Issue 96

96 Tears

96 Tears

Bill Leebens

Welcome to Copper #96!

One thousand, three hundred and twenty-three days ago, the first issue of Copper came out. What you're now reading is, as stated, the ninety-sixth issue. That means that a new issue of Copper has appeared every 13.78 days, since the beginning.

Astonishingly enough, that is precisely on schedule. Regulars know that Copper appears (as if by magic!!) every other Monday. Depending on which confusing and contradictory definition you choose, that makes the mag biweekly. Or bimonthly. Maybe both.

Here's the reason for this drawn-out pedantry: I cannot think of another single thing in my life where I've managed to stick to a schedule, and deliver according to expectations, day after day, month after month...and year after year. For that reason alone, Copper is, to me, a miracle.

Way back in the early spring of 2016, Paul McGowan came to me wearing the mischievous grin that I know means trouble. What he said, guaranteed trouble:

"I want to do a magazine."

After a few deep breaths, I began a panicked-but-reasoned analysis of why an actual old-school paper magazine was a fool's errand. He quickly clarified that it was to be an online mag, and I breathed a little easier.

Until he told me it needed to be a weekly.

As the structure came together, the weekly thing fell by the wayside; it was clear that every two weeks would be challenging enough, both for the staff, and for the readers. That was a relief, but the challenges remained.

Our friend Seth Godin named the mag and wrote a column. We created a wish-list of potential writers, and not only did many join us, I'm grateful beyond words that several are still with us, after all this time.

Three of our regular columnists have been with the mag since the first issue. In the order in which they appear in the mag: Larry Schenbeck, Dan Schwartz, and Richard Murison have each contributed thousands of words and shared their expertise and their own peculiar perspectives--and I use "peculiar" in the sense of unusual, or special. I've learned a great deal from them in terms of musical and technical knowledge, and I've also learned from their unfailing professionalism and grace. I'm not sure how I can ever express my gratitude for their hard work and their gracious support. Thank you, guys.

Woody Woodward has been with us almost as long, starting with #2. We may disagree about stylistic issues, but never about music---he's shown that he has impeccable taste in tunes, and has his own unique take on them. Thanks so much, Woody.

We've had several writers come and go: a column every two weeks can be pretty demanding. Duncan Taylor was with us in the first issue, and his tales of live recordings appeared through #51. Other notable frequent flyers were Jim Smith, Ken Kessler, wine guy Tom Methans, and PS Audio's own Dan McCauley. The inimitable Christian James Hand was with us for twenty issues, and is still out there on the LA radio, and doing live presentations.

Anne E. Johnson has shared her musical knowledge with us since issue #30, often twice an issue, and I don't know anyone with her depth of knowledge across all areas of music. I dogged Roy Hall for years to tell his tales, and for years he said he didn't have enough stories to share. Sixty issues on, he's still telling his tales. Jay Jay French has been with us since #43, and I expect him to return soon.

J.I. Agnew and Tom Gibbs are our most-recent arrivals, starting in issues 90 and 91, respectively---and I hope they'll be lending their insights to Copper for years to come. Many others deserve to be mentioned---especially Gautam Raja, B. Jan Montana, and Rudy Radelic. Thanks to them, and to all who contributed through the years.

Given all that--- it saddens me to tell you that this will be my last issue.

It's hard to write that, and even more difficult for me to grasp. Copper has been both my focus and my motivation for years now--- and it's tough to leave. The magazine will continue in the very capable hands of Maggie McFalls, who has worked with me as Associate Editor for over a year now. She has an unerring eye for awkward phrases or run-on sentences (especially mine), and everyone in the Copper crew has worked with her.

As I've mentioned in the past, Leebens' Law of Life #1 is: Things Change. And so they do.

Back to the present issue: Professor Larry Schenbeck looks at the life and work of Maurice Durufle'; Dan Schwartz remembers how a jam and an obscure poem sold eleven million records (and counting); Richard Murison surveys recordings of the Shostakovich 4th Symphony; Roy Hall writes about his son, Ilan, a now-famous chef; Anne E. Johnson’s Off the Charts looks at the incredible Isley Brothers; J.I. Agnew looks at format wars; Bob Wood moves on to another station; Woody Woodward continues his look at the career and music of Jeff Beck; Anne’s Something Old/Something New looks at recent recordings of Bach Cello Suites; Tom Gibbs reviews two brand-new records, one old re-heard record, and one old never-heard record; and I say goodbye to The Audio Cynic, and wrap up Vintage Whine with a look at some truly oddball turntables.

The Copper Interview has John Seetoo chatting with producer Tony Visconti.

Copper #96 wraps up with Charles Rodrigues on Husband Acceptance Factorand a maybe-melancholy Parting Sot from...me.

Ordinarily, I'd close by saying "until next time", or something similar. Well---this is it. Thanks for reading, and for writing us. Copper will still be here, so keep reading and writing.

As for me---so long, and thanks for all the fish.


The Story of "All I Wanna Do", Redux

Dan Schwartz

I was talking to Paul McGowan a week or so ago, and he asked again about how the song’s lyrics came about. This is as I remember it:

Originally, on Election night 1992 [November 3rd, Clinton was elected—for obsessives like me—Ed.], there was the usual Tuesday night gathering. By the time I got there, a song was well under way. David Baerwald, like an excited kid, yelled out “Dan! Country disco!”

Sure enough, everybody, the four guys with Sheryl, was engaged in playing some sort of country-ish riff with a disco kind of beat to it. Sheryl was singing something about an ex-boyfriend, which gave rise to the working title, “I’ll Still Love You”.

I grabbed a bass – my memory is that it was a ’70 Guild M-85 II – but waited until they were done before overdubbing the first bass line that popped into my head. In fact I think the only ones present when I did the bass line were Baerwald, sitting with me, and the engineer; everyone else was continuing in “party” mode upstairs in the lounge. And that was it: one night’s work.

But as work on the album progressed, Bill Bottrell had a rethink, and began redoing the song entirely on his own, based on our parts from the first version— adding bits of the other guys as needed. There was a story told among us at the time that Sheryl couldn’t come up with any lyrics acceptable to her producer. That might be, but it strikes me as unlikely. I think it’s more likely that Bill did what he was planning to all along, and that was to use a poem that he had in mind.

When he was building his studio, Toad Hall, he knew it shouldn’t be like any other place. He found two adjacent spaces, at least one of which had been a former bank, in a neglected area of Pasadena which is now known as the Playhouse District. Back then there was the Playhouse next door, next to that that a hoity-toity florist, and Vroman’s Books. Everything else was a little beat-up. Around the corner were Cliff’s Books, a pretty great used bookstore — and a carpet place. Bill bought something like six or eight carpets there, to hang on his 16-foot cinderblock walls over fiberglass batting.

The back wall of the studio was a floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelf, which he stocked full with odds and ends purchased at Cliff’s. He used the books for diffusion. And I have to say — it worked beautifully. Now it’s fairly common, but I suspect Bill was one of the first, if not the very first, to do it.

Anyway: amongst all these used books was a self-published, small volume of poems by a little-known poet named Wyn Cooper, who taught at Middlebury College in Vermont: a Little Red Book. And among the poems in the book was a poem called “Fun” (about, essentially, two men in conversation, who know that they’re drinking themselves to death).

The story goes that when Sheryl couldn’t come up with anything, Bill handed her the book, opened to “Fun”, and said, “Here — sing this.” But as I wrote, I think it was less random; more likely it was his plan all along. Bill came up with the chorus out of the words of the poem. This might have worked out really well for Wyn — he was given 40% of the publishing on the song — if not for Warner-Chappell taking most of that from him. Sheryl later, in interviews, said it was a mistake and that her lawyer was going to straighten that out. But as far as I know, that never happened: another tale in the grimy music business.

But, for me, that great irony was that I would hear from people about their little kids singing the song, and yet I knew that it was a song about alcoholism.

A Survey of Recordings of Shostakovich Symphony No. 4

Richard Murison

Back in Copper #39 I wrote a piece on the unsung 4th Symphony of the great 20th Century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and I hadn’t managed to cover a selection of the available recordings, or make a recommendation. So I decided to return to the subject for this column and finish the job. I have confined myself to those recordings I have in my personal Library, which means I have by necessity had to omit some highly regarded and notable performances, such as the original recordings by Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic. But there are far too many recordings available for me to cover them all, and if I have to draw a line in the sand somewhere it must inherently be done in a somewhat arbitrary fashion.

A lot of these recordings are in DSD, or high-resolution PCM. But most are taken off CD. I have included sound bites from each of them, all in 320mbps MP3 format, converted by myself using in-house software. So they’re as good as I can get them, but that’s about as far as it goes. You would probably do best, if you have the option, of listening on headphones.

So, without further ado, let’s get the ball rolling:


Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony Orchestra, a live recording from 2018, 24/96 download. The recording is bright, airy and detailed, with punchy brass, sparkling strings, and forward percussion. He sets off at a brisk tempo, promising an energetic and forceful reading; but it is a politician’s promise. It sounds a lot like something we’d want, and might even look forward to, but such promises can be a lot easier to make than to deliver on. The problem is that the energy and tension in a classical music performance of this magnitude needs to build and release, build and release, build and release. So you don’t want to be summiting Everest for your opening statement. Consequently, by the time we get to the final movement we have to deal with feelings of “Where’s The Beef” that in all honesty are mostly unwarranted. Most of the parts of Nelsons’ recording are really excellent in isolation, and serve very well as exemplary snippets. Here is a passage that serves to illustrate it well. I call this passage the “swarm of locusts”, and in Nelsons’ hands it makes for exciting listening:

Unfortunately, this recording would make for a superb teaching case for how the whole can be less than the sum of its parts. The entire first movement is a mouthwatering feast for the auditory senses, and sets the table creaking with goodies. But movements 2 and 3 fail to deliver on the pre-election promise, and leave the listener feeling slightly cheated on just what could have been. There is a lot of frenetic playing that seems frenetic for its own sake, and a degree of frenetic sameness seems to take hold. But with repeated listenings it fails to gel as a cohesive whole. So, in summary, it has a lot going for it, but falls short of being a reference.

Yannick Nézet‐Séguin, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2016, 24/96 Download. Montrealer ‘YNS’ is one of the hottest young properties in the classical music scene these days, having been appointed as James Levine’s successor at the New York Metropolitan Opera. I saw him a couple of years back performing this with Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, and it was a riveting concert that left me quite breathless.

The problem here is that the Rotterdam Philharmonic, much to my surprise, seems to be somewhat short of the standards set by the OM, which itself is Montreal’s number two orchestra. In the live performance, YNS had a spectacular grasp of the arc and flow of the symphony, and the orchestra danced in his hands like a marionette. Here the Rotterdam Phil seems a bit lost, as in this passage from the third movement:

I can’t really get as enthusiastic about this recording as I would like to, given the generally stratospheric level of my regard for YNS.


Vasily Sinaisky, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Live at the Proms in 2000, CD. This was a CD giveaway with the BBC Music Magazine back in 2000, one of many which were of a quality waaaaay above what you would expect as a freebie. As a live Prom concert recording, the sound quality falls short of that offered by some of the outstanding recordings here, and the performance itself is also not going to win my top award, but both are worthy of a solid mid-pack listing. Sinaisky scores points for the air of mystery and understated menace which pervades this interpretation. Take this short passage from the first movement:

The sonorities of the BBC Phil are a mixed bag. The bassoon tone in particular, you’ll have noted, is smooth and rounded, and the drums and percussion are tight and accurate, but the strings are messy at times, and the lower four notes of the Celesta’s 8-note repeated pattern in the coda somehow gets lost in the balance. But despite its flaws, this is a recording I can happily come back to from time to time.


Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Recorded in 1979 as part of a complete symphony cycle, on CD. Haitink has always been one of my go-to conductors, but here with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, his effort also falls wide of the mark. There is an element of cacophony to the sound, and while that is undoubtedly inherent in the symphony, and arguably even desirable in an ideal performance, here it just fails to hang together. Try this passage, from the opening movement:

Is it the LPO’s unimpressive playing, or Haitink’s unconvincing vision of the symphony? Or maybe a combination of both?

Rudolf Barshai, WDR Symphony Orchestra, Recorded in 1996 as part of a complete symphony cycle, on CD. From beginning to end, this is a worthy symphony cycle, and the 4th takes its place among them. Barshai’s phrasing and tempi are assured and commanding throughout this difficult piece, and indeed he makes a lot of its more difficult passages flow freely and naturally. This is an excellent recording for anybody looking for an introduction to this complex piece. In this excerpt he brings the first movement to a nervous close, simmering with an unresolved tension:

Not only is Barshai’s arc and vision assured and convincing, but the playing of his WDR Symphony Orchestra is absolutely first class, and the whole thing is rather well recorded. Even the second movement, a troublesome interlude which manages to trip up the most sophisticated of conductors is handled expertly by Barshai. And by the time the third movement starts, we know we will be in assured hands right through to the end. Well, not really, as it turns out. The climax is an epic disappointment. It is, if I may put it this way, a colossal premature ejaculation, in which the carefully controlled tension breaks, not so much in a controlled release, as a chaotic explosion which is suddenly over and has given way to the coda before you realized what has happened. It just doesn’t work – incredibly so – and ruins an otherwise impeccable performance.


Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, 2004, on CD. I have this CD because Maris Jansons is, if I may be so bold, among living conductors today, right at the top of the tree. His Shostakovich 7th with the RCO is the best I have yet heard. So I had high hopes for this one. And it has a lot of Jansons about it. He is a man who understands how to make a symphony tell a story. Not in the Hollywood way, but in the musical sense, where everything just makes sense, and you come away with a deeper understanding of what the composer originally had in mind. Here is a typical example, which Shostakovich seems to be trying to summon some sort of demon from a Siberian mud swamp:

But somehow Jansons isn’t pulling ahead of the pack with this particular performance. He doesn’t even reach the level of the largest part of the Barshai recording. Sure, everything is there. The playing is up to the usual standards of the Bayerischen Rundfunks, but there is just a pervading element of politeness that kind of infects it. Everything is just a little bit too refined, too polite. Shostakovich was a soviet iconoclast and a very typically Russian non-conformist. Particularly with the 4th. So we need to see aspects of a performance which are little less safe, a little more out there. And that’s not apparently in Jansons’ comfort zone. But the final climax certainly is. Jansons’ reading of the climax and coda are up there with the best, although, as we’ll read later, there are some other guys out there who will nail those final sonorities with style and precision.


Roman Kofman, Beethoven Orchester Bonn, 2006, SACD. This was one of the first DSD recordings of the Shostakovich 4th I ever got hold of, and its sonics were of course seriously impressive. But Kofman’s recording fell further down the pecking order each time a new recording came along. He really doesn’t have a lot to say for himself with this repertoire. It plods along – in glorious SACD technicolor, it must be said – but it still plods along. Take this section from the second movement. It fairly sings – at least it should – but under Kofman it is yawn-inducing:

I really can’t be bothered to write anything more about it.


Neeme Järvi, Scottish National Orchesta, 1989, on CD. Neeme Järvi is another conductor with a pre-eminent reputation, and here he is on Chandos conducting the Scottish National Orchestra in another performance to add to the ‘meh’ pile. And while it would be easy to place the blame on a barely-heard-of-em regional orchestra, the fact is that their playing is actually quite good. Check out this passage from the first movement:

No, the problem here is Neeme Järvi’s rather ‘meh’ interpretation, which doesn’t really say anything much about what the composer may have had in mind. It’s a bit of a conducting-by-numbers performance really. The recording by Chandos is clean and well balanced, and is a delight to listen to. The climax is powerful, and is something you might consider getting out when friends come round and need to be impressed. But at the end of the day, if this is your only CD of the Shostakovich 4th, you’d be quite justified thinking it to be a rather immature work, and unworthy of Shostakovich’s stellar reputation as probably the premier symphonic composer of the 20th century.


Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 1994, on CD. This was recorded back when Rattle was just plain old Simon, and Claudio Abbado was the Maestro at the helm of the Berlin Phil. It was also just a few short years after I saw him conduct the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Paignton Pier. It was onward and upward for Sir Simon, who now helms the venerable LSO. And here we are considering this modestly competent romp through the Shostakovich 4. Here’s how he handles the heavy going early on in the third movement. Lots of excitement, but not so much as to break the tension going forwards:

It is a promising performance of the 4th, with a lot to commend it. The CBSO is not the Berlin Phil; their string tone tends towards the brittle, and there is a noticeable want of refinement when the going gets tough. As we will see later, there are orchestras out there that will put them to shame. But they do give their best, and at the end of the day their best is better than many of the recordings reported here. Rattle’s interpretation is clear-headed and consistent from first note to last, but I think today’s more mature Rattle would be looking to make some significant improvements.


Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Live recording from 2011, on CD. Salonen, as is his wont, can be counted upon to conjure a splendid sonic picture of colors and textures from the orchestral palette, and his 4th Symphony offers up an entire smorgasbord. It is a performance which is captivating to listen to from beginning to end. But Salonen too often finds himself at odds with the music’s more difficult passages. It’s as though he is pining for the more accessible classicism of a Tchaikovsky or a Sibelius. Listen to this difficult passage from the third movement, where he really doesn’t seem to know where he wants to go with it:

So, in broad strokes, we have a performance which is really quite promising in many places, with polished sonics and Salonen’s usual assertive dynamics. And many people are going to consider it a pretty decent performance of a pretty weird symphony. If your preference is to demonstrate to people how Shostakovich’s 4th is a confused work from an immature composer who’s not quite ready for the Prime Time, then this is the recording for you.


Mark Wigglesworth, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, 2005, on CD. This performance was rather well received by the critics, and rightly praised for the English conductor’s vision of the work as a unified whole. It is a recording that rewards listening over and over, yet at the same time without offering up any true ‘signature’ moments. And maybe that is a hallmark of greatness. Yes, his tempi are a little on the slow side, and there is a question as to whether that is the best artistic choice for this work (but see Pletnev, Mikhail). But Wigglesworth does make it work. Listen to how deftly he handles this quirky passage from the 3rd movement:

Whether this performance is for you is all down to whether or not you can live with the slightly lumbering tempi, particularly in the key opening and closing sequences. If you consider they convey gravitas and authority then you’ll be fine. But if you find yourself on your feet, trying to wave the baton a little faster, then maybe you’d be happier elsewhere.


Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra, 2017, DSD64 digital download. What was I saying about slow? OMG, if you want slow, then this one has slow by the bucketful. Here, Pletnev seems to be channeling the likes of Celibidache, Bernstein, and Giulini. But guess what, it does kind of work for him! Much has been said of the fact that Shostakovich was inspired by Mahler’s 4th symphony, and Pletnev’s measured tempi do much to emphasize the Mahlerian essence of Shostakovich’s offering. Check out this passage from the first movement:

One thing the Pletnev recording does have going for it is its truly first class recording quality from Erdo Groot and his redoubtable team at Pentatone. Downloaded in pure DSD from nativedsd.com, this is an epically gorgeous recording. In combination with those slow, measured tempi, it serves to just draw you in like a $10,000 overstuffed down-filled sofa. Where Wigglesworth’s slow pace makes you want to jump up and wave your baton, Pletnev’s hypnotic and mesmerising sound instead slows your world down to his pace. Enthusiastically, and unexpectedly recommended.


Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, 2001, SACD. This is one of two recordings of the 4th by Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra, the other being recorded in 2011. Gergiev plods through this one just like he does most everything he conducts. For a Russian conductor, he apparently has precious little to say about an important work from one of his country’s most famous Classical Music sons. His tempi are wildly inconsistent – too slow in places – and, having established a slowness of tempo, way too fast in others. In the passage below the introduction to the first movement has passed, and now it’s time to start setting the table. But Gergiev isn’t setting anything particularly attractive upon it:

The Mariinsky Orchestra (previously known as the Kirov Orchestra) has a stellar reputation, but you wouldn’t know it from the raggedy playing and the occasionally strident woodwind sounds. And the SACD sound does not compare at all favourably with Pletnev’s rich Pentatone recording. All in all, there is nothing in this recording to commend it, with so many obviously superior alternatives.


Gianandrea Noseda, London Symphony Orchestra, Recorded live in 2018, DSD digital download. This is another excellent release in the LSO Live series, recorded natively in DSD256 but only available thus far as a DSD64 download from nativedsd.com. It has a lot going for it, despite what sounds like a clumsy edit some 22 seconds into the first movement. I have always advocated for this symphony to be played with almost a reckless abandon, and this is what Noseda seems at first glance to be aiming for. Have a listen to the introductory bars of the first movement:

While Noseda is delivering what I was hoping to hear, at the same time there is a kind of holding back by the LSO players, a reticence to really let themselves give it a proper go. One almost wishes the whole orchestra could have indulged themselves in a decent skinful immediately prior to the recording session. But since it was a live concert recording, I’m guessing that was not on the agenda. Shame. It holds it back from getting the enthusiastic recommendation I was really wanting to give it.


Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, 2013, SACD. Kent Nagano steps down as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal next year, and Vasily Petrenko is the man I would dearly love to see get the gig. He has guest-conducted in the past…so who knows? If the selection committee is in any doubt, I would point them at this recording. From the first bars to the last, young Petrenko (unrelated to Kyril Petrenko, who succeeded Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic) delivers a poised and assured rendition. Here we have the climax to the third movement, just before the closing coda. It pretty much screams like Axl Rose:

The RLPO delivers an assured performance with a thrillingly refined, yet youthfully exuberant orchestral texture. They provide the closest approach yet to my ideal of wild abandonment, yet when a sophisticated touch is called for they deliver a convincing impression of the Concertgebouw. Petrenko himself has a sure hand on the narrative arc of the piece, with tempi, dynamics and rubato all convincingly and assuredly delivered. And the sound quality, while not quite up there with the Pentatone, is still pretty darned good, with just a little bit more soft compression than you’d ideally like to see. But on balance, you really wouldn’t go far wrong with this one.


Dmitri Kitaenko, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, Recorded live in 2003, SACD. Released only as part of a 12-SACD box set, this recording can be hard to come by, but in fact the entire set is rather good. Maybe you can pick one up used at a good price. Compared to the very best here, the orchestral textures are rather thick, and the recording quality, while better than CD, is not quite at the level of the Pentatone. But Kitaenko coaxes a thoroughly respectable performance from the Cologne orchestra, and you soon find yourself paying proper attention. Consider this atmospheric passage from the first movement, played with delicacy, and a sure touch. It has you just closing your eyes:

In many ways Kitaenko’s is an old-fashioned interpretation, invoking impressions of Klemperer or Solti. His phrasing is generally melodious, yet thoughtful. For example, his wistful opening to the 3rd movement is very convincing indeed, and builds with a sure touch. Yet this same wistfulness becomes a tendency on occasion towards lethargy and indecision. But all told, there are some real insights to be found in this performance.


Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, 2013, SACD. It’s almost as though Gergiev was embarrassed by his Shostakovich recordings of a decade earlier and set about putting the record straight. And put it straight he has. There is almost nothing of the uninspiring 2001 interpretation in this recording. Instead we have a performance of genuine character. Gergiev gives us a very Russian reading of a very Russian symphony. The recording quality is right up there too. Here is the entirety of the final climax, with its Mahlerian coda that closes out the symphony:

This is a sure-footed performance that deserves serious consideration. At no time does Gergiev lose his way, and the quiet passages and loud outbursts alike give way to each other naturally and progressively. The orchestral tones are suitably dark throughout. The woodwinds play really beautifully, the brass is powerful without dominating, and the strings are tight and disciplined, and that magical closing Celeste call is clean and delicate. There are times when the orchestral perspective seems a little distant, but overall the sound is superbly captured. This recording comes very highly recommended indeed.


So in summary, do we have a winner? I’ll ask Mr. Collins represent the firm of Ernst & Young to hand me the envelope…

Before handing out the medals, let’s shout out a few honourable mentions. First to Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony. It sounds great, it’s exciting, and it may be just what you’re looking for. Also to Rudolf Barshai and the WDR Symphony. If you’ve been let down a lot in your life and become accustomed to it, perhaps you won’t mind this one so much. It’s really a perfect night out…right up until the moment she says no. Finally to Dmitri Kitaenko and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln. If your system uses Single-Ended Triodes, then maybe this nostalgic beauty is just the one you’re looking for.

Finally, if you’re still reading, here we go.

In third place, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Phil. A thoroughly modern performance from a dynamic young up-and-comer. This is the real thing.

In second place, and it could just as easily be in first, Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra. Pletnev has the vision, and the chops to deliver it in truly convincing fashion. I’m just not convinced it’s the right vision…at least until the next time I play it.

In first place, for the time being at least, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. The 2013 recording, of course. It just has everything, and all the stars, for once, manage to line up for Gergiev.

Station 3

Station 3

Station 3

Bob Wood

WELK (no relation to Lawrence the champagne music maker) was another “daytimer” on 1010 AM. Its studios were neat and functional, and not at the transmitter, but in full view with a studio window on Main Street (now an open-air mall.) They hired me to do afternoons. I’d be the second fulltime DJ –  the boss/morning man (Program Director) and me. Our shifts would change as the day lengthened or shortened, as mandated by the FCC. In the summer, I worked from 1PM until sign off, which I remember was close to 9PM.

WELK was located beside the George Wallace for President campaign headquarters. It was 1969.

Rednecks were obvious, even in this college town (U of Virginia, where my wife found work.) Some thought I was a hippie, but they were wrong. I was a yuppie.

We lived in an apartment complex full of students. This caused issues when I had the Sunday morning sign-on shift in the summer. In radio you worked 6 days a week, but at WELK I worked for more than a month without a day off, a reason I eventually quit.

My stories from Charlottesville have little thread, so I’ll present these as snapshots.

Our chief engineer/sales manager/part owner (same guy) declared it my responsibility to lock the door at exactly 5:30, and he demanded I do it without fail. His normal entry was a swaggering stiff arm to the door, which would fly open. I could see the door through the windows into and out of the news booth, where the news was broadcast. The teletype was also in the public view and drew gawker/readers from time to time. Well, one day I locked us up at exactly 5:30, and then came Harold, swaggering down the street with his arm fully extended. He walked right into the door, expecting it to fly open. But noooooooooo, his timing was off, and he almost snapped his wrist and arm.

One 4th of July, the newsman prerecorded his news on a “cart”, an endless loop of tape in a plastic shell. It has several tracks of audio, including your recording, and the cue track. As you started the machine to record, it would put a tone pulse on the track that nobody could hear, but would signal the machine to start HERE. It would play, then stop back at the beginning, as marked by the tone. If you had multiple recordings, it would play them one at a time as you restarted the machine. We called that cueing up. That 4th, our newsman’s parents were visiting town so he was with them at his home enjoying the day. He proudly turned up his newscast for them to hear right at 5PM. At 5PM I started the cart. On he came, “Good afternoon, this is Central Virginia News, I’m Steve Sharr.” He started his first story, stumbled, exclaimed “SHIT!”, and then the cart cued. My dilemma: I had nothing ready to play. Do I dare play cut two on that cart? Will he continue cursing? We had some dead air while I decided what to do. A note about dead air: If you are responsible, it seems like forever, no matter how long it really is. While time was standing still, I decided the news was too risky, so I played commercials and then resumed my show. Steve’s parents were no doubt impressed by their son.

One day in the production room, where you put commercials and other recordings together, I was rewinding a tape. The tape recorder had a very, very fast speed. The tape was going crazy, and the thought of one of the reels coming off scared me. Just then, one reel, which I apparently didn’t mount with enough muscle, started to wobble just slightly, then more, and more. Then, it came together with the other reel at speed, flew off the machine, taking machined metal parts off like a blade, and flew around the room like a buzzsaw. Fortunately, it missed me.

People could look into the studio window from the sidewalk. There was a low level cabinet with records in it, but they could see you from the waist up, sitting there. I had a rubber chicken which sometimes I’d wave around the room by the neck, trying to make someone laugh. It was great when a couple would come up, the guy maybe reading the teletype news while the woman looked at me. I’d swing the chicken, and when she’d obviously said “hey, look” to her guy, I’d have thrown it behind the cabinet and was just sitting there innocently. He’d go back to the news and I’d go back to swinging the chicken. And so it went, great fun.

I got some redneck pissed at me somehow and he pantomimed he was gonna beat my hippie ass. He hung around for more than an hour. I was getting worried, but eventually he left. My shift was long.

On Sundays, I was to turn the station on at dawn, and until noon it was either all sold time or religion (worship live or taped). 15 minute blocks were a-plenty. Sometimes a car would pull up to the door with just a minute or two to spare, to deliver the tape from whatever preacher bought his 15. I’d load it up with seconds to go, and find he never rewound it and it was about to play backwards. This was on a very long and thin tape. The question was, would I get it right side out in time? Then I’d find that HIS recorder was four track and ours was two track. That meant our machine would play a wider part of the tape than his, with one track forward and last week’s sermonizing backwards AT THE SAME TIME. You can pray for stupid, but you can’t fix it.

One preacher did his 15 minutes from the news booth, immediately across from me, shielded by a double glass window for sound purposes. He’d drive up in his Cadillac, and come in wearing a nice suit. After I introduced him, he would begin to wind himself up and before long he’d be screaming homilies, really screaming (think James Brown), and doing it with so much force he’d suck air back in with another screech. Something like this, but hard to put into print: “PRAISE THE LORD GOD – HAH!” (the last bit of air was a “hah” – followed by a wailing screech of air intake). My first time with him he got so worked up that when I gave him the “time’s up” signal he started wailing about the radio station cutting his message…all in scream – hah – scream. I thought it was funny, so funny, and he could see this. I literally fell off my chair laughing at him, and insuring my place by the fire in hell, no doubt. And then I had to literally pick myself up off the floor and try to say, “That was Reverend Rufus B. Hayes of the First Bible Baptist Church of Charlottesville. Tune in next week for more,” without laughing.

We had sometimes 52 commercials in 55 minutes (5 minutes for news). Some were 30s or 60s, there was even a 2 minute spot for milk, and many “quickies” – the dollar a holler type: “Brady Bushy Ford has a better deal. 2100 Pantops Mtn.”; “Ladies shoes now reduced for Spring. Shop for Papagallo.” Now generally you’d stop 6 times an hour for commercials. A song, maybe two, then commercials. The quickies were on index cards mounted on a plexiglass copy stand on top of the console. I’d forget where they were because they were not in any sequence, order, or code.

I had a pretend trained duck that I would let tap dance to a song every day. I remember him doing “Light My Fire”, almost jazz like. I admit a lot of what I did on the air was stuff that amused me, and the thought of webbed feet in tap shoes was the joke to me, the sound was just filling it in. I had a duck call, and the rest is history. I must have driven some listeners mad. And anyone at the U who might have been stoned would likely get off on what I did.

Since I was on the air way past supper time in the summer, I’d ask/beg listeners to set an extra plate for me at the table. Then they’d bring it down and I’d have dinner. The last two or three hours of the show were all live commercials, often with no copy, just me trying to sell shoes, cars, or whatever. Add in the quickies and it was a cavalcade of commercials as I’d drone on and on, while looking out the corner of my eye for Quickie Q.

Getting the free food led to getting a cake that I said I’d trade for whatever you have…and thus started me on (between songs) a trade-radio thing. Management made me stop because too much stuff was coming. They wouldn’t let me accept the horse or the car, but it was fun while it lasted.

I remember the ratings: the morning guy/PD got a 26 share of listeners and I got those numbers reversed, 62. To be fair, he had established competition, and I was trying hard to be entertaining.

A black man, who played gospel music in two fifteen minute pieces on Sunday mornings, and I hit it off pretty well; I loved the music he played. Well, we figured with the power of the radio we could stage a concert, unite the races, have a battle of the bands, and make a good haul of cash. The summer of ’69 in Virginia wasn’t ready for racial harmony (A.K.A. our show), it turned out. In a driving lightning storm, few showed up, the bands refused to play, my partner was drunk, introduced me, and split. The frequent hits of lightning should have warned me away.

One day, the nice secretary/women with many roles brought me my resume which got stuck in the copier the night before. I had to climb the ladder to a larger market glory.

With no day off and long summer shifts, I just got mad and quit. I didn’t have another job lined up. It was a dumb move. I was sending out audition tapes and resumes all over though.

I probably had some ego going as I was offered a job as Program Director (boss of everything you hear on a station) in Hilo, Hawaii. The owners and I got together and they had a little slide show (projected pictures) of Hilo. It’s on the big island, on the opposite side of the island from Honolulu.

“Here’s the new shopping center,” I was told. “What happened to the old one?” I asked. “Tidal wave,” they said.

I said that if I take the job and they fire me for cause, it’s my problem, but if not and I leave at the end of my contract or they fire me with no cause, they have to move me back to the mainland. They said no. A friend ended up taking the job and he hated it.

Some people on the air have really big egos…they NEED to be fed by an audience (Rush somebody?). But in my case, since so much of what I did was for my sense of what was effective or funny, it was like playing with another persona. Much later in my career, I interviewed the comedian/actor John Candy, and asked him what it was like for him to see himself on a big screen. He said, “It’s like watching somebody else.” That’s how I felt about my on-air persona. A lot of my stuff just happened to have two meanings, so if you weren’t paying attention it would go one way, and if you were it’d be something hopefully clever. For example: After “This Guy’s In Love With You”, I’d say, “That was Herb Alpert. He wasn’t always that horny.” I meant without the trumpet. Much of my material was that way, not often double entendres, just things you could take each way.

We always signed off WELK at dark with the “Star Spangled Banner”. One summer night after it played, I yelled “PLAY BALL,” and hit the switch.

I had an issue with the people who lived below us: they were grad students and would throw wild parties on weekends. On Saturday nights I’d need sleep, as I had to be up and at the station for sign on at dawn. Well, they wouldn’t accommodate me (and at this distance, I don’t blame them), but when I’d leave for work on Sunday morning, I’d throw a lit pack of firecrackers down the concrete stairwell to their door. I also would roll a bowling ball as slowly as possible down the wooded floor of the hallway. The rumble is quite audible, especially if you live under it. And finally, I had my whole PA system in that apartment, and sometimes I would crank it up, get on the mic, and blast one word: QUIET. I was accosted, thrown against the wall, and threatened as a result. Can’t say I blame him NOW.

They said there are (or were) more millionaires in the surrounding areas of Charlottesville than anywhere else in the country. It’s beautiful there.

The Adventures of Jeff Beck: Third Movement

The Adventures of Jeff Beck: Third Movement

The Adventures of Jeff Beck: Third Movement

WL Woodward

Sorting through the flotsam that is rock lore to figure out how events happened, who was involved and when, especially through the substance addled ’60s and ’70s is like trying to determine a pig’s gender by looking at a plate of bacon. You have a good shot at getting it right but you’ll never know.

Beck had covered a Stevie Wonder song on the Orange Album and later in 1972 Wonder and Beck were kicking around the idea of JB doing some session work on Little Stevie’s next album Talking Book. In May they met at Electric Lady in New York and Beck recorded some guitar tracks. A few days later the entire JBGroup went into the studio to observe Wonder in action and to try and get Stevie to write a song for their next album. Here the stories diverge.

One version has Beck noodling on the drums and Wonder writing a song over it. In defense of that oft-repeated story Jeff Beck did throw out a drum pattern to inspire Wonder but nothing came of it. Beck is quoted “I hoped he would write me one song to get me going, you know, in that new direction.” But it wasn’t Beck’s drumming that made it happen. Martin Powers related in his comprehensive and fun biography, Hot Wire Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck, the story that I think makes the most sense. Powers in an interview with Max Middleton:

“Beck says ‘Play me something funky.’ Stevie says ‘Ok, why don’t you guys get a drink and I’ll come up with something.’ Jeff and the others left for a while, but I stayed there sitting next to Stevie while he played the clavinet. The next thing, he started this riff…it was magical. He built up the track, played the drums, started putting words together on each take. When we all came back the next day, Stevie had the whole thing finished.”

Superstition. Beck and band were thrilled, but Wonder knew exactly the impact this song would have so Beck never got it for himself. In one hand and out the other. #1 in the US on release and sold a million copies as a single.

By 1974, Jeff Beck was done with the Jeff Beck Group process and was looking for new directions, possibly just as a solo with hired guns. He was enamored with what was going on in jazz fusion and did some experimenting with bands like Gonzales that would become Hummingbird, then Zzebra with Terry Smith and Dave Quincy.

Most telling as to his new direction was his involvement with Eddie Harris and Upp. The whole thing was very ‘lookin fer sumthin’/avante garde and gave Beck a platform which he used to forge his new bearing. In 1973 Jeff and Upp had appeared in a BBC special hosted by Julian Bream, The Five Faces of Guitar, which was designed to showcase several top guitarists from different genres like flamenco, classical, and with Beck as the representative of rock. He confused the audience with a reggae version of Lennon/McCartney’s “She’s a Woman”, and the stage was set for his next work. Jeff joined Eddie and Upp on their 1974 album E.H in the UK which included Ian Paice on drums and the sublime Albert Lee on guitar.

In early 1974 John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra released the seminal album Apocalypse produced by George Martin, who started his own studio and production company after the Beatles had left Abbey Road. Beck, always a huge fan of McLaughlin’s, was impressed with the work and contacted Martin about producing his next album. As it turned out, George was a big fan of Beck as well and agreed to produce what would become Blow by Blow.

Jeff at first brought in Carmine Appice for the drums but after a few days in the studio Appice let on that he thought the band should be called The Appice and Beck Project. Jeff famously said “Well you can bugger off”, then realized he was in the studio and out a drummer. Gotta love that guy! Max Middleton, who was brought in on keys again, called up an 18-year-old wunderkind named Richard Bailey that he’d worked with in Gonzales. This worked well, as Phil Chen from that band was on bass for Blow by Blow.

Martin brought a hardened discipline to the studio that Beck struggled with. The band would be slated to start at 10AM and JB would show up at 6 in the evening when everyone was basically finishing up their tracks. But once he realized they were doing tracks without him, he made the effort to show up earlier.

A side weirdness happened as they were finishing recording. In December ’74 Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones abruptly handed in his notice and the Stones’ replacement desire was Beck. Jeff was certainly aware of the financial possibilities, so the following January found him in a studio in Rotterdam with the Stones. But he found their studio discipline (or lack thereof) hard to handle, which was saying a lot because Beck’s problems in that area were well documented. In the end he said, “In three hours I only had to play three chords and I need a little bit more energy than that.”

Back in the studio, Blow by Blow got its finishing touches. The disc is not only a favorite of mine but became jazz/rock/whatever fusion’s first best-seller. The band was tight and Jeff’s guitar playing and writing had taken a decidedly funky turn. Middleton contributed “Freeway Jam” and co-wrote “Scatterbrain” with Jeff, which would become a perennial show tune for him. And Jeff got his Wonder wish. Stevie wrote “Thelonius” for the album as a nod to Beck’s work on Talking Book, and played clavinet for the song as well. Yes, I know Middleton was credited with the clavinet on this cut but you’re all wrong. Just listen to it. Stevie. Period.


Released in March 1975, it was expected to slowly grow on people. Instead, within weeks, it went to #4 on US charts and eventually sold two million copies worldwide.

In April 1975, Jeff was approached for a tour with McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. With some Beck band changes and a real nervousness at opening for his hero, the tour did three months in the US, to huge success. Beck and McLaughlin, toward the end of the tour, were switching places on the bill.

Added bonus: Beck met Jan Hammer.

Hammer had co-founded Mahavishnu with McLaughlin, so Jeff was familiar with his work. Beck once said “Jan was the best guitarist ever to have played a keyboard”, and the match was magic. George Martin was again tapped for producer and our old friend Max on keys. Joining was Willie Bascomb on bass and the incomparable ex-Mahavishnu drummer Narada Michael Walden, who also penned four songs for the 1976 release of Wired.

On the album, Beck dished homage to Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. Done in one take (!!!!!!), the version was done so well Mingus wrote a note to Jeff telling him how much he loved it. Mingus. Sigh.

Remarkable in music are folks that are magic on stage and studio. Not common. Most remarkable was how well Hammer and Beck got along musically and professionally. Hammer wrote and produced “Blue Wind” for the project.


The album itself presented some difficulty between Martin and Beck, and at one point the two of them flew to LA to record the guitar tracks at Cherokee Studios. There was disagreement about the direction the album should take and at the end of the Cherokee sessions George and Jeff parted ways. Jan Hammer finished the production, although Martin is credited with producing the album. Wired would go to #16 and certified platinum, and, like Blow by Blow, sell two million copies.

Beck joined Jan Hammer’s band for a tour in the fall of 1976 that was characterized as “sheer bloody lunacy”. Everyone beat the crap out of everyone else with intense soloing on a nightly basis. Thankfully some of these nights were preserved on Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live, released in March 1977. Go get this. Just go get it. You don’t need to stream it first or borrow it from a friend. If you’ve gotten this far in these articles, you’re a Beck fan so just get up, get out, and get it. But you can check out this live version of “Scatterbrain”.


Fernando Saunders on bass. Uh huh.

In the fall of 1978 and into ‘79, Beck and Stanley Clarke put together a band (how did I miss DAT) and toured Japan. I don’t know of any album, but there are YouTube crappy audio cuts. Clarke spoke of Beck’s huge following in Japan and his amazement of the adulation that followed them everywhere.

Lucky for us, Beck and Clarke joined again for the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2006 with Vinnie Colaiuta on the kit. Check out how much fun they were having.


Land o’ Goshen.

Most important of the 1979 Beck/Clarke joining was adding Tony Hymas on keys, who would become a perennial bandmate, and Simon Phillips on drums, both of whom would join Beck on There and Back, his first studio album in four years.

Staying with Tony Hymans and Simon Phillips, the new lineup included Jan Hammer on some keys. But a bass player was needed. A hard working session bass man named Mo Foster, whom Phillips knew, was added. There was some sputtering between studios, then Ken Scott who engineered Truth was added and the album was finished at Abbey Road.

The writing duo of Hymas and Phillips filled in the gap Beck needed to turn short riffs, which no one did better than Jeff, into full songs, as well as bring ideas to Beck which he loved. Hammer contributed some classic songs like the opener “Star Cycle”.

The result was the closest work Beck had envisioned when he and I heard Cobham’s Spectrum. The tone that Beck had developed by this time was something so unique you have to invoke Jeff and Allan Holdsworth as immediately and singly recognizable.

Released in June 1980, There and Back went to #10 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums and #21 on Billboard’s 200.

Those of you who know Cobham’s “Quadrant 4″ will recognize that influence on “Space Boogie”. But don’t discount Simon Phillips on those skins. The man can BASH and played with everybody.


Shiver Me Timbers.

I have to apologize to those I promised this was the last Beck article in the series. There are still a couple of decades left, so I’m gonna finish in the next column. Coolness to come. The frickin guy never stopped.

For those of you who can’t get enough, I will again recommend Martin Power’s joyride of a biography Hot Wire Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck, from which I stole unabashedly. Great read, fun writer. See you next issue. Same time, same station.

From The Cylinder To The Disk Record...And Back?

From The Cylinder To The Disk Record...And Back?

From The Cylinder To The Disk Record...And Back?

J.I. Agnew

When the first demonstrations of sound recording and subsequent reproduction were conducted, using Edison’s original 1877 phonograph, the emphasis was placed on promoting the machine, not the recordings.

In fact, the recording medium was tin foil, wrapped around a mandrel. Removing the recorded tin foil from the machine would render it unusable, as it could never be put back on the machine properly again!

It had not yet occurred to anyone that there would be a market for recordings, which could be purchased and played back on equipment other than the machine which made the recording! The early phonograph did not even provide any means for preserving recordings! A recording could only be reproduced for as long as it still remained in place on the machine, following the recording. It was only possible to discard a recording, with permanent effect, by installing blank tin foil on which a new recording could be made. The life span of a recording was only until it was decided to make a new recording! This obviously also meant that recordings could not be exchanged between different machines!

The exchangeable recording concept was introduced around 1881 with the Graphophone, a development of Bell and Tainter at the Volta Laboratory. It was a similar device to Edison’s phonograph, but used wax cylinders which could be easily stored and reproduced at a later date. Removing them from the machine was easily possible without damage. Furthermore, the Graphophone introduced lateral recording (instead of vertical) as a concept. Edison caught up by introducing his own wax cylinder phonograph shortly thereafter.

In fact, the recording medium was tin foil, wrapped around a mandrel. Removing the recorded tin foil from the machine would render it unusable, as it could never be put back on the machine properly again!

It had not yet occurred to anyone that there would be a market for recordings, which could be purchased and played back on equipment other than the machine which made the recording! The early phonograph did not even provide any means for preserving recordings! A recording could only be reproduced for as long as it still remained in place on the machine, following the recording. It was only possible to discard a recording, with permanent effect, by installing blank tin foil on which a new recording could be made. The life span of a recording was only until it was decided to make a new recording! This obviously also meant that recordings could not be exchanged between different machines!

The exchangeable recording concept was introduced around 1881 with the Graphophone, a development of Bell and Tainter at the Volta Laboratory. It was a similar device to Edison’s phonograph, but used wax cylinders which could be easily stored and reproduced at a later date. Removing them from the machine was easily possible without damage. Furthermore, the Graphophone introduced lateral recording (instead of vertical) as a concept. Edison caught up by introducing his own wax cylinder phonograph shortly thereafter.

Edison Cylinder Records with packages, from 1910 catalog.

The disk gramophone was patented by Emile Berliner in 1887, although the concept had already been described by Charles Cros in 1877. This development maintained the concept of the exchangeable recording. The idea of recording music and selling the recordings was, by now, technologically feasible, both on cylinder and on disk.


German-American engineer Emile Berliner (1851-1929) with the model of the first phonograph machine which he invented.

Initially, the gramophone used metallic disks with a coating of wax, which was removed by the stylus to expose the metallic surface. Acid was used to etch the groove and it was only then that the disk could be reproduced.

Evolution quickly left acid etching behind, with grooves then being cut on soft metallic soap disks, called “wax blanks”, which were then plated to create metallic negatives, to be used for pressing multiple copies of the record in a process very similar to what was described in issues #94 and #95. However, in those days, the wax was vacuum sputtered, rather than silvered, and the pressings were made using a compound consisting of ground slate with shellac as a binder, instead of vinyl.

Cylinder records were made in real time at first. A performer had to repeat the same performance again and again, to create the multiple copies to be sold. Obviously, this was hard work for the performer and was the limiting factor to how many copies could be created (until the performer would pass out or lose their voice, or both).

Enrico Caruso with a “Victrola” brand phonograph.

Eventually, by the mid-1900’s, a process for molding cylinders was developed.

The era of industrial mass production thus began, with the pressed record and the molded cylinder, much to the relief of many recording artists. At first, the cost of the pressed record was much higher than that of the molded cylinder and even the one-off cylinder was a bit cheaper. However, despite the initially lower cost, the nature of the cylinder posed certain technical difficulties, which limited its mass-manufacturability and hindered the cylinder’s ability to compete with the rapid advances which were occurring in the disk world.

A further hindrance to the cylinder was a mess of lawsuits between companies trying to market pre-recorded cylinders, on patent infringement grounds.

While the amount of music which could fit on a disk kept on increasing, the retail price of disks kept on falling, making them more and more accessible to a wider audience. The increasing volume of production translated to decreasing manufacturing costs and plenty of interest in research and development.

On the other hand, cylinders were initially limited to two minutes of music, which was later increased to four minutes, but this was about as good as it would get. The format was stagnating technologically and demand was waning.

Edison Records “Diamond Disc” label.

By the time the electrical era of sound recording had arrived, there was little interest in “electrifying” the phonograph. On the contrary, due to the light weight of the blank wax cylinders, the portability of the equipment and the ability to use it without any source of power other than the operator cranking it, the cylinder remained in limited use for a while longer, for recording in remote locations with difficult access and no electrical supply. The market, however, had been entirely won over by the disk record, by the early 1930’s.

Electrical recording promptly took over from acoustic recording and giant technological leaps kept on occurring, through widespread corporate and academic interest and involvement. The introduction of the Long-Playing record, Microgroove and eventually the commercial Stereo-Disk, kept equipment manufacturers busy and research and development facilities well-staffed with highly skilled scientists.

The disk medium proved practical for the purposes of economical mass production at a high level of quality, while also being convenient for storage. Just think scrolls versus books.

However, what is often not understood is that while the disk record itself is easier to mass produce, everything around it got more difficult and complicated. Making an accurate cylinder recording lathe, for instance, is much easier and simpler than making a disk recording lathe capable of comparable accuracy.

The same holds true on the reproducer end. It is much easier and simpler to make a highly accurate cylinder mandrel than it is to make a record platter. The machine tools commonly encountered in industry are much better suited to machining cylindrical shapes than disk shapes, at a high level of accuracy.

A high quality screw-cutting lathe, for instance, could easily be adapted to cut cylinder records, with only minor modifications. But, to cut disk records, we need what is, in effect, a special purpose machine, which needs to be designed and manufactured solely for cutting records.

When the highest level of sound quality is called for, both disk recording and reproducing equipment end up being big, heavy and remarkably expensive machines, right on the very limit of achievable precision, even with our present state of the art in manufacturing technology.

Especially in the stereophonic era, the technology developed to cater for a market in which the disk record was the dominant format for the distribution of music and recorded music was one of the foremost means of entertainment, both at home and in public.

A “small pressing run” of records to test the waters for an unknown artist was something like 20,000 copies! International superstar artists were selling millions of records and “anything that mattered” was being manufactured in six-figure numbers of copies.

By now, things have changed quite a bit. Cassette tape sales already overtook disk record sales over 30 years ago. The CD was to follow, but both  of these formats eventually died out. The cassette  is making a shy comeback, but still remains far behind vinyl record sales, at present. The CD is a sinking ship with no signs of recovery. But, even vinyl record sales are stunningly low compared to what they once used to be. The virtual world is now offering plenty of distraction and is aggressively taking over many aspects of our lives, with an enormous amount of money being spent on marketing by the companies selling relevant products and by the consumers purchasing ever-more-expensive gadgets offering unlimited access to the virtual world.

Social and cultural changes are happening at a very fast pace. Part of the resurgence in the demand for vinyl records is most probably a result of people beginning to miss real, tangible things around them.

Still, the demand is low. The average order a pressing plant receives nowadays is between 300 and 500 copies. Back in the day you could easily reject 500 records for not being up to spec. But if the entire order is only 300 records, what can be reasonably rejected? Only the successful and established artists nowadays could expect to sell 10,000 copies, reasonably fast.

This is the primary reason behind the complaint about modern records not sounding as good as the old ones. It starts with the recording. If the cost of the recording is expected to be offset over selling 500,000 records, a lot more could be invested than if it would have to be offset over 300 records. This extends to mastering and, of course, manufacturing. The industry is good at figuring out ways to cut corners and still make it viable, but the quality suffers as a result.

In our modern age of low cost plastic consumer devices, rapid obsolescence, virtual reality, and diminishing attention spans, I wonder if a new, electric, stereophonic cylinder format dedicated to short run audiophile releases would be the way to go, by being niche enough to remain below the radar of the forces that hijack and cheapen out everything, while not easily lending itself to convenient mass-manufacturing. Imagine a format designed to remain a high quality medium, by intentionally omitting any features that would make it attractive to those who would abuse it. But do we really need yet another format?

Tony Visconti, Part 1

Tony Visconti, Part 1

Tony Visconti, Part 1

John Seetoo

When Marc Bolan and David Bowie put Glam Rock on the map, they both owed a large part of their sonic success to a New York-born musician and producer named Anthony Visconti. With a combination of musical theory, audio engineering knowledge, personal musicianship, and a no-nonsense rock and roll attitude, Tony Visconti was responsible for such classic hits as “Bang a Gong (Get it On)”, “Young Americans”, “Jeepster”, “The Slider”, “Ashes to Ashes”, and Heroes”, among many others. He also went on to work with a wide range of artists across the musical spectrum and has continued performing live on bass with Holy Holy (featuring Woody Woodmansey from the original Ziggy-era Spiders From Mars band). Tony Visconti was gracious enough to take some time to speak with John Seetoo for Copper about his philosophies on music production and about his newly released solo album, It’s a Selfie.

John Seetoo: You’re best known for your longtime association with David Bowie, perhaps to the detriment in your discography of an incredibly diverse range of other artists whom you’ve produced: Paul McCartney, The Moody Blues, John Hiatt, individual members of Yes, Ralph McTell, Thin Lizzy, Alejandro Escovedo, Kristeen Young, Annie Haslam, The Seahorses, The Damned, Iggy Pop, and of course, T. Rex, to name a few. This covers glam, punk, folk, prog, roots, and pretty much every musical genre—including jazz, with your recent work with Esperanza Spalding.

Do you have a single overriding concept as to how you like to produce music in general, or do you put yourself in a different mindset for each artist’s project, bearing in mind certain sounds, microphone techniques, etc., particular to the music genre at hand?

Tony Visconti and David Bowie in Hype.

Tony Visconti: I have a low threshold of boredom. I can’t stay in the same genre for more than one album at a time. I like to switch it up. One of the most radical departures for me was working with Elaine Paige, the first lady of British musical theater (the first Griselda in Cats), recording reimagined show tunes. The executive producer was the composer Tim Rice. I looked forward to those four albums I made with her because I was working with the likes of Thin Lizzy and David Bowie and other Rock bands in those years. I also recorded Folk artists for the same reason. From practicing Taiji for decades I’ve learned to balance Yin and Yang. I must point out that I have to love the artist and their music in order to work for them. The money is the very last consideration. I stand by every artist and record I’ve produced for them. I love all forms of music.

Tony Visconti with Elaine Paige.

Tony Visconti with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.

J.S.: You are an accomplished multi instrumentalist, yet onstage you seem to prefer playing bass, including your recent Holy Holy tours with Woody Woodmansey. Sting has pointed out in the past that the bass player actually is able to control a band musically in a covert way (a “benign dictatorship”). Is bass a way for you to keep your producer’s hat on in a live setting, so to speak? What is it about the bass that has continually drawn you to it throughout your musical career?

T.V.: I started playing a stringed instrument at the age of 5, a ukulele my parents bought me for Christmas. I was singing and accompanying myself within days. As my body grew I stepped up to a baritone ukulele and then a family acoustic guitar that was festering in the corner of our living room for years. Its action was so high off the fretboard you could slice hardboiled eggs on it. But my parents recognized my perseverance and sent me to a great guitar teacher, Leon Block, when I was 11 and bought me a serious guitar. Then, in high school, I begged to play string bass in the orchestra. I never took a formal lesson, but the head of the music department at New Utrecht High School, Dr. Israel Silberman, took me under his wing and tutored me as much as he could and recommended bass exercise books from which I practiced like mad!

I would say that my guitar and bass chops are about equal. I naturally graduated to electric bass and that opened the world to session playing and playing in bands. There are about 40 would be guitarists to every 1 bass player so there was never a shortage of work for me. I had a drummer friend, Frank Steo, and we would jam, just the two of us for hours on end several days a week, Jazz mostly. That was a wonderful time for my development and I could sit in with Jazz players much older than me and hold my own. But my future seemed to be in the world of Pop and Rock. That’s when I discovered the power and importance of bass playing. What the composers of old always knew was that there were basically two melodies running simultaneously – the top melody played by any number of different instruments in a high register and the low melody played by the larger orchestral instruments. This is an empirical rule that applies to all forms of Western music.

I first started playing simple bass lines, like Boogie bass (on early Rock and Roll records) then more subtle bass parts that don’t necessarily have the root note of the chord at the bottom. That was a big adventure for the young me, that the third of the chord and even the flatted seventh could be in the bass line. Later on, after I moved to England, I was under the influence of bass players like Jack Bruce, who played lead bass with the dexterity of a guitar player. Being both a guitarist and bassist this came naturally to me. Mick Ronson persuaded me into playing in Bruce’s style for Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World album.

J.S.: You played with Woody Woodmansey in a pre-Spiders From Mars band back in the UK. What was it like playing together again, and how did it feel to be touring now vs. gigs back in the day?

T.V.: I remember walking into the first rehearsal with Woody and Holy Holy in London. They weren’t expecting me that day (as I had just flown in from NYC) but a rental bass was waiting for me on a stand and plugged into an amp. I hadn’t seen Woody for years and they were playing a song when I walked in. Woody and I threw big grins at each other and without a second to think I picked up the bass, turned it up loud and started to play with the band. It was magic. What Woody and I had all those years ago was still there – only better! I have to say I had been practicing the songs we were going to play in the concerts every day for three months prior to this trip. It paid off.

J.S.: Electric Warrior and The Slider are records that actually received more acclaim for T.-Rex and Marc Bolan back in the early 1970s than any of your other productions at the time. Given that Bolan was playing mostly folk acoustic music prior to then, what were some of the conditions that contributed to the Electric Warrior T-Rex sound that put glam rock on the map? T-Rex live concerts did not quite have the same vibe as those records. Were there any studio or other parameters that helped you to capture or create that special magic? Have the anniversary re-mastered reissues given you sufficient opportunity to use modern technology to improve these records further, and if so, how?

T.V.: Modern technology has made these recordings more immediate and modern sounding. In the ’70s there was always a fear off putting too much low end on vinyl, that the tone arm might jump off the disk. I would take a full frequency mix to a mastering engineer who would promptly roll off the bottom end of the mixes. Such rules don’t apply today.

Marc Bolan and David Bowie used to come to my apartment in London when they were still living with their families, both were two years younger than me. I always had an acoustic and electric guitar and a bass openly available in my living room. Marc loved playing my Fender Stratocaster. Often the three of us would jam until just before the Underground shut down for the night. If not for that we’d play all night long.

Marc and I wanted to make hit records. We came so close when his duo was called Tyrannosaurus Rex. But the name change came, T. Rex! Marc wrote a little ditty on the electric guitar called “Ride A White Swan” that reached number 2 in the British Pop charts. Besides the addition of the electric guitar and electric bass (my Fender Precision that Marc borrowed and played) I also wrote a simple string line played by four violinists. T. Rex rapidly expanded to include a drummer, Bill Legend, and a bassist, Steve Currie, as well as Micky Finn, already on percussion. Suddenly our camp exploded with hit singles and albums over the next few years. String sections became a very important aspect of the T. Rex sound. Instead of lush “Mantovani” strings, I wrote jarring string parts with crunchy harmonies played by a new breed of string players who concentrated on playing perfectly on the beat and respecting the groove of the song.

From L to R: Audio Engineer Malcolm Toft, Tony Visconti, and Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

I must add that another important aspect of T.Rex was the falsetto backing vocals first sung by Flo and Eddie, formerly of The Turtles, but then in Frank Zappa’s band. When they were no longer available Marc and I took over the falsetto duties. It’s hard to tell us apart from Flo and Eddie, we actually fooled them.

The other aspect was the way I developed a bunch of mixing techniques for the T. Rex sound. I’ll make no secret that I learned all of this from The Beatles recordings, the very reason why I moved to England, to learn the techniques employed by George Martin and Geoff Emerick. But with T.Rex there definitely was a new sound in the world and then other groups started to imitate us.

J.S.: Your “3 Mic Technique” used for David Bowie’s vocals on Heroes has become a favorite one immediately associated with your name among producers and engineers. Do you think there are other aspects of your engineering and producing skills that you would prefer people were aware of, even if the record(s) that you used them on were not as well known?

T.V.: The 3 mic technique used on David Bowie’s Heroes album is well described in a YouTube video, I don’t want to go into the complexities here. The snare drum sound I made for the album Low by Bowie using an Eventide Harmonizer made an incredible impact at the time. I had the only one in London more than six months before anyone else and I experimented in my studio finding all sorts of new treatments for conventional sounds. It was extremely expensive to buy and that is probably why no other producers or studios ran out to buy one. They probably asked, “what would you need that for?” After the album was released my phone started ringing with many producers and engineers asking me how I did that. I wanted to hold on to my secret a bit longer, but actually I am always a bit wary of giving away my secrets so easily. I think only the people I work with have the right to know how I do something, as part of my team.

Brian Eno, who played a portable EMS Synthi A synthesizer on David Bowie’s album Low.

J.S.: During the 20+ years we have known each other, I’ve been aware of your passionate involvement with Chinese martial arts. Was this something that originated during your Brooklyn youth or later on in your life? Are there instances that you can cite where you think the martial arts training has helped you on a recording project with someone unfamiliar with martial arts? Conversely, how about with someone who was also a martial artist, like your fellow student of (Chen Taiji Master) Ren Guang Yi, the late Lou Reed?

Grandmaster Ren Guang Yi, Tony’s Chen Taiji teacher.

T.V.: This is a subject very close to my heart and difficult to explain to people who don’t practice martial arts. My curiosity was piqued by my 6th grade teacher, James Flanagan,who had served in the armed forces. He said there were men in Japan who could chop wood with their bare hands. But there was no way of finding out about this strange practice until a few years later when I understood he was talking about Karate. At 17 I was introduced to a teacher of Yun Mu Kwan, a Korean form of karate. His name was Min Pai and he was my teacher for at least two or three years. He was a blackbelt 1st degree and he had some very talented people in the school who never rose above brown belt. He explained he couldn’t promote anyone up to his degree, he’d have to go back to Korea to get a higher grading himself to make someone a blackbelt. But the discipline was good for me, as I was in danger of becoming a decadent musician.

Min Pai, Tony’s Yun Mu Kwan teacher.

Fast forward to my arrival in London. I worked hard and long hours in my first two years, no time for martial arts. Then Bruce Lee exploded on the screen and Chinese martial arts started to become popular. My studio in London was one block away from Chinatown. I met a Chinese Wing Chun practitioner whose father owned a restaurant. I had some space in my studio and we started an informal Wing Chun school. The main students were waiters from Chinatown. I was exposed to other Chinese styles, Hung Gar and Pak Mei mainly. I was going to midnight shows every weekend with my teacher watching action films from Hong Kong. I learned the first two Wing Chun forms and was starting the third one when my teacher mysteriously left town. But I had become aware of Taiji.

I found a great teacher, John Kells, who studied the Yang style in London and Taiwan for many years with a Dr. Chi, a student of Cheng Man Ching. Kells had incredible skills. His uprooting technique was astounding. We used to line up, run towards him one at a time and try to push him down. In a split second I would be flying through the air backwards and when my feet touched the ground I couldn’t stop the acceleration. There had to be someone catching me to avoid crashing into the wall. I studied with Master Kells for 5 years in the art of being soft, absorbing energy of an opponent, and deflecting their energy. I thought this was everything about Taiji.

When I returned to New York I practiced on my own. I went to several Yang style schools as an observer and I couldn’t find one that I liked. David Bowie later asked me if I was still practicing martial arts and I told him about my dilemma. He said I should phone Lou Reed, whom I already knew, and he could help me. I phoned Lou and he told me about Master Ren Guang-yi and that he was studying the Chen style of Taiji. This style was relatively unknown in London, I only saw line drawings of Chen moves. I’ll never forget Lou’s words about Master Ren, “He’s the real deal!” I spent about 12 years with the (now) Grandmaster Ren and learned even more eye opening facts about what Taiji is. The Chen family invented it in the 17 century, it is a fairly modern martial art. They were a family with a strong warrior tradition who escorted caravans through China’s Silk Road to Beijing as bodyguards. All styles of modern Taiji evolved from this one. Consequently there is an emphasis in two-person exercises and sparring at various degrees of safety constrictions. We’ve never killed each other. But there is also emphasis on serenity and moving meditation. This is a golden age for Westerners to learn martial arts from families who closely guarded their secrets for hundreds of years from other Chinese people.

For me, I have gained much confidence practicing Taiji. I am physically very healthy and my mind works quite well. Both Lou Reed and I worked in a world full of egotistical artists’ aggressive business traps. The Taiji way of thinking, the balance of Yin and Yang, the power of softness over hardness has helped us enormously for peaceful results when conflict is in our way.

[John Seetoo’s interview of Tony Visconti will conclude in Copper #97.]

Drive, He Said Part 5

Bill Leebens

In Part 4 of this series, the last turntable mentioned was the unusual Mag-Lev levitating turntable. It was first offered as a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, and has now joined the Crowdfunding Hall of Infamy as yet another campaign that has failed to deliver products to its backers. Oops. Anyone remember the solar-powered cooler that raised $12M on Kickstarter and then told backers, “gee, we can’t produce these at the price we promised. If you’ll send us $xxx more, we’ll see what we can do”?

Anyway. Scratch Mag-Lev.

In this wrap-up, the last Vintage Whine, we’ll look at just a few unusual turntables: some that I thought showed great promise, and one that is well…. Let’s see if you can sort out which is which.

Back in the ’80s, I owned a Nakamichi Dragon Cassette Deck—and the Nakamichi Dragon turntable, which is not as well known. I’ll cut short the “I wish I’d never sold it ” story—you can find plenty of that on Audiogon, if you’re so inclined.

Anyway: both were brilliant products, beautifully-made. I think the table was made by Mitsubishi, but I may be wrong. The interesting thing about the Dragon turntable was that it wasn’t, in fact, the top of the line; that had been the Nakamichi TX-1000, which sold for about $8,000 in the mid-’80s—- a LOT for the time, and about $20,000 today. The principle behind the TX-1000’s existence was brilliantly-simple, and yet astonishing in its boldness: the center holes of many records are not perfectly centered: they are offset from center, ever so slightly. The result is a persistent, low-level wow that we are so used to hearing that we don’t notice it until it’s gone. What the Nakamichi tables did was correct for that out-of-roundness, and eliminate that wow.

The ever-contrarian Robert E. Greene of The Absolute Sound wrote at length about what happens when that wow is removed; long story short, greater clarity, realism, yadda yadda. Veils drop, I heard my records for the first time. You know the drill. The normally conservative Roger S. Gordon at Positive Feedback also wrote about the TX-1000. Let’s just say he liked it, a lot.

The Nak TX-1000. Anyone else see the later VPI TNT in this?

So: during what appeared to be the last gasp of vinyl records as CDs were becoming dominant, here was a technology that offered the clarity of CDs out of plain old licorice pizzas. How? Well, read REG’s description. But basically, a second arm traced the spinning record before playing commenced, sensed the level of eccentricity, and shifted the main platter atop a sub-platter to ensure that the resultant playback would be without eccentricity—without wow.

It was brilliant, and it worked. The TX-1000 was the first, the ultimate; the Dragon turntable like I had was the simplified, less-expensive version—and the level of clarity and dynamics was still startling. At $2000 in 1985, there was no way I could’ve afforded it, had I not bought it used from a sailor who’d bought it at a PX in Japan.

Nakamichi Dragon CT

The Dragon table: simple, not as complex or pretty, 1/4th the price of the TX-1000.

For me, one of the tragedies of the ascendancy of CDs was that Nakamichi lost its way and ultimately became another formerly-great name attached to pointless, cheaply-made audio tchotchkes. Meh.

At any rate, the two Nak tables were brilliant products, badly-timed. The collector’s market has acknowledged their worth, and TX-1000s are now often upwards of $20,000.

So: we’ve beaten to death the different drive-mechanisms of various turntables. One of the factors often mentioned is the ability of various drives to damp resonances—so how better to do that than by literally being damp?

…as in, turn the platter with …WATER!?!

That was the approach taken by the Oasis turntable, back in the late ’70s. The Oasis was supposedly named Product of the Year at the 1979 CES—I can’t verify that—which points out how much CES has changed over the last 40 years. I believe it was announced that it would be distributed by Polk Audio, but apparently very few were ever built, following a shop fire which destroyed the stock of parts.

There is a watertight circular tank made of clear acrylic. Contained within the tank is an impeller, also made of acrylic—and although I’ve never seen it detailed, I would guess the impeller was belt driven. An acrylic platter with vanes mounted on the bottom was placed within the tank, and when the impeller turned…so did the platter.

Information on the Oasis is fragmentary; but a good bit of info is contained in this article on a restoration project. I have a lot of questions regarding the level of precision required in the fit of the various elements, how long it took to reach speed, and on and on…

Related image

Audio dealer Gig Harbor Audio produced a video featuring the table above, and announced that designer Dave Gillespie would be making new Oasis tables. So far that hasn’t happened, but it’s nice to know that creative minds are still at work.

I’ll miss exploring audio history in Vintage Whine—and I’d like to encourage readers to continue their own journeys of exploration.

Three Wins and a Loss

Tom Gibbs

The Beatles  Abbey Road – Anniversary Edition

When the Beatles Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary remix/remaster came out in 2017, I have to admit….I was, at the least, skeptical. Should we be messing with history like this? I mean, yeah, there was the Giles Martin/Beatles Love thing, which was pretty amazingly well done, but it was essentially a completely new experience for Beatles fans. But to go in and completely remix an absolute classic like Sgt. Pepper—that was darn near blasphemy, right? The rationale was that all the Beatles’ albums up to a certain point had been recorded basically with mono sound in mind, and that the stereo mixed LPs were essentially an afterthought. Here was an opportunity to correct for obvious mistakes in the stereo mix, as well as take advantage of making the new stereo remix really pop.

And it most definitely popped! I was shocked that the new remix was….as enjoyable as I found it to be, but the element of the remix I found most striking was the clarity that was now heard throughout. Most surprisingly, I found myself ultimately in complete approval of the new remix; at the very least, even if it didn’t replace the classic original, it would be an interesting companion to have in the library. And I mostly found that same sentiment to be true for the following year’s release of the remixed/remastered The Beatles (the White Album), which I had always felt was a bit congested throughout. The newfound clarity of the mixes struck me as very refreshing, and perhaps more true to the Beatles’ original intent—a modernization of the sound, if you will. The Beatles was the last album that EMI simultaneously released in both stereo and mono mixes, so that was probably it for the updated stereo remix rationale, right?

So imagine my surprise when the 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road was announced—it was never released in mono—this might be a potentially slippery slope Giles Martin was now taking us down! And to add to my trepidation, before having heard a single note, Copper editor Bill Leebens had attended a release event featuring the new LP version on a cost-no-object analog setup. And roundly condemned it. Well, crap! Knowing that I definitely needed to hear this, I headed straight to the listening room where I was able to hear both the Tidal MQA Version (and later in the day) the Qobuz 24/96 version. I found both versions very similar in character, with nothing that I felt stood out significantly between them in terms of the overall sound.

What I did find was that I totally enjoyed the greater clarity of the new mix; I found it to be a really remarkable enhancement that made me want to lean closer into the mix to hear the newfound details. Example: on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, as the opening guitar signature fades into silence, on the original, you’re instantly met with the wall of amplifier feedback that’s almost constantly full-on during the first part of the song. In the new mix, the feedback’s still there, but just not as dominating of the overall sound as on the original. I know the feedback was probably completely consistent with Lennon’s intent, but I still prefer the sound of the new remix—it flows a bit better.  You then go from the heaviest Beatles’ song ever into “Here Comes The Sun”, and the increased clarity in Harrison’s guitar and vocal delivery is simply staggeringly good. The harpsichord accompaniment and Lennon’s vocal on “Because” also have an amazing clarity; the sound takes on an almost extradimensional character. All of the overdubbed vocals in the opening chorus now are more clearly defined in the space, giving the song a much bigger overall presentation—and that synth figure near the middle is absolute ear candy.

And when you get into the Abbey Road “medley”—which has always struck me as a tad congested—that newly imbued clarity is oooh so very welcome. The piano on “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers” emerges from a much blacker background; any noise that was present in the original is now nonexistent. Paul’s voice on “Golden Slumbers” takes on an almost magical character. Ringo’s drum solo on “The End”—the drum solo that launched the careers of a thousand would-be drummers—takes on a more dimensional, palpable character in the new mix. You can virtually see his drum kit sitting in front of you at the listening chair. And the mix of the voices near the end of the tune is once again, well, nearly magical. 

Some may call it blasphemy, but I have to give this one the full rubber stamp. Very highly recommended, and if you have the opportunity to hear the higher-res versions on either of the streaming services, by all means do so!

Apple Records/Capitol/EMI, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)

Sturgill Simpson  Sound & Fury

Michael Lavorgna turned me onto Sturgill Simpson’s album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Sturgill Simpson presents himself as a sort of “I don’t give a damn what you think about anything” kind of artist who follows his own muse, and not any kind of trend that might be going on in Nashville or country music, and actually pretty much thumbing his nose at the country music establishment. Metamodern Sounds was filled with hard livin’/hard lovin’/hard partyin’ hardcore country classics, but also mixed things up outside the box, with the inclusion of an almost tender version of the 1980’s When In Rome classic “The Promise”. And the album’s closer, “It Ain’t All Flowers”, offered up a healthy dose of 1970’s psychedelia that could very easily have become one of the defining songs of the generation. The “hidden track” that follows, “Pan Bowl”, is perhaps the most honest and tender recounting of one’s childhood I’ve ever heard on record. His guitarist on the album, Estonian expat Laur Joamets—whose come to be known around country circles as “Lil’ Joe”—is one of the most exciting guitar players to surface in recent years in any musical genre. What’s not to love?

His next album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, followed in pretty much the same mold, but Simpson this go around added a horn section to many of the songs. Which left me with mixed feelings about the album; I didn’t feel the horns really worked on the recording. But I did see them live a couple of times afterwards, and the horn section was an incredible addition to the band’s live sound, lending a vitality and immediacy to the songs that was sorely missing from the album. Of course, Laur Joamets’ guitar was the runaway star of the show—he’s a truly talented and incredible player, and ninety percent of the reason I’d love to hear this band live again.

So when I recently found out about Sturgill’s new album, Sound & Fury—zow—I’ve gotta hear this! What, wait—Laur Joamets is no longer with the band? Whaaaaaaat? Yep, Lil’ Joe is now touring with nineties southern rockers Drivin’ and Cryin’, and Sturgill Simpson has taken on the lead guitar role himself. Bummer, but what the heck, might as well take a listen anyway!

Well, a bit of a listen is about all that it took for me. Simpson took a completely different path here, recording the entire album in Detroit, and commissioning a bevy of Japanese Anime artists to create an anime film to accompany the release. Again, whaaaaat? I’m now no longer seeing Sturgill Simpson as a revolutionary, but more as a control freak. This album is a complete freak show, having zero resemblance to country music of any kind, with more a seventies/eighties rock vibe complete with disco-ish pounding bass, heavy use of synthesizers, heavily fuzz-toned guitars, and all of Simpson’s otherwise earthy and authentic vocals are heavily processed. And sorry, Sturgill, but this album desperately needed Laur Joamets’ guitar to have any chance of pulling this off. I’d pass if I were you. This is one cacophonic mess of an album.

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



John Coltrane  Blue World

For the second year in a row, another “lost” John Coltrane album has surfaced that features the classic Coltrane quartet lineup with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and the irrepressible Elvin Jones on drums. Although this new release, Blue World, is much less of an album proper than other Coltrane releases. Somewhere between the recently completed sessions for 1964’s classic Crescent album and the recording of A Love Supreme, Coltrane had been contacted by French-Canadian film director Giles Groulx. Would Coltrane’s group have any interest in contributing to the soundtrack of Groulx’s upcoming release, Le Chat Dans le Sac? Apparently Groulx was completely enamored with Coltrane’s music, and felt his contributions to the soundtrack would be essential to his very French New Wave film. The film was still in the editing stages, and neither Coltrane nor any of the band members had seen any of the film’s footage, or knew much of what the film was even about!

The recording sessions took place at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio, with Giles Groulx present during the recording. The entire 37 minutes of music was recorded in a single day, and Groulx departed the same day for Quebec with the tapes in hand. Eventually, only ten minutes of the music from these sessions was used in the film, and the film barely made a blip on the American filmgoing consciousness. Very little of the music here hadn’t already been recorded by Coltrane’s quartet in past years, and with the sudden celebrity of the rapidly approaching A Love Supreme, these sessions were essentially forgotten.

The album contains multiple takes of a couple of Coltrane standards, “Naima” and “Village Blues”, and also the title track’s clever reworking of “Out of this World”, which had appeared on the Coltrane album from a couple of years earlier. But what makes this album so desirable to fans and Coltrane completists alike is that the versions recorded here are mostly, fully-formed reworkings by Coltrane’s classic quartet. Performances that had all but been abandoned from the ever-forward-looking Coltrane’s live set list, and here’s a chance to hear several of them played by one of the great jazz quartets of all time! The two takes of the classic “Naima” (Coltrane hadn’t yet abandoned it from the live set!) are more lyrical and more perfectly played compared to the original on the Giant Steps album. The title track, “Blue World”, while at only a tad over six minutes, may pale in comparison to the fourteen minutes of “Out of this World” from 1962. But it contains a really great McCoy Tyner mid-section solo, and as the tune comes crashing to a finale, there’s a remarkable bit of blowing by Coltrane, simultaneous with one of Elvin Jones’ trademark, rapid-fire snare lead-outs to a crashing halt. It’s breathtaking, and alone worth the price of admission! And the seven and a half minutes of “Traneing In”—with a nearly three-minute Jimmy Garrison bass solo at the entry—is far superior to the Prestige label original from way back.

Probably since the material was so relatively short time-wise, they decided to include Rudy Van Gelder’s voiced intros to all the tunes; it makes the experience even more authentic. Yes, it’s not a fully-formed album as such, but if you’re a fan of Coltrane’s music—or just great jazz for that matter—it’s darn-near essential listening. I listened both to the MQA version on Tidal and the CD-quality version on Qobuz; I felt the sound quality was very good on both, with perhaps a slight nod going to the higher resolution tracks on Tidal. Highly recommended.

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


Kim Gordon  No Home Record

Hard to believe, but Kim Gordon has been on the music scene—mostly in NYC—for thirty-eight years, and this is her first solo record. Those of you who are fans of the post/punk, alt-noise stylings of Sonic Youth will have plenty of room to rejoice here. And while this is by no means the rebirth of Sonic Youth—Kim’s made it clear that both Sonic Youth and her marriage to Thurston Moore are both over—there’s a lot here that rings with familiarity from that very fertile period of alt-noise history. When Sonic Youth crashed and burned, rather than hang around New York—where she was a post/punk cultural icon—she headed back to California, where she grew up. A new beginning, and this is very much a California album; much of the underpinning of this album feels like an earthquake is about to erupt at any moment.

First of all, I have the new, very cool Magneplanar LRS speakers in for review at my place (one of my other gigs); they’re very honest and truthful flat-panel speakers that cast an incredibly believable image of the performance in your room. I love them! That said, within two minutes of the start of No Home Record, I had to shut everything down and reconnect the Zu Audio Omens, so convinced I was that the mylar panels on the Maggies were about to be ripped from their metallic frames by this incredibly dynamic album! This record needs to be played loud to get the full impact. One of the things I love about No Home Record is that none of the songs fade out, they mostly come crashing down in a haze of static and metallic/electronic noise. All underpinned by Gordon’s subterranean bass thrashings; my REL sub has a 12-inch, long-throw woofer cone, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or felt!) as much bass extension as with this album.

This is an unpredictable album at the very least; the opening track, “Sketch Artist”, has multiple time signature and key changes throughout, along with plenty of complete breaks—keeping you guessing all the way. Gordon contributes guitar, bass, and drum programming chores throughout. And Kim’s voice alternates from very breathy, and almost whispery, to full-on, often heavily processed, sometimes with tons of reverb and other effects added. Often sung, and sometimes much more like freely associative spoken word. While some of the songs are drivingly propulsive, and often reminiscent of her work with Sonic Youth, much of this album has a totally hipnotic and trance-like feel to it that makes those comparisons pretty much a non-sequitur.

Highlights: “Sketch Artist”, “Air BnB”, “Murdered Out”, “Don’t Play It”, “Get Yr Life Back”. I like this album more with every play. Recommended.

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

So Long to the Cynic

So Long to the Cynic

So Long to the Cynic

Bill Leebens

Over the last 95 issues of Copper, it’s been mentioned more than once that as a cynic…I might be a bit of a fraud.

I’ll own up to that. “Disappointed idealist” is likely closer to the truth. It may just be a matter of semantics, but semantics are important to me. So: if I’ve disappointed anyone by not being snarky enough—and that would certainly be the first time in my life that such has happened!—I offer my sincere apologies.

At any rate: fraud or no, this is the end of The Audio Cynic. As I mentioned in Opening Salvo, I’m headed elsewhere, and unfortunately, Copper can’t go with me.

What that means is that this is my last chance to rant—and no, I don’t kid myself that Cynic has been anything other than my personal soapbox. Thank you for indulging me, agreeing with me, and on occasion, disagreeing with me, chastising me, and complaining bitterly. That’s all fair.

So, class—what shall we discuss today?

What readily comes to mind is the fact that in the 20-plus years since I discovered the rich vein of audio information and insanity that was available on the internet—the world seems smaller. Much smaller.

Yes, we can communicate with folks all over the world in milliseconds now—that’s almost a cliche’ at this point. I frequently communicate with folks on 3 or 4 continents in the course of my day’s work, and I rarely stop and think about how miraculous that is. Which brings to mind yet another Leebens’ Law, from my pretentious and knowitall youth:

Leebens’ Law of Inverse Availability: The faster that communication can be made, the less-significant the message will be. When I concocted this at age 17, I was thinking of the heartfelt, detailed letters written back hundreds of years ago, which were then transported by ship, camel, horse, and might well take a year to reach the addressee—if ever.

Think of text-messaging: have you ever really, truly poured your heart and soul out into a text, much beyond LOL or TTFN? I may have, once or twice, although I live in fear of being misunderstood via a medium which doesn’t allow for inflection or nuance. That’s why emojis are necessary.

But in general, memes and jokes are the rule of the day. That may be pleasant, but it’s not generally world-changing…unless you consider receiving shopping-list updates while you’re already at Target, world-changing.

To me, that’s more an annoyance than a blessing. As you know, I’m old and cranky.

But I digress.

How else does the world seem smaller? When it comes to the worldwide audio community, these days I rarely encounter the sense of awe, joy, or celebration of sharing that seemed commonplace on the internet back around 1998. I suppose a certain level of blase’ attitude is inevitable, but most of what I see these days is polarization, exchanges of misinformation, and dogmatic defenses of whatever view the poster feels at that moment.

The closest I’ve come recently to the raw astonishment and goofy ebullience of those early internet days was visiting hifideluxe in Munich, the outrider show that takes place at the same time as the Rilly Big Shoe. I encountered companies and designers I’d never heard of, many of whom exhibited really novel, clever technologies and products. Not to sound smug or self-important, but I’m pretty aware of the audio scene worldwide, and just to encounter the unknown—was unusual, and really refreshing for me. hifideluxe reminded me of THE Show in Las Vegas, back in the day, when really brilliant designers who happened to be terrible business people exhibited next to cranks who would show once, never to be seen again. The tired ambiance of the Flamingo also added a soupcon of sleaze that was rather more honest than the pomposity of CES.

Maybe it’s not the internet that’s become blase’. Maybe it’s me. If I had that Munich trip to do over again, I’d spend more time at the little show, and less at the big one.

Maybe I’ll see you there next year. You never know where I might turn up.

Meanwhile: thanks for reading, and thanks for writing. I’ll miss y’all.

…well…MOST of y’all.

I’ve got to take one last shot at being a cynic…right?

[Pardon the self-indulgence of the header pic. If I look even tireder and puffier than usual, it’s because I was recovering from a cold. Give an old guy a break, willya?]

Top Chef

Roy Hall

“Dad, can you lend me $2000? I’m good for it.”

My son Ilan was a line cook in a New York restaurant called Casa Mono. He enjoyed the cook’s world: sixty-hour workweeks, minimum wages, screaming bosses, and the dangers of sharp knives and hot flames. It also came with perks: cooks and chefs getting together in the wee small hours, hanging out at restaurants closed to the public, imbibing unlimited alcohol and gorging on huge amounts of food, then returning home at dawn to sleep for a few hours, then going back to work. One day a friend told him that a new TV program, Top Chef, was having open auditions for its second season. He decided to try out, and true to form he arrived a day late. The auditions were over but one of the producers told him that they would accept a video of him cooking something.

He immediately went to Radio Shack and bought a camcorder for $500 on his/my credit card (video cameras were expensive in 2006). He took it home, asked his girlfriend to film him and as he cooked ramen noodles on the 2-burner gas range/refrigerator in his tiny New York apartment kitchen, he kibitzed with self-deprecating humor. Afterwards he returned the camera to Radio Shack. A few weeks later he received an invitation to a further audition in Los Angeles, which in fact just meant attending one or two meetings and otherwise being sequestered in a hotel room for three days. No one ever asked him to cook anything. Not long after returning to New York, he was flown back to LA for the taping of the show.

We were told that he was a contestant but were not informed where he was. We had an emergency number only and were advised not to call. In those days, Top Chef’s producers insisted on isolating the contestants so they couldn’t acquire recipes from the outside. During the weeks of taping (he told me later) Ilan was grouped with about 15 other chefs. Their access to the outside world was very limited: no tv, no walks without supervision, no phone calls, no newspapers. The only thing they were allowed was NPR. (They have subsequently relaxed these rules).

As viewers of the show know, Top Chef is a cooking competition: Ilan won the first challenge with a dish of baked escargot in the shell. His next win was in episode 5 with lobster, shrimp & mushroom paella and fried soft-shell crab dishes.

After that he started to strategize. He saw that many chefs wanted to show off but didn’t listen to the Judges. He then figured out what the judges like to eat and decided to follow their instructions and cook what was asked of the contestants. This seems simple enough but it took a while to sink in. After that he started to win or place in more episodes.

One of the contestants he met there was a man called Marcel. They both took an instant dislike to each other, like dogs that sniff each other, then bark furiously. Marcel would sometimes sabotage other contestant’s dishes to gain an advantage. Complaints were made to the judges but to no avail so some of the contestants, pissed off with Marcel’s duplicity and after drinking too much, decided it was time to teach him a lesson. Ilan and Elia (a good friend and contestant), their judgment impaired, shaved their heads and thought it a good idea to do the same to Marcel. Sensing trouble, the producers had given Ilan a hand held camera and were rewarded when Marcel was grabbed and held down in an attempt to cut his hair. He escaped and spent the night in the bathroom. Cliff, who had physically held Marcel down, was sent home. Senior judge Tom Colicchio had wanted to send all of them home but the producers, fearing an anti-climatic end to the show, let everyone else stay.

Although Top Chef swore him to silence, we knew that he was chosen to be in the finale and one day, a few months after returning from LA, he flew off to Hawaii for the contest. Judging from his request for $2000 I surmised that he had won but he was closed mouth about it and we had to wait until the show was broadcast on TV before we knew for certain. We decided to invite friends to the house to watch the broadcast finale. We had three televisions set up around the house and over 50 people showed up. One of his school’s principles and his old baby doctor arrived, as well as some journalists we know. It was a really jolly crowd and the wine and food enhanced the mood.

The climax of the show centered on the rivalry between Marcel and Ilan. The producers emphasized this animosity to get better ratings. It worked. Over four million people watched the final episode, the highest viewership Top Chef has ever had.

Ilan’s food was spectacular. This was the menu:

  • First Course: Pincho of Pan Con Tomate with AngulasOsetra Caviar & Tomatillos
  • Second Course: Macadamia Nut Gazpacho with Pan Roasted Moi
  • Third Course: Seared Squab with Foie Gras, Shrimp, Braised Leeks & Lobster Sauce
  • Fourth Course: Braised & Grilled Beef Short Rib with Mushrooms & Romesco Sauce
  • Fifth Course: Tangelo Soup with Hawaiian Fruit, Surinam Cherry Sorbet & Bay Leaf Fritter

When Ilan did win, our friends erupted in cheers. It was a flawless end to a perfect evening. Having our son win Top Chef was an experience which thrills us to this day.

Ilan’s prize was $100,000.00. He never did pay back the $2000.

Maurice Duruflé

Lawrence Schenbeck

Maybe you’ve heard about FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. It’s a disease I know, having caught it once or twice over the years. I was the first kid on my block to own a Bob Dylan LP (Freewheelin’, 1963), also the first to possess Miles Davis’s now-semi-classic Someday My Prince Will Come. It was fun to be first.

Now it may be time to coin another useful acronym, JOMO. That would be Joy of Missing Out, which has multiple uses. When you feel the urge to pull those covers up, assume the fetal position, and keep TV, radio, smartphone, and social-media purveyors far, far away, JOMO affirms that. It’s okay to stay alive by ignoring all the Crazy for a while.

JOMO can also reference your joy upon discovering semi-old (or really old) stuff that everyone else already knows. Technically that’s JOFO, Joy of Finding Out. But it’s almost always preceded by JOMO or simply MO. An example: until I was ushered into a certain mastering suite a couple of months ago, I had no idea that Joni Mitchell had once done an album with strings and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock et al. in multichannel high-res sound. Once I heard a track or two, I was blown away. Also deeply embarrassed by my ignorance, but not forever. That’s how JOFO works. First your FOMO has to prove inadequate to its task, which (believe me) it will. Then, if you’re lucky, JOFO will lead you to an epiphany, which is this: your initial MO was a good thing. You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Back at the turn of the century, I wasn’t keeping up with Joni. In those days I listened to music mainly to find just the right 13th-century motet to study with my history students. That’s how I missed out on Both Sides Now. Fast forward: recently I was asked to write program notes for a performance of Maurice Duruflé’s great Requiem. I certainly knew of its existence. I had always meant to study it. Now I had no choice, so I got a score and James Frazier’s excellent Duruflé biography. I did the typical academic total-immersion thing. Here’s some of what I learned:

Celebrated French organist Maurice Duruflé (1902–86) was not a prolific composer. Intensely self-critical, he published only a handful of works during his lifetime, revising them repeatedly over the years. Even the 1947 Requiem, by far his most famous work, never fully met his own high standards. He wrote it during the Occupation years; historically it reflects the privation and sadness of that time. Stylistically, the Duruflé Requiem rests on dual foundations: Gregorian chant (plainsong), which has modal scales, graceful melodies, and liturgical roots; and on the other hand Ravel and Debussy, whose expanded harmonic language and sumptuously voiced textures make overt appeals to the senses. Between these poles, the composer found a middle path. His Impressionist textures actually encourage an aura of serenity, while the plainsong, enhanced by counterpoint and coloration, takes on a surprising sensuality. Who knew that could happen?

Central to Duruflé’s reconciliation of opposites was arabesque, the “capricious and sinuous line” Debussy found in plainsong, in Bach, even in Javanese gamelan. Every movement of this Requiem is based on its corresponding liturgical chant. (For what follows, you may find it handy to open a window with texts/translations.) Here’s how the opening “Requiem aeternam” sounds:

In Duruflé’s music, direct chant quotation is obvious from the beginning, which the chorus intones in the manner of a priestly celebrant. You’ll hear the choir men enter with the same tune as in the clip above. You’ll also hear the way Duruflé modifies or abandons that chant melody in the vocal lines, once the opening text is repeated. (A version of the chant continues in the orchestra.) In this way the composer achieves an expressive unfolding of the music while acknowledging its origins in church ritual.

In the “Kyrie,” Duruflé first treats chant phrases as in a Bach chorale prelude, offering imitative choral snippets before the orchestra repeats the melody in long notes. The succeeding, more freely treated “Christe” prepares the triumphant return of the “Kyrie” (marked sempre ff and emphasizing this chant’s long falling lines). Okay, let’s hear that chunk:

Unlike the pure, arabesque-y Gregorian chant it’s based on, this music goes somewhere. Not only that, it eventually gets there. That prompted Frazier to analyze it as “processional drive” with “a sense of destiny.” Throughout the Requiem, Duruflé uses the idea of procession to address human anguish, terror, and hope while suggesting ultimate arrival in a new dimension, one beyond human understanding.

As his predecessor Fauré had done, Duruflé omits most of the “Dies irae.” Nevertheless his “Domine Jesu Christe” provides a measure of drama, beginning with the organ’s gloomy chant paraphrase and continuing with cries for deliverance from “the pains of hell” and “the bottomless pit.” Only with the entrance of St. Michael’s holy light does serene, simple chant return:

Duruflé then reawakens tension by introducing the “Hostias” with a chant-derived—but crucially altered—organ motive, its orientalist contour emphasizing those primeval “sacrifices and prayers” in the text. Here’s the original Gregorian chant:

Sacrifices and prayers of praise to Thee, O Lord, we offer. Do Thou receive them on behalf of those souls whom this day we commemorate.

And now the altered instrumental introduction, with its twisted melodic contour:

For the “Sanctus” Duruflé turns again to processional drive, this time engineering a monumental climax at “Hosanna in excelsis,” then a brief Benedictus. (You can listen to the whole movement at 14:58 in the YouTube video below.) His unusual but utterly graceful treatment of “sanc-tus” emphasizes the second syllable, precisely as in the Liber usualis.

After the “Sanctus,” Duruflé offers “Pie Jesu,” the final couplet of the “Dies irae.” Set for mezzo-soprano (as in Fauré) and solo cello, it becomes the emotional center of the work, its vocal line brought achingly alive by dissonances in the accompaniment.

A continuous flow of chant animates the “Lux aeterna” with grace and energy, setting the stage for “Libera me” and “In paradisum.” Once again the horrors of the End of Days appear. After a dark, wary introduction, Duruflé accelerates to the fiery climax, God’s judgment “per ignem.”

Yet soon enough, the sopranos reassuringly offer the “Requiem” plainsong, using melodic figures heard at the work’s very beginning. We have come full circle. That which follows is surely meant as music from another world. Now the choral sopranos intone “In paradisum” with the peaceful detachment known only to angels. Others join them. Much as it began, the movement ends with soft, unresolved chords that vanish into infinity.

Three performing versions exist: one with organ accompaniment, one with organ and chamber orchestra, and one with organ and a full orchestra. The organ is indispensable to any performance; Duruflé was a master organist who “registered” the orchestra in the same manner one might choose specific stops at the keyboard. Indeed, some of the instruments—especially the trumpets—sound rather like stops on the organ (which is not to say they sound wrong).


You can choose from many recordings of all three versions. I used the first-ever recording of the chamber-orchestra version, from conductor Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers (Hyperion CDA66191), which is quite good. Ann Murray was the mezzo-soprano soloist, and she does an outstanding job. In any recording, balances may be troublesome, partly because Duruflé emphasizes mid-bass sonorities via divisi violas and cellos and similar organ registration, and because in a typical recording venue, e.g., a large church interior, the choir may sing too gently to project over active instrumental figuration. Best and company manage this well. Their album also features an attractive filler, Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Gregoriens, which includes Ubi caritas, among the most beloved of all 20th-century choral works:

Recently I heard conductor Robin Ticciati’s large-orchestra reading with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Berlin Rundfunkchor, and soloist Magdalena Kožená (Linn CKD 623). It’s recommendable too; some people will prefer its unusual coupling with Debussy’s Nocturnes, since that provides an opportunity to compare Debussy’s language with Duruflé’s. Ticciati is alert to the nuance and drama in these scores, and his people deliver skilled, engaging performances.

Of organ-only accompaniments, my favorite remains that of organist Nancianne Parella, who had assisted fellow organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé in 1971 performances of the Requiem when Madame Duruflé toured North America with her husband. Conductor Kent Tritle and the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola shape a superbly expressive interpretation, to which soprano Kaaren Erickson contributed an exceptional “Pie Jesu.” I especially recommend this recording (MSR 1141) to those who prefer the sound of a full-throated American professional choir; really, it’s hard to beat.

Bach Cello Suites

Anne E. Johnson

In a thoroughly unscientific survey, I found over a dozen new recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites released just within the past 12 months. That’s a lot of unaccompanied cello! Not that I’m complaining. These are some of the greatest works created by humanity. And see it from the cellist’s perspective: Who wouldn’t want to record these masterpieces, even multiple times?

This has not always been the case, by the way. As with many of Bach’s works, the six solo suites were ignored after the composer’s death. But unlike some of his pieces, especially those championed by Mendelssohn and other Romantic-era Bach fans, the cello suites stayed buried for a long time. They were considered too difficult and academic by most cellists in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century they’d been entirely forgotten.

We have the great Pablo Casals to thank for their revival in the active repertoire. The story goes that Casals found a copy of the score in a thrift shop when he was only 13, and he determined right then and there to master them. By 1939, he had become the first person to record all six suites.

In 2019, on the other hand, there are more new recordings than can be covered here. So I’ll focus on a few that you might not find written about elsewhere.

One of those is on the label Animal Music, a recording of the first three suites by Jiří Bárta (not to be confused with the Czech animator of the same name). As you can hear in this Courante from Suite No. 1, Bárta belongs to the Russian school of cello technique, producing a multi-dimensional, at times craggy sound. And while there’s an appealing wildness in his playing, there’s also a stateliness to it. He clearly understands the Baroque background of these dance-based movements.


The Sarabande from Suite No. 2 has an appropriately contrasting style, with Bárta presenting the typically mournful movement type as a deep meditation. He separates the phrases by breaths, as if he’s talking himself through some of life’s weightier puzzles.


In quite a different interpretation of Suites 1-3, Italian early-music specialist Francesco Galligioni released a recording on the label Fra Bernardo. In his work as scholar and teacher, Galligioni has focused on Baroque bowing techniques. The results are obvious in this solo recording. (There are multiple scores extant from Bach’s time that conflicting slurs over the notes, so bowing and phrasing are a point of central concern for these pieces.)

In the Prelude to Suite No. 3, you’ll hear patterns of accents, like the bow biting the string, that bring out a new and interesting shape to a movement meant to sound somewhat meandering and thoughtful.


The smaller sound of a Baroque cello as compared to the modern version gives rhythmically strict movements like this Gigue from Suite No. 2 an intense intimacy. Unlike some early-music players, Galligioni never lets his commitment to authenticity diminish his expressiveness.


Just out in September 2019, Marko Ylönen’s recording of all six suites for Alba Music makes a favorable impression for different reasons. It was my first experience hearing this Finnish cellist. His touch is buoyant, more of the French than Russian style. His interpretation is – if I may use this word to describe cello-playing – humble. There’s something reverent and self-deprecating in his meticulous phrasing and tone production.

This approach could have gone overboard and sounded twee, but because the intention is so earnest and well-prepared, it’s difficult not to be moved. And his cello itself is extraordinarily resonant, an instrument made in the early 18th century by Venetian master Mateo Goffriller. I hope I get a chance to hear it live someday.

Here’s the Prelude to the first suite.


That’s the only movement on Youtube so far, but you can hear the whole album on Spotify:



2019 brought out the usual array of performances of the Cello Suites on other instruments. (For those who are curious, there is some evidence that Bach did not intend these to be played on the cello we’re used to at all, but rather on a violoncello da spalla, “shoulder cello,” which is sort of like a bowed guitar – and looks as awkward as you might imagine.)

Nowadays, violin and viola are the most common replacement instruments. Using her own transcriptions, British musician Rachel Podger plays all six suites on violin in a new Channel Classics recording. The Baroque period is Podger’s specialty, so it’s no surprise that she sounds comfortable and confident in this repertoire.

This thoughtful interpretation of the Allemande from Suite No. 1 has clarity and purpose. Podger is also a conductor, which may help her to comprehend the larger-scale motions in Bach’s work as well as his “implied polyphony,” the fancy name for a single instrument jumping around to different ranges as if there were multiple instruments playing.


She takes a lot of liberties with this gigue, not keeping to a steady 6/8 time but allowing each sentence to stand on its own. On the other hand, her phrasing is deliberate, never random or stalled out. It almost works, even if I’d need some convincing that it’s genuinely Baroque.


The most intriguing but least successful non-cello endeavor is Rodrigo Serrão’s recording of Suite No. 1 (on Kbranca Music) performed on the Chapman stick. That’s a 12-string electronic guitar, invented by American jazz guitarist Emmett Chapman in the 1970s.

It’s a fascinating instrument, played by slapping the fingers onto the fret rather than plucking. I have no objection to the sound of the Chapman stick for rendering Bach, but I object strongly to Serrão’s formless melt-down of all rhythmic structure. Except for the opening Prelude, all of Bach’s suite movements are based on rhythmically strict courtly dances, so amorphous self-indulgence negates much of Bach’s craft and purpose.


There’s way too much schtick on that stick. Bach doesn’t need that kind of help.

The Isley Brothers

Anne E. Johnson

While the Isley Brothers may have started out singing gospel in church, it was having a father on the vaudeville circuit that guaranteed there was showbiz in their blood.

The four brothers were Ronald, O’Kelly (named after their dad), Vernon, and Rudolph. With Vernon singing lead, they won some local talent contests in their native Cincinnati. But in 1955, Vernon died in an accident. Still determined to make music their lives, the three surviving brothers headed for New York City in 1957.

Almost immediately, they started making an impact on the music industry, but it was for the material they created and demonstrated rather than for record sales. Their own albums sold only modestly at first. Some of the songs they recorded, however, found their way into more powerful hands, most famously those of The Beatles, who turned “Twist and Shout” into a monster hit.

When they arrived in NYC, it didn’t take them long to sign with RCA Victor. Shout! (1959) was their first album. It was produced by industry innovators (and cousins) Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore.

Shout! is an interesting mix, almost two separate mini-albums pressed together. Side 1 is the “safer” collection of songs, with known entities like the spiritual “When the Saints Go Marching In” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”

Side 2 is a different story, and the one that made the music scene take notice (even if the record-buying public barely did). It features a number of tracks written by the Isleys. One of those is “Respectable.” The high-energy pulse was perfect for the burgeoning pop-soul genre poised to break through to the charts.


The titles of Isley Brothers albums can be confusing. For example, Twisting and Shouting (1963) is not to be confused with their record Twist and Shout from the year before. By 1963 they’d moved on to United Artists and were called The Famous Isley Brothers.

“You’ll Never Leave Him” is by Bertrand Russell Berns (aka Bert Russell), who wrote a bunch of hits including “Twist and Shout” and “Piece of My Heart.” The arrangement has a calming Caribbean feel.


Like many artists, the Isleys were constantly disappointed by the mainstream recording industry. Unlike many artists, though, they found a solution that worked. The fact that they attempted to found their own label in 1964 is not surprising. What’s unusual is that T-Neck Records was a big success.

Well, it took a few years and almost failed. But 1969’s It’s Our Thing solidified the label and put the Isleys up on top as performers for the first time. One major factor was bringing in their younger brothers, Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass). Ernie provided a nuanced guitar sound, thanks to influence from Jimi Hendrix (who was a session musician for the group in 1964!). The Isley’s cousin, Chris Jasper, joined on keyboard.

It’s hard to be sure whether the album Givin’ It Back (1971) started out as a tribute or a snub, but it certainly is an interesting moment in the racial politics of the music industry. After all those years of white acts outselling them on their own material, the Isleys, bolstered by their newfound success, now covered a bunch of hits by stars like Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Here’s their funky and intricate version of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”:


The group’s success was no flash in the pan. Harvest for the World (1976) was one of the fastest-selling records of all time (500,000 copies in the first three weeks). Even some of the non-single tracks became hits, thanks to radio play.

The Isley-penned “You Still Feel the Need,” which closes the album, is a sexy full-out funk with a heart-thumping bass line from Marvin. The lead singer on this one is Rudolph. While he doesn’t have the clear vocal power of Ronald, his emotional authenticity puts this song over the edge.


The Isleys bowed to the inevitable in Winner Takes All (1979), adding a disco beat to their funk sound. Apparently they did it right, since they made the UK disco charts while topping the US R&B chart.

It was a two-disc set, with softer ballads providing contrast with the dance club numbers. One of the ballads is “You’re Beside Me,” gently sung by O’Kelly. The fact that they resisted over-producing the accompaniment to this song is one of the things that keeps it tasteful and lovely.


While Grand Slam (1981) sold well, it wasn’t the same level of domination the Isleys had become used to. The six-member group brought in a few session musicians (harp, congas, etc.) to bolster their sound and mix things up.

One of the album-only tracks is the philosophical “Don’t Let Up,” featuring the almost Zen lines “I can’t change my yesterdays/ It’s out of my hands.” Besides Ronald Isley’s gritty delivery, this song is worth a listen for its distinctive slappy bass.


By the time they cut the 1985 album Masterpiece, the younger brothers and Jasper had dispersed. That left the original trio — O’Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald. As it turned out, this was their last chance to record together: O’Kelly died the next year.

It’s hardly a three-man album, though. The personnel list is long, with a full spectrum of instruments that create a rich (and often frantically over-complicated) sound for the Stevie Wonder song “Stay Gold”.


One thing you can say about the Isley Brothers: They’re not one of those old groups who just keep dragging out their old hits. The Isleys have never been afraid to keep trying new material. Ronald and Ernie hit the No. 3 spot with the album Eternal (2001) because of its single, “Contagious,” by R&B/hip hop star R. Kelly.

The album ends with “Think,” which originated as a 1972 instrumental by Curtis Mayfield from his Super Fly album. Here it’s arranged with added lyrics by Ronald Isley. The biggest change is the meter. The Mayfield recording is in 3/4 time, but the Isleys extended each bar to four beats, making the source tune almost unrecognizable.


Inevitably, the Isleys are winding down, but a couple of years ago they made themselves heard again. Of the original three Isley Brothers, only Ronald survives. He and Ernie, following an 11-year break from recording, hit the studio in 2017. They invited Santana to join them. The result was Power of Peace.

The crisp interplay of Latin, gospel, funk, and psychedelia makes “Are You Ready” an irresistible track, and the perfect cap on a career that combined innovation with tradition.




Charles Rodrigues




Bill Leebens