Analog Music in a Digital World
By Mike Guy
When ordering the CD of Weird Turn Pro's (WTP) 2018 release, Let Me Be Unwound from their Bandcamp site, I noticed that it was available on LP. Few music titles of any genre are released in other than digital formats these days. To have locally composed music played by dedicated Seacoast area jazz musicians available on vinyl is a rare pleasure. Being borderline vinyl-obsessed, I had to get it.
A few days after ordering the LP, I received an email from Mike Effenberger, the composer of WTP's music and its pianist (he's in charge of shipping and receiving too). He had my address from the order, saw that I was within his daily travels and offered to drop it off rather than mail it. Mike and I didn't know each other at that point.
As a point of clarification, when I use the word album, I'm referring to several songs packaged and sold together, as on a CD or an LP. To me an album can be released on a CD, an LP or in any other format such as a digital download. If an artist releases several songs together that take more than 30 minutes for me to listen to, it's an album.
When Mike delivered the LP, from the well-stocked showroom in his Subaru, I purchased the CD also. I planned to listen to both formats, (hopefully) have a conversation with Mike and then spin it all into something remotely interesting for new and old jazz fans.
If you eat a meal in a mall food court with 20 people around you, it's not like eating with 20 people in the dining room of a fine restaurant. You can be eating the same food with the same people, but it’s not the same experience. That’s the difference between an analog LP and a digital version of the same recording. An LP is not like a food court. The analogy is odd, abstract and subjective, but so is comparing the big and small discs.
Regardless of the playback format, Let Me Be Unwound is an excellent recording of original music played by skilled musicians. If you’re curious about how the formats differ, play the first song on the CD and LP, It’ll All Be Over Soon. You’ll quickly hear the difference.
WTP’s horns are Matt Langley, reeds; Chris Gagne, trombone; and Chris Klaxton, trumpet. On It’ll All Be Over Soon, they play Mike Effenberger's work with a level of control, restraint and at times delicacy that you can hear on the CD. On the LP, the sound is smoother, warmer and more palpable.
On Or Else the Self Most Mine, the LP provides a greater level of differentiation between the instruments. The bass and drums (Rob Gerry and Mike Walsh) are easily discernible on the LP where they blend more in the background on the CD.
When asked about the vinyl version of Let Me Be Unwound, Mike Effenberger explained that LPs are more costly to produce and it was only by working with a small company that WTP could produce the LP. Don't forget, we're not talking about a record company. When local artists go into the studio, make an album, produce it on CD or LP and then market it, they either do it all themselves or foot the expensive bill personally. The message here is clear. When local musicians make the investment of effort, time and dollars to produce quality music, reinforce their initiative, support them and buy it.
When asked about analog vs. digital, Mike's thoughts were:
The sonic difference is considerable. It reads much more congealed or gluey. (I) like the cleanliness and precision of the digital master as well, but there are things that are emphasized about the holistic qualities of the music on vinyl that I don't hear on the digital stuff. There's something special about the electro mechanical nature of it. These are grooves carved physically into a piece of vinyl. You're picking up different behaviors with the mechanical representation than in the digital recreation of it.
Today we live in a world of streaming music services, shared playlists, YouTube videos and single songs purchased as mp3 files. In this millennium, what happens to the concept of the album? Some albums are a mixture of relatively unrelated songs recorded over time and packaged as an album for release on CD or LP. Other albums are conceptualized, written and recorded as one work. WTP's first album, The Repeatedly Answered Question, was a collection of songs that Mike wrote over time, which later became an album. With Let Me Be Unwound, he wrote individual songs tailored to work together as an album.
Like many of our local jazz musicians, Mike is an educator also. When we spoke about younger folks developing an interest in jazz, we were generally referring to teenagers and those in the 20-30 age groups.
I asked Mike about the future of the album as we older folks know it:
The album is deemphasized but not lost as a model. I still prefer it by a mile. When possible, I listen to the whole thing (album). They (younger listeners) are functioning more from a Spotify playlist or what does YouTube suggest you play next. That's probably generally true, but I know teenagers that still prefer albums and appreciate the fact that an album can be a cohesive statement. What does it mean if you pop “Dark Side of the Moon” on (if you don't play the entire album)? You can listen to one song, but you're missing a whole lot. You're missing all of these through lines, where one piece might come back three times across that record and mean a different thing every time.
Before I turn over control of the Bluetooth speakers to my nephews, I attempt to discuss music, all part of my long-term plan to lure them to jazz (In 25 years, who else is going to wheel me out of the nursing home and take me to The Press Room?). Other than one nephew who went to see Gregory Porter with us and showed some interest, without attendance from others regarding the Rebirth Brass Band show, I have yet to lure anyone under the age of 30 to something remotely related to jazz. I have been working on a new strategy and Mike Effenberger has the historical support for why it might work.
My new plan had been to start playing more of the newer jazz artists that are in the same age group as my nephews. They all grew up on the same pop, rock and hip hop music and you can hear that in the work of artists like saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Robert Glasper. I've been able to slip in a song or two occasionally. The nephews did not roll their eyes and they even asked who's tune it was. The real shocker was that they immediately went to their phones to check out Kamasi. When a 58-year old uncle can cause a millennial to pick up their phone, other than to text or tweet crazy old man behavior, the hook is almost in. Mike's thoughts on my strategy are as follows:
They (Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper) are being jazz musicians in the way that people always have been, which is to say that they're still drawing on their popular music. (Robert) Glasper has covers of Radiohead interspersed with Herbie Hancock. That matters. Having a way to directly connect with popular music makes it more approachable. That's how it happened in the first place. They were just playing pop tunes; all of that stuff was just the music of the day and another way to move within it. It's a way of meeting them where they are.
It makes perfect sense. Every time my listening moves in a new direction, it's influenced by other music. Sometimes I'm looking for it, but not always. The improvisational aspect of some rock subgenres led me to bop. Hearing Miles Davis's group play a 15-minute version of the 1980s pop tune Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper at the Orpheum in Boston led me to other jazz fusion artists. I still can't believe it, but after listening to Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper's less jazz-oriented music together, my nephews can actually call up a playlist of hip hop tunes that I can listen to.
I see that Blue Note has started releasing a series of 80th anniversary LPs and one of the first ones is Robert Glasper's 2005 Canvas. I'll have to go to BullMoose and pick it up. If I can get one or more of the nephews to sit on the couch and listen to vinyl, I'll know my plan is working.
Thank you, Mike Effenberger for taking the time to talk with me and to Weird Turn Pro for providing great music to all of us.