Spending $10,000 for a machine that spins CDs and SACDs may seem extravagant in an age when the latter format is pretty much dried up and the former seems headed there. But hold onthere are reasons for the Krell Evolution 505's five-figure price, and a payoff, too.
Sonny Rollins played at Central Park tonight, as part of the Summer Stage series, and what can I say. A month shy of 78 years old, the man is still a titan, a force of nature. Of course, nature has its cycles, and typically, Rollins in concert takes some time to crank up—you can almost see the gears grinding, then sliding, then grinding, then finally whizzing and swirling with jaw-dropping speed, effortlessly, pulling spins and loop-de-loops as they go. Tonight he hit one such peak in the second song, “Valse Hot,” where he shifted into sheets-of-sound, a la early-‘60s Coltrane. Amazing. Then the concert coasted for a while, sinking into occasional longueurs, the latter due (as usual) to his band, which simply isn’t in his league. It would be fine if they just comped along—kept up the beat, laid down the chords, plucked out the bass line—while Rollins soared to the stars and back. But he’s a very generous man, so he gives them way too much to do. Sometimes they get by (trombonist Clifton Anderson played really well), sometimes they don’t. Twice he traded bars with a bandmate—once with the drummer (who, when his turns came, played the same thing each time), once with the percussionist (who, puzzlingly, played nothing at all). A drag. But then an hour into the concert, the earth moved, as it often does at least once or twice at these events, which is why we keep going to see Sonny Rollins whenever we can. During his solo on “Sonny Please,” he locked into the rhythms of the cosmos and rode them in a dozen directions—a bop cadenza for a couple dozen bars, then an Aylerian wail, then intervals that sounded like something out of Berg (if Berg could do jazz), then something like the brushstrokes of a de Kooning action painting if de Kooning had played the tenor sax instead of the paintbrush, and on it went for 10 or 15 minutes, never repeating a phrase—except when he returned to blow the theme for a couple of bars every now and then, just to keep the rocket in orbit—all the while never losing his grip on the essentials: beauty, wit, swing, and the blues. There’s nothing like him.
There's a retro, Heathkit vibe to the curiously capitalized PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight CD player: a shelf of glowing tubes and a chunky transformer case perched atop a plain black chassis. But on closer inspection, it seems there's much more going on here. The chassis is made of heavy-gauge steel, with (according to the manual) a "five-coat, high-gloss, automotive finish," each coating hand-rubbed and -polished. The tube sockets are ceramic, the output jacks gold-plated. Inside, separate toroidal transformers power each channel. Custom-designed isolation transformers separate the analog and digital devices, to reduce noise. The power supply incorporates 11 separate regulation circuits. The output stage is dual-mono with zero feedback. Audio-handling chips include a Burr-Brown SRC4192 that upsamples "Red Book" data to 24-bit/192kHz, and one 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC per channel. Only the tiny silver control buttons (on the otherwise hefty faceplate of machined aluminum) betray a whiff of chintz.
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette’s House of Return, on the L.A.-based Cryptogramophone label, is one of the most sinuously pleasing albums I’ve heard in a while. I confess that I haven’t followed this quirky label or its roster of musicians as closely as I should have, but I intend to make up for lost time. The Goatette (don’t ask me why it’s called that—there are five musicians, so it’s not even a Dada play on “quartet”) consists of Gauthier, violin; Nels Cline, guitar; David Witham, piano; Joel Hamilton, bass; and Alex Cline, drums. The way each of them weaves in and out of different tempos, rhythms, and chart-parts (shifting effortlessly from melody-line to chords to between-bar filigree to sonorous atmospherics) is astonishing. The songs range from mysterious ballads to electric rock, with much in between, sometimes within the same song. There’s wit in the compositions and breeziness in the ensemble work, but there’s no fooling around; the air is loose, but the motion is surefooted and the hand-offs are tight, like a Mondrian painting but with more indigo color. Nels Cline is the player I’m most familiar with; he may be second to Marc Ribot as the most versatile jazz guitarist on the block, and it’s due mainly to him that, when the band rocks, it really does rock; it doesn’t sound like some tame fusion-y rock. But the softer tunes have a rich melancholy, an off-centered swing, and a hazy core of blues. The engineering is very good, capturing the tones and overtones of all the instruments and the bloom of the mix.
Herman Leonard’s first New York show in 20 years got underway last week at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in SoHo. It’s open to the public every day until June 1, and anyone with a taste for classic jazz, gorgeous black-and-white photography, or both should take a look. If you don’t know Leonard’s name, you probably know him by his work. He has taken some of the most iconic shots of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk—the list goes on. There are, or were, half-a-dozen great jazz photographers covering the same era of the late 1940s through early ‘60s, but Leonard was the genre’s Cartier-Bresson—a genius at capturing the “decisive moment,” when the essence of the man or woman and the music are revealed. Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, one hand on his chain, contemplative, the other hitting just the right-wrong note on the piano (you can almost hear it). Blakey beaming with delight as he bangs out a solo on his trapset. Sinatra, back to the camera, singing before the kliegs, and still, somehow, his very tone comes through. Leonard (who, at 85, is still hearty and good-humored) also captured the human side of jazz: Parker and Gillespie cracking laughs during a studio break; Ellington and Strayhorn sharing a cigarette break; Miles, late in life, fixated on an oil painting; Dexter, in perhaps Leonard’s most famous shot, sitting with his tenor and blowing more smoke than one would have thought human lungs could hold. The lighting is dreamy but not at all soft; these pictures are amazingly sharp, printed on gelatin silver. They’re signed and for sale. I own one of his prints (the Parker-Gillespie, from 1949). A jazz critic gets paid in Leonard photos for one of his regular columns. They are sources of endless pleasure, and they’re probably as safe an investment as any in the art world.
A powerhouse trio is playing at the Village Vanguard through Sunday—Ethan Iverson on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Motian on drums. I saw them last night, and if you’re a jazz fan who lives in the Tri-State area, you need to go see them, too. Haden, who made his mark 50 years ago in Ornette Coleman’s original quartet, remains one of the supplest and most instinctively musical bassists around. He knows just when to hit the fundamental of a chord, when to spell out the arpeggio, when to walk the scale, or when simply to evoke the mood of a song. The last time I saw him, playing duets at the Blue Note in August, he’d recently had a hernia operation, and while the notes he played were spot-on, in their customary surprising ways, he couldn’t play very many of them; I wondered, in this blog, if age (he was 70) might finally be taking a toll. Last night proved he’s fully recovered and plucking full-throttled. Motian, who has played off and on with Haden since the early ‘70s (he was also the drummer in Bill Evans’ 1961 trio that played at the Vanguard on Waltz for Debby), is, to put it plainly, a magician. Nearly each bar, he attacks his drumkit, usually with brushes, in a completely different way (the Motian Variations, you might call them), sometimes in a way that seems at odds with what his bandmates are doing (double-time is one thing, but is there such a thing as one-and-a-half time?), yet it all merges and converges perfectly. Iverson is best known as the pianist for The Bad Plus. I like that group a lot, but he goes leagues beyond on his own, excavating hidden patterns, rhythms and motifs from jazz standards, while preserving their lyricism or blues or swing. The set I saw, the trio played mainly ballads and blues, including Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green,” Haden’s “Silence,” and a couple Charlie Parker tunes, which generally aren’t up Haden’s or Motian’s alley but they swung hard and clear and just a bit intricately off the beaten track.
Maude Maggart finishes out a six-week stay at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room near Times Square this Saturday. She’s an appealing throwback, including in her repertoire; her best album, I think, is a collection of old Irving Berlin tunes. Her voice is sultry yet sweet, laced with vibrato, pure in tone, mischievous in intonation. Her current show, called “Speaking of Dreams,” which I saw last night, is ripe with naturally passionate slow ballads. Her few shifts uptempo (Sondheim’s “On the Steps of the Castle” and a Jobim tune with acid-trip Marshall Barer lyrics called “Lost in Wonderland”) made me wish she’d do more, but I’m not complaining. Her swoon through “Isn’t It Romantic” was bewitching. Even the show’s one cabaret clich—a medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Look to the Rainbow,” and “The Rainbow Connection”—came off as anything but; it was even stirring. Ms. Maggart looks five or so years younger than her 32 years, and she’s been singing in public for more than half of them. Cabaret clubs are not usually my scene, but I’ll go see her again happily.
Has John Zorn gone mellow? His two new CDs, The Dreamers and Lucifer (both on his self-owned label, Tzadik), are swaying, swinging, crazy with catchy hooks, occasionally downright mellifluous. I don’t mean to overstate the contrast with the preceding Zorn oeuvre (which entails over a hundred albums, at least a thousand compositions). The time has long passed when Zorn—whose name is, almost novelistically, German for “anger”—gained notoriety for squealing on the alto sax like a banshee and cutting up compositions into surreal collage. The stereotype was never right: from the start of his career, in the mid-‘70s, he could play be-bop, Hammond-based soul, and Morricone movie-themes at a high level. But in the ‘80s, he delved more avidly into ear-ripping shards-of-sound (with fitting titles like Torture Garden and Grind Crusher). When he turned to exploring chords and melodies in the ‘90s, he didn’t abandon “noise” entirely; several of his great Masada albums alternate between blues or ballads and rippers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Up to a point, I liked that stuff, too. But these two new CDs have almost none of it. They’re jammed with buoyant, playful, joyous music—and I mean that in a good way.