Listening #72 Page 2

It wasn't until I auditioned, and ultimately bought, the EMT OFD 25 monophonic pickup head ($1500) that I could appreciate Arturo Toscanini's recordings with the NBC Symphony of Respighi's Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome (RCA Victor LM-1768), an LP that had languished in my collection for years. The Miyabi Mono didn't play it with the same intensity of color as the EMT, but the new cartridge was just as dramatic and tactile, making the piano's entrance particularly striking and believable. Individual notes within the many harp and celeste arpeggios appeared and died away with realistic beauty and clarity, and strings sounded surprisingly sweet and well textured for a recording from the early 1950s. That last description could also apply to the sound of Sonny Rollins' saxophone on his 1951 debut album, Sonny Rollins Quartet (Prestige PRLP 137). Interestingly, Sonny's tenor is the most believable sound on the recording—the timbre of Kenny Drew's piano seems especially weird to me, regardless of playback gear—and the Miyabi Mono honored it to the fullest. Like the Miyabi 47 cartridge, the Mono was dynamically well nuanced and, again, dramatically intense: a perfect vehicle for the jazz of that era.

Still, the Miyabi Mono compelled me to return again and again to the solo-piano music with which I'd begun, and which this cartridge honored so well. The Miyabi was second to none—and well beyond the Lyra Helikon Mono—at conveying both the substance and the scale of good monophonic recordings. As I scribbled in the margin of my listening notes: "[this cartridge is] Like an instant center channel." A bonus observation that may or may not be germane: Especially with piano recordings, and especially through my Quad ESL speakers, the Miyabi Mono cartridge was responsible for a much higher than average number of hyperrealistic out-of-room experiences—those almost-creepy moments where you listen to music from around the corner and find yourself thinking, with utter genuineness, "Who's that playing the piano in the other room?" And: "Since when do we have a piano?"

I have nothing against two-channel sound—I marvel at the manner in which some engineers have succeeded in using that technology to convey solidity, presence, and a convincing sense of scale in recorded music. At the same time, I deplore the manner in which so many other engineers have used two-channel technology to make recordings that sound vaporous, fussy, and spatially detailed to an extent out of proportion to reality. If the splashy sound of 1970s-era piano recordings in particular leaves you cold—and if you've also come to suspect that there's more to pianism than soulless, artless technical proficiency—you'll do well to scavenge the usual vinyl sources for any records you can find by Walter Gieseking, not to mention Annie Fischer, Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti, Emil von Sauer, and the great Josef Hofmann (the latter two via transfers from 78 to microgroove, of course). Get hold of the best mono cartridge you can afford, put a few volumes of early- to mid-20th-century American poetry next to your listening seat (Theodore Roethke, William Laird, and Kenneth Rexroth—thanks, JM—all do it for me), fill a small glass with something slow and pleasant (Germain-Robin Shareholder's Reserve, available from CaddellWilliams.com, remains the greatest bargain in alambic brandy in the US), and get ready to hear Chopin, Debussy, Bart¢k, and even Beethoven as you never have before.

Haruo Takeda, who works alone in a studio just a few train stops from his home in Tokyo, is 75 years old this year. "He's in good health," says Yoshi Segoshi, who visited Takeda-san two weeks ago as I write this. "But in five years, I'm not so sure he'll want to do this anymore." The Miyabi Mono would be a wonderful thing to have even if it were built on an assembly line; as the product of a true artisan whose production is limited in more than one sense, it may be considered both a highly recommendable product and a wise audio investment.

Between Seasons
In the middle of the Summer I spent several hours at the Grey Fox music festival, which was relocated from its original site in the Hudson River Valley to a farm not far from Albany. Late in the Summer I spent a number of hours running errands in my old home town of Oneonta, NY. On the whole, Grey Fox had cleaner walkways and better food, not to mention revelers without the thuggish vibes.

There was music, too. Most was at least very good, and some was brilliant—the latter including David Grisman's Bluegrass Experience, anchored by Jim Nunally on guitar (borrowed from Jon Reischman and the Jaybirds) and Grisman's son, Samson, on upright bass. The seminal band Hot Rize regrouped in celebration of their 30th anniversary, with the always amazing Bryan Sutton standing in on guitar for the late Charles Sawtelle, and their set was nothing short of transcendent. As usual, the Del McCoury band demonstrated that "slick" needn't mean "soulless," and the Infamous Stringdusters did much the same (though I missed Critter Eldridge, who departed the group in order to join Chris Thile's new project). The Gibson Brothers sang sweetly, Dan Paisley sang distinctively, mandolinist and national treasure Ron Thomason told some new stories, and Béla Fleck turned heads, albeit more for the songs he didn't play than the ones he did. Apart from the above-mentioned Bryan Sutton, the festival was conspicuously short of world-class guitarists (Tony Rice was booked elsewhere, David Grier was in Nashville working on a new studio album, Norman Blake didn't tour this year, and I have no idea where Russ Barenberg was), but there's always next year—and I'll definitely be back. And I do intend to stand in that field, by myself if need be, when Grey Fox turns 33.3 years old in November 2009.

I will not, however, spend another weekend of my life camping at any of the smaller, less-well-run festivals that pock the summer landscape. In August, I took a chance on a bluegrass bash that was new to me, held on a working livestock farm. The people were nice and some of the music was good, but the stage turned out to be the front porch of the farmhouse, the sound system was marginal, and late in the following week I fell ill from a water-borne parasite, Cryptosporidium parvum, that landed me in the hospital for a few days. I'm not kidding in the least when I say that, for more than two weeks, I associated the sound of hardcore bluegrass music with colonoscopies, a diet of clear liquids, and the metallic taste that comes from two courses of anti-protozoal drugs. It was like that scene in A Clockwork Orange.

Granted, I'm not descended from the hardiest stock. Even when I worked as the Equipment Editor for Backpacker magazine, my idea of a rough breakfast was to sit at the counter of the diner instead of taking a booth. And the older I get, the less willing I am to pay for a few sets of good music with 12 days of diarrhea and permanent gall-bladder damage.

I remain a staunch and stalwart supporter of the singularly American art form known as the bluegrass festival, and I'll continue to recommend the same to my readers. But for your peace of mind and my own, I suggest you stick to the largest, best-run events—Grey Fox in New York, Telluride and RockyGrass in Colorado, Merlefest in North Carolina, Wintergrass in Washington, and so forth—and consider leaving the tent in your garage and making reservations at the nearest Marriott, Microtel, or Motel 6. I've come to realize that there are times in every music lover's life when soullessness is not entirely without appeal.

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