Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
If you caught last month’s column, you’ll know that one of the recordings I featured was Van Morrison’s signature major-label debut, Astral Weeks. I noted that—typically for a pop recording in the late 1960s—the recording setup was pretty basic. Morrison’s voice is centered in the soundstage, and there appears to have been little or nothing altered in post-production. One consequence is that Morrison occasionally sounds slightly off-mike. Having seen Morrison perform several times, I expect those off-mike incantations were deliberate.
Skilled singers know how to interact with the air surrounding whatever microphone they’re working with, as well as the characteristics of the mike itself. Frank Sinatra was a master; never so much for the quality of his voice itself—there were singers who had “purer” instruments—but Sinatra knew how to work a microphone as surely as he knew how to win over an audience.
Forty years of reviewing jazz for international publications have taught me that there are always more recordings by vocalists than players of any single type of instrument. Everyone has a voice, and it’s astounding how many people think they have one that people want to hear in an improvised situation. And while everyone has a voice, taste is highly personal. The voices I like might not be your cup of tea. What’s more, my own favorites don’t fall into a single genre or style; for instance, I love the grit of Tom Waits’s voice, but I also enjoy Nancy Wilson’s, which was an extraordinarily pure instrument. It’s how a singer delivers the meaning of the song that matters to me. More than any other instrument, it’s person-to-person—particularly if you listen through headphones.
It has been a particularly great season for new recordings featuring distinctive voices that I have previously enjoyed. First to arrive was a joint release by vocalist Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Lionel Loueke entitled Lean In (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, Edition 0197187633777). It was followed by the long-awaited new recording by Feist: Multitudes (24/88.2 WAV, Polydor 4873183). Last to arrive was a French-language recording, Mélusine (16/44.1 WAV, Nonesuch 0075597906400), by the exceptionally prolific Cécile McLorin Salvant. These women are all forward-looking artists. Even when McLorin Salvant and Feist have reached back to artists like Fats Waller and Nina Simone, they’ve made that material sound completely contemporary.
What better component to use for this batch of very contemporary vocalists than an ultra-modern component like the MaiA DS3 stereo integrated amplifier from Pro-Ject Audio Systems ($1599, all prices USD)? As noted by Dennis Burger on SoundStage! Access, this amp has “more personality than a terrier puppy, and yet it doesn’t feel the need to express that personality with its audio output.”
I’m a golden retriever fan myself, but I couldn’t agree more that this is an exceptional little amp, and it’s designed to fit discreetly into any contemporary space. At 2.8″H × 8.1″W × 9.9″D (including sockets), it’s even more compact than my own NAD D 3045, and just as robust, with a rated output of 80Wpc into 8 ohms or 140Wpc into 4 ohms. Signal to noise is rated at 97dB @ 1kHz, and THD is <0.01% at 10W (into 8 ohms).
The back of the unit has a phono input with support for MM or MC cartridges, four pairs of line-level stereo inputs, stereo fixed-level and variable preamp outputs, one coaxial and two optical S/PDIF inputs, and a USB-DAC input. There’s also a subwoofer out, 12V trigger input and output, a Bluetooth antenna terminal, and a set of five-way binding posts.
The front panel is the epitome of contemporary European design—sleek and uncluttered, with a large volume knob in the center. On the left are a power button, an indicator LED, and a headphone output jack. On the right are four pushbutton controls and two banks of LEDs. The two lower pushbuttons are for cycling through inputs—an LED illuminates to show the selected input. The two upper buttons are used for providing an additional 6dB of preamplifier gain and Bluetooth pairing. The LEDs between those buttons indicate whether DSD files received by the USB-DAC input are DSD64, DSD128, or DSD256. This is a package for people who want an amplifier that is small and discreet enough to all but disappear in its surroundings.
Like Dennis, I was less thrilled by the strength of the magnets affixed to the optional ($129/pair) wooden side panels. I preferred the look of the unit without the panels, just as I like how my Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers look without their front grilles attached.
Taking a seat in front of those speakers, I settled in to listen once again to the engaging new release from Parlato and Loueke. It had become one of my favorites for casual listening since arriving in mid-March.
Lean In is the third album the duo has released since 2006, and Parlato’s sixth as a leader or co-leader. Infused with a variety of African rhythms, the album is an exceptionally fine showcase for both artists, but I found it particularly revelatory in terms of how Parlato employs what might otherwise be viewed as a limited instrument. A winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk award (now known as the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Competition) in 2004, she has a particularly breathy voice—ill-suited to the kind of wide-ranging vocalizing required to cover much of the catalog of jazz standards—but she uses it to create an intimacy that few other singers can attain.
That’s most evident on the title song, which combines her voice with some woody-sounding percussion—an ideal match. Parlato’s voice is breathy and conversational, as distinctive as Blossom Dearie’s was, and it seems impossible that such a wispy instrument could deliver so much impact. It does because of her musicality, which combines with her self-questioning lyrical content to create a tremendously intimate experience between singer and listener. In a different era, a song like “Lean In”—with its topical content and title, snappy vocal delivery, and exceptional percussion by guest Mark Guiliana—could be a radio hit.
Feist knows all about those kinds of combinations. The quirky musicality of her 2008 breakthrough, The Reminder, brought her millions of fans, four Grammy nominations, and the financial security to gain more control over her artistic career.
Multitudes is just her third album since her breakthrough, and the singer has moved a long way from the days when her songs were being featured on popular TV shows like Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, and Sesame Street. She’s taken time out to become a mother, and at 47 she no longer has to take part in the marketing circus that surrounds younger artists.
Like Parlato, Feist strikes a winning balance between musicality and intimacy. Some of that is her innate artistry; the remainder is her understanding of how to use a microphone and position her voice in the mix to great effect. Her vulnerability is palpable. In other words, she’s an ideal headphone artist. So, I switched to my HiFiMan HE400i ’phones and settled in.
Anyone familiar with Feist’s “1234” or “Mushaboom” knows she has a particular talent for creating earworms and campfire singalongs, and “In Lightning” kicks the album off with an echoey call-and-response that is as instantly catchy as anything she’s recorded. This latter-day Adam and the Ants stomp-anthem is a bit deceptive; Multitudes doesn’t get that energetic again. That’s fine, because the singer doesn’t need to slam her messages home.
Written for her daughter, the quiet, wistful-sounding “Forever Before” is more typical, and showcases all those quirky characteristics and vocal tics that fans love in Feist’s voice. The headphone soundstage on the MaiA DS3 was as exceptional as Dennis reported in his review.
Even though there are ten guest musicians onboard, Feist performs on five instruments herself, in addition to layering multiple vocal tracks. As ever, her lyrics are pointed, confessional, yet conversational. That combination, along with her knack for writing melodies that invite listeners to join in, is seductively powerful. You won’t need a campfire to want to sing along.
McLorin Salvant also has something in common with Parlato; she was little-known before winning the Monk award (in 2010, in her case). She’s made the most of her breakthrough—releasing six albums under her own name, collaborating on an equal number of other recordings, and winning no fewer than three Grammys, a handful of Jazz Journalists Association awards, the Glenn Gould Protégé Prize, and, most significantly, a MacArthur genius grant. That’s heavyweight for any young artist, but McLorin Salvant has moved easily from strength to strength.
Recorded with multi-instrumentalist Sullivan Fortner and nine other musicians, the album takes its inspiration from the French folktale of a shape-shifting aquatic spirit, popularized in the late 14th century by writer Jean d’Arras. Sung mostly in French or Haitian Creole (McLorin Salvant’s father is a Haitian-born physician), Mélusine doesn’t require fluency in either language; its joyous musicality is universal.
There’s a tremendous degree of what I’ll term “transparency” on this recording. For example, on “La route enchantée,” a composition by renowned French songwriter Charles Trenet, the performance begins with just her voice and bassist Paul Sikivie. Her naked voice carries the song beautifully—the essence of musicality, texture, and nuance. She has an extraordinary ability to make very complex singing sound effortless, as well as exceptional vocal control. Like me, you may be surprised to hear applause at the end of this piece; it seemed too perfect to be a live performance.
Ever the polymath, McLorin Salvant was one of a trio of engineers on this project, and coproduced it with Tom Korkidis. Throughout, Mélusine sounded exceptionally open and full through the MaiA DS3 and my Q Acoustics floorstanders—nowhere more so than on the long, intricately designed title track, which pairs her voice with a nylon-strung guitar played by Daniel Swenberg in the album’s only English-language performance.
Spring was finally arriving near the river outside my house while I enjoyed these recordings. The humanity in the voices of these women and the clarity delivered by the Pro-Ject MaiA DS3 stereo integrated amplifier were ideal matches.
. . . James Hale
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.