Music and Recording Features

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Thomas Conrad  |  Jun 11, 2024  |  4 comments
The Jazz House All-Stars. All Photos: John Abbott Photography c/o Jazz Cruises

Jazz leads a hand-to-mouth existence. It was born in the red light district of New Orleans in the early 20th Century, and has never fully overcome its disreputable origins. Jazz lacks the support from governments, foundations, and rich donors that other, more decorous art forms enjoy. Jazz is too much of the street to be considered high culture, yet its audience is tiny compared to the masses who consume popular music. Pop stars like Taylor Swift perform in huge stadiums. Important jazz musicians play the Bar Bayeux in Brooklyn.

Robert Baird  |  May 08, 2024  |  1 comments
In 2022, Tom Waits decided it was time to remaster the albums he made during his stint at Island Records. The Waits classics Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), Franks Wild Years (1987), Bone Machine (1992), and the Waits (with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs) musical fable The Black Rider (1993) are the first new remasters to be released.

Remastered from the original tapes (except one, for which a digital source was used), all five are available on LP and CD as well as streaming and download.

Tom Fine  |  May 07, 2024  |  4 comments
The popular history of quadraphonics (4-channel sound from LP records, tapes, and radio broadcasts) chronicles a spectacular failure. The major record labels, led by CBS/Columbia and JVC/RCA, invested millions in ill-fated schemes to convince music lovers to ditch 2-channel stereo for 4-channel surround sound. The concept was killed, so the story goes, by competing and incompatible LP formats, high prices on the better-sounding discrete-channel reel tapes, and a collective shrug by the buying public.

That story is mostly true, though the format thrived for a while in Japan and Germany, and it never fully died. Now, modern tech has made possible rereleases of 1970s quad albums on relatively common formats: multichannel SACD and Blu-ray discs (BD). No more "meh" LP formats, no more fussy 1970s-tech decoders.

Mike Mettler  |  Mar 06, 2024  |  14 comments
Photo By Adam Taylor

Steven Wilson loves changing the minds of spatial audio skeptics. He's the go-to Dolby Atmos and 5.1 mixmaster for many heritage artists, new-wave bands, and alternative acts. Best known for leading the post-prog collective Porcupine Tree, releasing a score of genre-stretching solo albums, and serving as a key creative contributor to such experimental groups as No-Man and Blackfield, Wilson's approach is simple: bring them into his studio and let the music do the talking.

Stereophile Staff  |  Mar 01, 2024  |  0 comments
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Alex Halberstadt  |  Feb 06, 2024  |  1 comments
I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the tower of song

          —Leonard Cohen, "Tower of Song"

When I was a child growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, our pop-musical landscape was dominated by the so-called bards. They were Soviet counterparts to singer-songwriters from the West, and they sang literate, knowing lyrics while accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars. Even the word used to describe them—bard'i—was adapted from English. And because they sometimes sang about aspects of day-to-day life that were off limits in public, their music rarely appeared on records and was circulated mostly on fuzzy-sounding homemade tapes.

The best known among the bards were a Georgian-Armenian poet named Bulat Okudjava—who sang sentimental ballads about (chaste) romantic love, childhood friends, and The Great Patriotic War—and an altogether more daring performer named Vladimir Vysotsky.

Sasha Matson  |  Dec 19, 2023  |  8 comments

In my house, I have a little stack of CDs that I bring out once a year—for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. I then put them away on the shelf until the following year. This annual Festival of Christmas Albums is met with varying degrees of pleasure and resignation by the family members present; listening is non-negotiable, though we may not make it through all of them. Once in a while a new Christmas album will make the cut and be added to the stack, but not every year.

Thomas Conrad  |  Nov 07, 2023  |  2 comments
Teatro Morlacchi at Umbria. All Photos by Tim Dickeson.

It has been a year since my piece "On The Road Again: A Jazz Festival Journal From A Summer Of Plague And War" appeared, in the November 2022 issue of this magazine. It described three European jazz festivals I attended in July 2022.

In July 2023, I returned to Europe to attend two festivals. The COVID-19 plague and its fallout had significantly subsided. The war in Ukraine was still raging, but this time I didn't get near it. In 2022, I went to a festival in Romania, which borders Ukraine. In 2023, I only went to Italy.

Rogier van Bakel  |  Aug 30, 2023  |  3 comments
Her first professional recording became a career-defining global hit, changed the culture, and helped make bossa nova a worldwide phenomenon. but there's a dark side to the success of "The Girl From Ipanema," which followed the Brazilian chanteuse until her recent death.
Ken Micallef  |  Aug 09, 2023  |  0 comments
Photo by Meredith Truax

23 year-old Samara Joy is the recipient of the 2023 Grammy Awards for best new artist and best jazz vocal album. Her 2022 sophomore outing, Linger Awhile (Verve), is a jubilant celebration of The American Songbook. Her warm, velvet-dark vocal tone, graceful swing sense, and intuitive interpretations provide a master class in classic jazz fundamentals.

Joy owns the past but also the present. On her TikTok channel, "Samarajoysings," she has accumulated 585,100 Followers and 4.3 million Likes. The channel documents performances of such standards as "A Foggy Day," "Guess Who I Saw Today," an a capella "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and a sublime "Round Midnight," delivered in multi-octave glory. Old and new, together. Read that last bit again, about TikTok. That Joy is popular with jazz fans will surprise no one who has heard her music. That she has won such a following on a platform dominated by 10–19-year-olds—mainly by singing 70-year-old songs—boggles the mind.

Thomas Conrad  |  Jul 12, 2023  |  1 comments
Jazz emerged from the African-American experience in the United States, so it is not surprising that it has been socially relevant since its earliest manifestations. Sonny Rollins put the matter succinctly: "jazz is protest music."

In 1923, Bessie Smith sang songs based on her experience of racism and sexism. In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit," a chilling song about a lynching. Charles Mingus's 1959 classic "Fables of Faubus" secured a permanent place in music history for the segregationist governor of Arkansas; thanks to Mingus, among jazz fans at least, the name "Orval Faubus" will ever be synonymous with bigotry.

But if social activism is nothing new in jazz, it has never been so prevalent as it is today. At some point in the new millennium, it began to feel like every new jazz album had to have at least one overtly political track. The reasons for this development may lie in the extreme political polarization of our society. The divisiveness of the Trump Era forced everyone, including artists, to choose sides.

But the ways jazz has woven itself into contemporary history go far beyond standoffs between progressives and conservatives . . .

Tony Scherman  |  Jun 06, 2023  |  0 comments
In 2009, Robbie Fulks decided to make a change. For almost 20 years, the singer/songwriter had led a series of hard-hitting country-rock bands across America and beyond, his blistering guitar chops and madcap levity (the latter frequently testing, if not violating, standards of taste) winning him a modest-sized but ardent fan base.

"I was fatigued from what I'd been doing," Fulks told me recently via Zoom, sitting in his kitchen in Atwater Village, a Los Angeles neighborhood between Glendale and Burbank. "Me on acoustic guitar, with electric guitar, bass guitar and drums, that was my sound for something like 13 years. I was so tired of it, I was actually thinking of doing something other than music."

Mike Mettler  |  May 10, 2023  |  2 comments
Few people make albums about isolation and loneliness sound as appealing as John Doe does. That's what Doe has achieved with his latest solo release, Fables in a Foreign Land (LP, Fat Possum FP 18001). Set as a song cycle in the 1890s, the album's 13 songs reflect Doe's penchant for dust-and-diesel storytelling, within an acoustic-trio format. It's "telling stories and playing music around the modern campfire," Doe said in an interview.
Alex Halberstadt  |  May 03, 2023  |  9 comments
It turns out that PVC, or polyvinyl chloride—the stuff used to make Starbucks gift cards, imitation leather wallets, inflatable pool unicorns, the pipes under your sink, and Billy Idol's pants—is also the main ingredient in phonograph records. And today we're living in the silver age of PVC. Not the golden age, since records are no longer the dominant medium for recorded music, but these days we're lucky to again have access to a remarkable amount of music stamped on top-quality hot plastic.

Better still, as listeners have become more knowledgeable and demanding, vinyl releases have become more scrupulously sourced, pressed, annotated, and packaged. Many of today's records show an unprecedented level of care and transparency about their production—and sound terrific to boot.