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Cause to Celebrate
The overriding force in 2008 in terms of my writings and comings and goings for 6moons has been music, friends and vinyl (and drinking). And I can think of three pieces that highlight this focus; one by me - Road Tour 17, one by Stephen Mejias of Stereophile Drunk on Vinyl and one by Alex Halberstadt titled Shindo Tasting from Inner World Audio Issue 5 September 2008. Here, I think you'll get an idea of what I've been up to, more or less. And as was the case last year, I haven't stopped thinking about hifi.

Other than that, there were so many new records, so much diverse and gloriously great new and re-discovered music that floated to the top that there's barely a bottom. Heady, top-heavy and bursting at the sensual seams, there's so much great Art being produced, it reinforces with historical certainty what an absolute mess our world must surely be in. Under the circumstances the only sensible thing to do, besides drinking, is to invite you to share in my musical merriment. And while I snuck in two CD-only releases (remnants of audio's dark ages), the rest are big fat beautiful enlightened vinyl.

It is most certainly due to my renewed love affair with LP records that my musical appetite has grown omnivorously unquenchable. For the record, it was Jonathan Halpern and John DeVore who convinced me to get back into vinyl. A
nd that, my friend, is what friends are for. I also snuck in a few LPs that aren't new but hey, they're new to me and may be new to you too (or so old you forgot about 'em). And to clarify, this isn't a best-of list. Instead let's consider these anecdotal yet well-worn observations; a few pearls plucked from an endless string of pearls.

The Buddha Machine
But first, what would a year-end hifi report be without some hifi? Boring right? I think everyone needs a Buddha Machine. The Machine 2.0 is new for '08 and features a pitch control! What's a Buddha Machine? "The Buddha Machine is not an iPod. It's not loaded with features. It's simply a small plastic box -- available in an assortment of colors -- that plays nine different loops. The possibilities of how you listen to it, however, are infinite." But how can a $23 plastic box be high fidelity? Simple. It sounds exactly like itself!

Silence is Absolutely Golden
I've been listening to the Zenph Studios re-performance of John Cage's 4'33" re-performed by John Cage and its sublime; SACD sound quality with none of the noise of the original event. If you want to put your reference rig through its measured paces and do some serious critical listening, I can't think of a better recording. Highly recommended.

Free Jazz is Still Free
Two releases that topped my 'When are these guys going to
release more music' wish-list are the CD-only releases (come on fellas) from Bill Dixon - 17 Musicians In Search Of A Sound: Darfur [AUM046] and Milford Graves, Anthony Braxton and William Parker on Beyond Quantum [Tzadik # 7626]. I know Bill Dixon and Milford Graves from Bennington College where I was fortunate to study while they were teaching. They also performed a number of times on campus and if you've never experienced a Professor Graves performance you probably wouldn't believe me if I told you it's a physiologically-altering experience; the aural equivalent of William Hurt's psychotropic isolation chamber cocktail. So I won't even go there.

Beyond Quantum is filled with monstrously powerful time-bending performances from three free-jazz masters released on John Zorn's Tzadik label which is a treasure trove for the adventurous listener. Bill Dixon's 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur is his return to the orchestral ensemble format of 1967's seminal Intents and Purposes. This music is not easy, neither is Bill Dixon's approach to anything, but your undivided listening attention is rewarded by a sea of sound emotion and color that's as vast as your imagination can bear and then some.

Dig Voyager Science Foxes Doomsdayer's Naked Zoo
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! is a return to Cave's harder core roots. My guess is Blixa Bargeld's departure and Warren Ellis' full-time arrival coupled with some clear signs of aging finally pushed Cave & Co over the crooner's edge, back into the abyss of ballsier Birthday Party raucousness, albeit with new-found mustacheod finesse. I frankly love this record (and last years' paired down outing Grinderman) and seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live in October reinforced how vital and ferocious these guys remain. It's also funny that Blixa's Einstürzende Neubauten seem to be traveling in the opposite direction, getting more subdued with age which I suppose is practically inevitable.

Carla Bozulich and her newly formed band Evangelista rip a madly intense stew on Hello, Voyager. A sea storm of styles and tropes, guitars and other strings, hitting stuff, harmonium and some tasty Doors references, this record just shimmers. Bozulich's recording career goes way back to 1984 and she's collaborated with people like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch who incidentally have direct connections to Jim Sclavunos, one of the current as well as original Bad Seeds.

I can't seem to get TV on The Radio's "Halfway Home" from Dear Science out of my head and I'm not complaining one bit. These guys wrap so much into each song, listening is like an extremely pleasant music history lesson. And while we're on the "this reminds me of..." theme, Fleet Foxes self-titled debut is so obviously part of A-list, I almost feel silly putting it on mine. Blowing in more fresh cold air from the great northwest, The Grails Doomsdayer's Holiday and Honey Owens/Valet's hypnotic Naked Acid are light trippy heaviness incarnate. Can someone please tell me exactly what is going on in Portland, Oregon? And if you're not into prognostication-now espoused in mighty dub fashion, then by all means don't listen to London Zoo by The Bug.

Continental Reissue
Esoteric world music lovers were blessed with a mind-bending array of releases. At the top of my happy heap are two LPs; 1970s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground on Sublime Frequencies which is barely controlled disconcerting intensity and the even more intensely funky Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-Rock And Fuzz Funk In 1970s Nigeria released on Soundway UK, another pair of labels which can burst your music-loving budget. Both of these records highlight the outcome of musical and cultural fusion; a true mash-up of styles mixed into the local stew. Tasty.

Mississippi Records
The guys at Mississippi Records have spiked so many rich musical veins, I think they may be alchemists at work in their own private velvet underground. My introduction to this label was through the simply beautiful and quirky What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? by Washington Phillips. Not much is known about Phillips, there's even some question regarding what instrument he's playing, but all you need to know comes through loud and clear when you just sit back and listen. These recordings are from 1927 - 1929 and feature Phillips on a Zither-like instrument (possibly a Dolceola) as the only accompaniment to his stirring and soulful vocals. An angel singing from the streets.

A few other notable and well worth the price of admission LPs from Mississippi Records (all LP-only releases) include Life Is a Problem, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Bongo Joe, 70s Thai Orchestra and Last Kind Words. I own nearly every LP from this label and they haven't hit a sour note yet.

Follow the Leader
It's become a game I relish; follow the leader. Jazz in the 1960s is a particularly fertile playground with musicians having at their own game of musical chairs; leader one day, sideman the next. I've noticed that as my focus shifts from musician to musician, I delve into uncharted territory. And as I travel, unexpected things come into focus like record producers, record labels, social events, a drug, a spouse or a city. I suppose you could say I'm just learning some history and learning to listen while allowing myself to be lead by a musician's path.

Sam Rivers is one such musician and he's responsible for a musical thread I've been following in a bunch of directions. Starting with his debut as leader on Blue Note with Fuchsia Swing Song from 1964, we find him all over some truly groovy 60s Blue Note records like Anthony (Tony) Williams Spring and Larry Young's Into Somethin'!. One word of follow the leader advice - don't play with Ron Carter. He leads everywhere.

I also followed Larry Young and his B3 into the late 60s and early 70s where he helped pump the first heartbeats into fusion on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, The Tony Williams Lifetime Emergency!, an extended jam session with Jimi Hendrix on Nine to the Universe and a psychedelic favorite, John McLaughlin's Devotion. Its worth pointing out that Alan Douglas / Douglas Records was instrumental on these last two records and Alan Douglas nearly pulled off the Miles Davis/Jimi Hendrix recording session. But if we want to understand the roots, heart and soul of fusion (and I'm leaving the most obvious parts out), I believe we must also give a big nod to Miss Betty Davis (note: not Bette, rather the ex-Mrs. Miles Davis) whose own highly recommended music has been lovingly reissued by Light In the Attic Records.

If you enjoy this game as much as I do, follow Jaki Byard who played piano on Fuchsia Swing Song through his time with Eric Dolphy, Mingus and his own romping stomping records like 1969s The Jaki Byard Experience with the nearly exasperating Roland Kirk. If you do, you'll hear hints of Monk, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Eubie Blake and so much more rolled up into a newly minted style. Are you experienced? And did you know that Jaki Byard was shot dead in his home in NYC in 1999 and the case remains unsolved?

Getting back to Sam, let's pick up at his 70s' Loft Jazz years with the crazy 5 LP compilation Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions (also on Douglas Records) which saw its own kind of fusion with musicians as far and wide as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton and James Chance crossing paths, the stunning live Streams with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Norman Connors and the bigger band Crystals from this same period which heads in a decidedly funkier direction. I'm still working on connecting then to now and Sam Rivers is still performing down in Orlando, Florida which makes me smile a big, non-theme-park smile. If I can think of one word to describe Sam Rivers, it would be passion.

Passion Sources
Here are a few suggestions for mining your own musical treasures. The Wire magazine continues to be a monthly source of inspiration and invaluable resource for discovering music new and old. "Invisible Jukebox" is a favorite feature where "each month we play a musician a series of records which they are asked to identify and comment on - with no prior knowledge of what they are about to hear." The comments can be enlightening like this one from Makoto Kawabata of Acid Mothers Temple: "I tend not to listen to music from tropical climates. I'm not that interested in rhythm. Music from colder climates seems to have a harsher edge."

Used record stores are an endless source of joy and wonder. "Rummaging around in old shelves of LPs is one of the few things that makes life worth living, as far as I'm concerned." from "Chance Traveler" in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami. I'm fortunate to live near the Princeton Record Exchange and NYC so my LP-buying trips are easy and frequent. If you live near a used record store or visit a place that has some, there's just no excuse for missing an opportunity to flip through the stacks.

To my way of thinking, if there's a used record store within easy driving distance from your home (think under a few hours) and you own a turntable and you've never been there, ever, it's time to re-evaluate. My advice is to sell the big rig. Yes, the entire fucking thing including wires, pucks, absorption and reflection, and buy a hifi that makes it impossible to stay away from that record store. You'll feel better about everything, I promise.

For a change of pace here are some free, at least initially, resources: A NYC Treasure Map. Sign up for these mailing lists:

And check out these music store websites:

And last but not least, radio; either good old-fashioned analog air waves or streaming over the 'net. I recently copied most of my CDs to hard drive, then traded their corpses for beautiful living LPs which finally got me to connect my PC to my hifi which is most likely still illegal in some states. The added benefit being, I can also listen to streaming internet radio. There's still no better way to discover new music than to be introduced to it by people who are passionate. And as a group, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more passionate bunch than DJs on independent radio stations. A few local (yes, I'm old-fashioned) favorites include WFMU, WPRB and East Village Radio.

While I'm on that rockin' roll, you'll also be hard-pressed to find a better bunch than audio dealers for putting together a hifi system. Let's underscore that -- a system -- as in a bunch of parts that work together as a musical whole. Think of it as the holistic approach as opposed to the specialist where we place more value on people with experience dealing with something that makes music as opposed to things that pass a musical signal. And no, these are not the same thing. Sorry. I know that reductionist certainty blanket keeps us feeling cozy and safe from the big, bad world of experiencing but we all have to come back to our senses some time.

I know I mentioned drinking so it's only fair that I mention drinking. Thanks to John DeVore, I now enjoy in wee small sips the very potent but smooth and tasty (but far from free) small batch bourbon from Black Maple Hill. A socking stocking stuffer.

Staring At Cleavage In Search Of a Soul Mate
Hifi is a tool for the discovery and appreciation of music. A noble cause if ever there was one. It strikes me that a lot of hifi criticism misses this point. So much writing about hifi seems to be obsessed with titillation; a hifi's ability to pique our interest with spectacular sonic delights, making music a slave to the mechanics of reproduction. This fixation on the surface of sound moves music-as-art so far into the background, it fades. In its stead stand our primped and preened reference discs whose ultimate goal appears to be making hifi sound visceral enough to hump; an aural blowup doll with tight bass, fleshy mids and silky highs whispering with breathy resolution, O yea baby, you buy the best.

Beyond Criticism Lies Wonder
In today's flood of insta-critics and the infinite amount of words devoted to their insta-critical commentary, a bucket the size of Mount Everest couldn't bail out all of the inane sub-prime impressionistic bullshit masquerading as final judgment. Taken seriously, it could very well spell the end of art appreciation (not to mention thinking). Everything is disliked by someone. That's entertainment.

I'd hope that if any of the music I've mentioned interests you, it will ignite a fuse leading to an explosion of discovery. One thing leads to another and so on; musical discovery and exploration being the life blood, the true payoff of all our hifi time and energy. The best hifi is, after all is said and done, the one you love to use.

This endless possibility, the infinite amount of music waiting to be discovered is one ticket back to the wonder of childhood. And to be filled with wonder at our age is even more beautiful now than it was before we knew better. Cheers.