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  Ox Box #10 - Music from Jimmy Cobb, Mozart, Martinu and Robert Plant

      Date posted: December 7, 2011

JimmyCobbQtetThe Music:

“Cobb’s Corner”   The Jimmy Cobb Quartet: Roy Hargrove, trumpet; Ronnie Mathews, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums  CHESKY SACD 327

“Jazz In the Key of Blue”   The Jimmy Cobb Quartet: Roy Hargrove, trumpet and flugelhorn; Russ Malone, guitar; John Webber, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums CHESKY SACD 344

“The Bellingham Sessions”   The Chuck Israels Quartet: Miles Black, piano; Dan Faehnle, guitar; Donald Bailey, drums; Chuck Israels, bass  Audio Ideas Recordings ai-cd -011 & 013

“The Bright Mississippi”   Allen Toussaint, piano with Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Don Byron, clarinet; Mark Ribot, acoustic guitar; David Piltch, bass, Jay Bellrose, drums and percussion; with special guests, Brad Mehldau, piano and Joshua Redmond, tenor sax
Nonesuch 480380-2

The CDs that were sent to me for review are the two with Jimmy Cobb (yes, the same Jimmy Cobb on several of Miles Davis’ recordings of half a century ago) and one thing led to another. Even though the recording venue, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in NYC, is common to both discs, there is a difference between them. Broadly speaking, the “Blues” disc sounds better. In fact, it is the best example I’ve heard of Chesky’s specialist recording technique.

One of the things that keeps our hobby interesting and must frustrate the devil out of recording engineers is “why?”: why do recordings which are identical from a technical point of view, sound different one from another? In the case of the discs at hand I will suggest two things. From a non-technical point of view, the Cobb groups are not the same and the guitar instead of the piano on Blue  permits a more intimate sound. As well, Hargrove plays flugelhorn almost exclusively on “Blue”, a cushier sound, more intimate. Second, I am guessing everyone is a bit closer to the microphone, certainly Hargrove is. There is a third factor, the performers just sound more engaged in the music making, the better the performance the better our perception of the sound. Cobb uses brushes on the snares and cymbals on both of these discs but on “Blue” it is simply easier to hear what he is doing. The tunes are mostly standards, very well played. I wouldn’t claim that either disc is essential, but “Blue” is occasionally quite arresting.

The Chesky sound on Jazz In the Key of Blue  made me think of Andrew Marshall’s specialist approach when he recorded Chuck Israels’ sessions in Bellingham, Washington in the late 90s for the Audio Ideas Recordings label. The result was two CDs of very listenable jazz in very wide ranging, detailed sound. The “whys and wherefores” of the recording are extensively covered elsewhere on the Audio Ideas site. Though the recording setup was different from the unique one the Chesky people favour, the results are comparably successful with the A.I. discs sounding brighter and more dynamic and the Chesky more natural.

Hearing Roy Hargrove on the Jimmy Cobb recordings made me think of Nicholas Payton playing trumpet on the Allan Toussaint CD. It comes from 2008 when the producer, a rabid Toussaint fan, got various and sundry together in the plush Avatar studio in New York and realized “his dream”. I am always very interested to know where a disc was recorded because it makes the performance seem more real. It is very hard to accept this recording wasn’t done in New Orleans in large part because Toussaint is the epitome of the Crescent City. (He produced the benefit recording on Nonesuch that raised money for citizens of that city after hurricane Katrina). Toussaint plays on all the tracks, but some of the combinations are a bit a of a surprise: Brad Mehldau and Toussaint with a twin piano version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winnin” Boy Blues”, Joshua Redman with Toussaint or a “Day Dream” which is only as close to New Orleans as were its composers, Ellington and Strayhorn. The show stopper on “Bright Mississippi” is “West End Blues”, which one cannot countenance without thinking of Louis Armstrong’s epochal recording of “West End” from the late twenties. Here, in an apt gesture of recognition, Louis’ revolutionary opening cadenza is repeated with great effect by Payton. There is a solo by Don Byron, whom one usually meets these days on the experimental edge of the art, the great Mark Ribot has a brief but tough solo on steel stringed acoustic guitar, but central to the impact of this piece is drummer-percussionist, Jay Bellerose. Among other things, Bellerose is a collector of old percussion instruments and loves the music of the 20s and 30s. On “West End” he does it all, he struts and stomps and marches, plays wood blocks and punctuates the rhythm with a slightly loose sounding kick drum. Fabulous. Toward the end of the piece, Payton reenters the fray on a wailing single held note while Bellerose decorates the syncopation with brushes fluttering on the cymbals. By then, everyone is in a groove that makes his track alone worth the price of the album. The sound is fine, but not a patch on the other three discs. None the less, recommended.
Robert Plant
“Band of Joy”   Robert Plant
Patty Griffin, vocals; Buddy Miller, electric guitar and string bass; Darrell Scott, acoustic guitar, mandolin, octave mandolin, banjos, accordion, pedal steel and lap steel guitar; Byron House, bass; Marco Giovino, drums and percussion; Robert Plant, vocals
Rounder (unnumbered)

Robert Plant is enjoying a very productive old age. Just the fact that he is alive rather than in the company of so many of his fellow rock musicians from the 60s and 70s who injected, ingested themselves to an early demise, is a cause for joy. Mind you, it is still hard for me to imagine that the Robert Plant of “Raising Sand” (Jay Bellrose is the drummer on that disc too) or “Band of Joy” is the Robert Plant who was Led Zeppelin’s lead singer. But then Led Zepp did some very attractive acoustic stuff, particularly on their fourth album. Call it, folk rock, and that’s what I would call the music “Band of Joy”. I just love it! It has been on the top of my stack of favorites since I got it. The songs, some Plant originals, some traditional and some “others”, are performed with so much easy care they sound better with each hearing. It’s as if they were written to be performed exactly as they are here, each one opening a door to a three or four minute experience that is completely satisfying. The production is tidy, the booklet/cover art is delightful and the sound, with lost of gutsy bass, is above average for a popular CD these days.

Martinu, Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4
Giorgio Kould, piano, The Brhuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra, Zin, conducted by Arthur Fagen, Naxos 8.572373
Martinu, Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4; Overture, Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca

Robert Kolinsky, piano, Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Ondine ODE 1158-2

Two CDs of the piano concertos 2 and 4 of Martinu? I know, that’s one disc too many. However, I found out about this Naxos disc first and bought it and brought it home. As I mostly know his Symphonies, I was anxious to hear the disc. I was given to understand the 4th  is his best piano concerto so I expected good things. On the first listen I thought there was something wrong it sounded so unusual. A quick check with discs I know well assured me it wasn’t my equipment, it was the Naxos recording that was at fault. (The eventual arrival of the Ondine disc confirmed this). It should be said that, with the exception of some very early releases, Naxos has had good to excellent sound quality. In this case, the overwhelming amount of reflected sound makes it almost impossible to even hear the piano when the rather crude sounding orchestra is going full tilt. I am really unable to say much about the performance so I will leave it at that. A rare miss for the budget label.
Martinu
Familiarity with Vladimir Ashkenazy led me to think the Ondine release would provide a listening experience of a different order. For decades now, Ashkenazy has distinguished himself as a concert pianist and orchestral conductor, and the very fine orchestral support the Basel players give Robert Kolinsky reflects Ashkenazy’s depth as a musician. Kolinsky is Swiss born and studied in Basel, and sounds right at home. He has a confident grasp of the music. A casual listener might dismiss these works as being too simplistic. It would be wrong to call them “great” and they are occasionally simple, but careful listening reveals many rewards. Martinu’s symphonies have now appeared on several labels as has some of his chamber music. These piano concertos, plus the purely orchestral work, make for a welcome disc for admirers of this original and very creative composer. The sound recording, made in the Musiksaal Stadtcasino, Basel is excellent. By the way, I’ve just learned that Ondine is owned by….Naxos.

Mozart: String Quartets K.575; K.589; K. 590 The “Prussian” Quartets
The Emerson String Quartet
Sony Masterworks 886697935982

Mozart: String Quartets K.421; K.465; Divertimento K.138
Quatuor Ebene
Virgin Classics 50999 070922 2 0

Followers of the Emerson will note that this, the preeminent American based string quartet, is appearing on a different label. Their distinguished professional career is in its 35th year and for many of those years they have recorded the length and breadth of the quartet repertoire for DG. This is Quatuor Ebene’s fourth CD, all for Virgin Classics, a division of EMI. Their career is, relatively speaking, just beginning, but, what a beginning! Their first release of the Debussy and Ravel quartets was the Gramophone Magazine’s record of the year. This Mozart disc is my record of the year for 2011. Fortunate to have both CDs for review, for I am understanding the works more fully, hearing in this rich, unpretentious but profound music, aspects I never knew were there. In my experience, Mozart performers have too often been unwilling to flout convention and dig deep enough to find the meaning beneath the surface. In part, they have been bound by convention, the received wisdom on “how to play Mozart”. The period instrument/performance era wasn’t much help.The rules changed and many were the revelatory results, but, not in every case and I think Mozart’s music suffered more than most. Now, I believe these two recordings (and the new Helene Grimaud Mozart concerto recording on DG) are harbingers of a Mozart era when performers are feeling freer to throw out the rule book and fully express what they hear Mozart saying to them.
Ebene Quartet's Mozart
The Emerson Quartet write that when they play the composer’s music they strive for “elegance, beauty and style”. I would give them very high marks on two of three, and instead, substitute “strength” for “beauty”. Not that there aren’t many beautiful moments in their fine performances, it is just that I sense they go for the powerful over the beautiful. For example, their dynamic performance of K. 590  defines great quartet playing. To further make the point, I must comment on the very successful sound engineering, which seems integral to their artistic achievement. The recording was made in January of this year at LaFrank Hall, Queens College, New York, The first thing I noticed was the reverberant sound: there is a lot of it, making me imagine the players are in a large, empty hall. They are placed in the middle distance, as if on a stage. The soundstage recreated in my listening room is very spacious, serving to accommodate the Emerson’s “symphonic” approach. The transparency of the recording allows us to hear everything. These are elegant, strong, stylish performances, qualities always at the service of the music.

The Ebene are based in the Limousin region of France and their home is a building called Freme de Villefavard, a converted granary which is supported by the Limousin ministry of culture and the regional council. This is where the Ebene work on their music and make their recordings. It is a magnificent space. You can see it if you seek out Quatuor Ebene on You Tube. It’s worth it. The Ebene write that to get to the sublime, “that wholly ecstatic state and transcendent mystery we associate with Mozart”, they have “to try and let go, to bare all”. Of course this is risky business and, indeed, there may well be listeners who feel the Ebene’s approach is too personal and the music is too pulled about. I might feel the same way were it not for the fact they are artists of a rare kind, who succeed in getting to the heart of the matter. The purity and beauty of their tone, combined with dynamic shading at it’s most subtle, is breathtaking. Many times as I listened I likened it to the experience of looking at a painting by Vermeer. The quartets on their disc are from the set Mozart dedicated to Haydn. I had no Idea they could sound like this.

There it is, two ways of discovering Mozart, two distinguished CDs.

Robert Oxley

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