Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles

Herbie Hancock

First of all, I haven’t posted here in more than 2 months. Wow, time flies. A lot of stuff going on at work, but still, not sure why I haven’t posted more.

One of the reasons is that I wasn’t really impressed by any new releases recently, and haven’t purchased a lot of music therefore.

However, my favorite streaming service / download seller Qobuz (I have no affiliation), has currently a Jazz special offer going on, with some albums being discounted by 40%.

Therefore, instead of buying new stuff, I ended up mostly re-buying high-res remasters of albums I mostly already owned, many of them from my favorite Jazz period, the 1960s.

One of the albums I re-purchased was Herbie Hancocks classic, Empyrean Isles, and then I noticed I hadn’t done a single blog post about Herbie in now 6 years (but I did mention another classic of his, Maiden Voyage, in my 25 Essential Jazz Albums).

So, here we go:

Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles (Blue Note Records 1964)

Herbie Hancock - Empyrean Isles (24/192) Blue Note 1964
B

Empyrean Isles is Hancocks 4th studio album, recorded at the age of 24. It has a pretty stellar cast, with my old favorite Freddie Hubbard on cornet (a type of trumpet), Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Hancock knew these colleagues well already, having played with them in the second Miles Davis quintet.

Most casual listeners will know at least one song from the album, track no. 3, the classic Cantaloupe Island. Hancock covered it even himself, in his 1976 funk album, as Cantelope Island. But the most famous cover version probably remains US3’s 1992 cover version, that introduced it to a wholly new audience. Furthermore, the song has been used in countless movie soundtracks and commercials. And I must admit, it also remains my favorite track on the album. Together with the earlier Watermelon Man, it is probably Hancock’s most favorite track.

The rest of the album is very enjoyable, too.

That said, the opening One Finger Snap, is actually my least favorite, for a simple reason, it doesn’t have a very strong melody (yes that’s me, I’m a sucker for melodies). It is still groovy and clearly gets my foot to tap.

Olioqui Valley is already a much stronger tune for me, with it’s modal tendencies, this song really sucks me in from the very first chords. Maybe I also like it better than the opening track, because Hancock here plays a much more prominent role, and being an amateur pianist, I just like hearing the piano. It hasn’t truly become a Jazz standard, but you hear it played every once in a while by other musicians as well.

Finally, The Egg is the longest track on an album with nearly 14 min of playtime. It really manages to never get boring, starting with the hypnotic repetitive opening pattern of Hancock, Carter, and Williams, which really allows Hubbard to shine. The rest of the track allows all of the musicians to solo.

Overall, this is not a must have album to me, but I find it overall to be very enjoyable.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Monty Alexander Love You Madly- An Audiophile and Musical Delight

I’m not an audiophile

OK, that statement is only partially true. I do care about the sound quality of my music, I have a mid-level speaker system and a high end headphone setup, and I did spend some time in hifi-shops figuring out which gear I like. I’m a man, and we like our toys.

But I still wouldn’t call myself an audiophile. This special category of nerds (nothing wrong with that, I’m certainly a classical music nerd as witnessed by me doing this blog) that just love tinkering, speaking about gear, and in some extremes would rather listen to the latest “audiophile” recording even if the music is mediocre (Jazz at the Pawnshop, anybody?).

That’s how my blogger name came to be, I called myself “Musicophile” as opposed to “audiophile”. And you’ll see that on this blog I’m pretty much exclusively writing about the musical qualities of the albums I discuss, and only rarely comment about the recording quality.

But every once in a while you’ll find recordings that are both a musical and an audiophile delight, so let me break my own rule and start 2022 after a 2 month hiatus (due to a lot going on at my day job) with one of those.

Monty Alexander – Love You Madly – Live At Bubba’s (Resonance Records / 2xHD 1982/2020)

Monty Alexander Love You Madly Live At Bubba's 2xHD DXD DSD

I’ve reviewed another Monty Alexander live album previously, his very enjoyable live concert at Montreux.

This recording is actually now 40 years old, it was recorded at a club in Florida back in 1982. It has recently been re-released in 2 formats, a regular 24/96 high-res remaster that already sounds really nice, and then in the format I’ll be discussing here, from the small audiophile table 2xHD. They are doing a rather complicated audiophile voodoo treatment of a small catalogue of recordings. Other excellent examples of albums from them I own are remasters of the outstanding Brahms violin sonata and trio recordings with the Tetzlaffs which I’ve yet to review on this blog, as well several excellent Bill Evans albums.

I’ll leave it to the audiophile nerds to describe the impact of the 2xHD treatment, suffice it to say that the 2xHD version sounds a bit “smoother”, more “analog”, and somewhat warmer, without loosing detail, compared to the regular remaster. Your choice if you care about these nuances or not

But enough audiophile mumbo jumbo, what about the music, you ask?

Well, it’s a really interest setup, we’re talking about a traditional piano trio, with Paul Berner on bass and Duffy Jackson on drums, but we get the addition of a percussionist here, the excellent Robert Thomas, Jr.

Alexander is originally from Jamaica, and adding a percussionist really adds something very special here, setting it apart from regular trio sessions.

First of all, to quote Duke Ellington, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, nothing to worry about here, there’s plenty of swing, if you can listen to this without tapping your foot to the fast numbers, you must be deaf.

But on top of that you get outstanding latin jazz numbers, such as Samba di Orfeu, or Fungi Mama where Robert Thomas, Jr. really shines, and you get a really interesting example of Jazz/Reggae fusion with Reggae Later. The only thing you won’t find on this album is intimate ballads, but well, we’ve got plenty of Bill Evans albums for that already

Overall, this is a truly enjoyable and somewhat special live gig, that you’ll particularly appreciate if you have decent playback equipment, but will get your foot tapping even if played over a $50 bluetooth boombox.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find the recording with the 2xHD voodoo in formats all the way up to DXD here (NativeDSD), or you can go to the regular high-res version here (Qobuz)

A New Reference Recording for the Chopin Nocturnes – Stephen Hough

First of all, sorry for my long absence, there was just too much going on in my day job. I even skipped my traditional section “reflections on the Gramophone awards”.

The Chopin Nocturnes

Which of the many works of Chopin are his true masterpiece? The Etudes, the Préludes, the Sonatas, Scherzi, or even the Mazurkas that Chopin cherished so much? As always, these things are impossible to judge objectively.

But I know which ones are my favourite: The Nocturnes. They are simple enough that even I with my very limited piano skills could try to play some of them (I’d butcher them…), but they have such a melodic charm and such an intimacy to them, that if I’d have to live with only one category of his works, this would be it. It is clearly inspired by Belcanto, and as I’ve written many times here, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies.

Has Chopin invented the Nocturne? Almost certainly not, it is a much older category, and even the solo piano one was invented by Irish composer John Fields according to some musicologists.

But Chopin truly mastered this category, which by the way, unlike the Préludes and the Etudes, aren’t just one or two large collection of works, but actually a lot of smaller collections of 2-3 Nocturnes per opus.

So the way we listen to them today, as one end-to-end album experience, probably wasn’t something that a lot of people would have heard during Chopin’s lifetime, given that they were written over a period of nearly 20 years.

I’ve already written about my favourite version of the Nocturnes, in the legendary Supraphon recording by Ivan Moravec, which also features in my Top 10 Chopin albums and my 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I’ve also mentioned the other legendary version, by Maria-Joao Pires, have reviewed Fazil Say’s recent recording. Beyond Moravec and Pires, there are other legendary classics like Rubinstein obviously, Claudio Arrau, or Nelson Freire.

So I wasn’t really searching for yet another Nocturnes recording. But then I read that Stephen Hough had released on the Hyperion label.

Until recently, Stephen wasn’t even fully on my radar screen. I had heard his name as a great pianist, of course, but I hadn’t really listened to many of his recordings yet.

This is mainly due to the fact that Hyperion, his record label, still categorically refuses to be streamed anywhere. While I can understand their reluctance, given how little streaming revenues must mean to any classical label, it just really doesn’t help discovery.

Chopin: Noctures – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2021)

Chopin Noctures Stephen Hough Hyperion Records 2021 24/192

The first album that I truly appreciated Stephen Hough is his recording of a collection of works I particularly care about, Brahms’ Late Piano pieces. I already had several recordings of this that I considered to be my absolute references, including Volodos, but then I read several reviews of Stephen Hough’s recording, bought it blindly, and was blown away.

So when I read another outstanding review of this recording by Jed Distler on classicstoday.com, I just went ahead and shelled out the GBP26, without thinking too much.

I was glad I did. Very much like with the Brahms above, Hough just finds something new to say about these works that are so familiar, so often played, without ever feeling like he had to force himself to do something different (which was one of my issues with the recent Say recording).

The entire playing sounds so natural, light, and charming (in the most positive sense of the word), that when you listen to this you’re kind of wondering how these little masterpieces could ever have been played in a different way. Take one of my favourites, op. 37 No. 2. So deceivingly simple, it could be mistaken as a Children’s lullaby. But when you listen closely, in spite of all the apparent ease in which Hough takes this, you’ll see all the depth and complexity underlying this little gem of a song.

I’d go as far that if you buy only one classical piano album in 2021, this should be the one (And yes, I still plan to do my top albums of the year post in the coming days, this one is already set).

I should probably at some point add Hough to my Top 10 Favorite Pianists.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion)

Beautiful recordings of Mozart’s late string quartets by the Quatuor van Kuijk

Mozart’s string quartets

I must admit that for years I somewhat ignored Mozart’s chamber music, or actually quite a bit of Mozart’s other works as well (more to come in future posts). Mozart really was for me my god in terms of operatic works, the entire DaPonte suite will always be my favourite operas ever, and I increasingly discover other masterpieces like Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. On string quartets, I simply thought that nothing can beat Beethoven and Haydn, that I’d been listening to for years. I was wrong, obviously.

A young French string quartet, the Quatuor Van Kuijk, named after first violin Nicolas Van Kuijk, joined by Sylvain Favre-Bulle, Emmanuel François and Anthony Kondo, convinced me otherwise. It is actually several Chocs by French Classica magazine that flagged them to me.

A particular new favourite turned out to Mozart’s latest quartet, KV465, also known as “Dissonance“.

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 – Quatuor van Kuijk (Alpha 2016)

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 - Quatuor van Kuijk Alpha 2016 24/96

But let’s start with KV428, another gem of a string quartet, very clearly inspired by (and even dedicated to) Joseph Haydn’s quartets op. 33, there is so much to discover. It is clearly showing Mozart’s total mastery of making melodies sing. But there’s so much more to it, with a lot of underlying complexity of the different voices interacting like a true dialogue. Some smarter people than me even said it reminds them of Brahms, meaning that Mozart here was potentially 100 years ahead of his time.

You get a Divertimento (KV136) as a nice filler, truly enjoyable in the very meaning of the word (divertire meaning “to amuse”).

The real highlight of this album is KV465, a nearly 30 min long masterpiece, that starts with the dissonances that must have totally shocked the audience at the time, and still puzzles today’s audiences when you hear it for the first time. The “seeking” nearly 2 minutes long intro resolves into one of Mozart’s true masterpieces. This was composed alongside some of my all time favourites of Mozart, like his piano concertos KV466 and 467 (nos. 20 & 21 respectively), and you can hear the same mastery of both melody and structure here.

Not sure why I ignored these pieces for so long, I really recommend you check them out.

Watch this space, I’ll be shortly writing about another outstanding recording of KV465.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Schumann’s underrated piano chamber music beautifully played by the Trio Wanderer

Robert Schumann

I haven’t written very many entries on Schumann yet. That is not because I don’t like this composer.

In fact, his symphonies, typically either played by Szell, Gardiner, or more recently, Nézet-Seguin (that I really need to review here), Dausgaard (that I even mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums), or Rattle, are in very heavy rotation on my hifi.

I listen to his piano concerto much less frequently, just because I probably overplayed it in my youth. That said, going back to Lipatti’s legendary performance every once in a while is a true pleasure. For more modern performances, it is also worth going with Leif Ove Andsnes, or if you prefer a period piano, Alexander Melnikov.

His solo piano music gets even less frequently played here, which is a pity, as there are beautiful pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze, the Etudes Symphoniques, or Kreisleriana. I really don’t know why I don’t play them more often, maybe I should just actively seek them out more.

Now, when we get to Schumann’s chamber music, I must admit I barely played it until recently. I purchased the three piano trios in a very good version with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, as they were included in their excellent recordings of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello. However, I mostly focused my attention to the orchestral works, not giving the chamber works enough attention.

My interest in Schumann’s chamber music grew when I recently purchased a reference version of Brahms’ piano quintet by the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes (not yet reviewed here), that also included Schumann’s piano quartet (in an equally exellent performance)

So when the following album was released recently, I was immediately very interested:

Schumann: Complete Trios / Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet – Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi 2021)

Robert Schumann Complete PIano Trios PIano Quartet Piano Quintet Trio Wanderer Christophe Gaugué Catherine Montier Harmonia Mundi 2021

I already own an excellent box by this French trio, that consistently records very strong performances, of the complete Beethoven trios.

I really like these performances here as well. They are more polished that the somewhat rougher performances of the trios by Melnikov/Faust/Queyras mentioned above (the period instruments clearly make a difference), but there is beauty all along.

The piano quintet performance doesn’t get the brilliance of the above mentioned Artemis recording, but there is beautiful “singing” in the melodies everywhere.

I really don’t have a good reference for the piano quartet in my collection, so as with this entire review, take my comments here with a big grain of salt, but I really like what I hear as well.

Overall, a truly enjoyable box.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Moments in Time – One of the best Stan Getz live albums

Stan Getz

I haven’t written that much about Stan Getz on my blog, as I don’t listen to his albums very often.

He’s probably best known for his latin jazz collaborations with Joao Gilberto, published under the simple titles of Getz/Gilberto (yes, the Girl from Ipanema, and she still goes walking) and Jazz Samba, both among the best selling jazz albums of all times.

There’s another album with Stan Getz I really enjoy, the 1958 Stan Getz & The Oscar Peterson Trio. I bought this very early in my Jazz discovery journey as Oscar Peterson’s trio was one of my gateway drugs into Jazz, and I bought a lot of his classic Verve albums. This one is definitely worth checking out.

Other than that, it seems to me that Getz has somewhat had an image issue with the hardcore jazz community, as his West Coast style jazz was not really seen as exciting as the developments going on in New York City. And I must admit, I mostly myself stick to the great Hard Bop period.

But then there’s Getz late period. I’ve already listed a set of fantastic performances in Europe, People Time, the collaboration with Kenny Barron, in my 25 Essential Jazz albums. I really get a very special introspective intensity from these late performances.

And then I recently discovery yet another live album that I didn’t have on my radar screen, recorded more than a decade earlier, that I really enjoy. It was only released in 2018.

Stan Getz – Moments in Time (Resonance Records 1976/2018)

This concert was discovered in the archives of the Keystone Corner, a San Francisco Jazz club.

I must admit I didn’t know any of the rhythm section previously, which includes Joanne Brackeen on piano, Clint Houston on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. Apparently, these were taken from the first part of the concert which featured just this quartet, which were then followed by a second set with Joao Gilberto.

So, what are we getting here?

Well, on the surface, mostly easy going jazz with the typical Stan Getz sound. But I still like this album much more than the average Getz album from this era.

Why? I presume it’s the live setup which gives just a special intensity to the performances. Live has the advantage of just giving more time to each individual musician to express themselves, with time to breathe and solo. The longest individual performance, Gillespie’s Con Alma, which is one of my favourite tracks on this album, has a playing time of 12:34. But the track I truly like best is a ballad, Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes, which really just has a beautiful intensity and intimacy to it.

So, overall, really an album really worth exploring.

My rating: 4 stars (with Con Alma and Infant Eyes being truly 5 stars)

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Alternatively, if you believe a bit in some audiophile voodoo, you can also get this remaster from 2xHD (it’s the one I bought and how I discovered the album in the first place).

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