• SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh's Five New Solid-State Integrated Amplifiers (January 2018)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Amphion's Krypton Loudspeaker (January 2018)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Anthem STR Preamplifier and Power Amplifier (December 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh Laboratory MA252 Integrated Amplifier (November 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Hegel H90 and H190 Integrated Amplifiers (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - How Hegel's SoundEngine Works (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight  - Estelon History and YB and Extreme Loudspeakers (September 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - What Makes Hegel Different? (August 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Estelon Extreme Legacy Edition Loudspeaker (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Amphion Overview and Technologies (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! Insight - Totem Acoustic Signature One Loudspeaker (June 2017)
  • SoundStage! Encore - The Cowboy Junkies'
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Anthem's STR Integrated Amplifier (May 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Paradigm's Perforated Phase Alignment (PPA) Lenses (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Persona 9H Loudspeaker (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Contrasts: Dynaudio's Contour and Focus XD Speaker Lines (February 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - New Technologies in MartinLogan's Masterpiece Series
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Dynaudio/Volkswagen Car Audio (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Gryphon Philosophy and the Kodo and Mojo S Speakers (January 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- What's a Tonmeister? (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - AxiomAir N3 Wireless Speaker System (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Gryphon Diablo 120 Integrated Amplifier (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Dynaudio History and Driver Technology (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - The Story How Gryphon Began (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Devialet History, ADH Technology, and Expert 1000 Pro (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Devialet's Phantom Loudspeakers (August 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh Home Theater and Streaming Audio (July 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh MC275 Stereo Amplifier (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh History and Autoformer Technology (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - NAD Viso HP50 Headphones (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - GoldenEar Technology's Anechoic Chamber (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - PSB's M4U 4 Earphones (April 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - GoldenEar Technology's Triton Two+ and Three+ Loudspeakers (March 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- KEF's LS50 (February 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio's Platinum II Series (January 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Pryma 0|1 Headphones (December 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF's Blade Two Loudspeaker (November 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF and the Uni-Q (October 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio Acoustics & Aesthetics (August 2015)

September is here, and my soundtrack for celebrating the cooler days ahead has lately consisted of the music of two legends, each of whom has a knack for continuing to produce incredible music; the impressively strong sophomore release of an up-and-coming West Coast band whose sound is a throwback to the 1960s; and a wild-card Norwegian fiddle band who liven things up with a light-hearted, heavily skilled vengeance.

Levon HelmLevon Helm’s Dirt Farmer (2008) won him a Grammy, and that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his involvement with The Band, and was named "Artist of the Year" by the Americana Music Association. The following year, hot on the heels of so much recent acclaim, he recorded a concert that was finally released this spring as Ramble at the Ryman (CD, Levon Helm Records), at Ryman Auditorium, the legendary venue in Nashville, Tennessee, that was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. His core band that night was an impressive 12-piece crew that included his talented daughter, Amy Helm, of the folk band Ollabelle, but the guest list is what makes this disc a must-have: Little Sammy Davis, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, and Sheryl Crow. The 15 tracks span Helm’s career, with such favorites as "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Weight," from his days with The Band, to material from Dirt Farmer, to classic covers of songs by Chuck Berry and the Carter Family. The recording is warm and spontaneous, and the genuine respect for Helm is palpable, both from the adoring audience and from the heavyweight musicians joining him onstage. Helm’s distinctive voice still has the high-pitched, lonesome quality it did in the 1960s, but age and excellence have since further permeated his singing, like spirits preserved in some ancient oak barrel. Many magical moments were captured during this performance, and while Helm sings about how "You Don’t Know the Shape I’m In," if you ask me, he’s still in top form.

Fuzzy Music PEPCD018
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Movie MusicDrummer Peter Erskine says his record label, Fuzzy Music, is for musicians who "find themselves dipping into rich cultural pools of musical styles, beliefs and realities that do not fit into the large corporate record company way of thought or aesthetics." The label’s emphasis is straight jazz, accurately recorded. This is Erskine’s second collection of standards, and he’s joined on Standards 2 -- Movie Music by pianist Alan Pasqua, tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, and bassist Darek Oles. Erskine says in his liner notes that the songs are standards "in both the jazz and cinematic sense." This quartet finds plenty to chew on in the nine themes presented here, and each of the players gets a shot or two at arranging. Erskine’s take on "Tara’s Theme" (from Gone with the Wind) swings lightly, while Pasqua approaches "Somewhere" as a subtle ballad, giving Mintzer beautiful harmonic support during his solos. Mintzer takes "Night and Day" from bossa nova to bop, with space for a nice feature from Erskine. Oles’s impressionistic arrangement of "Rosemary’s Baby" is a model of restraint, and Pasqua responds to it with a solo that shows a unique understanding of space, allowing a sustained note or chord to carry the moment rather than filling every space. The recording is exemplary. Warm, subtly detailed, and spacious, Standards 2 -- Movie Music is a gift to both you and your hi-fi.

Self released
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Zach Williams and the ReformationSouthern rock bands were commonplace 30 years ago, but they’re not so easy to find in 2011. Hailing from Arkansas, Zach Williams and the Reformation might be just the band to bring back this genre, or perhaps to prove that it never really went away. In ZWR’s case, you can tell a lot by scanning some the song titles, which include "Gravy Train," "Mason Jar," "The Fix," "Rock’n’Roll Me," and "Motels and Highways" (naturally about life on the road). Fans have compared ZWR to the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet. You can easily hear clear references to those bands, but I think ZWR has its own style built around one thing: energy. From the driving opener, "Gravy Train," to "Wishing Well," the tenth track, there are pounding rhythms and high energy. Then surprisingly, and perhaps defiantly, the album closes with its only quiet tune, "Sky Full of Treasures." ZWR is heavy on guitars, but Williams has no trouble punching through as lead singer. His voice is strong, and he’s been compared to other Southern-rock greats. But I find that his voice, especially when it’s near breaking, reminds me of Bob Seger. The recording is loud and raucous, with some intended guitar distortion for aural color. Though ZWR might recoil at the thought, I found this album perfect to load on my iPod Nano for the gym. You can find it on iTunes and at Zach Williams and the Reformation’s official website.

Zoho Roots ZM 201105
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

The Mike Eldred TrioYou wouldn’t be surprised to see the photo on the cover of the Mike Eldred Trio’s new disc, 61 and 49, on the door of your local bar advertising an upcoming Saturday night show. Eldred is a California-based guitarist and singer who plays and writes the kind of roots music you’d hear in smoke-filled taverns, back when you could still smoke in them. "She’s a Rocket" is an old-time rocker, with Ike Turner sitting in on a rollicking barrelhouse piano, and "Jake’s Boogie" is a shuffling blues-guitar workout that lets Eldred throw out a lot of quick notes and string bends with little effort and a good deal of feeling. Bassist John Bazz and drummer Jerry Angel both played in the Blasters and know this music cold. "For a Girl" evokes a Stones-like radio friendliness, while "Mr. Newman" hints at a strong storytelling ability that Eldred should develop further. Guitar great Scotty Moore helps out on "Ms. Gayle’s Chicken House," and Cesar Rosas from Los Lobos adds a simple but effective solo to "This Old Train," which also includes a terrific Jordanaires-style backing vocal from The Job’s Quartet. Eldred and Kid Ramos trade licks on "Louise," a great jump blues track, but the most affecting song on the disc might be "Don’t Go Down There," a field holler with Eldred on vocals accompanied by the Emmanuel Church Gospel Choir. You’ve heard the music on this honest, unfussy recording before, but you’ve rarely heard it done this well.

Azuline Music
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

Aimée AllenAimée Allen has law degrees from Columbia University and the Sorbonne in Paris and has pursued a career in music since she was very young. Now she’s a practicing attorney by day and a jazz singer on the New York scene at night. She has a warm, honeyed voice, a singular sense of pitch, and a vivid imagination that lets her see such disparate songs as "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," and "It Could Happen to You" as a good performance pair. On Winters & Mays she sings covers of tunes like "Peel Me a Grape," "Two for the Road," and "Samba em Preludio," alternating between her own compositions and one by her brother, guitarist David Allen. For me, the best original is "That Day," which aptly describes the moment of falling in love as a life-changing experience. "Second Time Around" and "Stardust Reunited" also make for highly enjoyable listening. A lot of the music sways in a gentle bossa nova, with Allen’s backup band showing its mettle. The recording is just close enough and very warm while retaining definition, but when accordionist Victor Prieto first joins the group on "Samba em Preludio," he sounds detached, as if he’s in another audio world. This disconnect is odd because his other two appearances on the disc are well integrated with the other musicians.

Adventure Music AMA1066-2
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Maeve GilchristScottish harpist and singer Maeve Gilchrist writes songs by injecting a healthy dose of jazz into the folk music she heard growing up. She studied classical piano and Celtic harp in Edinburgh before moving to Boston to study jazz and world music at Berklee College of Music. She has such a wide background in so many traditions that she’s comfortable in all of them and able to weave them together without effort. The songs on her second disc, Song of Delight,lean toward the sophisticated pop of singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Norah Jones, and Joni Mitchell. Gilchrist’s voice has a charming hint of Scottish brogue, and her phrasing, as with her songwriting, has the rhythmic playfulness of jazz mixed with pop’s accessibility.

Elvis CostelloVideo Service Corp. TRI 1769
Format: DVD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ***1/2
Picture Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

A talk show with Elvis Costello interviewing other musicians could have been unbearably precious, but Costello is such a formidable songwriter, and so obviously bright and quick, that he keeps his equilibrium even with three of rock’s biggest stars: Bruce Springsteen, and U2’s Bono and The Edge. The highlight of the second season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . is doubtless the two shows with Springsteen. In the first, Costello reaches back to the songwriter’s first two records, prompting the Boss to remember his early days, when he and his band hustled for work in bars along the Jersey shore. Nils Lofgren and Roy Bittan join Springsteen onstage for "Wild Billy’s Circus Story," a song from his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.

Terri Lyne CarringtonSummer is here, and my soundtrack is as varied as the temperature, which dips (to my relief) and rises (with a vengeance) by night and day. To get you through the dog days in style, I recommend a little jazz, a little rock, and some sweet Southern blues.

Drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album, The Mosaic Project (CD, Concord Jazz, released July 19), brings together some of the finest women in contemporary jazz for a potent 14-song set of artistic collaboration. The cross-cultural, cross-generational mix features established legends like Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, and Shelia E. alongside such up-and-coming players as bassist Esperanza Spalding and vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and showcases some of the greatest musicians in modern jazz. Classics and standards are given renewed vigor -- like the very first track, "Transformation," a jazzed-up rearrangement of Nona Hendryx’s song, which Hendryx performs with soulful flair. Carrington is the skilled chauffeur behind the wheel of this album: her drumming, supersharp and tasteful, steers the momentum and vibe throughout. Poetry, politics, and love comprise the themes of the tracks with vocals, which are sung equally impressively with sultry smoothness (Wilson’s "Simply Beautiful") or octave-bending improvisation (Parlato on "Crayola"). The balanced recording showcases the subtle nuances of each musician’s playing; the resulting mosaic is a rich, multifaceted masterpiece.

Hiromi: VoiceTelarc TEL-32819-02
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

A few years back, when I reviewed Hiromi’s debut disc, Another Mind, I was impressed by her technique but found her execution and ideas to be tiring over an entire disc. My opinion was decidedly in the minority -- the pianist garnered positive reviews for that album and the three that followed. While I disliked Hiromi’s emphasis on ’70s-era jazz fusion on Another Mind,here she uses fusion’s techniques -- speed, dexterity and, to some extent, volume -- in new and interesting ways.

Eagle Records ER202072
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Ben WatersIn Life, his autobiography, Keith Richards writes "I don’t think the Stones would have actually coagulated without Ian Stewart pulling it together." Keith, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones played with Stewart, a great blues and boogie-woogie pianist, before they ever played with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Andrew Loog Oldham felt Stewart didn’t fit the Rolling Stones’ image, so Stewart served as the band’s road manager and played on nearly all their recordings until his death in 1985. Ben Waters, a 35-year-old British pianist, put together this tribute to Stewart, enlisting the help of some of his blues- and jazz-playing kinsmen, among them Watts (who plays on six tracks), Wyman, Richards, and Ronnie Wood. Jagger joins them, along with a great horn section, for a swinging version of Dylan’s "Watching the River Flow." The high point of the disc is a live performance of "Bring It on Home to Me" from 1984 by Stewart and his band at Montreux. Stewart displays an ease in his playing that Waters hasn’t quite achieved, but Waters is game and he plays with great feeling. The whole disc is easy and unforced, and another highlight is Richards and Wood trading vocals on "Worried Life Blues." The sessions were warmly recorded at Jools Holland’s studio, and expertly mixed by Glyn Johns. Proceeds benefit the British Heart Foundation.