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Monthly Archives: August 2007

Max Roach is among my favorite drummers. He has passed away, having contributed a life’s work to the music that moves me so much. He is the drummer on one of my all time favorite recordings, and one of the very first jazz albums I ever heard – Money Jungle, also with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

His contribution to Black music was fierce and far-reaching, and his memory continues to live on through his music. May he be blessed.

My musical journey has taken me from the hip hop I somehow came to listen to as a kid to my current primary musical interests of bebop from the 40s through the 60s. If the connection isn’t apparent, it’s understandable, because it’s taken me my entire life to dig it.

My favorite music-related book happens to be Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones. Q has lived an incredible life, and contrary to most of us it sounds like he hasn’t wasted a single minute of it. And he’s still going. Still active, past eighty years old. He’s truly inspiring, and I strongly urge you to read his book, and listen to what the man has to say.

His journey took him from bebop to hip hop, to which I feel strongly connected. Turns out, Q’s been involved in so many of the projects from the 90s that I know well and love. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Tevin Campbell. Of course, he was the producer on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He started Vibe magazine. Incredible vision.

One of my brother’s first tapes was by the Geto Boys. It featured the gang on the cover with a bunch of shotguns. Probably awful music. We listened to it because it was on the radio. And all our friends listened to it. Their parents didn’t care, but when my dad found that tape, he destroyed it with the quickness.

I used to bring my ghetto little speakers with my prize possession Sony D-121 CD player on the bus and we’d rock it to Montell Jordan or Bone Thugs N Harmony. Everyone thought they could rap when we were kids. Looking back, it’s interesting to think that perhaps my ability to speak might have been aided by reciting and writing rhymes back in school. For those that know me now, that’s pretty damn funny.

Of course, by high school it was all about the drama, man. It was all about Babyface, Boyz II Men, Shai, those were the cats who were holding it down. But you know, I couldn’t just go from that and never wonder what preceded it. I felt like, in order to understand that music, I had to reach back further. My interest in jazz started out more intellectually than musically, since I had zero exposure to the art form in its purest sense. My only contact was vicariously, through the R&B and hip hop that incorporated elements of jazz into it so naturally.

Admittedly, I did make a jump from R&B from the 80s and 90s back to the 50s and 60s. I wasn’t diggin the 70s much until I discovered the soul music. Al Green, Marvin Gaye. They were all doin’ it in a way that jazz had in the past.

The entire history of the music from jazz to hip hop has been about the people and the message. The music emerged as an art form, but it was certainly not art for art’s sake. It was political (Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus”) and intense (Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”), and wholesome (Arrested Development, “Mr Wendal”). Talk about a musical tradition of which I’m proud to have been at least a small part of, even as an outsider looking way in.

I’m re-reading Q’s book, again. It’s gotta be the fourth or fifth time, but each time I pick it up, I’ve renewed my understanding of the social climate in which Black American music occurred. So I learn something new, or get something from a different perspective. It’s definitely a journey worth taking, time and time again.

It’s not for everyone. Maybe it shouldn’t be for just anyone. But face the fact, there are geeks among us who dig into every aspect of the experience of music. What does it take — a deep pocketbook? A golden ear? Hell, even taste in good music?

None of those things have to be necessary, though they all certainly help. If you’re into music — and I mean into music! — then these things do help. You should know straight away that audio gear follows laws of diminishing returns: premiums are paid for smaller and smaller differences as you move up into the highest of high end.

But there are a few fundamental things to keep in mind. Learning what to listen for can enhance your enjoyment of whatever music you’re into. The best gauge for me is live acoustic music. The goal is largely to produce the sound that one would hear in the ideal live setting. True to the performance.

Also evidence is emerging in brain science that tells us that your brain is probably capable of becoming audiophilic. Finally, don’t listen to all of the audio weenies who tell you what new fangled product to buy. Trust your own ears, above all!

I do not really consider myself an audiophile, because there’s a negative connotation associated with a term that should be reserved for people who drop some serious coin on this stuff. We’re talking $20k amplifiers and $10k CD players here. Thousands on cable interconnects. Futuristic air damped turntables. Or maybe those folks are just nuts!

So with that in mind, here are a few things I’ve come to learn how to listen for.

1. Silence – the absence of sound can be very revealing. We talk about blackness of a source, how much depth there is, and the noise floor. The blacker, the better.

2. Space around notes, decay – there is a term coined PRaT for this. That is: pace, rhythm, and timing. Great transducers will be able to keep up with the quickest sticks of Tony Williams and Max Roach, capturing the resolution and speed of quickly moving notes.

3. Natural tones – the timbre of the instruments are vital, and while most reasonably nice stuff will do just fine with this, exceptions do exist. (Sennheiser HD555, I’m callin’ you out!)

4. Drums and pianos – I’ve found that these two particular instruments are great metrics by which to judge the accuracy and ability of various audio components. In a recording, poorly reproduced, recorded, or encoded drums sound like garbage. All that blur, the impossible separation of high hats from ride cymbals and snares, that’s what I call trash. It’s incredibly audible in even some of the best encoding schemes, so stick to the CD source or lossless.

Regarding the pianos, again it’s the timbre that counts the most for me. Accuracy in the pianos is so difficult because of the wide frequency range that it covers. More often than not, the problem with pianos seems to be a boomy quality that is due to too much midbass or bass presence. On the other end of the spectrum, the higher octaves have to be clear and crisp.

Hopefully this is a reasonable start to a quest towards learning how to hear a bit closer. I’ve found that these explorations have really given me an entirely new appreciation for the music, as I am able to detect subtleties and nuances that I was not even aware of before.

We live in a retail world with options – arguably too many. While the capitalism purists (oxymoron?) would say that “too many options” doesn’t exist, it gets overwhelming and complicated for most consumers.

Well such is the landscape for purchasing headphones, and I had my eyes set on some very nice Sennheiser HD555s. Now my experience with Sennheiser products has been terrible, but I think I’ve been messing around in their lower product ranges, so I thought I’d give them another look. As it turns out the HD555s are pretty nice ‘phones, which get quite a bit of good press from the audiophile media. Additionally, Headroom is running a nice sale on them that backs them off about fifty bucks from retail – not bad.

Headroom has frequency response tests, unique product reviews, friendly support and service, and I’ve purchased from them quite successfully before. Overall, they’re a great company, so I’m not out to knock them. However, stats and reviews aside, the only way to truly know how something sounds is to put ’em on with your favorite source and listen for yourself. Unfortunately, that’s something no internet company can ever really give you.

And so I found a local shop in Cambridge called The Audio Lab, which has been around since 1965 and serves mainly the audiophile crowd, that carried these hard-to-find Sennheisers. I made my way up there and was treated to a great little shop where the primary shopkeeper and his buddy were just hanging around, talking music and gear.

I brought my iPod along, setting up a diverse playlist with the specific intent of testing the range of the phones. For the curious, I started with “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” performed by Charlie Haden and Hank Jones from Steal Away. It was picked for Haden’s bass, which is deep, rich, and a great metric on how speakers, headphones, and codecs deal with isolated low frequency sounds. It’s been a standard piece on my equipment test for many years, as has selections from one of my top five albums, Money Jungle.

Anyway, I spent a good 30 minutes with these particular cans, though I was immediately turned off by their awful piano reproduction. It was boomy and distant and most importantly, not accurate to the timbre of the piano. A deal breaker. However, I was still in the market for some headphones, and so I decided to try some of my tried and true Grados, a pair of which I had recently sold due to lack of use. Yet my circumstance had changed once again, and I found myself falling back in love with the sweet midrange and small soundstage of the Grados once again.

The shop was very kind to let me hang around, ask tons of questions, and demo gear. I’ve said it once, and I’ve said it again, let your ears be your judge. No magazine review or recommendation can be a worthy substitute. Find a shop that will treat you well, cares about the music, and has stellar service, and you’ll be appreciating the human quality about music in a unique way, all over again.

I wish I could say, “this is a particularly special set to me because I was there,” but unfortunately by virtue of my rather late birth, I cannot. However, it is a particularly special set for me, in the sense that it is one of my first exposures to jazz.

Why did I start listening to jazz? I might have confessed this previously, but it was part intrigue, part history for the music I grew up on, but definitely a part of it was that, man, jazz is cool. Everything about it was cool.

Well, this cat Miles Davis. He exudes cool. Hell, he defined it, in 1949, with his nonet’s recording of the aptly titled, Birth of the Cool. And like many, he’s probably the only name in jazz I knew back when I was exploring.

So I make a trip to my local library, poke around in the Jazz music CDs D’s, and come across this beautiful box set, standing out among the single discs, and immediately I was drawn to it, just knowing that I would be persuaded by the siren songs I had yet to even hear. I immediately grabbed it, surely not aware at the time that it would become one of my all time favorite sets ever.

You can hear everything in these superb recordings. When my music is on random throughout my entire collection, the dead giveaway that this is Plugged Nickel and not, say, E.S.P. is the faint “cha-ching” of the old cash registers that were in the Plugged Nickel, the since-set-to-rest club in Chicago.

They don’t call this particular group Miles’ Davis second great quintet for nothing. Comprised of Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums, this quintet might arguably among the best working bands ever. Hancock is but 23 years old on this disc, while Tony Williams is just 17, easily hanging with the seasoned vets.

That these seven sets from two nights was captured in its entirety is a simple snapshot in a moment of history that serves as a reminder of the soul of the band, that, while it cannot be fully appreciated from afar, most certainly deserves to be remembered and most importantly, listened to.


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