Issue 95

10-4, Good Neighbor

10-4, Good Neighbor


Welcome to Copper #95!

This is being written on October 4th---or 10/4, in US notation. That made me recall one of my former lives, many years and many pounds ago: I was a UPS driver. One thing I learned from the over-the-road drivers was that the popular version of CB-speak, "10-4, good buddy" was not generally used by drivers, as it meant something other than just, "hi, my friend". The proper and socially-acceptable term was "10-4, good neighbor."

See? You never know what you'll learn here.

In #95, Professor Larry Schenbeck takes a look at the mysteries of timbre---and no, that's not pronounced like a lumberjack's call; Dan Schwartz returns to a serious subject --unfortunately; Richard Murison goes on a sea voyage; Roy Hall pays a bittersweet visit to Cuba; Anne E. Johnson’s Off the Charts looks at the long and mostly-wonderful career of Leon Russell; J.I. Agnew explains how machine screws brought us sound recording; Bob Wood continues wit his True-Life Radio Tales; Woody Woodward continues his series on Jeff Beck; Anne’s Trading Eights brings us classic cuts from Miles Davis; Tom Gibbs is back to batting .800 in his record reviews; and I get to the bottom of things in The Audio Cynic, and examine direct some off-the-wall turntables in Vintage Whine.

Copper #95 wraps up with Charles Rodrigues on extreme room treatmentand a lovely Parting Shot from my globe-trotting son, Will Leebens.

Until next time,





Bill Leebens

Going to Hong Kong

Richard Murison

British Land Forces, Hong Kong
29th August, 1949

Hello Jock,

Trying to keep a promise. I thought now would be as good a time as ever. Firstly because we are just about half way to Hong Kong, and secondly there’s bags of time to write. Now, I don’t suppose for a moment you’ll be worried about the reasons, and the why’s and wherefore’s, so I’ll just get down to it and let you know how things are going…and how.

Right! We left Woking on Tuesday night at about 7pm for London. When we got there – at least the whole company – it was about 9 o’clock, the reason for this being we were split into groups and dispatched at half-hourly intervals. We all met at the Deep Air Raid Shelter in Goodge Street, off Tottenham Court Road, had a meal, after which we were allowed out till 11 o’clock. The next morning we were awakened at 3:30am, washed and shaved etc, had breakfast and by 4:30 were ready to move off. We marched to Euston Station and after a lot of confusion boarded, at about 6 o’clock, the troop train. Once on the troop train we weren’t allowed off. Anyway, we left Euston Station at about 7 o’clock and got on our way.

We stopped at Rugby Station for a few minutes and were met by W.V.S. with cups of tea and a cake.

After a couple more stops, more or less to let faster trains past, we arrived at Liverpool. There we were again given a cup of tea and a wad. We then after the general Army routine embarked on this effort – H. T. LANCASHIRE. According to rumours which are floating around, it’s the last run it’s making as a troop ship and believe me, Jock, it wants to be.

Anyway, that’s evading the issue. I’ll describe it as I go on. As I was saying, we embarked at about 12:30, and at about 5:30 left the landing stage and started on our way.

Just as we were leaving the mouth of the Mersey it started to rain and a high wind arose. That was a good start. This bloody thing started rocking about just like a cork. It was horrible, and believe me it took some stomach to keep steady on her but I managed. It took us 12 days to reach Port Said, and hell what hectic 12 days they were.

No kidding! I bet 9 out of the 12 were in rough waters. That Bay of Biscay, hell, I thought we’d had our chips time and time again, but so far the gallant 32 year old trooper H. T. LANCASHIRE has stood it. The ship herself is no good, Jock. Firstly, she’s too light for heavy seas, and secondly the entertainment and sleeping accommodation is lousy. All the entertainment consists of on this boat is “Housey Housey” and bags of red tape.

The boys were allocated 3 hours shore leave at Port Said, but as I had already seen the stinking place I stood in for a bloke on duty. We left Port Said at about 3 o’clock on the Friday morning, 22nd, and it took us about 24 hours to get through the Suez canal into the Red Sea. You already know what it’s like in there but I wonder if you experienced anything like we did. We weren’t allowed to sleep on deck and were compelled to sleep below. To tell you the truth we were like a lot of cattle and the stench was horrible. Now we are through it and have passed Aden and are in the Indian Ocean on our way to Colombo.

Well Jock, I’m sorry I haven’t given you a more detailed account of the journey, but you know how it is. Anyway, lad, I’ll write later, so until I do,

I remain the same as you,
an old member of the Branch.


Drive, He Said Part 4

Bill Leebens

In previous installments of Vintage Whine, we’ve looked at belt-drive turntables, idler-drive turntables, and direct drive tables. This column deals with the unclassifiable, the weird, the mixed-genre, the “what the hell is THAT?” of the turntable world.

When you get right down to it, the amount of time that’s been spent over the last century on figuring out how to spin a record at a constant rate, is really quite ludicrous. Really: the damned thing has to spin. What’s difficult about that?

As it turns out, the whole affair is a lot more complicated than it would seem after a cursory examination. As I’ve pondered in this issue’s Audio Cynic, record playback is a medium that seems almost prehistoric in its lack of sophistication, but in reality, is capable of undreamed-of precision. If you don’t believe that, look at J.I. Agnew‘s column in this issue; machine tools were capable of almost-molecular levels of precision a long time ago. If all the record had to do was spin, that’d be one thing—but the tricky parts come from trying to trace that wiggly groove and turn it into a usable, meaningful signal.

So: think about it. If you started with a clean sheet of paper and wanted to design a record playback system from scratch, how would you do it?

You’d want to isolate that groove-tracing signal from mechanical noise as much as possible, and ensure that the process wasn’t affected by that train running past your house, your footsteps on the wooden floor of your 1920’s Queen Anne cottage, or the sound coming out of your speakers. You’d want to make sure that the stylus tracing the groove didn’t somehow trigger noise or resonances in the playback system, that the vibrations of the vinyl disc didn’t bounce back off the platter, that the disc didn’t slip, that the stylus didn’t drag enough to overheat and distort the vinyl—-

See? It quickly gets really, really complicated.

As is true of almost any human endeavor, and especially in audio, different designers latch on to one aspect of design or performance as the one true way, the crucial element—and those choices determine the course and focus of a design. And some get pretty wacky.

Take, for example, support of the record itself. Most would say that in order for playback to be clean and undistorted, the disc needs to be glommed on down to the platter as closely as possible. Some do that by means of a weight or clamp; some do that by suction. Each disparate method has its advocates and fans.

But wait! Some really bright people think of that issue almost as an irrelevance. How about Ed Meitner? Probably one of the most highly-respected audio engineers of…EVER, Meitner once designed a line of stereo gear for the brand Museatex, made for less-than-gazillionaires. At the center of the Meitner system was a turntable— and not just another Thorens 160 clone. The Meitner AT-2 turntable looked like a turntable designed by Henry Moore, a gathering of organic, geometric masses that somehow managed to play a record.

How well it did that, is subject to debate. Keep in mind only 40 or so were made, so most tales on audio forums can be written off as apocryphal. I can’t imagine that an old Van Dyke Parks RCA Dynaflex release would do well on this thing, but who knows?

The Museatex website says, “Even today we cannot be certain that we have unlocked all the treasures stored in the record groove. The AT-2 Record Playing System features ‘platterless playback’. The platter is replaced by a metal flywheel with knife-edge machinings to support the record beneath the label area. The playing surface of the record couples to air on top and bottom.

“Turntable designers have made enhancements to platters and mats through the years. As far as they have evolved, however, platters and mats are left with one fundamental problem. The point at which the record contacts the mat or platter is an energy interface that vibrations, traveling at high velocities, must traverse. These vibrations will not be completely absorbed by the interfacing surface, and a significant portion of the energy will be “mirrored” back into the record. Because most of the energy is generated by the cartridge stylus, this is the area to receive most of the reflected energy. The result is a form of distortion read by the stylus and incorporated into the music signal.

“Overlooked by most, the twelve inch diameter of the typical record makes it an increasingly ideal half-wave coupler of acoustic energy from the lower mid-range up, and improving as the frequency rises. The record naturally dissipates vibrations, particularly at the levels and frequencies that they occur, to air. Thus air becomes the absorbent “platter”, the only substance that does not give energy back to the record. The reproduction of music is open, dynamic, remarkably natural.”

One of the brightest folks I know in the world of record-playback, a world that alternately attracts the cerebral and the ham-fisted, is Frank Schröder. Frank is more the former than the latter, being a former watchmaker; he’s also a walking encyclopedia of audio history.

I mention that because I have zero tolerance for the misguided hubris of designers who trumpet an idea as new, when I can cite five or six predecessors who did the same thing. If Frank utilizes elements of a vintage design, he will cite that design, tell you what the flaws of that design are, and how he has fixed those flaws.

Luckily, Frank has a terrific sense of humor, and frequently mocks his own nerdiness—otherwise, such behavior would be hard to take.

Frank has also designed turntables which have platters that are smaller than usual. Back in the day, lower-end models from BSR, Dual, Garrard, and others, had platters that were 10″ or so in diameter. Frank makes what he calls a “compact turntable” with a platter even smaller than that—I’d guess 8 1/2″ in diameter. He showed one such turntable recently at RMAF, and of course, sound quality was superb.

When I asked Frank why he built the tiny table, he said it was to demonstrate that a “properly designed” turntable didn’t have to be mammoth to sound good. He also mentioned that the table largely appealed to men, and that women in general seemed to be put off by the small size. I would’ve expected just the opposite.

Other tables w/ skeletal or minimal platters? There are a number; most striking are Be Yamamura’s peculiar table and arm, and the famous Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference (A Clockwork Orange, anyone?): 

Every now and then, some turntable designer revisits the thought, “if low friction is good, then how about floating the platter on magnets? Or air?” Plenty of folks have tried one or the other, but neither idea has ever been featured in a table that was a huge commercial success.

I should qualify that proclamation with, “to the best of my recollection”. One of the challenges of writing about vintage audio is that I’m doing it with a vintage brain…..

Let’s start our look at kinda-floaty turntables with those that have used magnets to either relieve the main bearing of some or all loading, or to couple a driven sub-platter to the platter, causing it to rotate. Speaking of that vintage brain—somewhere in the back of it is the notion that this was tried long ago by a company that I can’t recall, but that info is not forthcoming. Oh, well.

The first table I can recall that used magnetic drive was only a decade ago, pushing the definition of “vintage”. The Disc Master (or Disk Master) turntable was designed by Tim de Paravicini for his company EAR (Esoteric Audio Research). Tim is one of the most amazing engineering minds I’ve encountered in any field, and he’s equally-knowledgeable in all aspects of audio design, automotive engines, aerodynamics, and probably a dozen other fields. He also does not suffer fools gladly, so if you ever choose to challenge him on a subject, you’d bloody well better be right.

I speak from experience.

Anyway: the Disc Master looked like nothing else. An assemblage of finely-machined skeletal metal parts, the table—-well, the US EAR website puts it as well as I can:

“Tim de Paravicini began contemplating a radical new design for a turntable several decades ago, but the advent of digital audio put the project on hold. Now, with interest in analog not only continuing, but growing, he has finalized his design, and introduced the Disc Master turntable. While many turntables have appeared on the market in recent years, few offer as many novel features as the Disc Master, but this is not novelty for its own sake. The Disc Master represents a new standard for LP playback.

“Most striking is the no-contact drive system. The need to transfer power to the platter of a turntable has always been problematic, as any system with the capacity to transfer power can, by the same means, transfer vibration. Flexible rubber belts have proved a satisfactory solution, but suffer problems of slippage—hence, uncertain speed—and they pull the platter sideways, which can result in stability problems. Tim de Paravicini has arrived at an ingenious solution that solves these problems. A low-noise motor, controlled by a carefully optimized servo loop, drives a subplatter via a geared belt that ensures absolute speed control. The subplatter drives the platter via an arrangement of opposing magnets. This method not only eliminates slippage, but allows enough compliance to filter out any remaining vibration from the motor and belt, while applying a fully symmetric driving force. [That “geared belt”? I asked Tim to explain, and he told me the Disc Master used “a fine-toothed very compliant belt as in a miniature version of a car cam belt. 3-D printers use similar thin belts. Then the motor-to-position relationship is fixed. No slippage as in conventional turntable belts.”]

“Bearings are another problem for a turntable designer, one that Tim de Paravicini has solved by the use of Swiss-made, precision angular contact bearings, which are as quiet as the more common point-contact types, but wear much more slowly, so that their performance after years of use will be as good as on initial purchase.

“The platter is made of an ultra-low-resonance composite of resin and inorganic filler, accurately machined and supported on an instrument-grade aluminum chassis. Adjustable, damped feet support the assembly. Three speeds—33, 45, and 78—are offered, with a continuous speed control for 78 to accommodate discs cut at non-standard speeds.

The EAR Disc Master, from the EAR USA website.

“All common tonearms can be mounted and adjusted with ease. The Disc Master is also available with a special E.A.R. version of the Helius Omega tonearm. The Omega arm is as radical a rethinking of tonearm design as the Disc Master is a reconsideration of turntable design, and the two work superbly together.”

Sadly, according to US importer Dan Meinwald, the Disc Master is no longer made. I can’t imagine that it was easy or cheap to produce. You can see a whole series of photos of the Disc Master on the website of Japanese reseller, HiFi Do. 

Since the appearance of the Disc Master, a number of other turntables using magnetic suspension/supplementation have appeared. Most prominent amongst them were the Titan and Avenger Reference turntables, the work of veteran turntable designer Harry Weisfeld of VPI. Despite being retired (>cough<), Harry seems to be doing the best work of his 40+ year career.

Both tables had a number of interesting features. The drive motor/rim drive assembly drives a sub-platter which is coupled to the top platter by opposing magnets embedded into the two assemblies. According to Harry, “I am very pleased with the results. I have compared many 45 RPM records to 15 ips 1/2 track tape masters on a Mike Spitz modified Ampex ATR-102, and will not shy away from saying it is 95% direct drive sound for a lot less money and a lot easier repair or replacement.”


The VPI Titan, with all three arm pods in use.

In recent years, magnetic-drive turntables have appeared from EAT (European Audio Team, amusingly reminiscent of EAR), JR Transrotor, and Clearaudio. There are likely others—but given the proliferation of turntable-makers, who can keep up?

The most extreme example is the notorious Mag-Lev; as the name implies, the damned platter floats. It started as a Kickstarter campaign, which caused me to assume/hope it would vanish—but no, I’ve seen it at the Munich show two years running now. I have no idea how well it works or how it sounds. It seems more of a novelty than a serious, high-performance turntable.

Next time we’ll look at huffers, splashers, backwards-types, and are-we-sure-this-thing-is-round??

With any luck, it’ll all make sense when you read Vintage Whine in Copper #96. See you then.

Room Treatment

Room Treatment

Room Treatment

Charles Rodrigues

Where I Am, Part 2

Where I Am, Part 2

Where I Am, Part 2

Dan Schwartz

Picking up the story from Issue 87: a lot of water has gone by the bridge in the meantime. But someone in the forum asked for prayers, which motivated me to acknowledge where I am.

Continuing the story: for the next 15 years, all was well. (Well, not really — I had a heart attack the next year brought on by the nephrectomy, and a mild stroke in 2013.) But my daughter, now 25, was 9 at the first bout, so in the broad sense, all was well.

But then, a year and a half ago my wrist started to hurt, and then it hurt quite a bit. All through last summer I wore a brace, and thought it was tendinitis. Sometime last July, I started to occasionally see blood in my urine. I visited a urologist, who gave me a clean bill of health — and an infection.

In late August, I accompanied a friend on a mushroom adventure. She hoped that the psilocybin would help reset her brain, and I felt flattered to be asked to be a part of the “set and setting”. We were sitting under an oak tree, and when I got up — lifting with my legs, but using the arm in the brace to help with my balance — I felt a sharp pain in my forearm and heard a somewhat loud snap. I grinned through the pain, not wanting to “harsh her mellow”, for the next 6 hours.

At home, I told my wife that I had sprained my wrist. I started wearing a heavier-duty brace.

I also started feeling pretty ill. This was the infection. So I went to my nearest ER and got antibiotics. I told them, “Hey, as long as I’m here, why don’t you take a picture of my wrist, because I’m pretty sure it’s sprained.” And the X-ray revealed that my arm was broken, not sprained. The doctor said it looked like a pathological, metastatic break. I knew right away what it was.

I entered on a medical path, once again.

On the 19th of September I had my arm repaired, and a biopsy taken. Renal cell carcinoma. Kidney cancer. Yet again.


For this past year:

I’ve battled my insurance company, who put my case to a death panel, which wrote me off;

Gotten treatment anyway at Norris Cancer Center, where I’m a patient of the medical director;

Changed to a very expensive form of insurance;

Gotten a couple doses of immunotherapy (which didn’t even exist last time I had cancer), and had pretty horrendous side effects and been hospitalized for a week —twice;

My arm is mostly better; virtually no trace of cancer. So I wrote Part 1, as I thought my story would have a happy ending. But literally, on the day I was set to begin writing this, and the day after I had another X-ray of my arm, I had more thorough scans. And my doctor called: the cancer has spread.

I had a Gamma Knife procedure to my cerebellum, and the following day began taking a targeted-therapy pill. That was July 24th. Now I’m fully immersed in the effects of the pill, and we’ll know in a few weeks whether or not it’s working.

Why write about it now?

There was that request for prayer. I wanted the author to know that he wasn’t alone. And though I’ve generally lived my life as an open book (the few secrets I have are to protect others, not me), this is no one’s business but my family’s and mine. But I have a different reason for wanting this to be quiet, until now.

Everyone is different, but I can’t stand the kind of things many people feel an obligation to say, things like, “Fuck Cancer!” and “Keep fighting!”

I’m not fighting, at least not literally. But I’m fully engaged in the treatment process.

I WILL die. I know this. Sooner, probably — but maybe later. Either way is okay.

Four Hits, One Miss

Four Hits, One Miss

Four Hits, One Miss

Tom Gibbs

Iggy Pop  Free

I have a fairly esteemed level of admiration for Iggy Pop; his work with the Stooges helped make him a punk icon. And working with Bowie over the course of much of his solo career only solidified his reputation. Over the years, Iggy Pop has cultivated this image of himself as this wild, out-of-control animal-man onstage, a persona that he’s had a hard time separating himself from in real life. In recent years, especially now that he’s 72, Iggy appears to have begun to accept that he’s actually Jim Osterberg, and that Iggy Pop is just a character he’s been playing for forty-plus years now. But he always seemed to find ways to embrace whatever current musical trend was going on, despite the decade, and that served to give his music continued relevance. That said, Iggy’s recent output, with the exception of 2016’s Post Pop Depression, his collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, has been decidedly unpunk.

Iggy published a coffee-table style book a couple of years ago, Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges, which chronicles Iggy’s take on one of the most storied and influential bands of all time. I find it very interesting that in the aftermath of this book’s release, not everyone who was on the scene during the Stooges heyday shares his somewhat optimistic recollection of how everything transpired back then. I recently read a really good article, “The Lost Stooge: Chasing the Ghost of Dave Alexander,” on the Please Kill Me website. It discusses the life of Stooge bass player Dave Alexander, a founding member of the band, who was widely credited for much of the band’s direction on the first couple of albums. Before he was unceremoniously fired by Iggy; he drank himself to death afterwards and like so many rockers of his generation was dead at age 27. You can check that superb article out here; it seems that, at the time, everyone called Iggy “Jim” or “Jimmy,” and as the Iggy Pop persona began to dominate his life, his empathy for those around him just about disappeared. It’s a recurring theme we seem to see a lot now that most of the rockers of our youth have suddenly become seventy-somethings.

Anyway, back to Free; surprisingly, I actually kind of like this album. There’s a very weird kind of ambient/arthouse vibe going on, with jazzy, almost late-period Miles Davis-ish trumpets occupying the backgrounds of many of the tunes. You get that right out of the gate with the opening track, “Free”, where Iggy offers a very sparse spoken verse about wanting to be free; he’s definitely freed himself of any post-punk pretensions here! Among the listed performers is Brooklyn based Noveller; she’s credited with “guitarscapes,” and her very ambient stylings give most of the songs here a very mystical quality. Ig wrote or co-wrote three of the songs, among them, “James Bond,” which is one of the very few uptempo offerings found here, with some really punchy trumpet fills during the instrumental bridge. And there are more spoken-word type offerings, like Lou Reed’s “We Are the People,” where Iggy’s spoken rendering is offered to great effect over that virtually constant trumpet hovering in the background. It’s very striking, but nothing you’ve heard so far will prepare you for the next track, another ambient-drenched spoken reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Which sounds as though it might have been taken from the soundtrack for a David Lynch film! I mean, this is either truly weird, or totally inspired stuff—I’m still not quite certain which.

At just a tad over 34 minutes, this is definitely more of an EP than an album, but 34 minutes of this might just be enough. There’s a local college radio station here in Atlanta, WREK (Georgia Tech), that’s renowned for thirty-minute-or-so sets of totally disparate music played back-to-back, and often with no information to identify the pieces. God help you if you actually hear something you like. Free is populated with songs that could totally find themselves inserted into that kind of mix—I could easily find myself pulling this record out, or inserting bits into a designed mix during a party setting. Gotta keep ’em guessing! Recommended.

Loma Vista Music, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)


Sigur Rós  Liminal Sleep

My daughter turned me onto the music of Icelandic avant-rock indie band Sigur Rós a few years ago; their unusual mix of off-kilter indie pop and ambient music was very polarizing and intoxicating—either you loved it, or…meh. I have a number of classical music records in my collection from Icelandic composers; the whole ambient thing seems to be a thread that runs through much of Icelandic music. Sigur Rós toured a lot with Radiohead during their early years, and I can’t help but think from what I’m hearing here, that their music had a profound impact on Radiohead. And what we’ve heard from Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in the subsequent years.

Many of the nine selections on this album run near the twenty-minute mark in length, and are extended set pieces that expound upon some of the more ambient riffs from Sigur Rós’ prior albums. The naming convention for each of the pieces follows a defined pattern: “Sleep 1,” “Sleep 2,” etc., all the way through “Sleep 9.” There are even websites online promoting improved sleep techniques where this music is available—seriously? Coming from a deeply steeped in Prog Rock background, I actually have enjoyed this music—so far. At almost two and a half hours in length, I won’t pretend that I’ve actually listened to the whole thing. This is the aural equivalent of going to a three hour movie—you’re either so enthralled, you can’t get out of your seat, or you can’t get out of your seat quickly enough! From the start of the opening track, “Sleep 1,” I felt a strong connection to what’s going on musically in the central section of Yes’ classic “Close To the Edge.” If you find the undeniable cornerstone of Prog Rock a total snooze, you’ll then probably give short schrift to anything on Liminal Sleep.

As far as I can tell, there’s not currently any physical product that exists for Liminal Sleep; its excessive length definitely restricts the possibility of its release as a CD or LP. It’s available for streaming just about everywhere, and that’s probably going to be good enough. Be forewarned, though: much of this album is not going to impress people with its DR scale performance. I listened to the MQA version on Tidal with my AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, and I thought it sounded pretty darned good. Recommended.

Krủnk, (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify)


The Highwomen  The Highwomen

The Highwomen is a collaboration between Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Brandi Carlisle; the group had been coalescing over a period of time and actually played live together for the first time this year in April at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday party. The Highwomen is either an homage or a loosely disguised jab at the legendary Highwaymen album, the biggest selling country album of all time, which consisted of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. The Highwaymen was the epitome of male-dominated country music at the time; these women don’t seem too mean spirited, so I prefer to think that it’s more of an homage with a firm touch of girl power. They’re putting their music out there, and it’s some of the best modern country music currently available. While I generally have no problem with crossover artists (except for Taylor Swift, that’s just not country!), and as cute as that Maren Morris “The Middle” stuff was, it’s really great to hear her singing real country music again! All these women write great songs, and the vocal harmonies are just to die for; The Highwomen are rewriting country music in a thankfully much more classic mold than much of the crap we’ve been hearing lately on country radio.

The song selection here is very strong; the album has a bit of a politically-correct slant, and is designed to highlight the complicated realities of being a woman in the modern world. All the songs were written or co-written by the four members of the group, although it’s obvious that all four don’t share harmonies on every song. Right out of the gate, you get two of the album’s best songs back-to-back. “Highwomen,” where each of the four women takes a verse to tell stories of strong women taking charge of their not-always-perfect lives to effect positive change. It’s followed by “Redesigning Women,” which is a clever double-entendre on the television show Designing Women, but these girls are redesigning a world where they’re on equal footing with everyone else. Another song that chronicles the challenges of being a modern woman in a complicated world—but in a much more lighthearted manner—is “My Name Can’t be Mama.” Where the group sings about trying to balance indulging in all that life has to offer, along with the challenges of raising a family.

My big quibble with this album is a technical one based on the sound quality; this record is an unfortunate victim of the loudness wars. Dave Cobb did a serviceable job producing the record, but it’s been compressed to hell. I was working upstairs on reviews on my laptop while Tidal was playing downstairs on the big system. When the album queued up on the music server, I had to rush downstairs to adjust the volume downwards, because it was about double what had been playing before. This kind of crap is just ridiculous, and an audiophile’s nightmare. Other than that, this is a really good record; maybe it’s not quite as authentic sounding as the Miranda Lambert led Pistol Annies album, and the harmonies aren’t quite as sweet as on the Ronstadt/Parton/Harris Trio album. This record stands on its own merit, and I’m really looking forward to hearing more from this group. Hopefully, with greatly improved recording and production techniques. Recommended.

Atlantic/Elektra/Low Country Sound, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, YouTube, Spotify)


Lana Del Rey  Norman Fucking Rockwell

Norman Fucking Rockwell. When I first started reading about the impending release of this album months ago, I had to assume that the title was a freaking joke. It’s not. On the opening title track that’s lushly orchestrated with layers of Lana Del Rey’s multitracked vocals singing the chorus, the first words from her seriously angelic voice are “Goddam, you man child…you fucked me so good that I almost said I love you!” I’m no saint, but trust me, I almost can’t even believe that I just typed those words! There’s nothing else out there in pop music that even remotely compares with this; she drops the F bomb repeatedly throughout the songs on this album. I’d been listening to Tidal all day on my home system while working on reviews, but as the day progressed into evening, I switched to headphones right as I put this album on. Thank God for that—my wife Beth’s no prude, but she probably would have freaked had she heard that opening refrain live across the airwaves! Her verbal response to this would probably have made her typical expletive-laced response to the music of Rickie Lee Jones sound like she was reading from a Sunday school primer.

When I first signed up for Instagram about a year or so ago, a video for Lana Del Rey appeared in my feed; I took a look, and suddenly my feed was flooded with videos of Lana Del Rey. Dancing this kind of lilting stylistic dance, her skirt or dress swaying rhythmically to her movements. That’s pretty much the mental image I get from listening to this album; I just didn’t picture it with the language embellishments. Don’t get me wrong, but generally I equate someone’s repeated use of fuck in a song to hate speech, hardcore metal, or even gangsta rap. Not repeated as though it’s almost a mantra or a prayer. Back in the day, when I’d hear Mick Jagger sing “you can come all over me” from the Stones’ Let It Bleed, yes, it was hypersexualized, but it was the Stones, and you expected it from rock’s bad boys. Maybe I was a tad more hypersexualized myself back then, because it didn’t shock me on any kind of level compared to this. An alternate take on this: in today’s “Me Too” world, where carelessly expressing your sexuality can get you into some seriously deep doo, it’s almost refreshing to see that Lana Del Rey is so sexually uninhibited.

In the Pitchfork review of this album, they call Norman Fucking Rockwell Lana Del Rey’s “masterpiece we’ve been waiting for,” and also call her the “best American songwriter, period.” A bit further down, some Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen alliterations are made. Okay, it’s my turn now—are you fucking kidding me? I can totally see the appeal of this record to a particular demographic; the music accompaniment to Lana Del Rey’s ever-lyrical voice is almost like ear candy. And I’m sure this record will sell metric tons of music software. But is this really the state of the art of current American popular music? Even mentioning her in the same breath as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen is damn near blasphemous. YMMV.

Interscope/Polydor Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify)


Igor Levit   Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

Russian-born pianist Igor Levit launched his recording career with 2013’s Beethoven: The Late Sonatas, which—in tackling some of the most difficult and complicated music in the repertory—is a pretty bold and brash statement for a debut record. His passionate playing and lightning-quick technique quickly announced his presence on the classical music scene, and he’s remained a force to be reckoned with over the course of seven albums in just six short years. He recently (2018) was named the winner of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, which is awarded every four years by the Irving S. Gilmore foundation. The award honors extraordinary piano artistry, and comes along with a $300,000 honorarium for career advancement—not too shabby in a day and age where it feels like support for classical music has almost completely fallen by the wayside. He also was recently named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year; the accolades just keep on coming for this very talented young man!

Next year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, and Sony Classical has much lined up in the way of celebratory releases. Igor Levit is a Sony Classical exclusive artist, and in advance of the upcoming celebration, he’s just released this sprawling 9-disc CD set, Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas. Which at a list price of about $60 is a whole-lotta-Beethoven and Levit—that’s less than $7 per disc, and an extraordinary bargain! A much-anticipated and important release, Igor Levit’s completion of this staggering undertaking started six years ago will no doubt serve as a stunning kickoff to what is certain to be a worldwide celebration of Beethoven’s music. One of the aspects of this new cycle that I find very appealing is that the individual sonatas are all presented numerically sequentially, which isn’t always the norm for Beethoven sonata programs. It’s just a bit more….tidy, if you will!

Levit plays with equal parts passion, poignancy, and introspection, tempered with bursts of near-robotically fast technique. His playing of Beethoven’s early sonatas often reminds me of Glenn Gould’s approach to Bach; thrilling technical proficiency, but played so tempestuously that there’s perhaps some fear that the soul of the music might get lost. Personally, I don’t ascribe to this; while his approach may not suit every enthusiast’s taste in Beethoven sonata performance, his playing still gets to the heart of the music. Yes, Igor Levit is an undeniable technician; I happen to love Gould’s (and Levit’s!) approach to classical performance, even though many will likely yearn for more contemplative readings with less exhaustive tempi. And more air and space. Those listeners will probably be more well served by classic catalog offerings from the likes of Arrau, Barenboim, or Gilels.

Levit’s recording of the late sonatas dates from 2013; the remaining performances were recorded between 2017 and 2019, and the complete cycle utilized three different recording locations. Despite that disparity of time and locations, Sony Classical has done an outstanding job of maintaining continuity between the performances, and the sound quality is absolutely superb. The realism and clarity of the piano via my home system was staggeringly good! I split my listening between the CD discs via my Yamaha universal player, 44.1 CD-quality streaming via Tidal, and 24/96 streaming via Qobuz. If going the archival route, the CDs are superb, and provided magnificent sound via my Yamaha unit. But I also found streaming via Tidal very good, and the high-res streaming via Qobuz was exceptional! Beethoven: The Late Sonatas is a magnificent collection that, for me, sets a new standard in Beethoven sonata performance. Very highly recommended!

Sony Classical, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)

The Adventures of Jeff Beck: Second Movement

WL Woodward

December 1965 found the Yardbirds recording an album in America at the studios of Chess and Sun. For these blokes from Britain that must’ve been cool as hell. Beck was about to emerge as a guitar energizer, and the album showcased his energy, feedback, and power chords that set him up as a creative innovator and early psychedelic pioneer. As shown on the song, “Shape of Things”:


The resulting album, Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds, was a landmark especially for 1965 and included versions of “I’m a Man,” and “Heart Full of Soul”.

In June 1966 the Yardbirds with new management went into Advision to record an album engineered by Roger Cameron. Roger was a typical BBC guy who hated being that guy so he set about letting the band, and especially Jeff Beck, cut loose. The band loved working with Roger so much that the album was named Roger the Engineer. Get this one.

There is a great story from recording “The Nazz Are Blue with Beck on vocals. Lore has it, that feedback note left out there during Jeff’s solo happened and everyone thought something had gone wrong. Then they listened back and…well.


A superb album. Again, this is mid ’66 with the release of The Beatles’ Revolver and a year before a Hendrix arrival. John Lennon famously expressed dissatisfaction with Harrison’s lead playing during this period because John had been listening to the Yardbirds and knew shit was happening.

On June 18, 1966 the band was hired for a year end frat ball at Oxford, complete with gowns and black ties. It was an odd pairing, this band of wild ones, booked with the Hollies, and the prestigious setting.

The night got weird. The student committee had set up quite a spread backstage including plenty of alcohol. Keith Relf, YB front man, announced upon arrival his intention to get rhino drunk. Good to his word, by the second set the band almost had to tie him to the mike stand to keep him upright. Relf was blowing harp in the wrong places, singing nonsense words, and generally shouting insults out to the blueblood audience. That set became one long guitar solo for Beck.

In the audience was Jimmy Page. He’d ridden to the gig with his old friend Jeff and loved every bit of the mayhem on stage. Page had turned down the job as guitarist before the Yardbirds hired Jeff but he had grown tired of the sterile conditions of studio work. This chaotic example of rock and roll anarchy looked like marvelous fun. The bass player, Paul Samwell Smith, disagreed.

Smith was a bit of an upper class nit himself, and he was embarrassed and outraged at the spectacle that had unfolded. Page went back stage to join in the fun and amidst a huge row Samwell Smith quit the band on the spot. Beck was apologizing to his friend when Page said “I’ll play bass if you like.” The band accepted that invitation, having little choice. Beck was asked how it was going to work with two super ego guitarists in the band, and he famously said, “No, he’s just playing bass”. Uh huh.

The band toured America and Europe with Jimmy on bass, but he would fill in on guitar in the studio. During the latter half of 1966 Beck was faced with recurring illnesses on the road, fits of rage taken out on his equipment, and absences that forced Page to take up guitar duties and put Chris Dreja firmly in the bass slot. In the fall of ’66 Relf started a song with Jim McCarty and brought it into the studio. Page hired a session player he knew named John Paul Jones to play bass on it, and Beck and Page filled in guitar duties. Released to crickets in October 1966, this is “Happening Ten Years Time Ago”:


The Yardbirds were firmly ahead of their time. The influence they had on rock and players from Sussex to Sausalito cannot be overstated. The following year would see the rise of Cream, the release of Sergeant Pepper, and the landing of Jimi Hendrix. I mean, holy crap.

There was a period in late ’66, with Page and Beck performing on stage, where the two guitarists played beautifully together. On other nights, Beck’s flights of fancy confused the band and the audience. Finally the touring caused a collapse in Jeff’s health and he had to be hospitalized. Page became full-time solo lead out of necessity.

By November 1966, Beck was out of the band and looking for work. He spent 1967, arguably the most influential year in rock, doing odd gigs and trying to figure out his next move. He did release two singles that were minor hits in ’67 including a B side called “Beck’s Bolero” with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Keith Moon (who had to slink around so Townshend wouldn’t find out) and Nicky Hopkins on keys. Yah. Look dat shit up.

In 1968 Beck recruited a little-known Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass, and Micky Waller on drums for his first solo release Truth. Considered an early metal classic, there were some great tunes here including a version of “You Shook Me”, written by Willie Dixon and JB Lenoir. They beat Led Zeppelin’s first release featuring that tune by 5 months.


By the end of 1968, Beck was planning a second album and, looking for a heavier approach, replaced Micky Waller with Tony Newman. Beck-Ola, released in 1969, is not one of my favorites, but I’m probably alone because the album went to Number 15 in the US. The choice of material was a little odd, with an unrecognizable version of “All Shook Up”, a little piano ditty, written and performed by Nicky Hopkins, “Girl from Mill Valley”, and a cover of “Jailhouse Rock”. The best tracks are “Rice Pudding’”and “Plynth”, which show Beck starting to experiment with soloing over staccato rhythms.


My favorite part of this album was that it was short. Also with the bromance forming between Stewart and Wood causing rifts, Stewart, Hopkins, and Wood left the band amid squabbling so severe they didn’t play Woodstock even though posters for the event had them on the bill.

In September of ’69 Beck enlisted Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge to do a collaboration but Jeff had a nasty car accident in December that left him with a fractured skull that delayed that project for 2 and a half years.

At the end of 1970 and into 1971 Beck put together the first Jeff Beck Group effort with a wonderful Bob Tench from Gass on vocals, a Fender Rhodes magic man named Max Middleton who would appear on and off on Beck albums for the next few decades, Cozy Powell on drums, and Clive Chaman on bass. The effect was palpable and prescient.

Rough and Ready was released in 1971 and you hear soul and funk with R&B influences that would be solidified in the next album. Tench’s vocals took a hit from critics but I love his power and phrasing and apparently so did Jeff. Also, Cozy Powell has been overlooked by everyone.


In 1972 a guitar player named David Landolina shoved a bass into my hand and, with Ziggy Brunett, “Situation” was one of the first songs I learned on bass. Fond memory. Not the best song on the album, but worth mentioning because hey, it’s my column!

The next album is on my top 20 list of favorite albums. It was the first Beck album I ever purchased, and again I got it because I had to learn a song from it. By this time Jeff had tired of misguided or even pessimistic productions of his albums and he wanted to add some Memphis flavor to the next work. He kept the Jeff Beck Group line-up (thank heavens) but recruited Steve Cropper to produce.

Oh Yeah. Steve, thanks for everything.

Cropper caused some problems in the studio because of his insistence on ‘takes until right’ but he was spot on. The result, nicknamed the Orange Album for obvious reasons, had mixed reviews but all of us idiots agreed Beck’s guitar work was amazing. And every song was flippin’ sturdy. Every one. Again, because this is my column, we have Definitely Maybe” from their last album, Jeff Beck Group. Separate songs are hard to find. But man, I could have chosen any others including a nice cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and Aaron Schroeder’s “Glad All Over”. Just get this album. Seriously.


In 1972 Beck disbanded the JBG and embarked on an old flame, a collaboration with Bogert and Appice. The stories of stage appearances by these guys in ’72 and ’73 are legendary, but the subsequent studio album release fell far short of the promise of their live shows. After some fits and stops, Beck abandoned the project. One thing Jeff did get from Appice was a tape of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum from 1973. All doors blown off, all lights on.

I first heard Spectrum in a record store and had to ask who the hell we were listening to. Bought it on the spot.

Cobham, having played with Miles Davis on In A Silent Way, which featured young guitarist John McLaughlin, and then Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy’s Spectrum combined elements of funk and jazz and begat crazy children.

My man Jeff Beck loved it. This characterized dreams that worked into what Beck was looking for next. “Billy Cobham’s Spectrum gave life to me at the time, on top of the Mahavishnu Records…as exciting to me as the first time I heard “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley.”

Beck had learned his lesson using a seasoned producer on his previous album so he hired George Martin to produce the next album, his first complete instrumental, that would go #4 on Billboard, his highest chart, and eventually certified platinum.

Next: Adventures of Jeff Beck – Third (and last, I promise) Movement

But first, a cut from Spectrum. Go ahead. Try and not smile. I dare you. With Tommy Bolin on guitar, Lee Sklar on bass, and Jan Hammer on keys, “Quadrant 4”:

Screws, Machine Tools, and the Invention of Sound Recording

Screws, Machine Tools, and the Invention of Sound Recording

Screws, Machine Tools, and the Invention of Sound Recording

J.I. Agnew

How are the ancient Egyptians, Archimedes, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Henry Maudslay related to sound recording?

There are inventions that make us wonder how anyone could have come up with such an idea. Sound recording is perhaps one of them. Considering the historical context, however, we shall observe that it was not actually such a crazy or far fetched idea, given the technology available at the time.

In the late 19th century, most of the world had no access to electricity. The concept of electronic amplification would still need almost half a century to establish itself as a viable technology. Steam engines were very popular prime movers in the industry. But, even for the steam engine to become a viable reality, what was required were the appropriate machine tools, allowing the manufacture of accurate parts for a variety of purposes.

Machine screws, used as fasteners.

By no means a recent invention, machine tools in more primitive forms have existed for many centuries. The “prehistoric lathe” is perhaps one of the earliest predecessors  to the lathe commonly used at present.

The “prehistoric lathe”, in which the workpiece is held “between trees” while the “human motor” provides power. The “branch rest” keeps the cutting tool (more or less) steady.
The "Egyptian lathe", a rather more refined approach.

An illustration dating from 1395, showing what is known as the pole lathe.

Another ancient innovation of particular significance was the screw, described by Archimedes in 234 BC, after his visit to Egypt. It was not used as a fastener, but as an ingenious way to pump water. Ancient screws were rather crude by modern standards, often constructed by primitive means.


An illustration of the screw pump described by Archimedes in 234 BC. This concept was already in use in Egypt, from where it passed on to Greece.

By 1483, illustrations were depicting screw-cutting lathes operating on principles remarkably similar to present-day lathes. Leonardo Da Vinci had also designed one by 1500.

Perhaps the earliest illustration of a screw-cutting lathe, dating from 1483.

A screw-cutting lathe designed by Leonardo Da Vinci around 1500.

Henry Maudslay had built a fine example in England around 1800 and by that time, it was becoming more and more common to make precise screws for use in measurement instruments as the measuring element, using screw-cutting lathes.

Screw-cutting lathes built by Henry Maudslay between 1797 and 1800, in England.

Screws were also used as a means of advancing the carriage holding the cutting tool, longitudinally or transversely, on lathes.

A much more advanced lathe, dating from 1911. If properly cared for, lathes from the early 20th century can still be found in working condition, with the better examples putting to shame many modern lathes in terms of accuracy.

In such applications, they are called leadscrews or feedscrews and any shortcomings in the manufacture of such screws translate to loss of accuracy in the work done on that lathe.

The most popular and usually much less demanding application for screws is as threaded fasteners, holding the world together, or rather, the world’s mechanical assemblies. Screws are literally everywhere, made from a huge variety of different materials and come in sizes ranging from “so tiny you’d need magnification to see it”, to “so large you’d need a crane to lift it”.

It usually begins with smooth, cylindrical bar stock of the desired material, which is being held and rotated by the lathe, while a cutting tool of suitable geometry cuts the thread, advancing at the appropriate rate in relation to the rotational speed, to derive the desired thread pitch. The depth of cut is a critical parameter.

Screw cutting in action on a 1954 Hardinge HLV super-precision lathe, restored by the author. Photograph courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

Almost completed screw, held on the lathe, awaiting the final finishing pass. Note the geometry of the cutting tool, required to form the thread and the resulting chip (the material removed). The cutting tool used to cut phonograph records is of similar geometry, but considerably smaller. Photograph courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments. While screws can be cut in multiple passes, a record has to be cut in one pass.

Let us assume we have a certain nut and we need to make a screw to work with it. We can easily figure out the approximate size and pitch, but if we cut the thread too deep, there will be excessive play between screw and nut. If we do not cut the thread deep enough, it won’t even screw on, due to inadequate clearance. We can therefore see that the depth of cut must not only be correct, but also constant. If we were to continuously vary the depth, it would be impossible to use that screw with any nut.

However, we could use a measurement instrument with a stylus if we want to measure any such variation in depth…Wait… So, what if we were to intentionally vary the depth during the cut, in proportion to sound? Then we could use a stylus to “measure” these variations, converting them back into sound!

I assume Thomas Edison must have thought something along these lines when he invented his variable-depth screw-cutting lathe, known as the “phonograph”!

Thomas Edison with his phonograph, around 1878.

Well aware of the recent technological developments in the field of machine tools, as an inventor, he took the concept of a screw-cutting lathe and added the variable-depth feature, modulating the depth of cut around the base value of a silent groove, by means of the acoustic energy reaching a diaphragm at the throat of the horn. A stylus was attached to the other end of the diaphragm, translating the motion of the diaphragm into a deeper or shallower thread. It was an entirely mechanical process and so was the playback. To reproduce the recording, the change in depth would push a stylus attached to a diaphragm, thereby translating the depth change into air pressure variations, with the diaphragm acting upon the air within the horn. This would produce sound, in the exact reversal of the process which recorded the sound.

Sound recording started as vertically modulated grooves on a cylinder, as this was the most obvious way of doing it, in consideration of the parallels with machine tool development. It was also the simplest way of doing it without needing overly elaborate mechanisms. The cylinder was just a screw, cut on a lathe, with the addition of a diaphragm and stylus, in place of the stationary cutting tool used to cut ordinary “silent” screws.

But, are ordinary screws really silent? As you will discover if you try to play back a screw, as if it were a recording, the majority of screws are far from silent! Since most machine tools were not designed for sound recording, little effort was made to prevent the sounds of the machine itself from being recorded onto the screws it was cutting!

However, where extreme accuracy was required, precision machine tools were used, designed to not allow any unintentional errors to make it to the workpiece. While this level of precision is not normally found in ordinary screws used as fasteners, the finest leadscrews are made in ways which make them quieter upon playback, should you decide to discover the secret world of unintentional sound recordings as a by-product of industrial manufacturing processes. Which is probably also where the origins of sound synthesis and electronic musical instruments could be traced.

Phonograph cylinders were the humble beginning of the recording industry, which grew enormously and changed dramatically since those early days. New technologies, then and now, rarely come out of nowhere. They are usually based on the collective body of knowledge and experience already established by others, often in seemingly unrelated sectors.

Progress mostly occurs in small logical steps, to address certain needs. Over a century prior to the invention of sound recording and subsequent reproduction, there were already documented attempts to do so. The most widely known example, the phonautograph of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1857), went as far as graphically representing sound, but with no possibility of reproduction as sound. The phonograph cylinder was the first invention that succeeded in being able to reproduce sound.

The Phonautograph.

A phonautogram, which is what the phonautograph could do, dating from 1859.

In the next episode, we shall investigate the transition from the cylinder to the disk record.

Miles Davis: Eight Great Tracks

Miles Davis: Eight Great Tracks

Miles Davis: Eight Great Tracks

Anne E. Johnson

Here’s something you don’t hear every day: Miles Davis has a new album! Yes, the great trumpeter has been dead since 1991, but his record Rubberband was just released this September. And while we’re celebrating, 2019 also marks the 50th anniversary of the famed Bitches Brew album.

In 1944, as a teen trumpeter in St. Louis, Davis was tapped to fill in for Art Blakey at a Billy Eckstine concert, and the pros encouraged him. So, that same year he headed to New York to study at the Juilliard School. But Charlie Parker liked his style enough to hire him, and he quickly left school for a real-life education.

Davis’ innovations spread across the subgenres of cool jazz and outgrowths of bebop. He influenced a couple of generations of players, and – just as important – he allowed himself to be influenced by younger musicians, even outside of jazz. He was an outspoken fan of Jimi Hendrix, for example, and later he championed Michael Jackson’s music.

It was tougher than usual to choose which cuts to feature here. Davis made over 50 studio records. All I could do was cherry-pick from among this impressive harvest. Enjoy these eight great tracks from Miles Davis.

  1. “Bluing”


    Many of us remember the influx of EP albums in the 1980s. But 30 years before that, the jazz music industry used 10-inch LPs to release singles in a genre where tunes could go on for quite a while. From 1951, the 10-minute “Bluing” is so long that it had to be split over the two sides of the disc.

    Supported by the delicate touch of Walter Bishop on piano, plus four other top-notch musicians (Sonny Rollins, Tommy Potter, Art Blakey, and Jackie McLean), “Bluing” is a great example of Davis’ more gentle bop style before it took a hard turn.


    1. “Blue ‘n’ Boogie”

      Miles Davis All-Star Sextet

      On this 10-inch LP, Side A is the 1944 Dizzy Gillespie tune “Blue ‘n’ Boogie.” In an interview, Davis once explained that his goal on this track was to combine a funky blues sound with the “fire and improvisation of bebop.” He was certainly the guy to do it.

      Besides the raucous drumming of Kenny Clarke and Davis’ lithe solos, the other sextet members contribute equally. Percy Heath’s walking bassline is practically skipping down the sidewalk. Starting at 2:00 J.J. Johnson shows that a trombone can be a virtuoso instrument (a special treat, since the Davis Quintet had no trombone). Horace Silver is on piano and Lucky Thompson on tenor sax.


      1. “Oleo”

        Bags’ Groove

        Longtime Davis collaborator Sonny Rollins wrote “Oleo” and plays tenor sax on the album Bags’ Groove (the title track refers to a Milt Jackson tune written a few years before). Rollins’ composition premiered on this record, and grew into a hard bop standard.

        The Davis All-Stars (as the quintet is sometimes referred to) is made up of inventors of hard bop, a term that incorporates musical features that should be in conflict but work well together: uneven-length of phrases, dissonance, and a strong gospel-like swing rhythm. Davis’ playing is sly and charming.


        1. “Drad-Dog”

          Someday My Prince Will Come

          One of the draws of Someday My Prince Will Come is the presence of tenor sax player Hank Mobley in his only record with the Davis Quintet. John Coltrane, who plays only on one track, gets billed above Mobley on the cover; Columbia knew what would sell. But Mobley proves an apt partner for Davis’ musical vision. Too bad they didn’t work together more.

          The sultry “Dread-Dog,” a Davis composition, opens with a slow, misty solo on muted trumpet, matched in style by Mobley’s horn starting at 1:22.


          1. “Pinocchio”


            Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock wrote most of the celebrated album Nefertiti. The personnel comprise what is known as the Davis Second Great Quintet: Davis on trumpet, Hancock on piano, Shorter on tenor sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. That fivesome is credited with inventing the dissonant small-group style of “post-bop.”

            Shorter wrote “Pinocchio,” and throughout the first playing of the long, complex melody he perfectly doubles Davis’ laid-back line at the lower octave. They make it sound like as easy as playing catch in the back yard.


            1. “Sweet Pea”

              Water Babies

              Since Davis sometimes had a habit of showing up in the studio to record random tracks, some of his albums took a while to coalesce, and sometimes not even under his own guidance. Water Babies was one of those. When Davis announced he was retiring in 1975, producers at Columbia Records started sweeping the vaults for material to put in a farewell album.

              Of course, Davis didn’t end up retiring for long, but his temporary rest did the jazz world a favor by bringing out a bunch of tunes it might not have heard otherwise. Water Babies is a combination of tracks recorded by the quintet in 1967-68, mostly outtakes from earlier albums.

              “Sweet Pea” was composed by Wayne Shorter. It’s a wandering slow ballad. Davis’ trumpet plays the role of a lovelorn man, sometimes whimpering, sometimes sobbing, sometimes wailing in desperation. Its interactions with Herbie Hancock’s piano and Roy Carter’s punctuating bassline give the piece the texture of etched porcelain.


              1. “Come Get It”

                Star People

                Mino Cinélu is the real treasure of the Star People album. This French jazz percussionist has a thrilling touch on hand-struck drums, one of those players who really understands the subtleties of energy, accent, and pitch in percussion.

                “Come Get It” starts with the sound of Cinélu’s congas. Drum set (Al Foster) quickly joins in, bringing the sound more solidly into the jazz realm. The guitar and bass groove is laid in so deep that Davis doesn’t even deign to come in until around 2:20, subtly at first, like he’s testing out whether he belongs in the room. Yeah, he does, and his hard-bop solo will make your hair stand on end.



                1. “This Is It”

                  Rhino Entertainment

                  In 1985, after 30 years with Columbia Records, Davis suddenly left them and signed with Warner Bros. Apparently he had vague ideas of starting with jazz versions of pop and R&B tunes, as he’d done on his final Columbia album, You’re Under Arrest. But Davis was listless and unfocused in the studio, only laying down a track every few months. So the head of studio, Tommy LiPuma, stepped in, and had bassist Marcus Miller write a bunch of jazz tunes for Davis.

                  The result was an album called Tutu. And the earlier jazzed-up pop tracks were shelved. Three came out in a box set in 1992. This new album contains those, plus eight more. The funk-infused “This Is It” has a terrifying edginess that proves this album was worth bringing back up from the crypt. The wild guitar line is played by Mike Stern.

                  Ear Candy

                  Ear Candy

                  Ear Candy

                  Lawrence Schenbeck

                  Of the four strictly definable parameters of any musical sound—pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre—the last of these, also called color, may be hardest to define or describe. Think about it: a tone can be pitched either high or low; that tone occupies time such that it’s either long or short; it may also sound soft or loud. But are there any one-syllable words to describe a tone’s timbre?

                  I think not.

                  Consider the flute. We know that a crucial component of timbre is the overtone series generated whenever an instrument produces a tone. Overtones are the barely audible pitches that sound “higher” than the principal pitch. They color that pitch and provide essential information about its identity; with their help, you hear the sound of a flute, not an oboe or clarinet.

                  Overtones line up in mathematically coherent ways: on a low-sounding C, for instance, the first overtone will be the C an octave higher; the second overtone will be the G an octave and a fifth above that low C; and so on. But overtones are not the only sound our flute is making. Sounds that don’t line up coherently—i.e., noise—are also present. The characteristic timbre of a flute is formed when its quite simple overtone series (usually consisting of the fundamental and first overtone) combines with the sound of the player’s breath blowing over the mouthpiece (as with a soda bottle) and through the tube attached to it. A tiny windstorm takes place, and that shapes the breathy timbre of the flute.

                  But wait, there’s more: every voice or instrument also makes a differently colored sound when it’s first sung or struck or blown, then as it continues, and finally as it ends. The continuous process defined by these attack-and-decay phenomena used to be called the envelope, at least by the people who invented our first synthesizers. Audiophiles may be more familiar with terms like transient or transient response, e.g., the sound of a snare drum struck by a stick. Just remember that an initial transient occupies only a portion of the envelope. On a pitched mallet instrument like the marimba, successive envelopes are bewitching in their variety. Listen:


                  That’s Guillo Espel’s Zamba Para Escuchar Tu Silencio (“A Zamba for Hearing Your Silence”) as played by excellent percussionist Vivi Vassileva. She performs with remarkable rhythmic freedom and flexible dynamics—every single note (which is to say every envelope) exhibits a slightly different loudness/softness quality, not to mention slightly different envelopes, which more than compensate for the instrument’s limited color range.

                  The zamba, incidentally, is not to be confused with the samba. This dance-with-a-z comes from the gaucho culture of Argentina and southern Brazil. Vassileva’s guitarist, Lucas Campara Diniz, apparently hails from those parts: “He drinks maté tea all day and he grew up with the traditions…Thanks to him I learned the authentic way to access zamba.”

                  That’s not all she accesses in the eleven timbrous tracks of Singin’ Rhythm (Alpha 463). Eric Sammut’s jazz-flavored Sailing for Phil gives Vassileva’s quintet a chance to swing gently as she puts her vibe stylings to work. The first two of its three movements are especially tasty, although greater rhythmic flexibility would have helped, especially in the laid-back middle movement. Four colorful, effective arrangements follow, the first two of which (Bate Coxa, Hora Staccato) feature guitarist Diniz. I especially enjoyed Variations on Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavane, a work for solo marimba by the great Keiko Abe (b. 1937).

                  Vassileva follows that up with her own Kalino Mome, a tour-de-force in which she plays 13 different instruments, alone or in combinations that surprise and delight. You can hear the whole thing in the YouTube mix above, but here’s a teaser with the artist explaining what she’s up to:


                  The album ends with two additional works of substance, Piper Misturado, co-written by Vassileva and Diniz, and El Pario, by Orio Cruixent (b. 1976). Of the latter Vassileva says, “I love this piece because it allows me to sing on the vibraphone, and I could never pass up an opportunity like that.”

                  Two more virtuoso displays of solo timbre come to us from violinists Jennifer Koh and Merel Vercammen. Both have released double duet albums in collaboration with other musicians—and thereby hangs a bit of twisted history: even as musicians continually sought to introduce new colors in the modern era, they tended to make string sound a default “neutral” color, a bed on which to display singular jewels. (Think of the way Debussy uses the orchestral strings in L’après-midi d’un faune to accompany solo flute, harp, horns, etc.) Thus in any violin-plus-one scenario, a violinist has to make sure she doesn’t come off as the black-velvet presentation mat. No worries, though: both Koh and Vercammen bring plenty of color—all manner of pizzicati, fingerboard snaps, harmonics, double stops and more, not to mention sheer creative energy—to their encounters.

                  I was especially struck by the way Koh’s collaborators in Limitless (Cedille CDR 90000 191) consciously manipulate timbre as a creative strategy. Of The Banquet, its 12-minute opening track, Brooklyn-based composer/drummer Qasim Naqvi writes:

                  I was learning how to use a modular synthesizer—a type of voltage controlled [analog] musical system that predates modern keyboard synthesizers…I’m drawn to the beautiful and complex textures it creates because of [its unstable properties]…I wanted to highlight the synthesizer’s treatment of odd and even harmonics against the natural resonance of the violin.

                  The result is a haunting journey that also addresses “the challenges of expressing beauty during times of great emotional turmoil.”


                  Vocalist/composer Du Yun’s give me back my fingerprints is another extended track that rewards those who invest the time. What began as a subvocal murmur—radio interference? a neighbor’s conversation?—soon builds to a woman’s shattering, cathartic cry for independence.


                  Timbre-wise, there’s much more to explore. Nina Young’s Sun Propeller metaphorically references Tuvan throat-singing, especially its use of a “low drone-tone that is filtered…to create rays of overtones.” Check out also Tyshawn Sorey’s glockenspiel-laced In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams, Wang Lu’s percussive Her Latitude, and Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin (featured complete via YouTube below); works by Lisa Bielawa and Vijay Iyer offer more conventional but hardly less compelling sounds. (Highlights available on the Cedille link above, complete tracks on YouTube and Spotify.)


                  Merel Vercammen’s The Zoo (trptk TTK0042) consists entirely of improvised duets. She’s passionate about improv as a collaborative process, and in her liner notes argues persuasively for it. Among other things (“bring yourself into a flow state”) she notes that often enough, she and her collaborator chose the first take from their session as the best. Here’s “Halcyon,” in which she pairs with Vincent Houdijk, who contributes vibes and Tibetan singing bowl (e.g., eerie bell-like sounds):


                  And “Birds,” with vocalist Bernadeta Astari:


                  Okay, how ‘bout one more? This is “Frog,” with pianist Tobias Borsboom:


                  We’ll finish off this column with orchestral color. After Debussy and Ravel, the French composer who probably worked hardest to establish timbre as primary creative material was Olivier Messiaen. Now not only Messiaen but also Dutilleux and Boulez are gone; a younger generation of French colorists has taken up the timbre torch. Among them is Marc-André Dalbavie (b. 1961). Conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle SO have recorded an entire album of Dalbavie’s music, including his 2008 La source d’un regard, a tribute to Messiaen. At the very beginning of the work, the orchestra sounds a sequence of four notes, bell-like iterations derived from that composer’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. Each leaves a sonic after-image (an envelope) in its wake:


                  You will have noticed the album cover, which lists Dalbavie’s oboe, flute, and cello concertos. Are they also colorful, striking, essential? Yes, of course. Check out Demarre McGill’s electrifying performance of the Flute Concerto:


                  Mr. McGill, incidentally, is Principal Flute at Seattle; his brother Anthony, late of the Met Orchestra, holds down Principal Clarinet chair at the NYPO. I can’t help wondering how their double album of improvised duets would sound.

                  [Thanks to Paul Schiavo, from whom I borrowed words on La source d’un regard from his liner notes for this album.]

                  Getting to the Bottom of Things

                  Bill Leebens

                  I recently had the opportunity to spend an afternoon listening to records with a reviewer. In addition to an absolutely ridiculous record collection, he had an extraordinarily-resolving system. If I had to guesstimate the total retail price of all the gear, I’d say it was about $600,000. The reviewer was quick to point out that while he did buy the gear at industry-accommodation pricing, he did buy it all. It wasn’t loaned gear.

                  The one piece of equipment that was in for review was the cartridge, which retails for about $10,500. That’s a lot of money for a small, easily-damaged thingie, but there are carts that cost far more, and don’t sound as good. The cartridge was in an arm that retails for $40,000 or so—again, a lot of money. The turntable? Oh, about $150,000.

                  The point is not how pricey the gear is: every one of these playback components set new standards of performance. We discussed the ways in which each of these components was superior to others that had come before, and how the combination was capable of extracting previously-unheard details from records the reviewer had listened to for 50 or 60 years.

                  “It’s insane! Here’s a medium that’s over a hundred years old, and we’re still learning just how good it can be. We’re finding details we’ve never heard before, things that were embedded in the pressing that we never knew were there. And it might still get even better,” said the reviewer.

                  We struggled to come up with a parallel in any other field. I’ve given it additional thought since then, and all I’ve come up with is this—and it’s still not exactly the same:

                  Imagine that you had a camera that took pictures—film or digital, it doesn’t matter. Assume that however you view the images from that camera, what you see is at the limits of resolution.

                  Years go by, and you keep the negatives/files stored away. Then a new device appears—a scanner, enlarger, whatever. Just for fun, you pull out those old pictures, and suddenly you discover details in the images that you didn’t know were there. You clearly see faces that had previously appeared blurred; you can even see wrinkles and tiny scars and blemishes on those faces.

                  The improvement is so startling that you check to make sure someone hasn’t switched the images on you —but no, they’re the ones you stashed away, years ago.

                  The details that are now readily-apparent were always there, in latent form, irretrievable. And now, you can retrieve them. The punchline is that you didn’t really know how good your images were. Beyond that: they may be even better than you can now see. There may still be details that are irretrievable with current technology. Who knows what’s left to be extracted?

                  In that case, as with LPs, the question is, how much is left? How much information is still there, waiting for improvements in technology to draw out that raw data?

                  Here’s another puzzlement: as the playback gear has improved, surface noise has been reduced, and wear from previous use/abuse is less obvious. What happened to the dictum of “the more you hear, the more bad stuff you’ll hear”? And yet, the more precise the tracing of the groove, the more forgiving it seems to be of groove insults caused by previous ham-handed playback issues.

                  I can’t come up with an explanation for that. I suppose that more-sophisticated stylus profiles allow more careful tracing of the groove, but wouldn’t it also mean they’d be more likely to fall into the potholes gouged out by that old record player with the nickel taped on to the tonearm?

                  As MRIs, scanning electron microscopy, and as-yet unnamed imaging techniques continue to improve with resolution down to the molecular level, what will the limit be? And who thought that 36+ years after CDs were introduced, we’d still be getting more and more out of the venerable LP?

                  What will be the limit there?

                  Leon Russell

                  Anne E. Johnson

                  One of his best-known songs was named after a science fiction novel. He sang while wearing a top hat and shades, and he sported a long, scraggly beard. His sound and look were unmistakable, but the music with his name in lights was only a portion of Leon Russell’s output. Russell (1942-2016) was one of the hardest-working musicians in rock and roll.

                  The Oklahoman made 33 albums, but that doesn’t include the many records he participated in as a session musician. Russell routinely got invited to the studio to back top names like Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. He started his music career as a pianist, and he must have been as good a networker as he was a musician, because he never lacked for big stars clamoring to collaborate with him.

                  Leon Russell, his solo debut, came out in 1970 on Shelter Records in the US, and A&M in the UK. It did well, with its biggest single being “A Song for You.” The album’s sound was a mix of rock and country, blended with a freedom in the lyrics and instrumentation that could only have happened after the experimentation of the 1960s.

                  Russell composed most of the album, including the wry heartbreak blues “Hurtsome Body,” which lays out its self-deprecating humor from the opening lurch of the piano chords. But the wailing chorus that enters (if you think you hear Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger, it’s not your imagination!) colors the whole enterprise with a backdrop of pain.


                  In the same year, Russell the workhorse released his second solo album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People. It went gold. The public was especially captivated by the honkytonk-tinged mournfulness of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the title of which Russell got from the best-selling Robert A. Heinlein space opera novel.

                   Asylum Choir II (the second of two collaborations with Marc Benno) was recorded in 1969 but not released until 1971. Benno is a guitarist and songwriter who co-wrote several of the album’s songs. Russell gets sole credit for a few, including “Ballad for a Soldier.”


                  Among Russell’s many idiosyncrasies was the fact that he invented an alter ego, Hank Wilson. This was his bluegrass persona, and an overview of his work is incomplete without including that aspect of his musical life. From 1973 to 2001, he released four albums as Wilson. It took special commitment to this side project to call the first of those Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. I, as if this Wilson character were well into his career.

                  That first Wilson album comprises covers of country and bluegrass artists’ songs, including one by the man who first attached the term bluegrass to hillbilly music, the great Bill Monroe. Here’s Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” with Russell wearing many hats as signer, pianist, bass player, guitarist, and producer. He’s joined by (among others) Jim Buchanan on fiddle.


                  In 1975, Russell married singer Mary McCreary, and they made an album together in 1977. Make Love to the Music serves as a testament not only to the marriage (which lasted until 1980), but also to a new musical influence in Russell’s sound. The title song belongs in the soul genre, in part thanks to the use of saxophone and dobro.


                  One of Russell’s most productive creative collaborations was with songwriter Douglas A. Snider. The duo sold their song “Love Is on the Radio” to Welsh crooner Tom Jones, who made it a hit. And in 1984, Russell and Snider released the co-written album Solid State.

                  The non-album track “Ain’t No Love in the City” was put out as the B-side of the hit single “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” Its driving bluesy piano beat is softened by busy organ and violin lines, a combination typical of an era that had no patience with simplicity in the recording studio.


                  Although he continued to tour and oversee remixes of his hits, Russell took an eight-year break from releasing new material in the studio. That hiatus ended with Anything Can Happen (1992), co-produced and co-written with Bruce Hornsby (interestingly, not credited on the front cover), who’d sat in on several of Russell’s earlier records.

                  Most of the tracks are new works. An exception, and one of the highlights, is this delightful rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”


                  As a native of Oklahoma, Russell had grown up on that mix of blues, country, and rockabilly known as the Tulsa Sound. Russell’s early session work on piano had helped craft this sound, along with the guitar styles of J.J. Cale, David Teegarden, and others.

                  During his long and prolific career, Russell sometimes strayed far from his roots. That fact must have been bothering him when he made Face in the Crowd (1999). Critics immediately noticed its rejuvenated Tulsa flavor.

                  The earth-stomping feel of “Down in the Flood” is a great example. There’s also a return to less complex, more traditional instrumentation.


                  It may be his piano playing that most defines Russell’s sound, but he was also an accomplished and passionate guitarist. Guitar Blues (2001) is exactly what it sounds like: Russell focusing on the guitar. No surprise, he also plays all the other instruments on the album, with the exception of drums. Those are handled by Teddy Jack, son of Leon and Mary Russell.

                  From Guitar Blues, the song “Dark Carousel” has an intriguingly Latin flavor. And Russell’s expressive and creative solos prove him to be in the upper echelon of blues-rock guitarists.


                  Russell remained an active musician until the very end. Released a year after his death, On a Distant Shore (2017) is the cherry on top of a life of delicious music. Russell wrote the whole album. And this is not the musical dregs of an old man who used to be great. The ballad “Just Leaves and Grass” is as stirring as it is heartbreaking. Russell’s voice, cracked by age, is as powerful as ever.

                  Second Verse, (Sorta) Same As the First

                  Second Verse, (Sorta) Same As the First

                  Second Verse, (Sorta) Same As the First

                  Bob Wood

                  As senior year approached, I started sending out audition tapes to stations much larger than any which would have me—but my visits to WFIL had set my sights way too high. A friend at my college station took one of my tapes to his hometown WYRE, in Annapolis, and landed me a part-time job. He had to go to summer school, too. We then made a deal – I’d drive him to and from home on weekends, and I could stay at his house (complete with backyard into a tributary of the Chesapeake, accessorized with a fast ski-boat).Image result for wyre radio annapolis

                  There was lots of drinking on those weekends, followed by learning how to talk with a ripping hangover, as I had morning sign-on. As a daytimer, WYRE was regulated to only use its 250 watts during local daytime. It sat above a swamp, and the tower radials* were in the swamp, which helped get the signal out, almost to Baltimore, and to Washington in our dreams.

                  250 watts was the lowest power possible. But those wet radials helped extend the coverage, so it felt like a big timer, except we had a local and nautical format as “The Voice of the Bay.” Features like Tide Timetable and Scuttlebutt (PSAs) were peppered through each hour. And on weekends they’d turn the (then one span) Chesapeake Bay Bridge one way outbound as much traffic was headed to the Atlantic coast, then on Sunday at some time it’d be one way the other way inbound. Now there are twin bridges. But back then, we’d call the toll booth, “On the Line with me is Sgt. Foley on the Bay Bridge. Sergeant, how is traffic?” Ding ding. Ding ding: the sound of quarters being deposited – Sgt. F. had laid the phone down and forgot it.” I’d sit and think – “ is he gonna pick it up? How long should I wait?”

                  Ding ding.

                  We had a color blind “contract” engineer, a nomad who repaired or took care of many stations. He’d hold up a wire and ask what color it was, then crawl back into whatever he was fixing.

                  One afternoon the circuit breakers tripped in the transmitter (swamp electric – this happened regularly) and WE COULDN’T GET THE TRANSMITTER DOOR OPEN to reset them. The engineer was called. He arrived in an agonizing 45 minutes, and pointed to the old transmitter. “See that dent?” He asked, “That’s where Adam F****ed Eve.”

                  He then tapped a spot and the door swung open. Several of us had been yanking on the handle with all our might, so we stood dumfounded, then I rushed back to the studio to be ‘on the air.’ There couldn’t have been one listener left.

                  Especially on weekends, radio stations are lonely. We had the inner studio door propped open because the AC failed at 10AM in the summer, and the program director had thoughtfully poured a bottle of Aqua Velva aftershave into the overburdened AC unit to try to cover up the moldy smell. So I am alone, on the air, and could see when the outer door opened by a flash of outside light, but it was getting late and as I looked up into the doorway there was a girl’s face, suspended in space. Scared me to death! (She wore black and was in the dark studio doorway.) She was sexy, and we were going to have some fun, I thought, eager to test my newfound personality power on her, but had to finish my shift. Time slowed. Meanwhile she called her ex-boyfriend to say she wasn’t coming back, but they made up before my shift ended, and she left.

                  Legend has it that one day a snake fell through the dropped ceiling onto the microphone while some poor guy was sitting there waiting for a record to end. Later in my career I did confirm that stations with transmitters in swamps are snakeful places.

                  I lived maybe a quarter mile from the station, and when the morning show personality (also the Program Director) would go out to his car for a cigarette, the door would slam shut and lock him out; he’d run to a neighbor’s house and wake me up to come let him back in. Meanwhile, on the radio, listeners heard the needle having run out of music…schk shck shck shck…for minutes and minutes.

                  That RCA 77-DX mike would still hold up. Those headphones? Not so much.

                  “Dead Air” is when here’s nothing on, though the transmitter is still broadcasting. To be avoided at all costs. You could lose your whole audience before you were back.

                  I lived on Silopanna road – Annapolis spelled backwards.

                  Once, in the middle of a bad lightning storm, I called the boss and asked what to do. He said “Don’t touch anything metal.” EVERYTHING I had to touch was metal.

                  Well, in September I got married, and received a ten dollar a week raise. By October I was trying to climb the ladder, moving to a larger station in a larger market. Remember, Annapolis was small, even though our station could be heard in parts of Baltimore and maybe Washington, but to the industry, we were tiny.

                  Charlottesville was to be a step up.

                  *AM station towers are only half of how the signal propagates; there’s a grid of radial copper strips buried surrounding the tower. AM stations have a skywave and a groundwave. At night when you pick up a distant AM signal, you are hearing the skywave bounce off the ionosphere. [I never knew that. Learn something new every day. —Ed.]




                  Roy Hall

                  The colorful buildings in the narrow streets of Old Havana beckoned us. The ever-present music drew us into the courtyard. Hypnotized we sat down and let the sounds wash over our souls until we were one with the rhythm.

                  Jet Blue was organized. ‘A Cuban visa would be issued at the airport. Just purchase your ticket and come to the airport,” said the friendly agent.

                  We checked in at JFK and after getting our boarding passes, we were guided to an elderly man wearing a white shirt who was sitting at a folding card table. He charged us $50 each for the visa, which included health insurance.

                  On arrival in Havana airport, I tried to get some Cuban currency but the line to the only bank was incredibly long. While contemplating what to do, I was approached by a young woman who asked if I would like to change money. At first I was suspicious but she offered me the going rate and I changed a few hundred dollars. Problem solved, we cabbed it into Havana.

                  The Airbnb house we booked was in the district known as Miramar. Once an elegant, up market area of Havana it was now incredibly worn-out looking. Streets were in disrepair and the once beautiful villas were crumbling. Fortunately, our house, a three-bedroom villa with a small swimming pool was in fine condition. It came with a couple who maintained the property and cooked us breakfast in the morning. Apparently the father of the owner had been a member of the government and very close to Fidel Castro who often visited.

                  The house was near a bank, which seemed to be open only occasionally. Next-door was a supermarket with mostly empty shelves. What was readily available was bread, pasta, processed ham and frozen chicken. And I almost forgot…Rum, lots of Rum. Fresh produce was sold in separate shops or markets but the greens and vegetables that we saw, looked tired and often bruised. We walked down to the seashore, which was, like the streets, in great disrepair. Broken concrete seemed to be strewn everywhere and the beach was unkempt and deserted.

                  Old Havana is full of ancient structures. Some have been repaired but many are decaying. Once grand plazas in the Spanish style are now faded and unkempt. European hotel chains have renovated some buildings and once restored, they show how magnificent the town must have been. But even with all this shabbiness (although many of the buildings are now painted in colorful hues) there is an energy and vibrancy about the city. Before leaving New York, Rita had insisted that we make a point of listening to music.

                  It is almost impossible not to hear music. Most streets had musicians playing guitar or bongos. Everyone had a CD to sell and I bought quite a few. The recordings are simple but the performances are great and the quality of singing and playing shines through. One of the main streets was filled with bars and restaurants, each with it’s own band or ensemble. We heard Rumba, Guaracha, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Chachacha, Bolero, and a more modern version of Salsa called Timba. Old Havana is a music lover’s paradise.

                  We found the people friendly and curious. Walking through the old cobbled streets never made us feel uncomfortable. No one except street musicians approached us, and all they asked from us was to listen to their music.

                  One day we took an excursion to Pinar Del Rio. It lies about 100 miles west of Havana, and is famous for its tobacco plantations. We visited one outside the city. It was family-owned and the courtyard at the front was like most of Cuba, run down with chickens pecking in the dust and an occasional goat baaing for attention. They had a reception area that sold finished cigars with a top price of $4.

                  I wandered around and came across two massive barns. Inside, hanging from wooden racks were rows and rows of tobacco leaves, drying and curing. I am not a smoker but my father only smoked Cuban cigars and I have a fondness for their smell. The aroma of this barn was so nostalgic and seductive that I didn’t want to leave. This was possibly the most sensual fragrance I have ever experienced. I did buy a bundle of Cohibas to give as gifts. I think I paid $40 for 20 top quality cigars. Whenever I open that suitcase, I still get a whiff of that lovely perfume.

                  It’s hard to change currency, as banks are difficult to find. The secret we discovered was to ask in hotels. They are delighted to take your dollars. Cuba has two currencies. One for tourists (the convertible peso = 1 dollar), the other for locals (25 peso nacional = 1 dollar). Tourist restaurants price everything in convertible pesos, whereas local places price in peso nacional. This is good for the locals but tourists get ripped off by having to pay US prices. I didn’t mind as I was on vacation and felt that the country needed my dollars.

                  The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes de Cuba is a spectacular exhibit space. It displays art from colonial times up to the present. The early art is derivative but the modern art by Cuban artists is spectacular, their use of color and texture original. The museum stands in a beautifully refurbished 1950s building in the heart of old Havana. For all its modern conveniences, track lighting, air conditioning, climate control, etc., the toilets lack running water. An attendant was employed to flush the toilets with a bucket of water.

                  Ernest Hemingway had some of his most productive years in Cuba. His house, called Finca Vigia (lookout estate) in Spanish, is stunning and has been lovingly restored, so much so, that you wouldn’t be surprised if Hemingway himself turned up. You cannot enter it but you can walk around the open windows and peer into his life. Unfortunately it is too popular, so fighting the crowds to get a peek is challenging.

                  His papers are strewn about. You can see his typewriter, his guns, and fishing tackle. More than a few bottles of alcohol are in plain view. The home, like the man seems larger than life. It sits in a private estate about 9 miles out of Havana. I tried to sense what it would have been like during his time there but the incessant busloads of tourists intruded into that thought.

                  We only visited for a few days but we enjoyed our stay so much we vowed to return soon and often but now because of the political situation, (Trump’s closing of relations with the Cuban government) the island is virtually barred to US citizens.