Album #4: The Kingston Trio, “Here We Go Again” (Capitol, 1959)

These three clean-cut college graduates helped feed the folk-music renaissance of the 1950s and early ’60s, which itself spawned another generation of (more topical) folk-song writers. This album was one of my father’s favorites, so I heard it a lot as a kid. In 1957, fresh out of college, Nick Reynolds, Dave Guard and Bob Shane took old folk songs, dusted them off, added some humor to the delivery, and quickly acquired a fan base among college students in the Bay Area of California. They were discovered in a club, signed to Capitol Records and within a year, had a gold hit, “Tom Dooley,” in 1958. The Trio rode the wave of folk-song mania through the mid-’60s, when the British invasion led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones pushed most folk artists off the charts. This album, their fifth chronologically, was released in 1959 and features a mixture of oldtime folk songs and sea chanties and newly minted songs by composers writing in the folk song idiom. Instrumentation included guitar, ukelele, banjo, bongos, and overdubbing! Producers back then, as now, had a performer sing a duet with him or herself, to create a fuller sound. The trick gives the ...

Album #3: Land of Make Believe, Chuck Mangione (Mercury, 1973) 1

Flugelhornist and composer Chuck Mangione and I are separated by about three degrees. He and my high school band director, jazz drummer and band leader Clem deRosa, played together back when. I was in chorus, not band, but I had friends who were. So that’s about three degrees, unless you count the time Mr D and pianist Marian McPartland played at our elementary school — 2.5 degrees? Anyway, Mangione is a fellow New York native, though he hails from upstate. I started to listen to him while still in high school, and I still like his music. A master of catchy melodies, Mangione does not get a lot of respect from some jazz aficionados, who believe jazz has to be unmelodic to be true to the genre. Yeah, sure. Some of Mangione’s best pieces end up on “smooth jazz” radio, and he has written some good stuff for the movies, the Olympics, and orchestras. And as he approaches age 70, he still has a huge fan base. This album includes some of Mangione’s orchestral and choral works, as well as some more personal compositions. The musicians include his quartet (Gerry Niewood, Al Johnson and Joe LaBarbera), the elusive singer Esther ...

Album #2: MF Horn (Columbia, 1970)

I have a former roommate to thank for introducing me to the late Maynard Ferguson’s unique combination of musicianship, showmanship and stewardship of new talent. This album was his first from Great Britain, where Ferguson had retreated when big band music fell out of favor in the US. The six tracks showcase Ferguson’s broad musical tastes, as well as his high-register trumpet playing. Track 1 is an arrangement of Laura Nyro‘s “Eli’s Comin’,” one of two “pop” covers on the disk. “Ballad to Max” mellows things out with a straight-ahead original jazz composition, on track 2. Next comes one of Ferguson’s signature pieces, a vibrant, big band rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.” Actor Richard Harris sang this expansive (read, long) love song with damnedly obscure lyrics in 1968. Despite his awful singing voice, it was a hit, both here and in Europe. Disco queen Donna Summer — who has a much better voice — had a hit with it a decade later. The piece is musically complex — remarkable for a pop song — and as far as I’m concerned, works much better as an instrumental work than as a song. Webb’s lyrics were just too over the top ...

Album #1: Getz/Gilberto (Verve, 1964)

Since I am just now beginning my analog-to-digital conversion project, I thought it would be cool to offer some commentary along the way. Here’s the first installment. This Grammy-winning album was a landmark in the jazz and pop music worlds back in the 1960s. It launched the singing career of Astrud Gilberto, spawned a bossa nova craze in the USA, and bolstered the careers of sax player Stan Getz, Brazilian guitarist Jõao Gilberto and Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim. The melodies on this disk should be familiar to any jazz fan, and probably most casual listeners of “cool jazz.” I was seven when this disk was released, so of course I picked it up many years later. Taking Portuguese in college and rooming with a jazz trombonist had a lot to do with my decision to buy it. Besides, the tunes were just cool. The backstory behind the album goes something like this. Charlie Byrd, who had visited Brazil and discovered this new musical genre created by Jobim, Jõao Gilberto and others, told Getz to visit Brazil and check out the bossa nova. In short order, Byrd and Getz cut a bossa nova album for Verve in 1962. A year ...

The physics of the turntable

Textbooks rarely discuss the physics of the phonograph anymore, since the CD and other digital formats have largely replaced the older format. To make up for that loss, here’s a very brief explanation of how sound comes out of a vinyl plastic disk. The reader is invited to look elsewhere for additional details. First, the basics. Sound is a vibration in a medium such as air. These vibrations can make objects, like your eardrum, vibrate in sympathy. Thomas Edison in 1878 perfected a machine that could take the vibrations from someone talking VERY LOUDLY into a horn-shaped receiver, translate them to a vibrating needle, and finally onto a wax or tinfoil covered cylinder. The wiggles of the needle imitated the vibrations of the air. Playback used the same equipment. The vibrating needle would excite the airhorn, and sound could be heard coming from the horn. The process — captured by the classic corporate logo of the RCA Victor company (right) — was entirely mechanical. [You can recreate the process today with a sewing needle taped to a homemade paper cone. Choose an album that won’t break your heart if it gets scratched, place it on a turntable and start the ...
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