This is a story about creativity, power, and choice. It’s also about breaking from what’s expected and taking a risk in new territory.
This might seem overly personal, but as you probably know, we believe in more than just technology at the SoundStage! Network; we never lose sight of the fact that audio equipment is designed primarily to allow listeners to connect seamlessly and immersively with music.
Bebop changed my life; never mind that I was born in 1954, while the genre was flaming out. Although its roots run deep, bebop was mainly developed in New York City during the opening months of WWII. As explained by my friend, music journalist Neil Tesser, the genre often referred to as “bop” was created by young jazz musicians who wanted a different form of expression than what could be found in the dominant big bands of the day:
When bop began, big-band swing music still held sway. The young players fostering this new music constituted a relatively small cadre within the jazz world, and as a result, members of the new guard often worked together in groups under each other’s names; after all, they didn’t yet have a huge pool of players from which to draw. And the companies willing to take a chance on bop were correspondingly sparse—at least at first—in part because most big labels hadn’t seen this coming.
That description comes from a gorgeous new collection of music: The Birth of Bop: The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection (16-bit/44kHz WAV, Savoy Records MG 9022). I downloaded the 85-minute set from Craft Recordings, but as the title suggests, it’s available as a vinyl box set, featuring five 10-inch LPs; it also comes as a two-CD set. Each track in the collection has been freshly restored and remastered by Joe Tarantino—critical considering the source material wasn’t always produced under ideal circumstances.
Tesser’s scholarly notes, the packaging, and the careful sound restoration are first rate. But what’s really important is the broader picture this set gives of the critical role bop played as a bridge between the dance-oriented music of the prewar years and the harmonic and rhythmic sophistication that would begin to dominate in the mid-1950s.
Even casual followers of the music can point to saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk as the flag-bearers for the bop years, but how about the roles filled by lesser-known names like Leo Parker, Allen Eager, or Morris Lane?
Setting aside the stylistic advancements of the time, what excited me about bop when I first began exploring the genre in the early ’70s was the tension and mystery that surrounded it. Created in the late ’30s in several after-hours venues in New York City, this new approach to music was played by artists who were chafing at the limitations of the dance-oriented music of the day. Bop offered them escape, and that revolutionary aspect eventually extended to the type of clothing and language adopted by the musicians and their followers. Sadly, it also encouraged the spread of heroin, which many of those musicians used blot out the harsh reality of living in a racist society as the world plunged deeper into a devastating war.
Bop began as music of revolution, and it was that spirit that attracted me. In 1969, it was easy for me to draw a straight line between Jimi Hendrix—my contemporary, virtuosic musical hero—and Parker, who flew his own freak flag high until his premature death in 1955.
A sax-playing high school friend had introduced me to Parker’s music in Grade 10, and hearing it seemed to light up some synapses that hadn’t begun to fire before. Suddenly, the line from Benny Goodman, my father’s swing-era hero, to Hendrix made sense to me. Bop was the link, and I had to know more.
Bop messed with the musical language we knew. To me, Parker and Gillespie sounded like the musical equivalent of my literary heroes of the time: Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. It was an easy step from reading their resonant prose to listening to Parker and Gillespie—Bird and Diz to anyone in the know.
Spurring my late-teen journey of discovery was my immersion in Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker—an astonishingly colorful, if not always factual, biography of Parker by his one-time producer, Ross Russell. For all of the author’s shortcomings as a reliable historian, he definitely can’t be faulted for his ability to light a fire about what had become a forgotten chapter in America’s musical history. Russell’s book presaged a renewed interest in bop and the handful of pioneers—Monk and Gillespie primary among them—who had survived. It even gave rise to Supersax, a band that only played songs associated with Parker.
Sadly, it didn’t spur a coordinated effort to reissue or knowledgeably curate the music of the boppers beyond Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell, and one or two others. Even then, in those prime collecting years, the available Parker recordings were mostly of dubious lineage on labels like the UK’s Saga Records and LA-based Everest Records. The sound quality ran the full range, and it was clear the sources were varied. Authoritative liner notes? Forget about it.
One favorite LP I bought—1968’s Bird and Diz (Saga Records ERO 8035), which we’ll return to later—focuses on a 1951 radio broadcast by the Parker/Gillespie quintet of the time. But it also includes one track—“Shaw Nuff”—from 1945 with the original Parker/Gillespie lineup, over which Russell enthused: “The simple structures and hard-polished timbre are reminiscent of Varesse. Rapidly moving lines open up areas that jazz explored for the next twenty years. The listener is deluged with a flight of melodies, rhythms, and sounds.”
I’ll give Russell his due; to me, it’s the musical equivalent of watching the Young/Rice 49ers or the Maris/Mantle Yankees. Take your pick.
But, as much as I love bop, I can’t deny that you had to be a dedicated listener to get past the surface noise of my 1968 LP. Listening to it was a long way from an immersive experience, but it was all I had back then. I would joyfully cue up my hissy treasures on my Elac turntable and voyage back to the decade preceding my birth.
Within a few years, though, as much as I loved the creative fire of bop, the quality of those recordings relegated them to the “research” section of my music library, where they’ve resided for many decades. Although various CD-era collections of bop came my way, nothing had piqued my interest as much as the release of this set, which sounds clear and bright from start to finish.
“Joe Tarantino is a very musical mastering engineer,” said compilation producer Nick Phillips. “He did an amazing job in taking disparate track master sources and turning them into a cohesive-sounding collection.”
The set holds no shortage of treasures (and if you want to dive even deeper, there are individual sets available under the Savoy marque showcasing more from many of the featured artists), but Parker’s “Romance without Finance” caught my ear; a novelty piece recorded on September 15, 1944, that I’ve only heard once or twice before on inferior recordings.
In Tesser’s words: “The tune is goofy, funny, disposable—and in its depiction of a gold-digging swain, cringey to modern audiences. More than 75 years later, its fame rests almost entirely on Parker’s gleaming solo.”
Now, reviewing music this old comes with some necessary adjustments to one’s criteria; for example, can you really take the measure of a bassist when the musician is barely audible? Can you be truly fair to the art of the individual recording if you’re not listening on equipment of the same vintage?
I was pondering this when, miraculously—almost as if an angel wearing shades and sporting a goatee leaned over to the Big Cat and said, “Lay one on this dude, Jack!”—an Elac carton appeared. Actually, it was SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider hauling the Elac Debut ConneX DCB41 powered speaker system (US$599.98) out the back of his SUV, but I liked the crazy symmetry between listening to pristine bop recordings on a high-tech system with a throwback name.
These speakers are tiny: just 5.5″ × 9.6″ × 8″. With a rating of 50Wpc through two built-in class-D amplifiers in the primary speaker, though, they’re capable of providing a rich listening experience in a small space. Place them in a larger room, like my attic office, and most music—especially if rich, resonant bass is part of the experience—will begin to sound puny. But, elegant looking, even with the grilles removed, they’d fit nicely into a small office or bedroom.
As with most of this new generation of powered speakers, the Elac system offers a range of connectivity options. On the back of the powered speaker, which, at 7.6 pounds, is just a shade more than a pound heavier than the passive one, you’ll find inputs for HDMI ARC, USB audio (both PC and Macintosh), Bluetooth (aptX), digital/optical (TosLink), and analog/phono (RCA).
Each enclosure contains a 4.5″ polypropylene woofer and a 0.75″ soft-dome tweeter, and has a bass reflex slot on the rear. The ConneX system features Elac’s proprietary XBass enhancer, which I found to be essential for some of the music I sampled, and there’s provision for the attachment of a subwoofer. The speakers can provide high-resolution playback of files up to 24-bit/96kHz.
With the speakers positioned on the tops of my usual Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers, I connected them to my 16″ MacBook Pro via USB and cued up the opening piece. “Romance without Finance,” a jive-talking number from September 1944, features Parker, guitarist/vocalist Tiny Grimes, pianist Clyde Hart, bassist Jimmy Butts, and drummer Doc West. Parker plays a jaw-dropping solo that draws an indelible connection between swing and bop—and answers a musical question: When is a novelty song not a novelty? When it contains a genre-defining solo like Parker’s.
Simply put, the song lays clear what it sounded like when these dominant musical genres began to cross over, even if Bird figuratively towers above his sidemen in terms of where the music was headed, and the chops a musician would require to master the new material.
With my bop joy rising, I reached for my copy of Bird and Diz to hear how “Shaw Nuff” would sound through the ConneX. Recorded in late 1945—shortly before Parker’s disastrous trip to Los Angeles, which culminated in him being beaten and imprisoned for appearing naked and intoxicated in his hotel lobby—the performance is one of a handful that critics continue to point to as being among the best of the era. I began by playing it on my standard system—Fluance RT83 turntable, NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier, and the aforementioned Q Acoustics floorstanders—just to reacquaint myself with the level of surface noise.
Even with a certain amount of noise, the signal itself was the clear winner on my reference system. The music sounded transcendent.
Then, I activated the phono preamp on the ConneX via the back-panel switch and jacked the Fluance directly into the primary speaker. As a guitarist friend of mine likes to say when a vintage track is played: “Welcome to the fish fry.”
While the top register of Gillespie’s trumpet cut through the noise, Parker now sounded merely mortal. The spectacular heft of his tone was missing, and that’s critical because, along with his incredible fluidity, it’s his diamond-hard sound that set him apart. And, as anemic as Parker sounded, the rhythm section of pianist Al Haig, bassist Curley Russell, and drummer Sid Catlett had even less presence in the mix.
Admittedly, there’s only so much that can be done to add depth, clarity, and presence to this old music; engineers were clearly struggling at the time to determine how best to capture a musical unit with such a broad sonic pallet. So, props to Tarantino, because The Birth of Bop certainly makes the music of this era sound better than ever before.
Still wanting to take the full measure of the Elac speaker system, but not completely discard the Bird theme, I turned to bassist Charles Mingus—one of the small handful of contemporaries who could hang musically with Parker, Gillespie, and Powell. I had recently scored a copy of Mingus’s sprawling 1972 album Let My Children Hear Music (Sony Music ORGM-1077), re-released in 2012 on two 45-rpm LPs. Not only is it an uncompromising look into the teeming brain of Mingus the Composer, it’s also a terrific showcase for maverick musicians like trumpeter Snooky Young, pianist Sir Roland Hanna, and Mingus’s highly lyrical drummer, Dannie Richmond. In keeping with Mingus’s outsized personality, the album is a diverse, kaleidoscopic collection of Mingus compositions like “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers,” “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too,” and “The Chill of Death.”
This version of the work is especially transparent and deep, which presented a challenge to the ConneX speakers. While the top end of “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife” sounded fine, it seemed thinner than it did on my regular system, and bass depth was absolutely an issue. It’s obviously still a towering piece of work, and this version of the recording is a magnificent reproduction, but it was difficult to take the full measure of the work when listening through the ConneX system.
Overall, the ConneX speakers had very little bass presence, even with the XBass engaged, and while my listening outside of bop-era music showed that vocal performances were represented with more body than instruments, I could definitely see the need for a subwoofer if you wanted this to be your primary listening vehicle.
In sum, these powered speakers would be ideal for a very small space, but the limited midrange and dismal bass response definitely colored my listening experience. That said, even a lightweight speaker system like this cannot diminish the power of music that sounds like a revolution in the making.
. . . James Hale