Dear Audiophile: If you’ve slid over here from SoundStage! Hi-Fi or even SoundStage! Ultra, welcome. But, listen, perhaps you should skip ahead a couple of paragraphs; I’m going to reveal something sacrilegious.
Most people who lean more toward art than tech consider speaker cables the same way they think about the tires on their vehicles. Cables—usually called “wires” by these folks—are just a means of getting the music from here (the amplifier) to there (the speakers). You buy them and forget them. After all, you can’t even see them; they’re down there on the rug somewhere.
Sometimes, it even makes sense. After all, you wouldn’t drop big bucks for a set of Pirelli P Zero Nero GT tires for your old Hyundai Accent hatchback.
Using that logic, when I began putting together my current “daily driver” hi-fi setup, I opted for a pair of cables that cost around $75 (all prices in USD). That price point seemed like a good match for my goal of maintaining a rig similar to what most of those who read my jazz reviews might have at home.
But, as I’ve begun to tinker with my system for this column, I’ve started wondering if I’m getting all I can from it. To stretch my metaphor, have I upgraded my ride to an entry-level Audi but continued to roll on budget rubber?
To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to swap in a pair of AudioQuest Type 5 cables ($369.95 per 8′ pair). Again, nothing outrageous, but an expenditure I felt the average reader of this column might well justify.
The Type 5 is the successor of the company’s much-loved Type 4, which has been around since 1983. The Type 5 maintains its predecessor’s reputation for combining performance and value but incorporates some of AudioQuest’s recent advances in metals technology, and its star-quad low-inductance geometry. I always feel like I need a few night-school classes in metallurgy to fully understand the science of the company’s products, but I readily appreciate the look and feel of them as an indication of the care that goes into their design and craft.
Thinking about how to judge the addition of upgraded cables, my mind went immediately to a new recording that had really caught my ear for its soundstage. Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, Miel Music) is a download-only live album recorded by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón in Switzerland in 2019. Joining the Puerto Rican virtuoso are Cuban tenor saxophonist Ariel Bringuez, Argentinian bassist Demian Cabaud, and Spanish drummer Jorge “Jordi” Rossy. It’s a fascinating lineup, particularly because none of the four—all native Spanish-language speakers from different countries—are especially well known for their association with Coleman’s idiosyncratic music, and this was their first performance as a group. Aside from Zenón, who is best known for being awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Rossy is the only other member of the quartet whose work—in the trio of pianist Brad Mehldau—is familiar to most North American jazz fans.
Taking on Coleman’s music—known for its fluid tonal centers, novel harmonic architecture, and intertwining melodies—is a brave move for an untried combo, but they approached it as an adventure, and it paid off. The performance is bracing and the musicianship constantly compelling. Of particular interest is the way Zenón approached Coleman’s own lines, given that the former’s technical facility on the alto is much closer to Charlie Parker than to Coleman, whose playing was as distinctively personal as his compositions.
The opening track is a prime example of the dichotomy in the styles of the two bandleaders, but also shows why this album succeeds on so many levels. A lesser-known Coleman composition, “The Tribes of New York” remained unreleased until 1993, when it was included in the comprehensive Rhino Records box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing, which combined all the master recordings made by Coleman for Atlantic Records from 1959 to 1961. Like many of his compositions from that period, the song was built around exchanges between Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry. In its basic form, this approach to the melodic lines didn’t differ greatly from the exchanges between Parker and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, or Red Rodney during the peak of the bebop period, yet Coleman and Cherry stood apart because of their embrace of alternative voicings.
In Coleman’s approach—developed while his quartet, with Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell, was based in Los Angeles in the 1950s—key and time signatures were given less prominence than expression itself. With the soloists—and the rhythm section—free to select notes that sat outside traditional harmony, these exchanges held enormous surprise for listeners who anticipated how the music would unfold.
As Zenón and Brinquez combine instruments throughout the seven songs on Law Years, they generate the same type of off-kilter lyricism that Coleman and Cherry achieved, but they do so with a much higher degree of musical dexterity. The result is Coleman as filtered through bebop language in a much more explicit way than can be heard in the original recordings by Coleman’s quartet.
Coleman’s band relocated from California to begin an extended residency at New York City’s Five Spot Café, where it created unprecedented notoriety. Every musician of note—from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein—made a point of catching the quartet, and many went on record as passionately for or against what they heard. In essence, the reactions, which went as far as wondering whether Coleman was a sham (or even mentally unstable), set expectations of Coleman for the next 20 years. Aside from the most extreme reactions, many observers simply couldn’t see past the perceived weirdness of Coleman’s presentation, which included the leader playing a white plastic saxophone and Cherry using a pocket trumpet instead of a full-sized instrument. It wasn’t until he shifted musical direction in the 1970s—by which time there was a musical press attuned to atypical forms of expression by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, and Philip Glass—that Coleman was allowed the space and understanding to explain his wholly original approach to music. It was, he patiently repeated, rooted in the blues he heard in his native Texas, as expressive and variable as bird song or the human voice, and not held in check by accepted ideas of Western musical notation.
While some continued to dismiss the saxophonist as a charlatan, many younger musicians—like Zenón—came to appreciate the importance of Coleman’s art and believed it was as worthy of study as the work of artists who were more traditionally minded. Certainly, these younger players believed, Coleman’s compositions should be as much a part of the canon of contemporary jazz language as Parker, Davis, Coltrane, or anyone else. The music deserved to be played and reinterpreted.
Not that many musicians take on Coleman’s music with as much fervor or attention as Zenón’s makeshift quartet. Given the room to explore the depth of Coleman’s pieces—most of which were released prior to 1970—these musicians really illustrate what can be done with this music. Just as Thelonious Monk’s music can have a rich life beyond the pianist’s unique voicings, so can Coleman’s.
On the sonic front, the tracks on Law Years are an ideal proving ground for putting the AudioQuest Type 5s through their paces.
Returning to “The Tribes of New York,” I focused on Cabaud’s extended solo. With my standard setup, his bass sounded clean and somewhat resonant, and his aggressive attack resulted in some string sound as they slapped against the fingerboard. Swapping in the Type 5s made this much more present and detailed. The resonance of the instrument’s body took on more color, and those string slaps gained texture. Overall, the sound of the band, mixed by Zenón along with Danilo Pichardo, who also mastered the final digital file, became fuller, while Rossy’s drums became especially crisp.
Both the quartet’s abandon in performing the music and the soundstage itself would’ve pleased Coleman, I expect. The saxophonist displayed his appreciation for how his music sounded when he re-emerged in the 1970s from a brief hiatus. As previously noted, Coleman had never been unenthusiastic about change, and the 1960s had seen him abandon his long-standing quartet for a trio, and then form successively larger units, built around himself and Haden, and often including the eloquent tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman. Increasingly, Coleman began to include his son, Denardo, on drums. Born in 1956 while Coleman was married to poet Jayne Cortez, Denardo was largely self-taught and as iconoclastic in his approach to his instrument as Coleman was to the saxophone, violin, and trumpet. Denardo took on a much larger role in the mid-1970s, and would eventually assume management of his father’s career.
The other significant change for Coleman as he moved into his 40s was the adoption of electric instruments. Some observers point to the broader movement toward amplification—by Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and others—as being influential, but Coleman’s application of electronics never sounded much like what became known as jazz-rock fusion. For him, it seemed to be more about texture and timbre than volume and distortion. In 1976, when he released his first electrified album, Dancing in Your Head, his band—soon to be christened Prime Time—sounded no more like Weather Report or Return to Forever than his acoustic quartet from the Five Spot days had sounded like Davis’s quintet or the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
On bass, Dancing in Your Head featured the 20-year-old Rudy McDaniel, who was schooled in the funky organ-based music popular in the working-class bars of Philadelphia. The drummer was a master of polyrhythm, Ronald Shannon Jackson, who had become an acolyte of Coleman’s after years of playing free improvisation with Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. On guitars were Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee, both of whom eschewed traditional solos for scratchy, twitchy accompaniment that was the opposite of what fusion guitarists like John McLaughlin or Al Di Meola were playing at the time.
Dancing in Your Head made a big splash, but the album that best represents Coleman’s approach during that time is Of Human Feelings (LP, Antilles AN-2001). Recorded April 25, 1979, by Ron Saint Germain on a Sony PCM-1600 two-channel digital recorder, the record was announced as the first digital jazz album. It sounds like nothing else of its time.
In fact, it’s one of just a handful of recordings I distinctly recall hearing for the first time. In his exceptionally perceptive book, Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, my long-time colleague and friend Howard Mandel wrote: “The mix is excellent—clean and present, without fuss. The sonic confluence in Of Human Feelings takes place in the middle frequency range [and] dynamics are compressed (there are no extremely loud or extremely soft passages).”
On this ground-breaking album, McDaniel—who had by then adopted the Muslim name Jamaaladeen Tacuma—has a bright, audibly tensile sound, which owed a lot to the graphite-and-carbon-fiber Steinberger bass he played. Like Sony’s PCM-1600 tape deck, the Steinberger was a brand-new creation in 1979, as futuristic-looking and odd as Coleman’s plastic sax had been 20 years earlier. On drums, Denardo was joined by G. Calvin Weston, another of the young musicians who had gathered around the elder Coleman as he woodshedded his new music in his loft in New York City’s SoHo district. Like the dual guitarists, the drummers stay largely in the upper register; they hardly use the bass drums or tom-toms. Above all, Saint Germain’s production placed everything on one plane—a mix that was extraordinarily well suited to the leader’s concept of collective soloing.
Whenever I update my setup to any significant degree, Of Human Feelings is one of the first albums I pull out, so it would’ve been a good candidate to check out the Type 5s even if I wasn’t already focusing on Coleman’s music.
It did not disappoint.
I expected it to jump out of my Q Acoustics 3050i speakers, and it surely did. The two sets of drums gained depth, and Tacuma’s popping bass lines became palpable. If you only relate dance music to throbbing bass notes and a drum sound you can feel as much as hear, you need to push back the furniture and put on On Human Feelings; it redefines what can make you move.
How much you want to invest in the things that deliver the signal from your amplifier to your speakers remains a personal choice. Without question, there are those who will continue to string simple lamp cord in their listening spaces, but keeping a balance between what you’re listening to and how you’re listening to it remains a critical part of paying respect to the artists—just as much as simply keeping their music alive.
. . . James Hale