Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Old school jazz, saved by newfangled technology

March 12, 2008

In which YouTube and a humble bit of aftermarket technology bring an out-of-print Duke Ellington album back to life.


This video is from one of the original recording dates of the out-of-print album
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra/Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra, January 9, 1962. The track, Blow Boy Blow, features a bebop-flavored solo by tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves.

One of the college stations I listen to for jazz really likes to mix it up. They play mostly avant garde stuff, the music that’s really catching my ear these days. But occasionally, they’ll throw it something really old school. I think that’s great—partly because it gives you these wonderful Aha! moments, getting some sense of where certain things came from, and partly because, for a lot of younger college listeners, it may turn them onto something they’d never heard before.

Which brings me to another point. In opening ourselves up to all kinds of music, there’s an argument out there that doesn’t hold water and, quite frankly, really pisses me off: “That was before my time.” If you lived, oh, in the time of Mozart, you might have gotten away with saying that about the music of Bach. But now in the time of recorded music, that excuse just doesn’t fly. Not only are you free to explore music from other times now—you can explore music from distant places and cultures. Gamelan music from Indonesia. Pan flutes from Peru. Or big band music from the end of its heyday.

Last Friday morning, WNUR dj Flavian Wallis put this particular bee in my bonnet. I’d been wondering what to write about this week when he played a wonderful track from Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges’ Side By Side. First released in 1958, it put me in mind of an Ellington/Hodges album gathering dust in my collection, and suddenly I knew what I would be listening to.

imic.jpgAnd to make this old vinyl album easier to cart around and listen to everywhere—on the kitchen boombox, in the car, on my iPod—I knew I would be hauling out a fairly recent bit of technology, the Griffin iMic/USB Audio Interface. This little gadget lets you plug a turntable directly into your computer and burn vinyl [or old cassette tapes] onto your computer as mp3s or other digital music files. It sells for 40 bucks or less at Apple stores or at Amazon and works with software you download for free. I’ve already used it to make a bunch of old vinyl more portable [we have a not inconsiderable collection of vinyl I can’t bring myself to part with yet, partly because of the simple pleasures of the ritual of the turntable]. Marion’s even found rare old opera albums at thrift stores that are currently waiting to be cued up and brought back to life.

One album I revived this past weekend was this delightful mix of big band and jazz. Released on the Storyville label in 1978, after Ellington’s death, the album is simply called Duke Ellington and his Orchestra/Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra. It came out of two recording dates—Duke’s happening in 1962 and Hodges’ two years later. By the time of these recordings, big bands had mostly fallen out of favor, replaced by smaller jazz groups. And they were no longer economically sensible—Ellington kept his 17-piece orchestra going pretty much out of his own pocket, just because this music is what he did. The Johnny Hodges orchestra was really an octet, a splinter group made up of Ellington musicians.

This tune, All of Me, doesn’t appear on the album, but it features Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

Honestly, Ellington and Hodges both have far superior recordings to this one. But there’s something quite interesting about it, particularly the seven sides by the Ellington Orchestra. I originally bought the album for the first two tracks, classic Ellington: Take the A Train and Satin Doll. ellington-coltrane.jpgThey don’t disappoint. But more interesting are less famous tracks. In Blow Boy Blow and VIP’s Boogie/Jam with Sam, soloists reach beyond standard big band riffs, bringing definite bebop chops to the sound. When they weren’t touring with Ellington, they were probably gigging in New York clubs, playing straightahead jazz, and it shows. Further, Ellington must have encouraged it and incorporated it into his sound. Poking around on YouTube for this post, I heard him doing some out there stuff in his later years. I also came across an amazing album he did with John Coltrane called, originally enough, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. I think I’m going to be buying this one soon.

By contrast, the tracks by Hodges cleave much more to the old big band sound and, for the most part, sound as if they could have been recorded in the 40s or even the 30s. This is all the more interesting because he led a smaller group that could have exploited what was going on all around them.

While not the recording from the album, this track, VIP’s Boogie/Jam with Sam, appears on it. You also get to meet many of Ellington’s musicians.

So I only have one sample track from this actual album for you. Well, that and perhaps the inspiration to step outside your comfort zone. Stretch your ear. Seek out something old, something obscure, even something in a music genre you haven’t explored. Libraries are a great place to do this on someone else’s nickel, by the way. So is YouTube. I’d love to hear where your musical adventure takes you.


Seriously, dude. What’s that you’re you reading?

December 5, 2007

Today the Kitchen Boombox is taking a little break from music and looking at an only somewhat related topic, a new gadget following in the footsteps of digital music and video.


When it comes to technology, I’m not what you’d call an early adopter. It took a long time to replace my Walkman with a Discman. And longer still to replace that with an iPod. So when I first heard about the latest attempt to take books digital, my eyes rolled so far back in my head I feared they might stick there. When I rolled them back down and read about this new device—in a cover story in Newsweek, no less—it actually sounded like this might be the one to make it happen.

The device in question is the Amazon Kindle. Introduced with considerable fanfare recently by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it solves a lot of the problems that scuttled previous attempts. It’s got decent battery life, can hold hundreds of books and can download them directly, without linking to a computer. It has a built-in dictionary, and book text is searchable. And for you inveterate marker uppers of books, yes, you can highlight text to your heart’s content.

Just as important as what it has gadgetwise, though, is how true it is to that which it emulates. It’s about the size of a paperback, and its tapered shape even resembles the slight bulge along a book’s binding. And a new technology gives its pages pretty much the same clarity of the printed page.

The late adopter in me won’t have me rushing out to plunk down $400 for the Kindle anytime soon—books on paper are just so, well, comfortably bookish to me—but plenty of people are. Already the Kindle is on back order. I haven’t seen them on the el yet, but I’m sure they’ll be there any day now. I’m guessing that, before long, they’ll be nearly as ubiquitous as the iconic white earbuds that announce to the world at large that you don’t merely have an MP3 player—you’ve got an iPod. From that aspect alone, I’m cool with the Kindle. Anything that makes reading hip is okay by me.

The future of print. The title of Newsweek’s article is “The Future of Reading”—pretty portentous. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the printed word’s death have been exaggerated in the past. But newspapers have already seen a major shift of readers from print editions to the Web. It could be that the Kindle is finally the technology that gets it right enough to have a major lasting effect on the printed word. With books downloadable on demand—from the mother of all online booksellers, no less—bricks and mortar bookstores are sure to take a hit.

On the flipside, for better or worse, this could also be the next big step in the democratization of publishing. What MP3s have done for making the making of music affordable and accessible, what the Internet has done for turning us all into information providers and not just consumers, the Kindle could do for the printed word. Besides books, you can already subscribe to newspapers and select blogs through it. If Mr. Bezos has a lick of sense—and the fact that he became a billionaire selling books would seem to indicate he does—he will license his technology to one and all to produce content.

Freed from the monstrous costs of printing and distribution and the gatekeeping of agents and publishing houses, more writers will be able to create, market and sell longform text, one reader at a time. Granted, that will undoubtedly unleash a torrent of real crap that would have been winnowed out by publishers or polished and improved by editors trained to do just that. On the other hand, there will be some amazing gems born this way. And besides, the current system continues to assault us with Danielle Steele year after year—obviously it is less than perfect.

So while you won’t see me on the el with my nose stuck in a Kindle anytime soon, I have to admit, the idea of a Blue Kitchen cookbook some day is suddenly sounding a little less farfetched.