Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Just another blogger on the blog-o-sphere………

I’ve noticed how traffic has picked up on this little spot since I began over a year ago and, in the great Lester Bangs tradition of re-evaluation and reflection, I wanted to take a station identification break to put a few salient points across………..just in case people are actually reading this blog......hey, you never know!

First of all, I’m just some guy with a stereo and a music collection who likes to write in his spare time instead of watching TV. Not everything I write makes sense and neither are my declarations definitive. I can notice mistakes and misinterpretations in my pieces – sometimes merely days after publishing them. But I’m inclined to leave those entries alone with the door open to disagree with myself later on down the road.

The raw material for my rants is derived from multiple sources – books, articles, record sleeves, internet discussion sites, etc… Some of these sources contain accurate information; some are dubious in nature. I do my best to cobble together a cohesive position on topics that mean something to me using whatever sources appear most legitimate. If I end up perpetuating a myth in the process, most of the time it’s unintentional or, at least, inconsequential.

Mostly the goal here is to spread the word a little about music that I like. Since I lean toward the position that artists should be compensated for their work I won’t post links to free downloads here. For illustrative purposes I might post a u-toob link, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Music is worth a financial investment because it can improve the quality of life for someone who places value on good music. And having a great-sounding copy of a piece of music you like can be an ear-opening experience.

To give you all an idea of what I might be hearing from a particular record, CD or tape I’d like to reveal a little about my listening hardware. This is not to brag about what great gear I have – on the contrary, my main listening hardware is quite modest. But I feel that some of my assertions and conclusions are the result of certain equipment choices that I ought to make obvious. My main listening rig looks something like this:

Turntable:  Project X-Pression  - this is the fanciest piece of equipment I have. Even still, I bought a used floor model several years ago that I had to replace the motor on (inexpensive and easy thank God!) so it isn’t that fancy, but it sure sounds great with…….
Cartridge:  Audio Technica 440 Mla  (a bit pricey nowadays, but still great bang for the buck)

Receiver:  Lafayette LR-5000. Although this is far from audiophile, it is known for being a great little 4-channel amp with a decent SQ matrix decoder built into it (for my quadraphonic record addiction). Since my listening area is pretty small it puts out plenty of signal for me in either 4 or 2 speaker mode. Most of my listening is done with the front left and front right speakers (with the rears silent unless I’m in surround mode) – my main speakers since 2009 have been………

Speakers:   KLH 38s. 2-way, acoustic-suspension, Henry Kloss-designed, 10” woofers, pretty neutral sound, really balanced speakers. The bass isn’t earthshaking, but there’s enough oophm for me. These speakers look like hell and sound great.
CD Player:  NAD 5340 – early 90s vintage player I got from a Goodwill for $12. Most of the time it works fine and sounds good. Needs a little work, but I’m happy for now.

I have a few other pieces of equipment, but the above units are the first string players on the team. So, I’m only enough of an audiophile as my bank account will allow, but I think my stuff isn’t that bad and gives me a decent ear-view into the music I enjoy.

What my choices reveal is an obvious leaning toward vinyl records. I do enjoy CDs and digital music as well, but something keeps me from stepping up to that two-thousand dollar CD player (they are out there, folks!). My $12 NAD does the job very nicely thank you. But vinyl can be a very different story. Here’s a recent experience to illustrate……..

A few entries ago I did a whole deal on “Farewell Aldebaran” by Judy Henske and Jerry Yester. Great album. Yet my whole understanding of the record was based upon tracks I listened to off u-toob. Reading back on what I wrote, although I enjoyed the record, some of my comments sound too critical in retrospect. I decided to dig a little deeper and bagged an original LP copy from THAT AUCTION SITE. People, here is a great example of how an original LP played on halfway decent equipment can TOTALLY ALTER YOUR PERCEPTIONS about music you know and love. Played on the Pro-Ject table with the AT Mla 440, the original pressing of “Farewell Aldebaran” was so vastly superior to what I had been hearing – I was blown away!!! There was an immense depth to the music that was totally absent from the u-toob rips (which were quite clean, actually). If I had assigned the record to the “cult classic” bin in my mind, hearing the original pressing elevated the record to “masterpiece” status in pretty short order. I’m sure my turntable / cartridge setup helped matters, but in this case the source material made the difference.
Not to say that all first pressings are superior to re-cuts or reissues. It can be a case-by-case basis unfortunately. But, when things come together like they did here – HOLY SMOKES! It’s best to do some research. For instance – original US Capitol Records pressings of Beach Boys and Beatles albums are not superior to later 80s recuts. In the case of Capitol US, the mastering and pressing practices only got better from the 60s to the 80s.

Now, collectors tend to be less enthusiastic about reissues than listeners. Collectors are willing to pay big bucks for original sealed copies of Pet Sounds simply because it is an original pressing. Listeners know that the 1980s green-label Capitol reissue of Pet Sounds is sonically superior to the original – and they are happy to discover pristine copies of this issue for about $10 at the local used record shop.

It's all about the mastering and pressing practices of any given company at any point in time. Sometimes they get it right the first time, sometimes the best pressing is the most recent. With so many options available to music lovers these days there's a pretty good chance that somewhere out there is a great sounding copy of music you like. Part of the fun is figuring out what's what. The same can be said for CDs - soon enough I'll spend a little time on the format everyone loves to hate these days - and what a pity! The CD era was quite exiting - and it still is if you know what to look for. Until then - HAPPY LISTENING!!!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charles Mingus - American Treasure

     Charles Mingus. Even if you own just one of the many great albums Charles Mingus released in his long and varied career it is very likely it contains music thoroughly infused with the potent and heady flavor that can only be described as MINGUS FLAVOR. But it’s not like a flavor of ice cream that has only one taste to it. Or like an actor such as John Wayne who can only play one type of character – himself. This is the way it is with music – how sound can be imprinted with such a strong personality that no matter if it’s a ballad or up-tempo number – the identity of its creator is INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE. Can we put it down to the church-y bluesiness? The call and response? The vocalizing? The trombones? Heavy riffing? Or just sheer force of will on unsuspecting air molecules?

    I don’t know what to put it down to, but every so often I put on a Mingus album and I am confronted with THE BEST MUSIC I’VE HEARD THAT WEEK. Different albums. Different sidemen (though usually always featuring the wonderful, woefully under-recognized Dannie Richmond on drums). What I love most about Dannie Richmond is his swinging flexibility – the way he telepathically moves along with Mingus through all the complex arrangements – those two were psychically fused – two men, ONE BRAIN! Maybe the only reasonable explanation for how he successfully navigated those diabolically unpredictable tempo and rhythm changes Mingus loved to incorporate into his many compositions. Here’s a great photo of Dannie Richmond:
And that, to me, is what Mingus will be remembered for – great compositions (and recordings of those compositions). His music has stood the test of time and, I am convinced, will continue to do so. For some reason I was thinking of Charles Mingus as amongst the great American Composers – right up there will Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin and Charles Ives. Miles Davis may have put out great albums like Kind of Blue, but Mingus one-ups him in terms of great compositions.

Although Mingus was not happy with the interpretation, the first I heard of Mingus’s music was on the Jeff Beck album “Wired” where the standard “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was a featured cover tune. It really is a soulful interpretation, though part of Mingus’s complaint had to do with some missing chord changes on Jeff Beck’s record. I reckon Mingus didn’t mind the royalty payments from the album though. Yet, as truly wonderful as his music is – there aren’t very many folks looking to cover Mingus tunes. Ray Davies went out of his way to rectify this situation with a film and album in the early 90s done as a tribute to Mingus the composer – a joint venture with the great Hal Wilner called “Weird Nightmare” after that most puzzling Mingus song. Here’s the documentary which includes folks like Elvis Costello, Vernon Reid and a few Rolling Stones laying down some tracks in honor of the great man himself. I love how the neighborhood of the recording studio forms the backdrop of the documentary – Astoria in Queens, New York City. This is nearby my roots and its fascinating for me to see some of my musical heroes hanging around a part of the city that looks very much like my childhood stomping grounds (with the elevated trains and whatnot).

There is NO WAY just one blog entry will accurately convey the sheer awesome-ness of Mingus. There are a couple of biographies available which I have read. The more recent one, Myself When I am Real by Gene Santoro is an exploration into Mingus the man and to his credit, Santoro does manage to humanize the man behind the talent. But Santoro’s writing style tends to grate on the nerves after awhile (I have never encountered a single work by any writer that over-uses the term “Zeitgeist” more than Santoro does in this book and it’s FREAKING ANNOYING, dude. Sorry – I just had to put it out there.) Another book I read focuses more on the music than the man:  Mingus – A Critical Biography by Brian Priestley. While this books is much less hysterical in its prose than Santoro’s book, the reluctance of the writer to delve a little deeper below the surface of this fascinating subject results in a work that is perhaps too academic. I would love to read a more sophisticated analysis of Charles Mingus and his music someday…….

Soulful, sophisticated, funny, earthy, transcendent, roots-oriented while simultaneously future-oriented. Mingus music has it all. Another early encounter with Charles Mingus for me was this 2-LP set I borrowed from the local library (when they had LPs) – a collection of Mingus albums he did for the Prestige label in the mid-1950s.
The updated cover art is sooooooo deceptive though. Here, Mingus looks like some jolly, jovial Buddha-esque character. Riiiiiiiiight! Of course, he had his share of troubles – both internal and external. But even though his decline was long and protracted, there remains such a legacy of inspiration, seeking and general enthusiasm for life in his work – it cannot be denied.

Already this entry on Charles Mingus has taken up so much space and yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the great memories I have of his music and what it means to me. So I’ll warn you now  -  Mingus will make a comeback here in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to purchase any one of the following Mingus albums that are guaranteed to BLOW YOUR BLUES RIGHT OUT OF YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS. Howza ‘bout…….

1. Mingus Ah Um…….
2. Tijuana Moods
3. Mingus At Antibes
4. Mingus in Wonderland

Any of the above titles are sure to get your juices flowing. And here’s another great documentary about Mingus called “Triumph of the Underdog”. Really, this is all just a beginning……….