but also means in our case no drinkies because driving is the only way to get home in a reasonable time. Taxi, sure, but that'd be another $100. It's a long way.

Now those friends who keep going to the live shows no doubt find them special, or they wouldn't keep doing it. But I've had so much enjoyment over so many years from recordings and broadcasts that I'm going to come down ultimately on the side of the records.

Example: recently I heard the "Last Night of The Proms" from the Albert Hall, rebroadcast on ABC Classic FM, and I was swept up in the pleasure and emotion of the event, merely by listening, not even watching a TV version. With the enthusiasm of the audience, and the spare but good commentary from the BBC radio hosts, I didn't need the pictures, I could imagine it quite satisfactorily. It had everything - humour in Nigel Kennedy's outrageous Czardas, sentimentality in Joyce DiDionato's Danny Boy, and nostalgia for a lost, past Great Britain in Land Of Hope and Glory, and Jerusalem.

I see one commenter at Martin's blog say that there are always distractions when listening at home, but at the concert hall he can concentrate fully. I disagree. At home I can listen at given times and be pretty confident of no interruptions, and no distractions from those sitting around me in an audience. I can hear the music more clearly, as a rule. And these are performances which there's no way I could attend (some recorded a long time ago in a country far, far away), available to me on call, any time.

With good microphone placement and top recording equipment, the result is probably twice as reliable as the lucky dip of seating at the live event. For the last production of South Pacific at the opera house, good seats were (a) above $200 each, and (b) sold out early. Why pay $190 for second-rate positions? I'm not made of money, so that's s not going to happen too often.

There are plenty of shows that are only on from time to time, and are difficult to get tickets for. Not just The Wall (in Berlin), but things like Wagner's Ring Cycle at Beyreuth - virtually impossible to get, and hellishly expensive.

But I have recordings of lots of shows and operas (including Solti's Ring Cycle, complete with recording producer John Culshaw's book about the sessions), not to mention all the other forms of music, which cost a fraction of the price of a seat, and are often as good as you can ever hope to hear. I can accumulate alternative versions at a low price, no problem there. I know it's horses for courses, but the reasons recordings are going to win more of my "entertainment" dollars are numerous.

Footnote: The Proms this year consisted of some 57 separate concerts, and all were sold out! That's good, otherwise they might not go on, and I wouldn't hear the recordings!

Another 100 Best Albums ... Part One - Album Concepts

Have you heard of The 100 Best Albums Of All Time? It's a book detailing all the selections and having copious background material, by Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson, which I'm in the process of reading, while at the same time I'm helping someone get all 100 into his iTunes Library in AIFF quality, for subsequent family use via individual iPod Classics, playing into whatever music systems they have.

The word "album" dates from the days of the 78rpm shellac records, which sold either as singles - 3minutes a side, presented in a simple brown paper sleeve - or as a set in a bound album. I haven't collected a lot of 78s, but I have one album of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers, and another which is a mixed collection of popular songs from the 1950s.

The first 33rpm LP "album", according to this book, was the 1955 Frank Sinatra In The Wee Small Hours, containing songs which all featured "despair and lost love". So an album became a themed collection. The early days of LP had many colourful and at times funny, often frivolous themes. I have a selection of covers here.

These days we're into the age of "tracks", since marketing has broken the album concept down and individual tracks are so easy to come by as downloads. So the concept of album has been diluted. In any event, It often seemed to me that albums were merely the latest group of songs that a band could gather together to issue an LP. Sure, there were exceptions, and some were pretty silly. The Rolling Stones belated response to Sgt. Pepper was Their Satanic Majesties Request, which at the time might have looked edgy to an adoring and still mainly juvenile following, but now looks pathetically misguided.

Any "My Best 100" list ranging across three or four decades of popular music is going to start arguments. I'll refrain from making a judgement on this lot until I've done more sampling, since my popular music education has a lot of gaps! I'm gradually filling those in, but being for so long more in the classical and jazz streams, I'm never going to be an authority. But that doesn't usually stop anyone from having an opinion!

Apart from simply disagreeing about who's in and who's not, based on what you like or dislike, there's so much scope for varying the criteria. Did the album have a concept? Is the music consistently good or does it merely contain a couple of hits by someone whose name we all know? Is the recording quality and general production value any good? Why did you leave out Sgt. Pepper anyway? All these and many more questions need to be pursued.

100 Best Albums ... Part Two - Lyrics

For most of my life I've been conscious that other people absorb the lyrics to popular tunes with more ease than I do, and that they often read more significance into them than I do. At the grand young age of about ten, it seemed to me that most popular songs were about the same subject - love. This seemed a bit monotonous at that time, but I became more sympatico (and lovelorn) in teenage, helped along by Beatles songs - they were catchy tunes, and the words were clear and to the point; until they became more arty and adventurous, whereupon they too became cryptic and required explanation or the suspension of critical faculties. Some were just nonsense.

What I do have a good memory for are the melodies, and given a short time at the keyboard I can play a tune and guess what chords might suit it. But that's not what I'm being brought face to face with as I peruse the 100 Best Albums Of All Time, a book by Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson.

They've selected their top 100 according to their rules, which say that an album had to have a concept, a coherent continuity. So Derek & The Dominoes is in because they songs are all about unrequited love. Well, that much hasn't changed since I was ten. Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited is in because it was "a state of the nation speech about a country gone crazy" and it was "the blueprint for the new art form" to replace rock & roll.

To me, as a teenager in the 1960s, Dylan seemed to be part of that general protest, folksy movement, but with added pseudo-intellectual, trendoid appeal. What some saw as poetry I saw as pretentious. I still have a problem with making sense out of Desolation Row. Some say it made fun of the Warhol crowd.

In the end, a great pop song needn't make sense. It has to sound good, have a good flavour for whatever mood you're in, be performed in a good arrangement by musicians who can hold it all together. I'm more likely to listen to Lou Reed's Rock & Roll Animal than any of Dylan's, even though I'm no more a product of the New York Andy Warhol world, including the drug scene, than I am of the folk-rock protest world. Lou Reed's albums Transformer and Rock & Roll Animal still hold up well because they were well produced (I think Bowie had a hand in that), and the tunes stick. The lyrics are quirky, and some have more meaning or relevance than others, but it's not the lyrics that create the musically memorable bits; they just add icing to the cake.

Both of these albums, to me, have more claim on a place in the top 100 than many of those in Creswell and Mathieson's book. But I'm really only starting out on this journey, and it will be an episodic thing.

To be continued

Is SACD A Zombie Medium?

I see mentions around the web that SACD is a zombie medium - not really alive but not completely dead yet either. Whenever I mention it to people, there's only about a 30% chance at best that they know what it is. But there's never been a more plentiful supply of SACD players!

Marantz's better CD players tend to be SACD as well. Their Blu-ray players, along with those of a lot of other manufacturers are often Universal Players - that is they play Blu-ray, DVD, CD, SACD, DVD-A and other things as well. You can get a Blu-ray from Yamaha for $349 that plays SACD as well.

But what about the discs, and what's the big deal about them anyway? To put it simply, SACD is the audio equivalent of blu-ray, in that it's HD, for want of a better term. SACD's are either recorded in or reprocessed using the Direct Stream Digital method, which is a one-bit process at 2.8MHz sampling rate. This gives superior resolution, which is what the critics always whinged about with CD. Now, with all that's happened since CD came out, things for the most part went downhill, not up. Compared to the compressed MP3 that became the new default setting for the iPod generation, a CD sound bloody marvellous. SACD never got going as well as it should have, for the reason that, as often happens, it ran into a competitor called DVD-Audio or DVD-A. It was a similar situation to Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, which was only resolved at the last possible minute when Sony plunged and put Blu-ray into the Playstation, at huge expense.

SACD was an excellent idea for those who wanted a better audio format. It sounds great on a good system. But I have to agree, it's now in a parallel universe, a zombie if you like. I have a number of SACDs, and my Marantz and Yamaha gear plays them, no problem. But do I anguish over them, wish there were more of them that I could get instead of CD? No, not really. If they're there and I can get them at the same price or not much more, then ok. I'm not a perfectionist, and like to have a variety of music at a good level and at best price.

What might help, though, is if record companies issue more of them as hybrid discs, that play on CD players using the CD layer, and SACD players using the better layer. I've bought whole box sets from EMI that do this, and at budget price. They are all reprocessing things at higher levels all the time, and could do this.

Otherwise, we wait for more HD downloads, which will come along more readily and at better prices as the technology and infrastructure improve.

Amazon Self-Destructs For Me

I was a keen buyer of CDs on Amazon for a few years. That was after they got real about a couple of things. One was the ability to buy second hand CDs, often at greatly reduced prices. Secondly, the $7 postage to me in Australia.

That's all changed, unless I'm greatly mistaken. I checked out a few possible purchases recently and it transpired that postage was going to cost $US16-17 for one CD, which is a deal killer.

Now we have Spotify etc, I can play a vast range of music within a frugal monthly budget. Amazon has lost me as a customer, even though I like having a copy of the CD. Things just don't stay the same, I guess. Next stop: CDs become junk you can't give away.

Michel Petrucciani, Jazz Piano Virtuoso

I had noted down Michel Petrucciani's name for follow-up after hearing his trio play their version of "So What?" by Miles Davis on my standby internet radio station Jazz - the Piano Trios channel. Then the other day Ralph Waters sent me the link to You Tube where Petrucciani plays "Round Midnight".

You notice fairly quickly that Michel was obviously suffering from a condition which had misshapen him somewhat. Wikipedia related that this was a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes very brittle bones, and in his case short stature. He was often in pain from this, making it all the more amazing that he became a pianist likened in artistic stature to Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson. In spite of the misfortune he retained a mischievous sense of humour.

Coming from a very musical family must have had something to do with this, probably in both nature and nurture. His personal life seems to have been messy, to say the least, but his musical output was great, and there's lots of his work on Spotify, which I'm now in the process of exploring. He died in 1999 aged just 36.

To begin with, have a listen to the "So What" album, which contains the track that first appealed to me. Although I favour the piano trio format, he also did a lot of solos and said that he learned a lot form exploring the instrument that way. Spotify also has Triple Best Of Petrucciani, 35 tracks in one hit!

Don't bother with the Amazon site's brief samples, a lot of his tracks are around 6-8 minutes, and take more than Amazon give you just to warm up! He had a great fondness for Duke Ellington, so you can expect any of Duke's numbers to get loving treatment from Michel. As well, you'll find other things, tunes you didn't know existed!

Apple Radio Streaming Service

After a lot of talk, it is finally happening. Details were released at the WWDC by Apple, but don't hold your breath here in Australia. Like most things of this type it will take a while, possibly a year or two, to get here.

For now, you can read about it at What*Hifi's page.

Music Royalties a Pandora's Box

The vexed question of how much musicians should be paid for each time their music is played via internet radio will continue to be raised and argued for a while yet. The game has changed - in the old days, getting radio play was essential to getting sales, and the under-the-counter payments were flowing from the record companies to the radio stations - it was called "payola".

The dispute as described in the linked article now revolves around the sometimes poor amounts paid to artists by internet based music services. But I'm pleased to note that Spotify gets a mention as being among the "good guys" in the game. There's going to be a different valuation put upon downloading and retaining a song, as opposed to simply streaming it. Technically, streaming a song at any time you like, as often as you like, is as easy as owning a copy either on a CD or on a hard drive. Buying the downloaded track on iTunes costs $A1.69 in Australia, but listening to the same track via Spotify as often as I like will cost very little. So the payments to the artists will also be diminished.

Then again, hearing popular tracks every day on high rotation via a broadcaster costs nothing too!

Ultimately, getting rich is achieved by taking a little money from a lot of people, or a lot of money from a lesser number. Record companies and successful software giants like Microsoft made huge money by taking a lot of money from a lot of people! Now that the game has changed irrevocably, the parameters are being re-argued. You can get quite a lot of software these days for nothing, or a lot less money, and selling CDs for $30 each has gone the way of the dodo.

But ultimately, these things have to be worked out between the owners of the music and the various companies that want to propagate it. If you've agreed to too small an amount per play, a renegotiation is the next step. As with most things, the market settles the argument. I'm happy to pay for software and music whenever it's offered at a reasonable price, but like most people I resist when the deal looks like price gouging.

Ray Manzarek Dead - Remembering The Doors

The death of Ray Manzarek at 74 years of age makes one think back to the heady days when The Doors burst onto the pop scene (yes, it was a pop scene, not a rock scene) via our transistor radios. Light My Fire was the perfect intro for a multi-talented quartet: John Densmore (drums), Robbie Krieger (guitar), Jim Morrison (songwriter and singer extraordinaire), and Ray, whose keyboard carried not only the neo-classical signature riffs of that first big hit, but also the bass lines, since they didn't have a bass player. He really held things together, but he was not alone in contributing special components of The Doors amazing sound.

Their arrangements were innovative and intriguing. What's more if you watch the Live At The Bowl 68 concert (available on blu-ray) you'll see and hear that they were just so good that they reproduced on stage what they'd put down in the studio - with a bit of improvisation here and there. Morrison indulged in some onstage dramatics but was relatively in control then compared to some other famous episodes. Their European tour with Jefferson Airplane is also around as a black& white DVD, and one concert has Morrison flipping out on a cocktail of drugs he took from someone in the street that day. Morrison's vocal and poetic abilities were essential to the success of the group, and Nick Cave is the inheritor of the mantle. Jim's downfall was sad, but mirrored that of other meteoric figures in the unreal world of pop music.

Krieger's guitar work is always top notch, and you can see by the effortless way he goes about it that he was, in his early twenties, a seasoned pro. Densmore's drumming is also irreproachable, and he contributed a great deal to the unique sound this small but superb group created.

Their legacy has lasted way beyond that of many of their contemporaries. They were right at the top of the totem pole as far as I'm concerned, and I know this is shared by fans young and old. As the individuals fade from life, some go deservedly into the pantheon of greats. Ray Manzarek, and all the Doors guys, belong there.

Doing It More, Enjoying It Less?

"Are you listening to more music and enjoying it less?" asks Steve Guttenberg via Twitter. It's like those old Camel advertisements about smoking enjoyment, aimed at getting you to switch brands. Apparently he has a piece on this topic (the music that is) in the paper edition of Stereophile. I don't have a clue what he says in it, since my attempts to subscribe to Stereophile have met with the curiously insular brick wall - you know, the one that has you unable to complete the form because you aren't in the USA.

So I'll have to have a guess, until a copy turns up somewhere or it goes online. Firstly, he could be saying that since too many of us listen to sub-standard MP3 or compressed forms of music, it just doesn't give us the same result that it used to. I can go along with this to a certain extent. I certainly don't think the lowest forms of MP3 are much good. But I do get via the internet some good streams from Spotify (320k) and (256k) which sound pretty good to me.

My advice to iTunes users, who I meet a lot of through my retail work, is always to import their CDs (if that's what they're doing) into the iTunes library in at least Apple Lossless form. Even a step back down from there to 320k is no disaster.

So, the first possible reason for enjoying it less is quality. I can throw another curve ball here and say that for me, hearing something new, or something I've not heard for ages, is more important than agonising over extracting every last scintilla of audio quality from each and everything I play. I even enjoy the Sangean DDR-63 table radio/streamer in the kitchen when I'm working there. Don't be too obsessive about the quality and stop hearing the music. I know people who can't enjoy things any more because they've become such perfectionists.

But onwards to the second possible factor. Like many things, including food and drink, you can feed yourself too much music now that it's so easy to do it. We all own various music-on-the-go things, have multi-room audio, and so on. I suggest to you that when the consumption of music reaches the constant chewing gum level, it's time to back off, turn it off and give yourself a dose of silence.

I think that setting aside session times is a good idea. Make it a treat to sit and enjoy some music, not an endless all-you-can take-buffet. When I'm finished my jobs I sit and enjoy some music in the late afternoon. This will continue through the preparation and eating of dinner, with a break for some TV, then could resume for a while before bed.

It must be the old work ethic cutting in, because I still feel guilty just sitting during the day and listening. There always seems to be something else I should be doing, with a house, garden, vehicles and family things to look after. But I treasure those listening times, and yes, there may be a bit of cheating during the day when I have something playing while doing jobs around the house.

But over-exposure is a potential problem, as with other things, including smoking and drinking. Fortunately, music is a relatively healthy indulgence, as long as it doesn't lead to couch-potato syndrome!

A Terrific Trio

I discovered Lino Franceschetti and his trio via, whose free streaming service has to be the bargain of all time. 28 channels of very well selected jazz music, any style you like, from trad to bebop to bossa nova or with any instrument highlighted, even the bass. My favourite streams are Piano Trios, Guitar Jazz, Saxaphone Jazz, and recently a bit of lighter stuff from Gypsy Jazz.

In fact, I've been so pleased with their selections that I don't bother looking for any other radio stations, and have signed up to the 256k Premium service for $49/ per annum, that's a bit over $4/monthly, still very cheap. You can go monthly without signing for a full year for $5/month, but if you're not fussed about lower audio (which still sounds quite ok) and some regular station announcements, you can stream it for free any time at all.

But back to Mr Franceschetti's trio. He's the pianist, as you'd expect, while the drummer is Sergio Mazzei and the bassist Mauro Sereno. Serene is not a word you'd use about these full-on performers, although they can slow it down from time to time. They are all pretty energetic. The album, which bears the true if unimaginative title In Concert is live, and is very well recorded. You'll hear some discreet applause between tracks, but the recording quality throughout is excellent. The track listing looks fairly traditional, but the treatments are anything but staid. Most of the time you're unaware that it's a live recording, it's so good.

Tracks: Bye Bye Blackbird, Estate, Intro To Take Five, Take Five, Caravan, Tu Che M'preso il Cuor, Summertime, Blue Rondo A La Turk, Take The A Train, Easy Waltz. It runs for 73 minutes+, so a good serving of each track is dished up.

This is a trio of virtuosi; they are all in complete control of their instruments and are a bit showy, but it's exhilarating stuff, and is highly recommended. It's not on Spotify but you will find it on ebay for around $20 incl. delivery

As I said in my review (ahem) at Amazon: Looking at the cover, the title, and the track listing, you might presume that this will be a fairly staid run through of some well-loved standards. No, it's a high-energy display of virtuosic talents from all three members. If you're up for some excitement, you'll get it. Lino is one of those pianists who just goes for it while retaining all the control possible with a technique no doubt honed by classical training and many hours of practice. He uses the whole keyboard with great elan, incisiveness, and yes, at times restraint too. But if you're after some nice relaxing dinner music, look elsewhere. This is for after dinner, to liven up the evening.

Bassist Mauro Sereno can do lovely solo work, plucked or bowed, while drummer Sergio Mazzei can beat it up or down as required, but never overstays his welcome, even in the louder solos.

The inclusion of two Brubeck Quartet standards is a nice homage, one written of course by Paul Desmond (Take Five) while the other is by Dave himself. The Blue Rondo A La Turk references in title the Alla Turca (Allegretto) finale from Mozart's piano sonata K.331. It doesn't resemble it closely in musical terms, but Brubeck's formal approach has a definite classical feel until after the break, when everything changes and a more leisurely exposition allows each musician to show his wares. This version follows the Brubeck intro closely and then goes its own way in the extempore section.

The recording was made live, In Concert indeed, and you'll hear some applause between tracks. But the rest of the time the recording is so good, the playing so right, and the audience so quiet, that you forget it's live. Although made in 2009, I didn't get wind of it until April 2013, but so far this year it is a highlight of my new listening.

Wes Montgomery Celebrated

Wes Montgomery has been rediscovered repeatedly by student guitarists ever since his untimely death from a heart attack in 1968, aged just 45. He is arguably the most influential guitarist in the jazz idiom, although some will contend that Charlie Christian or Django Rheinhardt deserve the front spot.

He was in his prime in the 1960s, and I first heard him as a schoolboy on late-night radio sessions called "Relax With Me: Arch McKirdy" on the ABC. His style has been imitated, adopted, synthesized by such a long list of current performers - George Benson being a prominent one, as well as Emily Remler, and as mentioned recently, Graham Dechter. The entry at Wikipedia names many others who were inspired by this man. As noted there, he played a Gibson L-5CES guitar, but later in life had Gibson custom made models.

It was the soft tone combined with amazing improvisation that marked the style. He often played lightning series of chords, and is impossible to ignore when he's running hot. At other times he can do a gentle ballad in laid-back mode. I enjoy his small ensemble work most (the Riverside period), but he also did some recordings for Verve with orchestral arrangements. These were more commercial money-spinners, and can sound a bit MOR, but his talent still comes through.

The story goes that the soft tone was the result of him having to practice late at night after his day job in a factory - in the early days - and not wanting to disturb the family. He used his thumb instead of a plectrum, and it became part of his signature sound.

Being so admired by his colleagues meant that he usually had top people in his groups, from trios to quintets. So when you start to explore the huge number of recordings on Spotify or elsewhere you'll be treated to superb solos from people like Milt Jackson on vibes, or members of Wynton Kelly's quartet. "The Artistry Of Wes Montgomery" is not a bad place to start, or "Guitar On The Go", but there are lots of possibilities.

Yesterday I was listening to Full House, a live recording he did with the Wynton Kelly group, and it was pretty sensational. Particularly the track called Cariba. I was totally amazed by the sax player as well as Wes and the rest of them, playing so well in a live venue - so that's the featured disc - picture above.

I was also pleased to note a review at Amazon which reflected my feelings as well. Here's Douglas Negley's take on Full House:

"That's how many stars this incredible Live recording rates. There are so many special moments, musically, to treasure here that it's hard to know where to start. Wes' treatment of "I've Grown Accostomed To Her Face" is a solo showcase for his genius for musical dynamics - the way he thumb-strums the melody; the way he pauses and 'slurs down' on the two "words", referencing the lyrics; the way he intro's (and 'out-ros') in a different key...the next moment that comes to mind is in "Blue 'N Boogie".

"Wes gets off some machine gun licks, then hands it off to Wynton, Paul, and Jimmy. Listen to how Jimmy Cobb shifts the dynamic of the beat at the start of Wynton's third verse, bumping the off-beat and rim-clicking the 2/4 - literally creating a new level for Wynton to go to (which he does, with a Red Garland-esque block chord ending). The most amazing thing of all is that this is all a prelude to Johnnie Griffin's solo, followed by all around 'trading fours' to the end. It's a clinic in dynamics, group-style."

"On the next track, "Cariba", Wes gives a clinic on how to build, chorus after chorus, upon each previous statement. I think it may be one of his best solos of the night. Every track could be broken down into these kind of moments (I'll spare you...), but the point is that this band - specifically Wes with the Wynton Kelly trio, as Johnny Griffin is sweet icing on that cake, was one of the tightest, most dynamic jazz units to ever grace a stage. What a moment in Time that night must have been. What a CD this is.


Wes is one of those invaluable players who always gives me a lift in spirits. They are a select group, and it includes Oscar Peterson. Absolute masters of their instruments, and they share their pleasure in it so well, so infectiously.

Lee Shaw Trio - Little Friend

This album, Little Friend, from the inset photo, gets its name from the pet terrier as much as from Track 3!

These are three very talented musicians, Ms. Lee Shaw on piano has a formidable technique, no doubt born of lots of practice, but with the additional feeling for the music that separates the wheat from the chaff. Jeff Siegel on drums is one of those who are capable of superbly subtle accompaniment, something I value in a percussionist, but he'll rise to a crescendo when needed.

Bassist Rich Syracuse is capable of doing a virtuoso solo, or blending into the background. He's a star, like all of them in this small group, but knows how to be restrained and just skillfully supportive as well.

I love jazz piano trios, they are such an economical but most satisfactory format. There are some groups who you hear and like straight away, and this is one. They are all so good at what they do, and the result is smoothly professional while being inventive in their take on these standards. If you like Oscar Peterson, Terry Lower, Bill Charlap, Joe Alterman and Adam Makowicz, to name a few, I reckon you'll like this CD too. If you crave something less serene, more out-there, or edgy, you might need to look elsewhere. Depends what mood you're in to some extent. I also listen to the Keith Jarrett Trio and enjoy them. But I know this one will get plenty of airings at our place, as beautifully rendered music, when that is what's required and takes precedence over experimentation and challenge.

The tracks are: When Your Lover Has Gone, Easy To Love, Little Friend, All Or Nothing At All, Tears, When You Were There, Star Dreams, I Thought About You. The first and last tracks are the immediate highlights for me.

Legendary Sessions - Chet Baker & Bill Evans

It's not how big your network is, it's what you do with it that counts. Used almost exclusively for music, but with the occasional movie hire via Apple TV, this is what it delivers for me. Read on.

The real reason I started to write today was to pass on another great album recommendation. The Legendary Sessions - Chet Baker and Bill Evans. I was intrigued by the title when Amazon included it in their emails to me, so checked out the fine details. In truth, you'll get not so much of Bill Evans' showcased here. Like Oscar Peterson on many recordings, he was in this case a fine accompanist, though.

It's a great group of musicians: at first I thought it sounded like Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, but it's Pepper Adams.

This review by Richard C. Ferris says it all pretty well.

If you have the albums titled, "The Lyrical Trumpet of Chet Baker" and "Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Lowe", then you own 14 of the 15 tracks contained on this CD. The exception track," Almost like Being in Love" includes Baker but excludes Bill Evans.

However, if the above titles are not included in your jazz collection, this CD is highly recommended.

The sessions dates are identified as Dec. 1958, plus January and July 1959. Both featured artists are in top musical form. Their interpretations of these jazz standards are exceptional.

The backing musicians are truly the gold standard of jazz recording artists. All these individuals are legendary jazz icons with very successful solo careers. The ensemble includes Herbie Mann, Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Connie Kay and Philly Joe Jones. All these artists turn in stellar performances. However, I have to single out Pepper Adams on baritone sax who really shines on these selections. The production values and mix are spot on, courtesy of Orrin Keepnews. The entire project maintains a leisurely tempo and a rich melodic and moody interpretation of these classic compositions.

Listeners are blessed that these sessions, the only recorded work between Baker and Evans, are available on one CD with a crystal clear sound to enjoy.

As I've said before, the ability to hear music like this for the monthly fee charged by online services is a real benefit of modern technology - combined with sensible licensing. This one was brought to me by Spotify.

A Great Trumpet Jazz Album

Following on from my listening to pianist Bruce Barth's "Live At The Village Vanguard" I continued down the page looking for other goodies brought to me by Spotify. I clicked on a couple of other albums, then lucked into "This Side of Strayhorn". Bruce Barth is the pianist, but it's a trumpet album featuring someone else I didn't know, but liked right away. It's reviewed here by RBSProds of Texas, on the Amazon site.

"Terell Stafford is a fabulous trumpet virtuoso and has a most beautiful trumpet sound combined with a fleet dexterity and very imaginative ideas. I remember the youthful Stafford's hot trumpet in Bobby Watson's group Horizon, among other ventures. Nowadays, not only is he a busy, in-demand performer but is also the head of classical and jazz instrumental studies at Temple University's Boyer College in Philadelphia. On this CD, he fronts a hip quartet with Tim Warfield's potent tenor/soprano saxes, Bruce Barth on piano, Dana Hall on drums and Peter Washington on bass! We get outstanding, imaginative performances of 'SweetPea' Strayhorn's more obscure but just as interesting compositions, all arranged by Barth, Stafford's longtime pianist.

These songs mostly came out of genius composer Billy Strayhorn's partnership with Duke Ellington, masterfully using the legendary Ellington Orchestra as his sonic canvas. "This Side of Strayhorn" begins with a smoking "Raincheck" with the quintet playing at full inventive steam. "My Little Black Book", the rarely-heard and sizzling "Lana Turner", a funky "Multicolored Blue", a latin-tinged, exotic "Smada", an utterly beautiful "Day Dream" are among Strayhorn's most beautiful ballads that get superb treatments, some shifting tempos. And it ends with a blazing, neatly-arranged version of "Johnny Come Lately" with great solos from all concerned. After these Terell Stafford quintet performances, the more obscure Billy Strayhorn gems here should be given prime consideration by other artists. Highly Recommended. Five FABULOUS Stars!"

Mining The Music Recources

Here's a method for finding jazz artists that doesn't just depend on or similar systems serving up stuff you don't really like. At least it gives me a bit more control over the process while still having various likely candidates placed I front of me. This is based on my jazz approach, but could probably be tailored to other genres. Don't know for sure, but here goes anyway.

Step one: listen to an internet station that plays a really good selection of the style you're into. For me this is usually, and my number one pick is Piano Trios, but I also like the Guitar Jazz and Saxophone Jazz channels - incidentally they have about 28 channels, so you can find whatever style you feel like.

I have this burbling away, either through the computer speakers - B&W Solid satellites and matching passive sub, powered by a Speakercraft BB50 power amplifier - or through the main stereo system. Whenever I hear a track I really like, I note the performer and the title, for further investigation via Spotify.

I'm currently listening a Bruce Barth album, Live At The Village Vanguard. Everyone's heard of that venue in New York, but I'm ashamed to say I'd not heard of Bruce Barth until now. This guy is good, not just another jazz pianist, but one of those who can effortlessly play around with the music, deploying a prodigious technique. As Oscar Peterson said, you can tell pretty quickly who's had classical training, as the technique is awesome. Having that ability to think something, almost reflexively, and instantly put it on the keyboard, is something I can only wonder at, and it's one of the things that keeps me coming back to these top piano trio guys.

As an aside, the Jazz Piano Trio is the way that truly outstanding pianists get their just exposure. The bass and drums are there mainly to support them, even though they may get the occasional solo spot - and bass solos are also potentially very enjoyable. But the limelight is mostly there for the pianist, and in the case of the following artists, this is how it should be.

Some Recommended Pianists: Oscar Peterson, Bill Charlap, Joe Chindamo, Tete Montoliu, Bruce Barth, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones (pictured above), Jessica Williams, Steve Kuhn, Monty Alexander, Horace Silver, Brad Mehldau, Ray Bryant, Billy Taylor, Stefano Bollani, Chick Corea, Terry Lower, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Adam Makowicz, Chucho Valdez.

Beatles On LP - The New Ones Reviewed By Art Dudley

There have now been a swag of reissues of the Beatles numerous albums on LP and CD. The latest LP set is reviewed here by Art Dudley of Stereophile. Readers' coments follow on the second page.

A Trio With Broad Appeal

Triosence is a German group, notionally jazz, but as Wikipedia says, can sound like Folk, Jazz, World music, and other things. I'd add pop and blues, and after listening for a while you might add others.

The main thing is that they are at once highly skilled musicians (piano, bass and drums) but so accessible that anyone should be able to get into them. They've been incredibly successful in Germany and Japan, winning prizes and having albums in the charts for extended periods. A measure of their low profile in world terms to date is that nobody has reviewed these albums on Amazon, as at 21 March 2013 anyway.

They are now in their thirties, and all came up through German tertiary music institutions, so have been well schooled. I only came across them by my usual method, listening to's Piano Trio stream and noting the name, then going to Spotify - where there are three good albums to listen to, and a couple more featuring vocalist Sara Gazarek, who's also popular in Germany, but is actually from America.

Price check: most of these albums command very high prices at Amazon, like $40-50. Not sure if anyone's paying that, of course!

Ebay has a mixture of price points from cheap to horrendous, with one album quoted at around $13 (including delivery from Switzerland!) while a seller in the UK is looking for $77 for the same one. This one's not on Spotify, but is a 2008 recording called "When You Come Home". The same one at Amazon is $48. Looks like have it though.

They may have absorbed the sound of other great trios like Keith Jarrett's, or EST. I always appreciate it when the drummer has the subtlety to keep time but not show off too much, and keep fairly low-key. This one has a few breakouts, but is pretty good most of the time. A mark of a great percussionist is inventive use of the various metal bits, and even at times forsaking the sticks for a bare hand, as I've seen John Morrison do. Listen to the first track on Triosence's Turning Points album, which also has bowed bass.

Triosence are a bit more commercial in sound that the Jarrett outfit, certainly in Turning Points, which may be the easiest one to start with as it's fairly extroverted. Best album I've heard so far online is Away For A While, which is a bit more subdued and thoughtful. The first one, First Enchantment, didn't grab me so much, even though very successful for them. I think they'll continue to develop for a long time yet.

Prokofiev Off The Beaten Track

I'd like to draw your attention to a beautiful disc (Conifer 15910), dating back to the early 1990s. It's a collection of the lesser-known works of Prokofiev. He's probably best known for the Peter & The Wolf suite, but his ballets Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella are also pillars of the repertoire. I'll get to the various works in due course, but a preamble is in order for the central work of this collection, the Classical Symphony Opus 25.

There's a fine tradition in music for referencing those that came before. Tchaikovsky did an orchestral suite called Mozartiana. Stravinsky's Firebird ballet, although a 20th Century work had hallmarks from the 19th, with echoes of Rimsky-Korsakoff's orientalism ever present. He went further back with the ballet Pulcinella and drew on music often attributed to Pergolesi, although likely not by him. Respighi (an Italian composer of the mid-20th century) based some of his most enjoyable orchestral suites (The Birds, and Ancient Airs & Dances) on early lute tunes.

Composers recycling folk-tunes is an accepted part of the classical tradition. Our own Percy Grainger was an enthusiastic collector of folk tunes, and English composers have drawn upon this rich vein repeatedly. They are not alone there. Dvorak did the same, as did many others.

What Prokofiev does here, however, is to channel the classical era, that of Haydn, Mozart and even early Beethoven. What he produces is classical in feel, but modern in vivaciousness, a delightful, lithe and lively short symphony, running for about 14 minutes and split into four short movements.

But it's the total package of works that makes this disc amazing. It starts with the Overture on Hewbrew Themes Op.34b, a full orchestral piece that canters along very agreeably. This is followed by a four-movement Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, an arrangement from the Flute Sonata in D Op.94 done by Christopher Palmer. It was the world premiere recording of the work. Palmer has injected some superb moments, including a positively celestial sequence in the Andante - helped along by the use of Celeste and Harp! But he's also honoured the style of Prokofiev to such as degree that unless you knew it was an arrangement, you'd swear the orchestration sounded like genuine Prokofiev, with echoes of the ballets Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella.

The other world premiere recording on the disc is an unusual Sonata for Unaccompanied Violins in Unison Op.115. Difficult to bring off, as you need a group of virtuoso violinists. Happily we have them here, and this is another gem in what has remained a favourite disc of mine for over 15 years - like a Faberge necklace, a string of glittering pieces. To end on another uncommon sound, there's the Scherzo for Four Bassoons, a bouncy and slightly comical short movement, no doubt beloved of bassoon classes everywhere.

Availability: Amazon have it, inexplicably priced at $44 new, but from $7 secondhand!

Digital Music Revenues Up!

News that the music industry has seen a small increase in profitability is being taken as a hopeful sign that things are turning around. I've been pointing out the failure of the industry to get a grip and revolutionise its own distribution methods for a long time.

Back in the late 1990s I was discussing the future with a record industry rep, and he said then that his company had a plan for automated kiosks where you downloaded the album onto CD-R and the machinery printed the cover for you. It sounded like a way to do the next step. But they didn't do it.

Shipping bits of plastic around the world was on the way out. But what happened? Nothing much, until free start-ups like Napster caused a furor, and the companies all seemed to go into denial for a while until Apple got them to agree to the iTunes model.

The writing had really been on the wall for a long time before the turn of the century. Everyone who ever used a computer knew that you could make a perfect copy of most games. Digital recording of music had been around for ages, and it just took a bit more readily available recording gear like minidisc and CD-Recordable, then more widespread use of the internet, larger hard drives that could store more stuff, and you had the perfect storm for the recorded music industry, who were still insisting on distributing the old way.

Apple and iTunes cracked the impasse, and now we have numerous ways to do things properly rather than illegally, paying for just the tracks we want, or streaming things on an ad hoc basis - anything, any time. That's all the industry had to do in the first place, make it easy and cheaper. One way to make a lot of money is to take small amounts off a hell of a lot of people. That can be done now, and revenues from digitally distributed music should continue to rise.

A Great Jazz Guitarist

It's always a thrill to discover a great musician that you didn't know about. Another avenue to explore and enjoy. I was wandering through a collection of Verve Jazz Guitar (50 tracks) on Spotify when along came the Jimmy Bruno Trio, playing "All The Things You Are". Wow. I had to explore further.

That track comes from the 1992 album "Sleight of Hand" (Concord label). It's all of a very high standard, I can say, because I'm listening to it instantly via Spotify.

Jimmy is amazingly quick and yet inventive and sensitive at the same time. He's backed by a brilliant bassist and drummer too, so everything just works a treat.

Just for the heck of it I went to Amazon and found it plus another album called "Like That". They were both available as good used CDs for under $4 each. But once again, caution. The total bill with freight for the two CDs was $32! I did not proceed, and it's something Amazon really needs to get right. Some vendors automatically use the most expensive freight available, which from the USA can be pretty exxy. I used to order discs regularly via Amazon, but not so much any more, and that's the reason. Until they adjust and default to "standard postage" at $5-$7 they are a no show!

I see from Wikipedia that "Among his many credits, he is the only guitarist to have ever led Frank Sinatra's band. He played for many years in Los Angeles before returning to the Philadelphia area." He went on to start a guitar class via video, and is helping young guitarists to achieve good things. Do have a listen to him via whatever channel you can. Very easy listening, but sparkling and interesting at the same time.

Update: listened to "Like That", but found it not so much to my liking, so again it's hard to take Amazon's reviews for reliable! Now listening to "Polarity", much nicer.

Songl to Exit Beta Stage

There are now more online services around than ever, although some have already had three names, like Bandit>Anubis>Songl. Anyway, it's about to go full release in March. I've ended up on Spotify, which has dropouts in some albums that I'd really like to hear right through. Friends tell me MOG is great, but that may be more on pop than my preferred jazz - any comments?

100 Most Infuential Albums?

Watching a Blu-ray of The Doors 1968 Hollywood Bowl concert prompted some tough questions.

But firstly, wasn't it fabulous how they could get up on stage and perform their songs so well, sounding like their incredible recordings? How did they do that?

The answer is that they were all so good at what they did. The Doors were a quartet of amazing talents. Robby Krieger was (at a early age) a master guitarist, reproducing his beautifully judged riffs, support lines and searing solos with no fuss, no mess. Densmore's drumming sets him apart form the common herd - he effortlessly moves from subtle support to dominant force in an instant. Ray Manzarek's keyboards are the glue that holds the show together, often featuring him doing both bass lines and solos, as well as that signature sound on tracks like Light My Fire, and many others as well.

As for Morrison - in this particular concert (Hollywood Bowl, 1968) he was still in control, still hitting his notes and intonation, his stage marks - just like the recordings we all know and love. Such a lead singer comes along rarely. He had the looks, the voice, the raw charisma and the poetry in all those songs. Nick Drake has mined this vein more effectively than any other, but he still reminds me of Morrison.

Given the dual keyboard and bass capability of Manzarek, the Doors are more like a quintet. Their talent and the great arrangements - spare but amazingly good - made their songs hard hitting.

Facebook has been running a survey where you get to go through somebody's list of what they think were the 100 most "influential" albums. How many holes are there is this sort of exercise? Is it just a peer-group competition: nyah-nyah, I have more of those albums than you?

And who made the decisions about what the 100 albums were to be? Was it because they prompted imitators? In many cases no. Was it because they sold lots? Maybe, but is that the same as influential?

So, was the first album by The Doors influential? I would have thought so. But apparently not. The latest list has already come in for some flack, and I think this quote form the Quotidian Times Blog sums it up pretty well:

"Another problem with such lists is exactly who the albums listed are supposed to have influenced: Other musicians? Popular culture? Generational divides? Or just list compilers who have nothing better to do with their time? The main problem however with this particular list is that nearly everyone who did it [the survey - ed.] seemed to be angry with what was missing rather than any major concern with what was actually there. Many major influential works seemed to have been swept aside in favour of MOR blandness or some sense of cool which does not exist apart from on Planet Naff."

These exercises are often unsatisfactory. The reasons will keep changing, just as the judgement on what albums to include will change according to who compiles the list.

If it was me, Jefferson Airplane's album Surrealistic Pillow would be up there alongside The Doors. Both of these groups transcended the pop template and went into the stratosphere. With their next album, After Bathing At Baxters, the Airplane, again like The Doors, went into some pretty avan-guard territory. These were not your everyday disposable pop groups. They were musicians with something to say.

Jefferson Airplane could conjure a song out of nothing, just as Beethoven made magic with basic thematic material rather than catchy melody. I'm under no illusion that they were "influential", but along with The Doors, they were exceptional. And that's all I ask!

Great Bargain Box Sets From EMI

I'm delighted to be able to recommend a whole swag of fabulous re-issues from EMI, and further, to be able to do so via a local supplier, namely Fish Fine Music. They have started sending me their email newsletters, and I'll pass on the links to you whenever I see some things that get me excited.

You'll find the first batch here, and it has so many great performers, and the prices are so low. I know I'm going to be in for some of these myself, for sure, starting with the Melos Ensemble 11CD box. At $5 a disc these are real gems at bargain price.

Click through from any item in the newsletter to go to the online warehouse for ordering - you might even get a further discount!

The Changing Record Business

News that the Virgin France chain of record stores has declared insolvency is just the latest in a series, as the music business moves away from the store and onto either downloading/streaming or mail-order. As a litmus test, I'm into both, enjoying the ability to explore an artist's output via Spotify Premium (available through the home as a Sonos channel) but still finding that I like to buy some CDs too.

BBC Technology news reports: "In the UK, music, films and games retailer HMV has warned that it faces an uncertain future in the face of continuing falling sales.Our Price, Tower Records, Virgin Megastores, Zavvi, MVC, Music Zone, Andy's, Border's and Woolworths are all well-known names that have disappeared from streets in recent years."

Why am I still buying CDs? The last two things I bought were both 3CD sets, Mozart's operas Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, in classic editions, Karl Bohm conducting. The total cost including delivery (from Amazon traders) was just $38 for six discs. Back when I sold CDs for a living in the 1990s this would have covered just two mid-price discs, with postage extra. Things have become incredibly cheap if you shop carefully, and you don't even have to go to Amazon to find amazing deals - Fish Records in the Queen Victoria Building have some great buys in box sets, like the Hesperion XX 8CD retrospective box set I mentioned before, for $40.

Another change in the way opera boxes are presented at budget prices is the documentation - no longer do you get a thick booklet with notes and libretto, but these in one case were supplied as a CD-ROM.

There may be some life left in the CD format for a while, but the shrinking of the storefront market is evident, and the delivery by other means than shops continues to evolve. Business models have to change to meet the new environment. The record companies themselves should have driven the change, but couldn't see it. Everything ever recorded available instantly, and at cheaper prices, is becoming more possible as broadband improves.

Beethoven & Chopin Piano Works

I've been sampling my latest CD box sets, namely the Beethoven Piano sonatas as performed by Alfred Brendel, which I know from having the Philips box set of LPs, and the Emil Gilels on DGG. Gilels didn't quite finish his cycle, but there's plenty there, and the box was bargain price.

Brendel is much admired for his middle set on Philips - his earlier one was for the old American Vox label, and while his third one (for Philips again) was digitally recorded, this middle set (ADD) are the favoured ones for most critics. His performances are never dull, but never jarring. He has obviously absorbed these works so well - and is one of a handful who have performed the complete cycle at Carnegie Hall - that they are produced with intelligence and no fuss. He's Mr. Smooth, you might say.

Gilels, on the other hand, tends towards the more crystalline, slightly harder attacking style, while still being a consummate "classical" player. But there's no doubt about his ability to give you, the listener, a short sharp crescendo to keep you alert.

Which one you prefer might depend on what mood you're in on the day. Today I'm leaning more towards Brendel, but Gilels is fascinating in the energy he puts into these works; the speed and accuracy of the playing is awesome. It made me recall a customer in my record shop years ago who kept coming in for the Gilels discs as they came along. He was a young chap, more inclined towards Shostakovich than Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven for that matter. He said he wasn't sure that it was the Beethoven he was enjoying, or just the way Gilels did it!

I had another session recently comparing several eminent Chopin performers. As usual, it's hard to say who's more correct, but easier to say which one you like more.

There are several things that you may have heard about Chopin. Firstly, that he was said to be (as a composer) "great in small things, but small in great things". It's true that his work consists mainly of piano solos.

The second, might be his oft quoted remark (whether true or false) that "nothing is as beautiful as a guitar, except perhaps two guitars".

Thirdly, his principle documented affair, that with the writer known as George Sand, a single mother who tended to dress in mens' clothes and had a rather strong character.

Dying at thirty nine from TB was what romantics did in those days.

Many of his works combine delicate passages with more bravura ones, and are virtuoso pieces. They have been recorded many times and at least in part by many different pianists of note. Whose versions we enjoy can be a matter of taste, whether highly informed or acquired by casual accident.

For myself, I prefer the more assertive style of Russian males like Vladimir Askenazy or the very arresting Andrei Gavrilov. There are plenty of pianists who opt for a slightly softer approach, and Bella Davidovich is among them: perfectly good, but not quite as exciting for me. Even the much-admired Martha Argerich falls a bit short of what I hear from those men. Evgeny Kissin is another male (Russian again) who has that edge of excitement in what he does, and has had that from an early age, when he amazed audiences as a relatively junior prodigy. Murray Perahia is also highly regarded, and perhaps falls neatly into a middle category; not too soft, not too attacking.

While I like the delicacy Chopin is capable of, particularly in the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Op22, the showy sections of his works need to be controlled and accurate, but dazzling and energetic, just as they would have been to impress the denizens of the Paris Salons in which he frequently performed - having given up public performance in favour of a mixture of patronage, teaching and composing. I'm sure there was a time when his music would have been considered a bit risqué and likely to inflame the passions of young ladies bound up too tightly in their hourglass attire.

The New York Times did a roundup of what they considered the best ever Chopin recordings. It's quite a longish piece, but may be of interest. Link.

I haven't been listening to much Chopin lately, but have the 13 CD box set that Decca issued, with all of Askenazy's recordings. I should get it out more often and play my way through the whole thing. Playing a few pieces recently, as well as some of Gavrilov's scorching disc of Etudes Op10/25, reminded me that there's much to enjoy in his piano works. But who is closer to what Chopin himself envisaged, or actually played? Hard to say. He would have been an absolute virtuoso, but was he more like the men, or the women?

Clobbered By Clocked Out Duo

Recently I was driving home later than usual from work, and caught the 8pm Friday Night concert on ABC Classic FM. It was anything but classical. The piece called Time Crystals, by Erik Griswold, is at once minimalist, percussive (in an instrumental sense, nicely so), inventive and lets you luxuriate in the various sounds. There are lots of them, they vary from piano to triangle via lots of others, and the sections become almost mantras before you know it. There are minimalist composers acknowledged as influences, such as John Cage and Terry Riley and no doubt quite a few ethnic music styles as well. I'm reminded of Peter Sculthorpe's well documented love of gamelan, with it's chromatic, free-floating lines. The Clocked Out team in some of their samples show a Chinese influence, and can even sound jazzy. There's gamelan influence in the Foreign Objects CD sample on their home page, which comes as no surprise. Very nice.

The structure of Erik's works is episodic; each section doesn't have time to become tedious (in fact many ended too soon!) before it merges into the next one. I was so intrigued by what I heard on the way home that night that I had to sit in the car in the driveway and hear more of it before I went inside. It was scintillating, titillating and somehow also relaxing, washing away the strains of what had been a long day. I knew it would be rude to walk inside and instantly turn on the radio, tempting as that was!

The piece was performed by the Clocked Out Duo, which is Erik plus Vanessa Tomlinson. They also perform in larger ensembles, sometimes with a mix of Australian and Chinese performers. I confess I've not been all that enthusiastic about minimalist composers, but I like what I've heard from this quarter, and it's great that we have such a group performing in Australia.

I think their work could benefit form being more readily taken worldwide by being available as downloads rather than CD or Vinyl, which Erik says is popular among other young composers he knows. For myself, I like to hear the sounds they create emerge from a very quiet background. Technically superior recording can now be made using the very high sampling rates that started with DSD, as used in SACD (2.8mhz) and we are now in the era of High Definition Digital Audio, when arguments about the relative merits of LP versus digital should just fade away.

I still have LPs and can listen to them on good gear. They can work well, but not all pressings are equal by a long shot, and they have their technical limitations.

For more info and some instantly available samples of the Clocked Out group's music, go to their web page here. They currently have 8 CDs on sale there for $20 incl.postage, very reasonable.

Time Crystals now available as podcast here. Save the MP3 file and playback separately - clicking on open didn't do the right thing for me!

Montserrat Figueras & Hesperion XX

It had escaped my attention that the fabulous early music singer Montserrat Figueras died in November 2011 (see obituary here). With her husband Jordi Savall and a wonderful group of musicians they produced superb discs of early music over the last twenty + years. I still have some of the LPs and have added/replaced some in CD form as well. There's an 8CD box set that I've seen at Fish Records and been tempted by - for only $40. I already have half of them though, in one format or the other. But if you happen to like astonishingly good performances of early music, it's a must-buy.

The first album of theirs I bought was the Red Book of Montserrat, a collection of songs deemed suitable for singing by pilgrims at the Montserrat monastery in Spain. As we know from Chaucer, pilgrims can be a rude lot, so it was just as well to give them more savoury material to perform. Anyway, this set as beautifully realized by Hesperion XX is an absolute gem.

I also have the Secular Music of Christian and Jewish Spain, plus the Cansos de Trobairitz (songs of female troubadours), and one or two others. There is no doubt that Hesperion XX owes its appeal to all the participants, but as lead soloist one could not miss Montserrat Figueras. Her strong and pure-toned Catalan soprano is one of the most recognizable on record. You may be reminded of other wonderful Spanish sopranos, like Victoria de los Angeles, or Teresa Berganza, but a little strangely I am also reminded of Grace Slick.

It's pleasing to note that her daughter Arianna Savall is recording, and I look forward to hearing more of her, but also further pursuing the many discs by Hesperion XX - although renamed as Hesperion XXI since the turn of the century!

Dave Brubeck Better Than His Critics Say

Dave Brubeck, one of the most famous names in jazz, has died a day before his 92nd birthday. To many of us his quartet was right up there in the firmament of stars, and I credit him with laying the foundations in my mind for a later and greater appreciation of jazz music. But to others of a more critical mindset, he and his group were not what they wanted to hear. They wanted the more free-flowing style of virtuoso performance epitomized by Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. The clever arrangements of tunes (often written by Dave, but also by Paul Desmond) and the use of unusual time signatures were all too academic and staged for them, while Desmond's incredibly smooth and cool sound lacked the edginess some felt was the real sound of jazz.

Brubeck was a musically literate composer in his own right, ranging all the way up to full orchestral scores. You'll sometimes hear echoes of classical composers like Chopin in his own pieces, while most of the time there's a definite structure to them. I don't think on-the-spot improvisation was his strong suit, but Desmond made up for that in spades. Having absolute masters in the rhythm section, Joe Morello on drums and Gene Wright on bass, helped to achieve a tight sound. Morello did clever solos rather than thrash around, and Wright could make the bass speak, as evidenced by his Ol' Man River solo from the album Gone With The Wind.

If you've heard the original sappy tune (Gone With The Wind) you'll be amazed at what the Brubeck team do with it. They turn lead into gold. The best albums are that one plus Time Out and Time Further Out. I quite like Dave Digs Disney, and Brubeck Time, but there may be other gems I've missed, since the list of albums is vast. Back in those days, from 1949 onwards, musicians toured constantly as well as recording a lot.

The importance of being there for touring is underlined by the anecdote where Gene Wright picked up the gig for a European tour that the original bassist couldn't do, and he was there from that time on! A drummer I know once passed up a USA trip with an up and coming band called AC/DC.

A friend of mine once dismissed the Dave Brubeck Quartet with the term "café nouveau riche music", a put-down which I felt enough to still remember forty years later. I think he's the one who's missed out, but he's not alone in that error. I still enjoy all those albums mentioned above. They contain numerous unique pieces and feature superb musicianship from all the players.

There's a quite detailed obituary at the Sydney Morning Herald site here, for now anyway.

Adventures In Jazz Guitarists

More wonders of the online libraries and internet radio. I've been listening to an american jazz guitarist called Howard Roberts. Never heard if him? No, neither had I until hearing him on and then pursuing his work via Spotify, where you'll find quite a bit of him. The albums vary in style from easy listening to full-on jazz improvisations, with tracks lasting up to 17 minutes or so. So far, the best examples of each I've come across are the easy listening "Good Pickins" (has 10 tracks but lasts only 42 minutes!) and the much more aggressive but virtuosic "Magic Band II" (seven tracks, 67 minutes), which has a great group of musians including Dave Grusin on keyboards doing not so much his smooth style but some very fast and interesting work. Roberts sometimes trays into Bill Frisell territory with some strange sounds, but is for the most part adept and skillful in his solos. One reviewer at Amazon put it this way:

Wow. This CD is essential for anyone who wants to hear great, spontanious jazz played with a lot of guts. Roberts is one of the most criminally overlooked guitarists in history, jazz or otherwise. He burns throughout the disc, but personal favorites include Angel Eyes and its great segue into Milestones (read the liner notes on each song... they're great and really add some background to the songs), as well as some great saxophone work on Giant Steps and Dolphin Dance. Sound quality is stellar for an older live recording (again, there are some great notes on the recording process itself). Pick this one up, especially if you're into jazz guitar- you won't regret it.

The other live Magic Band "at Donte's" album is much tamer, and lacks Grusin's presence, but has a pretty good organist on the keyboard.

Roberts has been around a long time, having been a session guitarist back in the 1960s, and some say he did solo work for the Monkees. Another lesser known but interesting guitarist who I'll be pursuing is John Basile. More about him next time.

Imperfect Music Forever!

Steve Guttenberg is a consumer electronics writer who specializes in hifi and surround sound, and has a background in recording studios as well. He recently attended a conference of recording engineers, and listened to them talking about the "deflavouring" of music evident in recent years. Digital technology isn't to blame in itself, but what digital technology enables is just too tempting for a lot of recording studios, probably also bending to the demands of artists and their promoters that recordings be as perfect as possible.

As we all know, the ability to stand on the stage and perform your hits live is something that used to be essential to the commercial success of a group, but in many instances is just impossible today. There is so much massaging of the sound going on that in extreme cases a singer might record a huge number of takes, and the recording engineers then pick and choose little bits and assemble a "perfect" vocal track.

In the old days, multi-track recording was certainly possible, but editing introduced unwanted noises so had to be used carefully. Many groups had , limited time in the studio, so just had to get in there and punch out the songs with minimal assistance and maximum adrenalin. Individual artists worked on their own "sound", and could produce it on demand. It didn't depend on special effects or even having the best microphones.

Otis Redding was an assistant to performers on the road rather than a star when he fronted up to Stax and demonstrated his unique style. The house band were Booker T and The MGs, who also had their own style. I recall hearing criticisms of The Beatles for not being more avant-gard and using more electronic effects, but their genius was manifold, with a full house of talents including song writing, George Harrison's beautifully appropriate but often quite spare guitar work, the group's vocal harmonies, and George Martin's recording production and orchestral arranging lending polish to the finished product. Amy Winehouse had a voice that was unmistakeable, even if influenced by earlier singers. Perfection was not required, feeling was.

Great music doesn't have to be perfect, just well performed. I listen to a lot of small group jazz, where they live or die on their talent, not on any studio tricks. Like processed food, overly processed music, even without being too heavily compressed for MP3 players, is robbed of its natural goodness.

Dusty, The Musical - In Chatswood!

If ever there was a story of a performing artist guaranteed to bring with it a lot of good tunes, it was this one - about Dusty Springfield. We missed the big mainstream run it had a few years back so were pleased to see the Chatswood Musical Society giving it (and us) another chance at the Zenith Theatre, and for prices we could afford easily. I had been put off not long ago going to the Opera House to see the new production of South Pacific, since all the good seats seemed to be taken instantly, and paying $200 a seat for not-so-good ones had little appeal.

Dusty is not a show you put on at a moment's notice. There are an incredible number of scene changes, costume changes, lighting and music to look after. It lends itself to a television production, where all the snippets can be edited together readily. As a stage show, it is a real challenge, so congratulations to all involved at Chatswood. They carried it off very well, thanks to a mix of talents - singing, acting, instrumental and the many and varied production aspects.

The songs are cleverly woven into her life story, starting with her as a schoolgirl with grand aspirations, putting up with (as all teenagers have to do) parents too easily cast as uncaring about her showbiz fantasies. They reappear later in a more caring mode, and it is there that a great opportunity for a song inclusion was missed.

Dusty's transition to stardom and then to the USA is all handled well, including the romance with her lover, female singer "Reno". The breakdown in her private life after too many parties, booze and a series of very short term relationships is described in just enough detail to avoid it being either too gross or too light on. We see her rise, and then the fall. It is at the low point of this segment that a scene is inserted into the narrative that has her parents, now much older and grey haired, phoning through from home in the UK to say how much they miss her and how good they think she is - everything that was missing from the early life.

I'm sure I don't need to list all the tunes she made famous, but there was one notable one missing - in fact a couple. I don't know why they missed using "Goin' Back" at this point in the show. It would have fitted so well, and in fact she does end up goin' back. The song was not used at all, and it is one of her great ones. Not because she wrote it, she was a performer not a songwriter (it's by Carole King & Gerry Goffin), but because her version has that magic dust: the uniquely steady, smoky tone and sustained notes that put backbone into what in other hands can sound like a lightweight folksy tune. The orchestration is strong too, building to a climax which is a bit Phil Spector-ish (produced by Johnny Franz) but not too much so. I had to seek it out in my iTunes collection later, and then sat down and worked it out on my Yamaha Clavinova, after a fashion!

It was a fun evening, although perhaps the full-company on-stage reprise session went on a shade too long at a time when we'd had two one-hour halves already. But I certainly didn't begrudge them their curtain calls. Being able to bring this show off as well as they did was a credit to all involved.

Riches On Offer - CD Box Sets

The impact of online music libraries may be reflected in some of the amazing box set deals you can get these days. As someone who was once in the CD business and recalling just how expensive they were, the current market has temptations! I was tempted by some more this week when another email list turned up, and when you look at the latest offerings you can see why. At a measly few dollars a disc it's nice to have them.

I'm still a bit puzzled why Alfred Brendel's set of Beethoven piano sonatas - complete on 12 discs for $44 delivered! - has been reissued on Decca instead of the original Philips label, but I'll have them anyway. I'll also have the Rachmaninov Symphonic Works - 3 CD set, $22 delivered.

Other temptations include a set of Mozart Piano Sonatas (by Eschenbach) - 5CD at $30 delivered - I already have a good one, but this one is recommended too, and there's an 8 CD set of solo piano recording by the excellent Martha Argerich at just $30 incl. standard delivery!

As a chamber music fan I'm also tempted by a set of Brahms String Quartets, Quintets and Sextets, with a few Trios thrown in for good measure, 5CDs for around $30 delivered.

Hard core chamber music lovers need a complete set of the Beethoven String Quartets, and while my favoured Hungarian Quartet on EMI doesn't seem to be there at present, Amazon have a cheap set by the Emerson String Quartet which would be amazingly good value at 7CDs for $40 including the standard $7 delivery charge.

If perchance you want a 50CD set of the famous remastered Mercury Living Presence recordings, they will cost you around $100 - assuming they do honour the single item delivery charge of $7 for such a large box - making it a very cheap deal per disc.

Converting LPs to High Quality Digital

I've been converting LPs to good CD quality for years using my Yamaha CDR-HD1500 Hard Drive & CD burner, fed from a Technics SL1100 fitted with a lovely Dynavector 501 tonearm and using various MC cartridges through a Denon HA-1000 step up stage.

While this is a no-fuss method, the guys at Computer Audiophile have gone into the computer software side of things to a greater degree, and they show how to do a really good job on the Declick & Decrackle side of things. I have not been down that route yet, but this may be the guidance we all need.

What Will Apple Do Next With Music?

What can Apple do that Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio and all the others haven't done already?

One of my work colleagues has said for years that "one day they'll give everything away for free", and the way the web-based music services have evolved, he's at least half right. I haven't noticed anyone giving away good stereo or surround sound gear for nothing yet, although some things, like small DACs, are pretty advanced bits of kit for not much money.

News that Apple is contemplating an ad-supported music streaming service comes as no surprise to me, except for the fact that it has taken them a while to get there. I have not been a great user of iTunes to download tracks, regarding them as a poor purchase. The Australian price of $1.69 per track is ridiculous, while the US price of $1 is better, but still not compelling. If I shop carefully (there are plenty of ways to buy CDs these days) I can get a whole CD at that rate per track, and that's uncompressed music. To me a CD has more utility than a downloaded version, not least as an archival backup.

But just what is Apple going to do that the main players in streaming music haven't done? Spotify and the rest are all out there with their customer base right now, and Apple has to find a way to make them switch. It can't be by having a bigger catalogue - the lists offered already by the others are huge. Will better audio do it? Probably not, as that's not the priority for a lot of listeners anyway. It does affect me to a degree, being a hifi person to some extent, so Spotify's 320k service is a plus.

Apple's oft discussed TV has been a long time coming, and this streaming service may have been in the works for a while too. Producing a killer service in either music or movies and television requires a lot of contract negotiations with the content owners across multiple territories (a story in itself, those territories), and to go one better gets harder when the existing services are pretty good.

I like Apple's movie rental service via that little hockey puck thing, and hope that they can do something inventive on the music front. There's not a lot of wriggle room left in the marketplace though, and if it's going to be a tiered system with an ad-based level and a paid level, the price has to be right for the upper level, and the free one has to be not so ad-infested as to be just annoying. They are proven masters of the well presented, easy interface, so we can have faith in that being right. But with this sort of service, the content has to be great, and the price must be low enough to be a no-brainer.

Spotify - Dollars and Sense

Will Spotify survive this early phase of giving stuff away for free and running up losses in the millions for some years? Will something that I've been waiting years for be snuffed out by wayward financial plans when I'm just starting to enjoy it?

Recent reports that Spotify is losing money hand over fist are nothing unusual in the brave new business landscape of the web. That's the way you do it these days, put it out there, get people addicted and then start to reel in the profits in the medium term. Even if you've burned a pretty large wad, the chances are that if you've created something lots of people like to use, some corporation with a really huge wad of cash will eventually pay you heaps for the business and then see what they can do to make it profitable, or perhaps just synchronise it into their other activities in a useful, value-adding way.

YouTube became a big thing without charging users a cent to put up their videos, and they got bought out by Google. Facebook went public, and has clipped wannabee shareholders' tickets for a vast sum of money while their revenues are still not measuring up to the market valuation - in the opinion of some analysts. But those two ventures have something in common - they derive a free benefit from the content, provided by you and I - for nothing.

Record companies are not charities, and even if a bit slow on the uptake, they have arrived at the realisation that their product can be marketed online while they sit back and watch the cash accumulate. There are none of those pesky pieces of plastic to manufacture, artwork to organize, cartons to ship to the far side of the world and distribution to worry about.

They just charge per play, and the online music services can pass that on to the consumer or not, as they see fit. Some have from the beginning, like Rhapsody. Others might have a free version and a premium version - the premium one gives you no ads, better quality audio, and maybe even more titles. Spotify has a free and a premium version, and this would be what makes things tricky for them. I've been quite happy to pay for the premium one for two reasons. Firstly, it made it link through Sonos, so makes it much more useful. Secondly, it's at the better 320k rate, so pretty good quality, while by no means hi-res. It's a bit below CD level, but the best of the MP3 variants. I now have a third reason - I want them to survive because it's a good service and I'm going to make plenty of use of it.

The fact that there are now quite a few online music services suggests that it can be made to work. How many survive and how many drop off the perch will be revealed in the fullness of time, but all of them right now make it look expensive to be buying tracks from iTunes. Somethin's gotta give there.

Oscar Peterson & The Will To Swing

This one has to go in under both Books and Music. The Will To Swing by Gene Lees is a pretty authentic biography of the incredible Oscar Peterson, jazz pianist extraordinaire, born in 1925, died in 2007. I got to know his work principally via the MPS-Conifer recordings, having bought my first LP from that series down at Ashwoods in Pitt Street, Sydney, probably in the mid-seventies.

Peterson was classically taught in his early youth and onwards into young adulthood, but showed a fondness for and amazing talent for boogie-woogie piano playing before he became a fully fledged jazz pianist. Nobody ever denied his proficiency at the keyboard, and he was flat out with engagements all through the 1950s and 60s, to the detriment of his first marriage, possibly also the second. Apart from busy, his trio was also the highest paid in the world at the time. Something of a gadget freak also, he loved photography (as I do), and a friend said he never bought just a camera, but a whole system!

Long associated with producer/entrepreneur Norman Granz, Oscar was dogged by certain critics who seemed to want to write him down as technically great but musically falling short. Lees addresses this in the book, and has cleared up a number of things. Although Oscar made many, many great recordings, it may be fair to say that a fair few were not showing him in full. It was not until those MPS-Conifer recordings, made in particular circumstances in Germany at the home studio of Hans Brunner-Shwer of the Saba company that he had everything down on record exactly the way he wanted it.

Having listened to those recordings so often, and found then to be pretty much unparalleled in the recorded repertoire, I was puzzled by those recurring references to bad reviews. He did about fifteen LP albums in Germany under those ideal conditions where he was under no pressure and could choose the repertoire he wanted, do exactly what he wanted, and was assured also of state-of-the-art recording quality for the period. I can't recommend any jazz recordings more highly than the "Exclusively for my friends …" box set, available now via Polygram. One of them was titled "The Way I Really Play."

There will still be those who say Art Tatum was the greatest, and that Oscar was not as original. Perhaps I haven't heard everything Tatum did either, but to me there's no way Peterson was inferior when at his best. In fact I can find Tatum at times a bit mannered and prone to fairly straight decorative arpeggios, so there!

Lees also addresses the critics' obsession with "improvisation", in a general observation about how musicians actually operate. Dave Brubeck was criticized as not being a great improviser, being more comfortable in a set piece. But Lees points out that a lot of famous musicians, including even Tatum, had "arrangements" that they'd trot out repeatedly, sounding as if they were made up on the spot. In the end it's how well you execute it on the night. Peterson and Brubeck were quite different, but both were immensely popular with the public.

You'll find this book at Amazon or on ebay in new or good used condition for a very reasonable price. It's packed with anecdotes about lots of characters, including the practical jokes they used to play on one another, like de-tuning the bassist's instrument just before the show or at interval. There's also a priceless story about the large frame of Peterson being squeezed into a sidecar to get a lift to a gig one freezing night when the road was rather icy and slippery. The engine was gunned but the sidecar stayed still, causing the motorcycle to do a half circle around it into the kerb! The trip was eventually completed with the driver having to keep the handlebar steered well away to one side to maintain a forward direction.

Lees establishes his credentials quickly on page one, in the opening quote from Ray Brown, probably the greatest bass player of the 20th Century, when asked for another interview to check facts: "Why do you have to research this book?" Ray Brown said. "You were there for most of it."

Oscar had checked the first twenty chapters in the manuscript before his death, and the last three were added to the current editions in 2008, after he died. It's a book packed with information, lovely to dip into each day for a chapter or two. Highly recommended.

It was fifty years ago that the Beatles issued their first single, Love Me Do.

The first record I ever bought (after cadging the cash from Dad) was an EP, four tracks from the Hard Day's Night album, in a glossy sleeve which mimicked the LP one. Being teenage during the Beatles era from the early 1960s to the end of them meant riding a wave of popular music that came at you daily from a barrage of transistor radios. Every dormitory in the boarding school had a radio, and Sydney commercial radio was pop-oriented via 2UW and 2UE - not sure about the others, maybe 2SM as well. DJs like Ward "Pally" Austin, Bob Rogers and I recall a "Maloney Show" but not too sure about the DJs correct spelling - but he had great theme music.

Along with the Beatles and Rolling Stones there was a seemingly unending line of British talent that took over the pop industry to such an extent that it became known as The British Invasion - the USA market was flooded with recycled American music. The Rolling Stones repackaged Rhythm & Blues, as did The Animals with their charismatic singer Eric Burdon. The Beatles did a bit of that too, but fairly quickly evolved their own compositional talents. This in turn scared the music industry songwriters who had made a good living for a long time churning out the ditties that bankable performers and studio producers turned into marketable items.

The Hollies (the name a tribute to Buddy Holly) always sounded to me like an American group, but were British. They were formed in Manchester in the early sixties and had a lot of great hit songs, many written by Graham Nash. He eventually got tired of touring and the screaming fans and exported himself entirely to the USA. He joined two other fairly talented guys to start Crosby, Stills & Nash, later to be joined by an even larger talent, Neil Young.

Another important group in parallel to the Beatles was the Dave Clark Five, from London. They were hard on the heels of the Beatles in the invasion of America, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show soon after the mop tops, and going on to do something like 18 appearances there. They also released a film, Catch Us If You Can, following the success of the Hard Day's Night for the Beatles. Playing their hits now, you notice the energy and the excellent arrangements - and the recording quality. Dave Clark maintained control of all this, so must take credit for a job well done. If you ask Len Wallis of Len Wallis Audio what got him started in music back then, he'll tell you it was the Dave Clark Five.

Keys To Music on ABC Classic FM

One of the best shows on radio is Keys To Music with Graham Abbott, on ABC Classic FM. It runs at 9am every Saturday, and you can catch the last five programs and listen again here. Abbott is an authority who speaks well and explains each composer in enough detail to give you a good feel for what they're about without getting too bogged down. He devotes an hour to each program including excerpts from the works he's covering.

A program might be a summary of a composers life and work, or it could be a series on say Haydn's Late Symphonies. Today I'm listening to one about Joseph Haydn's younger brother Michael, who has no profile these days but was well known and respected in his own time. Both Haydn's were close to the Mozart family - so much so that Wolfgang called Joseph "Papa Haydn".

Other recent programs have been about Debussy (over two weeks) and one devoted entirely to Mahler's 3rd Symphony. You don't have to know anything to enjoy these potted musical histories, but even if you think you know a fair bit, Abbott will deliver more than you knew about. He's also an active conductor, and I'd venture to say something of a national treasure. Another one, a great music educator, is Richard Gill, who shares this ability to relate with clarity and enthusiasm.

Unfortunately it is only the last five shows that you can listen to again, so recording them off air becomes the necessity if you want to build a set of reference profiles of important composers and important works. I'll ask ABC Classic FM if they have any other way of making them available. I was working Saturdays when these shows began, and still have to remind myself to catch them.

I'm sorry to have missed Respighi, the String Quartet series, Haydn Symphonies, and Verdi's Trovatore and Traviata - to mention a few. "Keys to Music" needs to be unlocked a bit more than just the last five programs, even if only issued as a stack of MP3 files on a DVD disc!

The latest addition is a program about the Beaux Arts Trio, listed as the best trio ever! They certainly are great, I have a pile of recordings by them including the complete Haydn Trios.

I've enjoyed buying CDs for many years, and was happy to continue to do so. A disc turned up in the mail today, and it's a beauty. I now know two words that will make most jazz pianists feel instantly inadequate: Jessica Williams.

Absolutely first rate, up there with the big names like Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, Keith Jarrett, Joe Chindamo, or whoever you regard as top of the heap in jazz pianists, and I think way ahead of most of them. The disc is called "Live At Yoshi's, Vol. 1", and the playing is fabulous, as well as the recorded sound even though it's a live one from a jazz venue.

Apparently Vol.2 is even better, so much so that Amazon has the CD for (would you believe) over $80! Vol.1 was only $10, so what's going on. You can download the MP3 of either disc for $5.99 if you live in the USA, but strangely not if you live in Australia, or probably a number of other places.

No, I haven't been convinced about online music services in the past, finding them too pop oriented for my tastes, and also tending to be rather obsessed with social media. But finding that Spotify has a pretty amazing catalogue, and that it's easy to find whole albums by jazz artists of all sorts, a really deep selection, has me tipping towards using it.

So, after pondering this extraordinary state of affairs at Amazon for a while, I turned to Spotify. Sure enough, there's a pile of Jessica Williams in there that I can play for nothing, right now, and I am listening to Live At Yoshi's Vol.2, for nothing, as I type this. It's great, not worth the exorbitant cost they've put on it, and I can see no reason why the recording and retailing industry has got itself into such a tangle as I've just finished describing. They are all over the place, it's a mess.

And, you know what? I think Vol.1 is actually better!

This makes a pretty convincing case for signing up to Spotify for $12/month to get the Premium service, for two reasons. Firstly, better audio quality, although the freeby sounds quite adequate. But the killer app is that the "premium" stream can then be routed through your Sonos system to any room.

As I said above, I'm a bit slow, but I'm learning. If only the people at Amazon were a bit faster in learning that they are way behind the 8-ball now, and that dicking us around with (i) no MP3 downloads, and (ii) stupid prices for some CDs compared to others, is a losing proposition.

Today I am setting out on a new course of action, thanks to that ridiculous $80 CD ripoff attempt, and to the restrictive distribution of MP3 downloads. Thanks also to online services such as Spotify, whose range is awesome, I will not have to wait so long to hear things, or buy another album to find that there are only two tracks I really like. I'll probably still check in to and if I hear something there I like I can always follow through with some reviews and investigate the albums on Spotify. As much as I like CDs, this may be the end of that particular road. I'll report back when the new model has taken shape and been "road tested".

It could even be goodbye iTunes, except for adding my own discs to the library as necessary. Janet Seidel, for example, is not on Spotify, although oz jazzman James Morrison is.

Update: Amazon just cancelled an order I'd placed for a Philip Catherine (guitarist) disc. Either the seller found he didn't have it, or that it was going too cheap at $2.98 + delivery $7. Good! I've sampled it now, and it's not so great anyway.

CD Best Buy Recommendation

Something arrived in the letterbox from overseas, and by coincidence I was in the middle of writing about it. It's this week's CD recommendation and it's a real bargain.

Mahler is one of those composers who you don't usually get into right away when you start to explore classical music. Far easier to kick off (or back) with Pachelbel's Canon or Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik and work up from there, via Vivaldi's Four Seasons, etc.

Just how long it will take you to get to Mahler is variable, depending on your appetite and spirit of adventure. He is best known for large symphonic works and for songs with orchestra accompaniment, such as Das Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn), or the darkly titled Kindertotenlieder (Songs of Children's Death) with Kathleen Ferrier, no less - noting that he had suffered the death of a child, and of a brother. The title of another song cycle, Lieder eines farenden Gesellen, prompts my mistranslation Songs Of A Travelling Salesman, but that's just my punny nature.

The best advice with Mahler is to start with Symphony No. 1, a lovely work, easy to enjoy. The first movement always has stirrings in the forest, birdcalls, a genuine joy in nature to rival the famous 1st movement fropm Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The second movement, like a country dance, flows on pretty happily from the first, but the third is a bit more of a slow march. The final one takes the roof off, a truly heroic piece that often reminds me of those epics films of the air war from WW2.

But Mahler knew nothing of aeroplanes - he was writing back in the late nineteenth century, and lived only until 1911. He's seen as a link between the late romantics and the 20th century moderns, but was little known for composing during his lifetime. He was, however, a famous conductor. Symphony No.2 (Resurrection) is longer, but once again not that difficult to appreciate. The 3rd starts with intimations of Spring (actually Summer) and has quite a mystical feel, combined with natural outdoorsy things. It's a very long work, but taken episodically quite ok. At times in Mahler you'll hear cowbells or brass bands, for that rustic alpine feel! He's still controversial, and not everyone regards him in the same positive light. Some critics have said his music makes them feel physically ill, although Paul Keating has been a fan.

Leonard Bernstein was certainly an admirer of "the master", and could take you on a minutely detailed tour of a symphony, pointing out the subtleties of thematic material and orchestration.

Probably the most famous set of Mahler symphonies is the Decca one with Georg Solti, but EMI have had many fine artists record (over time) the complete works. In 2010 they issued a 150th Anniversary box set of Mahler's complete works on 16 CDs, from their extensive back-catalogue. You can find this at Amazon for $US41, or even less if secondhand. I expect you'll pay about $7 postage, so this is a brilliant buy, $3 a disc including delivery.

Film director Ken Russell was a music fanatic too, and made films about a number of composers, including Elgar, Delius and Tchaikovsky. His movie take on Mahler is worth searching for, a mad ride through some aspects of his later life, with plenty of Ken Russell touches. That's to say a bit over the top but great entertainment, right from the opening shot of the cabin on the lake where he liked to compose … I'd better not spoil that by saying any more.

Stravinsky Value

I've just been listening to Graham Abbott on ABC Classic FM presenting Stravinsky's Pulcinella. I have a box set of all the Stravinsky ballets done years ago by the LSO and Abbado, and it's a beauty. Includes Rite Of Spring, Firebird, Jeu De Cartes, Pulcinella and Petroushka. You can now get this as a 2CD bargain from Amazon, $20 delivered. It may or may not be around locally for the same price. Great performances and sound quality.

Australian String Quartet Honoured

News that the ASQ will get on permanent loan a rare matched set of instruments by Guadagnini shows the respect they are held in by the music world. These instruments cost millions, and ensembles derive their unique tonal signature not just from the dexterous expertise and interpretative insights, but from the characterful sound of instruments made by such masters.

At least that's the accepted wisdom. There have been studies which found that a well-made modern violin will be just as impressive as one by an old master. Although hotly disputed by some musicians, the findings are good news for both modern luthiers and for those musicians who can't afford the horrendoud prices of old instruments - and that's most of them. While many old instruments remain in circulation, they are usually owned by a rich individual or an organisation and loaned out to prominent or up-and-coming virtuosi.

Delius and Erotica

As an eighteen year old student I was greatly impressed by the music of Delius and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Studying "Intro To Philosophy & Logic" at uni was rather dryer than I'd hoped, perhaps because I was really more a hedonist than an aesthete at that age. Anyway, that enthusiasm for Delius was no doubt sparked by Ken Russell's short film "Song Of Summer", which I saw on TV in the late 1960s.

It is, therefore, fascinating to read now, being much older and with more worldly experience of what makes life enjoyable (and it hasn't been the bohemian lifestyle of Delius in Paris!), of a new film about his life and music. The most easily appreciated work is the Florida Suite, and that old Beecham reading still does it for me. But as the maker of this new film, John Bridcut, explains, Delius is still a much misunderstood character.

The linked article briefly touches on Delius as a "nature" composer, which many English and European ones are or were, but also delves into his erotic wellsprings, which are not the exclusive territory of composers. He did, however, contract syphilis and suffered greatly in his terminal years.

While much is known about his later period, little is documented of his earlier life, and Bridcut may be filling some gaps with inference and guesswork. But it will still be fascinating to see when (and if) it gets an airing here in Australia. Another early TV show featuring a composer nobody knows was one about Bohuslav Martinu. More about him later.

Spotify Music Service Starts

At last, a music service that seems to offer me a personalized service, a good, professional looking interface, and even incorporates my own music library as one of the playing options. Right from the kick-off, it adapts with ease to classical or jazz, or any other style or decade.

OK, next step is to link with Sonos. Hmmm, glitch #1. Although this is a free service with two upgrade options for $6.99 (ad free) or $11.99 (Premium) per month, you can't link through Sonos unless you have the Premium service. Same applies to Boxee, who were quick off the mark announcing that Spotify can be accessed through them as well.

So, after a couple of hours what do I think so far? Very good, and well worth exploring further.

But pause for a moment to reflect on this: offers a free service for me with 28 channels of jazz, and without me having to muck about with it, the selections are pretty damn good. And it goes onto Sonos without me having to pay for the premium service - which in any event is only half the cost of the Spotify one. That's a very particular personal point of view. Doesn't apply to the mass market, just my jazz niche.

Classical will take a bit longer to suss out, as will other styles, like Early Music - but at least it's there, and when I typed David Munrow into the search block it went away and found a number of entries under that name, so all good. Didn't offer me anything, but at least found him and the Early Music Consort!

For the vast bulk of connected humanity, the pop field is were the action is, it's vast, and Spotify is going to knock the spots off all the others as far as I can make out on day one.

UPDATE: Sound & Image interview Spotify's Australian CEO, Kate Vale.

(To be continued and updated as we explore the possibilities)

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Dead at 86

Take me to your lieder. This man dominated the operatic and German art song repertoire from the 1950s until at least the late 1970s, even doing another recording of Schubert's Winterreise with Alfred Brendel in the 1980s. He retired form singing in 1992. I can't write an adequate obituary for a figure like this, even though I have been listening to his recordings for decades, so I'll have to quote from others and from interviews. But this is a good start, from an interview and article that Martin Kettle did for The Guardian in 2005: The eulogies began early in Fischer-Dieskau's career and never ceased. "He had only to sing one phrase," his frequent accompanist Gerald Moore wrote in his memoirs, "before I knew I was in the presence of a master." Sviatoslav Richter, who accompanied him too, was in no doubt either: Fischer-Dieskau was "the greatest of 20th-century singers", the Russian pianist wrote in his notebooks. John Steane, most probing and unsentimental of all critics, threw up his hands after listening to Fischer-Dieskau and, quoting Dryden on Chaucer, simply concluded: "Here is God's plenty." The writer John Amis concluded that Fischer-Dieskau is "a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it".

He is full of wit and authority, yet there is an air of melancholy in his conversation - he feels that a generation has grown up casually unaware of his contribution to the classical music of the post-war era. "The next generation is not so interested in the artists of the past," he reflects. To those who grew up with Fischer-Dieskau as a towering icon of the musical world, such neglect seems almost scandalous. At the height of his reputation, from roughly 1950 to 1980, the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau cast more light on the art of singing than anyone either before or since, and certainly in the era of recorded sound. Not only did he make more recordings of art songs than anyone else - many of the most important ones recorded several times - he also recorded most of his many operatic roles too. He set new standards and influenced every singer of his era as well as a number of composers.

Coincidentally, I mentioned the other day that EMI were reissuing classic performaces on SACD (Hybrid - playable also on CD players), and one of the sets they have at Amazon for about $9 per disc (as a 4 disc set incl. delivery will be about $36) is a pile of his Schubert songs recorded with the equally famous accompanist, Gerald Moore. Anyone wanting a refresher of their old LPs, or a memento of Dietrich doing what he loved most and arguably did better than anyone, can order it and have it in a couple of weeks.

For about $11 delivered you can get this fantastic CD of highlights from Mozart's The Magic Flute, with a stupendous cast under the direction of Karl Bohm. One of my all-time favourite recordings, and Dietrich makes a charming Bird Catcher (vogelfanger!). You'll get so much on this disc, including an absolutely chilling, icy Queen Of The Night, then the most warm toned Sarastro - but then of course there's Fritz Wunderlich too. Amazing value, and enough in it to even convert a non-opera person to this line of musical extravaganza.

Gramophone magazine has a roundup of his Schubert "Winterreise" recordings, a work that many love and which DFD made his own.

Guitars & My Recording Of The Week

The guitar is an incredibly popular instrument, as generations of garage bands will attest. Despite the increase in electronically synthesized sounds, sampling and layering of all sorts of tones and beats, people of all ages love to pick one up and have a go. Some people collect them, and retro examples fetch unbelievable prices - well, incredible to us who don't quite have the bug that badly.

I started playing around with a steel-stringed f-hole bodied Maton acoustic during high school. A friend and I won the school's Talent Quest for our rendition of "House Of The Rising Sun", a tune which most people were heartily sick of hearing played to death on the radio back then. Moving to the piano, I found a thrill came from playing a simplified theme from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, or Liszt's Liebestraum, and spent more time with the piano from then on.

Classical guitar is one of the easy-ins that people can pursue on their way to more classical music appreciation. Along with Vivaldi's chamber orchestra set "Four Seasons" the typical guitar repertoire is attractive and lively, not taxing the brain with too much dreary complexity, but impressing with the degree of virtuosity required.

Flamenco is often mistaken for classical music, when it is really evolved folk music. Performed properly, it is accompaniment to singing and dancing, often telling a sad story of misfortune in love or life generally. It has to be done with conviction. Spanish blues, you might say.

The core of the classical guitar repertoire started out with transcriptions of Spanish piano music, and got so much exposure in the concert hall and on record that people forgot where it came from. It's really good to go back and listen to that music played on the piano, and those are my recommended recordings for this week: the music of Albeniz, Granados, de Falla and Soler, played by the peerless Alicia De Larrocha, on Decca. There are two 2CD reissues (link to the best one here) readily available on Amazon, and perhaps even locally. I have them on previous mid-price CDs from the 1990s, and each time I revisit them I'm bowled over by the grand piano sound, the magnificent playing, and the evocation of the Spanish landscape.

Guitar concertos are really a 20th Century invention, since the guitar was not a recognized orchestral instrument until performers like Andres Segovia brought it before the public and got things rolling. The most famous one is "Concerto de Aranjuez" by Rodrigo, written in 1939. It has been recorded many times, and has one of those beautiful, languid slow middle movements which can become more famous than the concerto as a whole - like the slow movement from Mozart's Piano Conceto No. 21 in C, K467, forever identified as the Elvira Madigan theme.

Other notable concertos came from composers such as Villa-Lobos, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Ponce. If you hear a Vivaldi concerto, it will have been transcribed, possibly originally for mandolin, and many early music pieces for lute have been re-presented as guitar works. There are two famous recordings which pair up John Williams and Julian Bream (also a great lutanist), called Together, and Together Again. These are very easily enjoyed and are made up of transcriptions of pieces from very old through to classical and even some fairly modern composers. As Chopin said, nothing could sound better than a guitar, except two guitars! Not what you might expect to hear from a piano composer and virtuoso, but testimony to the charm of the six-stringed instrument.

Update: Interview with Julian Bream, famous classical guitarist/lutenist.

Gramophone's Recommended "Figaro"

They looked at all the recordings going back to the 1930s and 40s, including my treasured EMI Glyndebourne/Gui one from 1956.

Record Store Day - Here's My Top Ten

All over the country today, 21st April, record stores are putting on promotions, live music, LPs in new and old editions, and generally celebrating the existence (now threatened) of the traditional Record Store. Good luck to them, they're up against it these days. There's always so much talk about what are the greatest albums, so I thought I'd put together my Top Ten.

But it's not the Top Ten you'd expect in a Nick Hornby "High Fidelity" scene. As a former Record Store founder and co-owner, what got me into it was anything but pop. But you'll find a pop recommendation (sort of) towards the end. All of them came out on LP, and most of them I still have on LP!

Early Music - There are a lot of contenders, even here in what to most people is a backwater of esoterica. My pick is the Libre Vermell de Montserrat (Red Book of Montserrat) which consists of arrangements of old pilgrim songs, performed by the Hesperion XX, featuring that incredible Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras, and the ensemble is led by Jordi Savall. Honorable mention must also go to the late David Munrow for a whole raft of early music, and also to Gregorio Paniagua and Atrium Musicae of Madrid for their sometimes zany but always good natured readings of offbeat items.

Baroque - Up against the perennial favourites of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi I put forward the great Telemann, whose Banquet Music (Tafelmusik) is superbly done by Concerto Amsterdam directed by Franz Bruggen. This is sheer pleasure from start to finish, appropriately hedonistic fare.

Classical - This group includes Haydn and Mozart, and again there is so much to admire, but I'm going to zero in on the Op.33 String Quartets of Haydn as performed by the Weller Quartet, a Decca 2LP box set.

Beethoven - He has to have a class of his own, having started out as an understudy to the classical greats, but finishing as an outstanding monument that all after him had to bow to, and arguably the progenitor of the Romantic period. To anyone who knows me there is only one choice here, the 1960s box set of the complete String Quartets as performed by the Hungarian Quartet, an EMI stereo recording. He threw the challenge out for generations to come in many ways, none more so than the Late Quartets, both technically accomplished and intensely emotional. The Hungarians really get this music down properly.

Romantic - A very rich field, from Berlioz, a Gluck and Beethoven admirer, through to Mahler, who verged on the modern - probably still sounds too modern for some. Who I choose here may please nobody, but publish and be damned. Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, Decca. Amazing performance, great sound, unique music.

Opera - Again, predictable for anyone who knows me, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Karl Bohm conducting, DGG recording, with an absolutely superb cast. Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Evelyn Lear, Roberta Peters. Honourable mentions also for the 1956 Marriage of Figaro on EMI, the Glyndebourne crew under Vittorio Gui, then the Bizet Carmen on DGG, conducted by Abbado, LSO and essentially the 1977 Edinburgh Festival cast including Berganza, Domingo, Cotrubas and Milnes.

20th Century Orchestral - While the Sibelius Symphonies are a strong contender here, the prize goes to another Abbado/LSO box set (DGG) of the Stravinsky Ballet music - Pulcinella, Jeux De Cartes, Rite of Spring, Petrouchka and Firebird (suite). It's vivacious, exciting, perfectly timed and I go back to it often. Honorable mentions to the Lyrita LP of Holst string music conducted by Imogen Holst, and Delius' Florida Suite with Beecham on EMI.

Piano - the instrument I try to play! The Decca LP of piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, played by Ivan Davis, is a totally amazing demonstration of the composer's dazzling scores and unbelievable virtuosity on the part of the pianist.

Jazz - I have to do two here, as difficult as it is to single out any LPs from the golden age of jazz. "Soulville" featuring the stupendous Ben Webster on Sax, supported by legends such as Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Then "Somethin' Else" with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Sam Jones and Art Blakey.

Popular? - Yes and no. I gave up on popular after leaving school, although it always gets to you one way or another. Going back and finding out what's still good is fun, so I'm gradually filling in the gaps in my education. There are the classic big names like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and The Doors, all of whom need no introduction from me. I was very keen on Jefferson Airplane, who, like the Doors, had a very different style and a musically fascinating ability to make tunes out of very thin bases. But once again I'm going to be off-the-wall and continue to campaign for one of the oddest albums, but one I have enjoyed for decades, despite most people just not getting it: Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Changing Woman", a mere 32 minutes of her own folksy songs, quirky, at time ultra-romantic, most unusual sounds, great backing, and a quavering vocal vibrato that had one guest asking (quite facetiously but very funny anyway) if it was The Chipmunks!

You don't need me to recommend all the usual suspects in the pop field, there are plenty of others doing that.

These lists are so inadequate, but if anyone discovers something out of it, I'll be well pleased. I note in passing that the Carmen/Abbado recording mentioned in Opera above got 40 reviews at Amazon, and some people said they thought Carmen had nothing left to show them until they heard that one. Another obsessive said it was the best of the seven versions he has!

Online Libraries vs. Internet Radio

The biggest change to the way music is marketed has been Apple's iTunes, the relatively bullet-proof way of selling tracks or albums direct to the customer, while ensuring that the copyright holders get their payments.

Another revolution has been building overseas for some years, and a wave is about to break on Australian shores. The monthly subscription model as per Rhapsody, Spotify,, Rdio and others, is ramping up to a crescendo in 2012. For $10 per month you get unlimited access to whatever they have, and they have (allegedly) anything up to 15 million tracks - varies from one to another.

For a lot of Sonos users, the Rhapsody service (not officially available here but there were ways and means) alerted them to the fun of getting instant access to artists and then sharing the experience with friends, exploring similar stuff they'd not heard before, and so on. This has probably been the driving force behind the development of the user interfaces for these services. It has to have that element of social networking about it to appeal to the modern touch-screen adherent.

But is it the answer for all music lovers? I tried and found that they were getting the thumbs down for most tracks they threw at me. Their selections were too arbitrary and were not hitting the mark. So what about Rdio, which I signed up to for a trial period. Again, at first glance I found nothing on their recommended lists that I'd be vaguely interested in. Where's the comprehensive search function? The terrible truth is starting to be revealed to me. I just don't fit the social networking pattern.

Rdio's "browse the music" doesn't have (at least in the trial version) any way to browse by genre, so is as good as useless. It seems to want to look at your own iTunes collection and index that, but then does not a lot with that information. It throws up some artists I've not heard of saying they are "like" Gerry Mulligan or like Stan getz, but they aren't. It's understandable that sites aiming to be of mass appeal are going to be weighted towards chart, latest releases, and recommendations from friends or "opinion leaders".

After admittedly only a short experience I have to ask the question why I'd pay for such a service, when I can get Internet radio stations so close to the styles I'm interested in, and mostly get them for nothing. I'm still working on the classical side to find a great station, but for Jazz there are lots. One site, has 26 streams, so you can opt for whatever style you're in the mod for. I love the Guitar Jazz one, and the Piano Trios, but there are heaps of others. The sound is good even in the free version but for $5/month you can upgrade the sound quality further. The programmers at do a better job of selecting tracks than the people at ABC Jazz, which can be good or awful. That's a benefit of having 26 flavours or channels - they aren't trying to please everyone with just one channel.

For classical I think a good starting point will be which aggregates all the stations as European or American, then Rest of World! Under these heading they list the stations with a brief description of what they do. I'll have to report back on that avenue later. In the meantime, if I want to listen to classical I have a pretty wide selection on the shelves right here, and ABC FM plus 2MBS do a reasonable job.

I know I'm atypical, so I'm not being adamant that Internet radio is better than online libraries, but it's having particular lines of interest that make me the wrong customer for those that I've ckecked to date. Other people will find them just the ticket, and many have already done that. They'll soon have Spotify as another option, and there may be others this year. Rhapsody has not seemed interested in Australia to date, and there's a good chance that they'll miss the bus once Spotify is rolling, which is any day now. For a lot of people, Sonos (playing through a good system!) plus one of these online services to add to their own iTunes library is all they need!

Here's a rare one (and yes, it is one of my interests!): Ancient FM - Medieval & Renaissance Music - listen here.

UPDATES: Another day, another new music service. This time it's MOG teaming up with Telstra, and offering up to 15 million tracks! Of course social networking is an important component of this new offering too - wouldn't you know it? More news on Spotify - The Australian release has been held up pending a big press conference by Head Office about "exciting new developments", scheduled for Wednesday 18th April, so we'll hear about it next day.

Spotify Update: as at 8/5/2012 still no go, but promising to be around in two weeks or so.

Buying CDs & LPs

I used to be involved in the retail CD and LP side of things (see my longer story here) and saw the writing on the wall in about 1988 that eventually music would be downloaded rather than sold on little bits of plastic that have to be distributed physically. At that time the technology wasn't sufficiently advanced, nor were the record companies awake to the possibility that it could be done profitably.

The thing is, however, that I still like buying CDs and LPs for my own collection, and don't download much at all. It comes in handy some times - there were only about four Easybeats tracks I really wanted, and two or three Young Rascals ones, so it was the Easy way to go to just get them from iTunes! But for the most part I get my CDs from Amazon because - again it's easy - and they have all those titles for you, and even secondhand in good condition, often at dirt cheap prices.

Even with the $7 delivery charge, you can often land a new CD here in your mailbox for under $20 that would cost $30 here, even as little as $10 at times for less popular slightly used things. I've bought a lot of jazz this way, some box sets of string quartets that were absolute bargains and I wanted them anyway, and some hard to find things.

My latest example is the EMI reissues. There are two series that Amazon are pushing at present, one of general nature (EMI Masters, from which I ordered the complete Rachmaninov piano Concertos 1-4 and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini - 3 CD set (Mikhail Rudy with Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philh.),total cost including delivery $16.30!) and another specializing in British Composers.

The specific EMI Masters link is too long to fit on my Webnotepad page, unfortunately! This more general EMI Masters search may help. There are lots of good things in that series, excellent versions for the most part, and well presented. A lot of them are two CD sets, so prices vary.

As much as I'd like to support local shops, it's a bit of a goose chase when you're after specific things or particular styles, and I just don't feel like doing it any more in the big city environment. Getting around Sydney is just such a pain these days as well. JB Hifi have huge stocks and branches everywhere, but little that appeals to me, no atmosphere, and searching through those rather sterile yellow shelves is not that much fun any more. Now I hear someone I like the sound of and just order it.

As an example, I've just bought the complete Telemann Tafelmusik (4CD set) Bruggen/Concerto Amsterdam, used to sell for $60-80, used but in new condition, $20 incl. delivery from o'seas. There was no point hunting for this in local record shops.

LPs on the other hand are more of a treasure hunt. You can get them new, true, at a price. Ebay have some, as do Amazon. School Fetes can be useful, and garage sales, but sadly I see that the 2MBS FM Book and Record Fairs have just about lost the LP side entirely, and when they hold them in geographically impossible locations like Balmain .... Last one I went to had very little, so I bought a few books instead! The local Vinnies may still have a few, and is always worth a look.

There's nothing unusual in these and all sorts of things going more and more towards online sales. I've been tipping this for over ten years: it's just the way things are, and it will continue to grow. The only way to avoid it is to make your shop a venue in itself, a place people want to visit for the experience.

ABC Classic FM Easter Mixtapes - Replay

A special project over Easter was the listeners phone-in requests, put together as Mixtape programs on the Sunday and Monday. These are well worth playing again, but finding them on the Classic FM website might give you trouble, so go here!

That Old Black Vinyl Magic

In 1988 I decided to quit my office job and start a record shop dealing in secondhand LPs and new CDs. People were very open to the idea of trading in their old LPs, finding the new CD format to have numerous advantages. For the next ten years or more, arguments raged about the relative sonic merits of the two formats, with audiophiles for the most part livid that their beloved LP was being usurped by this "frequency limited and sampling rate impaired digital disaster". You can still find web pages arguing the toss today (more on that later), but you'll have to go to a specialist audio shop to find turntables, as they're missing from the mainstream retail world. Even CD players are on the way out, some say.

Thinking back on all the turntables I've owned over the years, I'd have to say that nothing less than a Rega P3 does justice to vinyl, and even then only with a good cartridge ($300+). So right away we're talking $1300+ to get a reasonably solid base and platter plus a good arm - and the arm is a critical part of any turntable setup - plus cartridge. Then the quality of the phono pre-amp (whether built into your amplifier or an outboard unit) affects the outcome, as do the character of the power amplifier and of course the loudspeakers, which have the last say in every system! So at new prices I'm thinking a system which plays just vinyl, leaving out the CD player for now, and does it well, is going to set you back around $3600. For the sake of argument let's add a CD player for another $700, for a system adding up to $4300. On this system, already well above the one-brand plastic that 80% of the population owns, is the vinyl LP really going to sound better than CD?

What most of the people making the case for vinyl tend to forget or gloss over is that it's an extremely variable commodity, and the results you get from a 1960s CBS LP versus what you get from a direct-to-disc pressing are chalk and cheese. Mastering methods evolved over time to meet the additional performance that became possible as hifi gear improved. I've just switched, while writing this, from an old CBS Dave Brubeck album from the 60s to a 1977 Dave Grisman Quintet from the Kaleidescope label, and the improvement was vast.

Similarly, the early transfers to CD of back-catalogue material often suffered from the use of early Digital-to-Analogue Converters (DACs). Those CDs when issued also often revealed studio cutting and splicing from the days when that was how you edited - physically cutting out a dud bit and splicing in Take 2! These edits went unnoticed on the vinyl systems in use in the old days, and surface noise helped to conceal them anyway. When analogue masters were fed straight into a digital recorder, the only noise was from the master-tape hiss and these edit points. Things improved by the late 1990s as classier bitstream DACs were introduced into the remastering chain. The same sort of approach improved the new digital masters, and so we saw better sound emerging from all of these things - remastering, new recordings, and the players themselves.

So let's put a good bit of vinyl onto that system. Yep, sounds fine. The dynamic range expressed as a signal-to-noise ratio is going to be in the range of probably 60 - 65dB. Channel separation will be around 35dB. At the outside of the record the groove per second passing under the stylus is double that at the inside of the record - you have progressively less available groove to accommodate the info as you go towards the centre. Very loud or bassy music deteriorates towards the centre, and can be heard as distortion. But for all the above, a good record will still sound good when played on a good system. Distortion and speed variations will depend on the equipment used, but are measurable and could be around 0.02%.

Now let's put on a CD. It has higher specifications in most regards to those above, such as 90dB dynamic range and 100dB channel separation. The speed at which the data is presented to the laser reader is constant as the disc speed varies to take account of the groove's change from inner to outer parts of the disc, and the data is re-clocked within the digital processing sections of the player. Distortion and speed variations are negligible.

I use both LP and CD, enjoy both, and hear variations in both. Here's a comment (from a forum) that I tend to agree with, as it sums things up very well:

"Vinyl vs CD" doesn't mean a thing, because good vinyl will always sound better than bad CD, and good CD will always sound better than bad vinyl. (and there was lots of bad vinyl back in the 1970's)

Who recorded/mixed/mastered it means much more. Always has, always will.

So, let's say you put out the same performance, same gear, same engineers and release it on the best that vinyl and the best that CD are capable of.

Which would be better?

Hard to say for sure.

You would have more surface noise and distortion on the vinyl, and some loss of channel separation, but some people like those things. CD would be cleaner, less distortion and better channel separation, but not everyone likes those things.

So, given both formats at their best, it would come down to your preference.

Given that there are fantastic-sounding CD's and fantastic-sounding records, the case has been proven that "who made it"? is what makes it sound good, not the medium.

If this were not true, all records would sound good, and they don't, and all CD's would sound bad, and they don't.

I reckon that if the differences were that marked, after so many years playing around with both formats in both private and professional capacities, I'd have noticed. But as the guy above says, they can both be good or ordinary. Before we finish, I think it's fair to say that MP3 is (certainly in its lower forms) compressed and barely satisfactory, but we should not bag digital per se, just for being digital. The higher sampling rates achieved from the time SACD came along changed everything. Now that high resolution digital is starting to be marketed there is a digital recording method that I have heard sound amazingly good and, what's more, I have heard dyed-in-the-wool vinylphiles pronounce it as [expletive deleted] Good! So, it's not all downhill after all.

Oliver! With A Twist

In case you hadn't noticed, it's Charles Dickens' big 200th Anniversary year. The new Packemin Productions staging of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! (based on Dickens' Oliver Twist) went down very well with the audience last Saturday night at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre. We were in the vertigo-inducing Gallery, looking down on the stage from a great height, wary of that almost-high-enough guard rail that might or might not stop you tumbling over the precipice while making your way crab-like past the feet and knees of other seated patrons. It was a high-energy performance, with some complex swirling crowd scenes, and acrobatics both physical and vocal. Oliver himself was, true to script, quite small but filled his role very well and sang nicely. Nancy could really belt it out when needed, and Fagan stole the show with his comedy turns. Bill Sikes was large, violent and sure to scare some of the adults, let alone the children. Hearing him murder "someone" (trying not to spoil plot!) off stage is pretty dark stuff.

The live orchestra had an immediacy and impact, particularly as we were sitting high in the gallery, above the pit, so the instrumental sounds carried upwards with some force. Bart's music is so infectious that you can't help but have a good time tapping your feet to the bouncy rhythms. There's no drawn-out overture, you are launched right into the orphanage children's Food Glorious Food chorus, leading of course to the famous "Please sir, can I have some more?" from Oliver that kicks off the narrative.

In Dickens' time, the concerns were about the cruel circumstances people found themselves in, the dramatic possibilities of crime and punishment. There was sometimes the chance of financial redemption through some sort of revealed but unsuspected good fortune, as in Little Dorrit. In the modern real world, the crimes then have been supplemented by a whole new class of crime now. Back then, poor children were sent to workhouses or became indentured labour to tradesmen or businesses. There was no DOCS to supervise such things.

Even in the 1960s when this musical enjoyed huge success, being the first modern English musical to make it on Broadway as well, the resonances that the scenes featuring Fagan and all those boys ("my dears") now have were probably not an issue. In this age of heightened concern about sexual predators, producers have to be scrupulous about keeping Fagan's character in the realm of vaudeville villain, sneaky, greedy, and quite comic, while skating so close to trouble with a capital P. The very next day, the Sydney Sun-Herald was carrying a story about a football coach ...

If I had any criticisms of the production, they'd be related to audibility of the lyrics. Even though each performer had a microphone and the sound level overall was high, many of the words were lost in the noise. If you listen to the original London cast recording of the opening number Food Glorious Food, you'll hear the words much more clearly from a smaller chorus, and without the sound of plates being banged on the table for percussive effect. The use of amplification needs to be subtle, and I found it a bit overdone. Getting the accents right is one thing, clearly enunciating the words is the other challenge, for much of the charm of this show is in the cleverness of the words. Fagan's long soliloquy succeeded very well on the back of the comedic aspects, but I fear that a lot of the crowd would have missed the lines "I am reviewing the situation" and "I think I'd better think it out again", plus a lot of what went between those bookends.

The overall success of the show was demonstrated by the excellent finale, with enthusiastic applause for everyone in a progressive curtain call that had the whole company on stage. A great night out, despite the fact that at interval the drinks bar just couldn't cope with the huge crowd. We went a bit thirsty, so next time perhaps a thermos of something cool will be taken as carry-on luggage!

Houston: We Have A Problem

Beverly Hilton. Whitney Houston. We have a problem.

It's been this way forever. People are drawn to it, that hunger for fame and fortune, like moths to the flame. Since the invention of mass media like radio and records, the process of gaining fame and fortune has accelerated, so it often resembles a lotto win in the overnight transformation of performers.

The big record companies refined it into a smooth operation, known as "breaking an act".

They invested time and money into studio sessions, publicity, pestering radio stations for airplay, then later the tours and events. It was, for them, all in a day's work. But what of the artist or performer, the "talent", for whom the rocket-like propulsion from garage band or weddings, parties, anything, to national identity was arduous and disorienting.

Even then, when they became "successful" there was usually some fine print in the contract that meant you had to pay back the record company for what it calculated your setup costs had been before you actually started to get real money.

Breaking through to where the big money is must feel like you're leaving the normal gravitational pull of earth and soaring into orbit, weightless and aglow with the firmament's manifestly glittering, heavenly bodies. Everything becomes possible. The cars, the houses, the supporting entourage, roadies, accountants and various factotums all eager to serve and to invoice you for services rendered. "It'll come off your taxable income", they no doubt say.

As many have found, the singing isn't enough to ensure your immortality, so getting a film contract is good too. There's probbaly a golden period when everything is going so well, you're busy, there's plenty of money and friends. But what hits, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, is the fact that you're living an unnatural lifestyle, with no regular routine to keep you grounded. No matter that you have a voice that is fantastic, or a guitar technique that is the envy of all others.

There are going to be gaps to fill in your life, and whether you are a star or a scrubber, booze and drugs are, as they say, always there for you. For most of us the Monday to Friday workaday existence keeps us out of trouble until the weekend. But if you're not working for months at a time, then have to do intensive performances for a while, perhaps with a lot of travel and hotels, then back to nothing again, it is easy to see how things can deteriorate. And once you're on that path, how to break out? After a while another big blow hits, when you're age starts to tell, and your glamour starts to fade. Some don't last that long; they die young and maybe leave a presentable corpse. For others the effort required to re-invent themselves and carry on, as Madonna has, or decide to quit while you have some resources left to adapt your life, is just too tall an order.

It's easy to say this is more of a pop music life-cycle, rightly or wrongly. Classical musicians are incredibly disciplined people from the start, and have a better chance of going up the ladder of success gradually. What success there is may not be that well paid. But they are rewarded in other ways, with the quiet sense of carrying the baton in a relay that stretches back for generations, a sense of awe at the composers' achievements, and a sense of belonging to a an august orchestra and a stable world, a world of tradition and dedication. It's not all about fame and fortune, even though some do achieve that.

For now, once more, it's farewell to Whitney. A genuine talent, great voice, beautiful woman, ultimately devoured by the flame.

Brubeck Comeback

Some of my earliest childhood music enjoyment in the 1960s was the Dave Brubeck Quartet, who are now redeemed after a period of disregard - "not real jazz" according to some, but a longer perspective tells the real story. This same shallow charge has at times been used against James Morrison, and even Wynton Marsalis, both masters of the trumpet, and in Morrison's case pretty handy on other instruments as well.

Others grudgingly concede that Paul Desmond's saxophone playing was great, but give scant credit to the rest of the group, all of whom are virtuosic. I still recall a friend dismissing them on first hearing back in the 1970s as "café nouveau riche" music. I was stung at the time, but after forty years I still enjoy this music, and from all the reissues you see around, so do many others.

They are most famous for the tune Take Five, penned by Paul Desmond, and many newcomers to the group would reflexively assume that the album it comes on, Time Out, must be their best. I'll stick my oar in and say yes, it's a great album, but sometimes it's others I prefer: Gone With The Wind and Time Further Out are both amazing albums.

Dave's arranging and piano playing from this period are so accomplished, as are the contributions by Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on Double Bass. Joe's solo on the tune Shortnin' Bread is one of the most memorable drum solos you'll hear form any era, while Gene's bass solo Ol' Man River is simply charming and appropriate to this bass song, famously rendered by Paul Robeson and a highlight of "Showboat". Dave had some classical training, and you'll hear echoes not just of Mozart (Blue Rondo a la Turk from Time Out has various influences) and Chopin in Bluette, from Time Further Out.

Wright joined the group when the previous bassist opted out of a European tour, and became a fixture from 1958 to 1967 when the so-called classic quartet broke up. Desmond went on to make some very good albums with other very good musicians including guitarist Jim Hall, and he continued to compose as well, but for me none so memorable as those he did with Brubeck.

Apart from lots of touring there were lots of albums, and I also enjoy Dave Digs Disney, as well as Brubeck Time, the cover modeled on Dave's Time Magazine cover appearance. The novice listener wouldn't notice, but on their albums Time Out and Time Further Out they explored some pretty unusual tempos, including 9/8. But I recommend that anyone who wants a few very enjoyable jazzy albums get all those mentioned above, or at least Gone With The Wind and Time Out and Time Further Out. They are all classic albums.

AirVinyl App For iPad

Operating like the Vinyl Love app, this one from the George Martin Air Studios app re-processes your digital music files to make them sound more analogue-like and vinylish. It's not just about adding surface noise, but is an extensive and subtle re-shaping of specific parts of the audio spectrum. Since it's cheap, we can all try it!

Live Vs. Recorded Music

How often have we heard or read that live performances are the be-all, end-all of musical experience, and that even very good sound systems are, like the Flying Dutchman, condemned to sail forever in search of the integrity that may be forever denied them, striving to reach those Olympian heights, but always short of the mark? It's almost like one of those biblical lessons given from the pulpit on a Sunday, holy writ in the audiophile world.

I've been hiding my heretic views from the public for too long. I've been a guilt-ridden enjoyer of my various stereos over the years, while finding many of the live performances I have attended to be an experience, but not more musically satisfying. Some things have been special, but it has been by no means a sure thing.

From time to time I go back into older issues of magazines like Stereophile, and this time I really hit paydirt!

Exhibit One: Stereophile, July 2007, Page 3 "As We See It" by Jason Victor Serinus. This one's about subjectivism and objectivism in the pursuit of great sound, and is well worth reading. My attention was captured by this quote:

"The reason so many of us spend countless hours, months, years and dollars assembling and fine-tuning audiophile systems is that we wish to experience from recorded media the same sonic and spiritual epiphanies that have transported us during live performances."

There they go again, I thought. So my brain was already on full alert when I found the following.

Exhibit Two: Stereophile, July 2010, Page 3 "As We See It" by … yes, Jason Victor Serinus again.

"A funny thing happened at the symphony the other night. A concert by the great Berlin Philharmonic sounded like lousy hi-fi." He goes on to describe a sound that had flat and lifeless highs, muddled midrange and unfocussed bass!

"All I could think was how much better the Berlin Philharmonic sounded through my home reference system than it did in person." Moving to another part of the auditorium overcame the problem, and reports of similar performances at an alternative auditorium came up with even better sound again. Jason draws some conclusions about speaker placement at home being important, and the design of auditoria equally so, but the killer conclusion is that, yes, a good system at home can deliver an even better result than being there in person due to the many variables in acoustics and placement of the listener.

I'm glad that this sacred cow can now go to the abattoir, humanely stunned and ready for the final blow. While we can all enjoy live events, which are usually good things, and which have a sense of occasion that goes way beyond your listening room's modest aspirations, where you're seated is always something of a lucky dip. The close to $300 my wife and I recently spent going to a concert at the Sydney Opera House is not to be regretted, but could have netted me quite a few new CDs.

I'll go on enjoying my various home systems because they really do convey music very capably, in a good, enjoyable, relaxed atmosphere, bringing me the finest musicians, captured by skilled recording engineers. They are my most satisfying expenditures on consumer durables.

What I'm Listening To

(see My Top Ten above)

Still on a jazz kick, but revisiting some old favourites in the classical arena as well. Jazz - Mark Janzen, Stefano Bollani, Emily Remler, Benny Golson, Charlie Haden & Keith Jarrett. Piano Trios at (internet station with multiple streams).

Classical - Mozart Violin Concertoes (Grumiaux), Beethoven Sonatas for Violin & Piano (Francescatti/Casadesus). Recently played the Albeniz "Iberia" etc, from Alicia De Larrocha's old Decca set of Spanish Piano Music. Most people if they know it at all would regard the tunes as being from the guitar repertoire, when in fact they were originally for piano. Anyway, they are superb, and I was only listening on an old 1980s Revox system playing through vintage Celestion Ditton 15 speakers - part of my old gear collection. Goes to show how well the music communicates!

I'm also about to start revisiting and making a compilation from my 3LP box set of David Munrow/Early Music Consort: The Art of Courtly Love (late 14th Century avante garde!). That would qualify as an acquired taste! But if you're interested, there are some film clips of Munrow and his talented colleagues playing various early instruments here.

Newport Jazz Festival 2008/2009/2010 streams are here, - from National Public Radio.

More Musings On LP & CD

I've just finished doing some transfers of LPs to CD for record producer Les Simmonds of Eureka Records. He used to specialize in Direct-to-disc recordings and made some excellent ones with blues players like Dutch Tilders, Kevin Borich, and the Foreday Riders.

Les liked the first few so much he came back for more, saying that the results were better than he'd got from professional studios in the past. Be that as it may, I'm setting the scene here for another of my controversial musings.

After my last transfer session for Les I put on a remastered CD of Ben Webster and the Oscar Peterson trio - late 1950s vintage! I went from listening to pristine LPs to pristine CD, and I have to say that the CD was not in any way disgraced. It sounded fabulous - of course partly due to the superb musicianship, but not that alone. They were and remain beautiful recordings. I have a number of Oscar Peterson LPs, and some of them I have on CD as well.

During that same listening session I put on Oscar & Grappelli Vol.2 (America AM6131) recorded in Paris, February, 1973. Lovely, easy listening album, both leaders playing beautifully, and with a top backing group. There's no way it sounded as good as the CD transfers from the late 1950s sessions, and what's more the LP had some traditional noise! Not much, but enough to detract from the moment here and there with repeated clicks. I don't mind a bit of noise, it goes with the territory. But the bottom line is that there are few, if any, LPs I will now put on in preference to a CD version of the same stuff - if I have it. Of course, a lot of what I have on LP I have not bothered to duplicate on CD. I'll keep playing the LPs. All recordings, like wines, vary in quality. I have a large LP collection and I'm still exploring it for forgotten or even unplayed gems. My setup is more than good, and has satisfied someone who has worked with the studio masters. If I'm not always getting a good result, it's partly the LP, partly the original recording.

It's true that there were plenty of less than fantastic transfers to CD in the early days. Demand was ramping up and the companies all raced to transfer back-catalogue to CD. There's the famous story of the 1990s transfers of the revered Mercury Living Presence recordings to CD. They reconstructed the valve Westrex tape units and, with Wilma Cozart-Fine presiding, they set to work with the Mercury master tapes. The intial transfers were not good enough for Wilma. They got hold of some better DACs, and things fell into place. By the time this story took place there had been a huge number of CDs issued with less than wonderful remastering, and probably a huge number of new recordings made with similar shortcomings. (Note: most of the Mercury LPs I've tried over the years sounded better when Philips/Polygram reissued them later. Perhaps the original LPs were mastered for the crap gear of the era?)

Legendary British recording engineer Tony Faulkner was working during that same period for labels like Gimell, whose sound was very highly regarded. He made sure not just that he was using good microphones and placement. He knew that the DACs had to be the best available to get a good digital master. Now we have plenty of new recordings made at even higher levels of resolution, up to Studio Master Quality (24bit/192kHz) and available for download from Linn and HD Tracks, to name a couple. You can play these from your hard drive storage (using something cost effective like Media Monkey) via a good DAC for the best sound available today. The only other limit is your amplifier and speakers.

I'll keep on playing LPs for some time yet, and listening to old valve radios whenever it suits. It's good fun, and there's a lot of music to enjoy. But I'm still a bit puzzled by the insistence by some diehards that LP was and is supreme. In my experience this is not true of ordinary setups and used LPs. I know, there are new LPs being pressed. That's great. I know plenty of enthusiasts who buy them, and that's good too. I also know people who to this day would not buy a CD player; they were, and remain, so against it. LP can be good, very good and even stunningly good - I've heard the $95k Continuum Criterion turntable playing through a top system.

But these days other things, including well made CDs, SACDs, and Studio Master Files all sound great too. Having lived and traded through the worst of the audiophile CD-hatred period must have made an impression, since I'm still thinking about it. I hasten to add that a good LP on a good system will perform extremely well. Unfortunately that is not what most people "rediscovering LP" are experiencing, but if they're enjoying the ride that's fine. It's all about the music in the end, not the noise. I'm not a professional technician, just a keen hobbyist, and these are just a few first-hand observations, for what they're worth. I still love the look of a glossy, black LP, the labels and the covers. I love the micro-engineering of a fine cartridge and stylus assembly, and the build quality of an arm like the DV501. I love my old SL1100 direct drive which a lot of audiophiles would dismiss, not knowing how good it is.

(This article turned out a bit longer than first intended, so thanks for staying with it!)

Memories of Joan Sutherland

It must have been some time in 1994 that Joan Sutherland came into our shop in Canberra. She was on location playing Ma Rudd for the filming of On Our Selection, out near Bungendore, with Leo McKern, when she discovered that Leo knew nothing of the modern marvel known as the Sony CD discman. So, she breezed into town to buy him one, along with some discs to enjoy while they were stranded in the scrub.

Having bought the Discman at DJs she found their selection of discs wanting, and was brought down to our shop, which had a large classical selection. I was overawed by having such a famous person appear unannounced, but we showed her where things were.

"Not much Joan Sutherland here", she said in mock accusation after casting an eye over our opera excerpts. I was grasping at straws to respond that they did tend to sell out but that we did usually have quite a bit! Which was true.

Once she'd bought a few CDs for Leo, it was time for her to be on her way. She said she'd be picked up at some point on Bunda Street, eventually. I was reluctant to just leave her there on a bench - it was like leaving the kangaroo and emu off the Aussie coat of arms tied to a lamp-post to await their fate. But she was quite relaxed and happy to wait for her driver, so we parted, me a little uneasy - still - about the whole thing.

A couple of years later we were fortunate to have Richard Bonynge come in and sign his discs for anyone who purchased - that was thanks to a recommendation from a friend of his. Richard was very affable, and made light of the fact that, despite page 2 newspaper advertising and Canberra Centre PA announcements, we weren't swamped by customers. "I'm sorry I'm not much of a drawcard", he said!

When it comes to publicizing an event, you can't overdo it! Anyway, Joan has achieved the innortality of all great singers, and leaves us with a wealth of recorded beauty.

An Opera Outing: Hansel & Gretel - and The Witch Wore Fur!

For those who think Englebert Humperdinck was just a popular singer in the sixties, like Tom Jones, I have to set the record straight. The original EH was a German composer (1854-1921) whose most famous work is the opera Hansel & Gretel. Pacific Opera put this wonderful opera on in Sydney at the Glen Street Theatre, Belrose recently. It's a confection of delightful folk tunes and, at times, menacing and almost Wagnerian sounds.

My Review: The Pacific Opera production of Hansel and Gretel had many good things in it, but had a few puzzling aspects as well. The singers and the orchestra (chamber size, about 18 players but with a good variety of string, wind, brass and persussion sounds) all did a great job. At the Sunday matinee it was lovely to see people of all ages there, from infants to retirees. It was a family affair.

I love this opera, and there are bits of it that I find quite emotional. I also think it should be presented without trying to be clever and modern. When the story calls for angels, there should be angels. The Witch's house in the forest should look like a house, and there should be an oven door into which (plot spoiler follows!) she ends up being pushed.

Pacific Opera started out in a pretty traditional mode. Some of the departures from what I like to see might be due to production budget stringencies, but others were matters of choice.

Things started to go off the rails in the forest. The Sandman appeared to be a vagrant, somewhat inebriated. This impression was reinforced by seeing him arrested and taken away by the Salvation Army Ladies - who stood in for but were not angels! Actually, they left the stage before their most important function was fulfilled: that of guarding the children as they slept. The angels should appear and stand all around the sleeping children - it is for me the most emotionally charged moment in the whole show, and they fluffed it.

They also had the parents do a full in-your-face piece, waking the kids and giving them lollipops, when a fleeting glimpse of them wafting through the glade would have been adequate to the purpose of later sung dialogue where Hansel & Gretel recall seeing them in a dream. It all detracted from the scene, which - I'll say it just one more time - is about a divine presence (angels) guarding the children from evil overnight. I would even go so far as to suspect some sort of misguided political correctness at work in the studious avoidance of the traditional scene.

Instead of a gingerbread house (which could just be a painted curtain that liftes to reveal the interior for the remaining action) there was a large clown face with a gaping mouth, a la Luna Park. All the characters were then forced to sing about a house that wasn't there, and there was no scene change to an interior.

The Witch wore a fur hat and coat. I know, wearing animal fur has been painted as such a crime against nature that it can be seen by some as indicative of pure evil, but it took a bit of getting used to. The Witch managed to be comically bad despite this, and it all went down reasonably well. She was tipped into a pram that was supposed to be a BBQ or oven, and that was that. If the kids were a bit puzzled by this stage, the next bit would have sealed the confusion permanently.

When the Witch's spells are finally all reversed, a troop of children should emerge from the woodwork - or gingerbreadwork as the case may be - and give thanks for their salvation. Instead we got clowns! There may be a good explanation for all this, but it is beyond me to arrive at it on my own.

In the end, we enjoyed the show, loved the music and the excellent singing, and it was good to be there and see up-and-coming performers honing their craft. I would just say that in such a work, less production/intervention would have been more to the good - it would allow the essential beauty of the story to shine through and would have been less perplexing for children and adults alike.

Another Bach Genetically Engineers MP3

You know of J.S. Bach and may have heard of C.P.E. Bach, W.F. Bach and PDQ - maybe even WTF! No, that last one I made up. But hold on a moment, there's a new Bach in the music scene: Dagfinn Bach. He's a Norwegian software developer who worked on the first MP3 player in 1993. According to this BBC report he's been involved in the development of a new type of MP3 file called MusicDNA.

"The new file, MusicDNA, can include things like lyrics, videos, artwork and blog posts, which will continually be updated, as well as the music." It's a competitor for Apple's iTunes LP format, which does similar tricks.

Back In The USSB ...

Stand by for the Beatles collection re-released on a USB stick in time for Christmas. I think Reuters might be wrong about the 15MB, as 15GB would be more likely if the file sizes are worth the buying price.

The Future of The Record Industry

Another report has hit the streets saying that the record industry is in need of a "radical overhaul" if it is to progress along the new highways of the interconnected web world. Read the full article by Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica. Now I like CDs and LPs, but that probably just means I'm a bit past it. But I have waited for over ten years now for them to get serious about making things more readily available at good audio levels. Here's a bit of what Jacqui thinks will spark the record companies up:

" ... the music business needs to give up being obsessed with itself in favor of letting users create their own music experiences with ease. This goes far beyond offering mere albums for purchase—Forrester suggests users be allowed to completely customize and share their music in an extremely open, platform-agnostic manner."

Did Maurice Jarre Really Say That?

""One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack," Fitzgerald's fake Jarre quote read. "Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

It's perhaps a shame that this whole quote was a fake, but it served well to illustrate that if something is repeated often enough in the media it becomes accepted as fact. Read the whole article for the background to this clever sting operation.

Best Music System Ever: Spot the Problem

Spotify has been getting great reviews. It starts quickly, uses Ogg Vorbis encoding for better quality than common or garden MP3, and has the major companies onside. Matt Rosoff of Cnet thinks it could become "the best music system ever". So what's the problem?

The problem is the usual one. Not available in Australia. Don't hold your breath! So far it is a Euro-based development, and will take a while to catch on around the world. This might mean Australia in ... 6 years?

Vinyl Making A Comeback?

I've just read another article about vinyl making a comeback! There are some artists who release albums on LP, and Universal Music has a release program of classic albums on vinyl - see coverflow of releases here (note: move mouse right to left, works much better!). Great, but at what cost? The romance and appeal of LP records remains, and many of us have retained or built a collection. I have recently constructed a very good turntable using (i) an old Technics SL-1100 Direct Drive, adding (ii) a Dynavector DV501 Arm, and then getting (iii) a new lid, professionally made from 4.5mm Perspex.

This setup gets superb results from LP, provided they are in good condition and were reasonable recordings in the first place. Oh, and you need a good pickup cartridge too. That usually means something costing $300 or more; possibly a lot more! A Sumiko Blue Point is a good place to start, but I also have a Dynavector Karat D2 Mk.2 and an original Garrott Brothers FR-1 Mk2 MicroScanner.

There is so much crappy generalization about the virtues of vinyl. It is not always "warmer" sound, nor is it always more "alive". I have heard good things, but have also heard thin, weak, plain annoying sound from LPs. (Note: recently inherited a collection of top brand LPs from a distant Uncle - they were made for 1960s gear and were tweaked up to counter the treble deficiencies of the dull gear at that time). Direct-to-disc recordings became popular with audiophiles due to the better range and signal strength, and the absence of editing artifacts or master tape dubbing losses. My first business was selling secondhand LPs, so I've lost count of how many of them I've examined, cleaned and auditioned.

In the shop now it is relatively rare for someone to ask for a vinyl demo unless they are actually auditioning turntables. I'll usually grab a direct-to-disc recording for preference, but even then I know that the results are not going to be as good as they could be with a really good CD or SACD. But at home I use my records quite happily, not caring about the fairly minimal noise. I'm certainly not going to try and transfer them all to CD or to a hard drive - way too much work, and I can just keep playing them anyway!

The chain of events leading to vinyl valhalla is long: recorded quality, pressing quality, LP condition. Then: turntable platter & drive system quality, arm and cartridge quality - these last two being very critical. After that there's the phono pre-amp, which might be in your amplifier, or in a separate box. The low output levels of cartridges and phono pre-amps is an issue too. If you have to turn your amplifier volume up too far you introduce other system noise on top of the surface noise.

Only when all these aspect are very good will you realise the potential of LP. I have achieved good results, and have even heard the LP version of something outperform the CD version - but not repeatedly, and not recently. CD players are capable of better performance these days than in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But the charm remains, and I'll keep the LPs going. It's a bit like having a model train set. The fine mechanical engineering is certainly part of the ongoing allure. And, yes, if you have really top gear, you can achieve marvellous results with LPs, but don't expect miracles with average gear.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis came to my attention as a young classical trumpeter. His recordings of the Haydn and Hummel concertos, and his association on an album with Kathleen Battle made him a star in that context well before I was aware of what a great jazz player he was.

The first thing you need to acknowledge about him is the mastery and finesse with which he plays, the incredible fluency and ease with which he shapes the melodic and harmonic flow. I have to compare him to Benny Carter, one of the all time greats and a supremely talented multi-instrumentalist. Carter was also a fine bandleader, teacher and arranger. His musicians said that he taught them well, and they had to really pay attention and study their parts well to do Carter's arrangements justice. They emerged from the process as better musicians. Marsalis, like Carter, has the ability to improvise smoothly and gracefully, not with the frantic spray of notes which characterizes some players, but with that attention to fine detail and tone. Not for him the rough, edgy, attacking, "too many notes" style. His conservative approach has made him the target of some critics, who even accuse him of lacking the ability to keep up with those they feel are real jazz players.

I have read the Wikipedia entry on Wynton, and am amazed at the put-down he suffers there. If that site is to be of value it has to be a lot more balanced in its approach to these things. Rather than argue about side issues like the use of terms such as African-American, the contributors should get some more balanced and quality content together.

If you are interested in reading some more about Wynton Marsalis, whose achievements individually are matched by a commitment to big band public performance and to educating younger players, this background at is informative.

Latest on DRM-free Downloads

News is that Sony BMG have decided to start the process of allowing albums to be downloaded without DRM (Digital Rights Management).This is another brick in the road towards a unified approach to marketing music.

Oscar Peterson

Another of my musical heroes is dead, but his recorded legacy remains for us to enjoy and wonder at. Oscar Peterson did not just gain inspiration from Art Tatum and Nat King Cole's piano style (that was before Nat became a household name for his singing!), he brought his own amazing talents to bear on the piano and made it into an orchestral tour de force. He could go from a subtle, gentle, spare outline of a ballad right through to surging chords along the full extent of the keyboard. He could embroider with his lightning fast right hand while providing unerring chordal and bass-run support from the left. His dynamic range and dexterity would have been less impressive had it not been coupled to such feeling for the shape of a tune and the improvisational possibilities. He was classically trained and had the benefit of that wonderful "passing the baton" mystique whereby his teacher's teacher had studied with Franz Liszt! You'll hear him quote beautifully from classical composers such as Rachmaninov.

Many years ago I happened on a volume of his MPS/Conifer series "Exclusively For My Friends ..." and that started me on my Peterson pilgrimage. A lot of his recordings are in support of other superb musicians (Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Stand Getz) and he would have been highly valued in that role of accompanist. His trio work with talents like Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpen (drums) where he could shine as the soloist are where you hear his best work. He was contracted to Verve for many years but did the MPS/Conifer series in Germany during the 1960s, at the height of his career and ability. If you can get hold of those CDs (4CD box set plus one suplementary single CD) you'll have the best of him, and that is as good as it gets in the world of jazz!

DRM-free Warner Catalogue

"Warner Music has bent beneath the force of the anti-DRM winds sweeping the globe. The label will now offer its complete catalog, DRM-free, through Amazon's new MP3 store." The report at Ars Technica goes on to say that with EMI, Universal and now Warners all offering DRM-free product, Sony is the last, lonely holdout.

Ripples in the Music Industry: Part 1

Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are leading the way in self-recording and selling, so where will this leave the record companies? "Just a few days after Radiohead's historic album download hit the Internet, Nine Inch Nails, Oasis and Jamiroquai announced they would make their latest efforts available in online-only downloads. Following Radiohead's example, Nine Inch Nails (NIN) said it would release its upcoming album, "Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D" ("Year Zero Remixed") online and allow fans to pay what they thought it was worth."

Ripples in the Music Industry: Part 2

Quote: As the transition to digital formats continues and surrounding technologies continue to improve over the next five to 10 years, the relevancy of big-name recording labels will begin to diminish -- or at least change in very fundamental ways -- Goodman said. "They don't serve a purpose and they don't have a purpose. In a digital world where recording artists can create their own music -- and probably do it more efficiently -- and where artists don't need a record label to distribute their music, the record label doesn't serve a purpose in that world as it stands today."

Norman Lebrecht: Sydney Symphony 75th Anniversary - Stuart Challender Lecture 2007

You can listen to this hard-hitting lecture on the State of the Arts (with particular reference to orchestras and the woes of the recording side of things) on the ABC FM page.

Pavarotti Dorma

I cannot let the passing away of Luciano Pavarotti go unmarked in these pages. Tom Sutcliffe, who has excellent musical qualifications, has written an extended obituary for the Guardian online. "Pavarotti possessed a voice of pure gold that matured in strength and depth of colour as he aged, without losing its innate ravishing beauty, precision and expressiveness. He was a unique phenomenon."

Luciano Pavarotti, tenor, born October 12 1935; died September 6 2007

Death of DRM?

"By the time Steve Jobs calls for the end of Digital Rights Management, it is already dead." This dramatic quote is from an article by pundit Robert X. Cringely, a regular commentator on the world of computing and gadgets at the PBS site in USA. What he is essentially theorizing about is the notion of DRM as a roadblock which has to be overcome if the full utilisation of content is to be achieved. He is of the opinion that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have been to the mountain top, and they have seen the promised land - and it is a land without DRM. Heady stuff, and well worth reading. Given the court case between Viacom and YouTube, there may be some way to go on this issue. But, in the end it is just about money, and once the rivers of gold have been channelled, business will go on. The trick is to agree on a business model that all can live with.

UPDATE: It's gone! At least for the EMI digital catalogue, which will be DRM free via iTunes. Apple again is the ice breaker.

UPDATE: Apple are going to get rid of all of it from iTunes. Other music vendors likewise.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) has started a series of podcasts from their site. (Might not always be on line). I expect a lot of orchestras will go directly to their listeners and potential new audience members this way. Bypassing the record companies is now a technological snip, and they can record and promote anything they like. High quality recordings might still be best issued as CDs, but there are other ways to give your audience samples and encourage attendance at concerts and purchases of full works.

Rhapsody Being Upgraded

Who? What? If you haven't experienced the incredible access to music which Rhapsody enables, it may be because you live in poor backward Australia rather than the USA. Rhapsody is the best web based music service, running a monthly subscription streaming model rather than a pay-per-track download model. You can thank the cumbersome processes related to rights management, I guess, for the fact that it is not offered to Australian subscribers. So much for the free trade agreement. Anyway, just so you know, it is being upgraded.

Music Digital Download Royalties Agreed

It's just in the UK, but may become the model for other countries. A small step for man, but maybe a huge leap over a logjam for future developments.

Music - Reminiscence: Part 1 - The Early Ears

Moved to New Page

Bigpond Music
History of Recorded Music
Classical Net
A Passion for Jazz
Folk Music Recordings
People of Jazz (index leads to other sites)
ARIA Charts