Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
Over the first year of this “Art+Tech” column, I’ve explored some intriguing new pieces of equipment and listened to a lot of great music in the process. I’ve mentioned some of the music I’ve most enjoyed in 2021 along the way; but not all of it. And of all the terrific gear that passed through my office, the piece that really caught my eye—NAD’s C 700 BluOS streaming amplifier ($1499, all prices in USD)—has only recently landed on my desk. That’s perfect timing for revisiting my ten favorite albums of the past year and seeing how the C 700 treats them.
This fresh entry to NAD’s Classic Series grabbed my attention because it seemed to be the logical next step up from the NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC ($799) that has been in my rack for the past couple of years. While it lacks a phono stage and the USB input that enables me to stream music directly from my laptop, the C 700 offers numerous ways to take music from source to speakers, and has a similarly modern aesthetic to the D 3045.
My colleague Gordon Brockhouse has already done a thorough job of describing the C 700’s features on SoundStage! Simplifi, but allow me to summarize what it offers before moving on to the music.
An elegant, 8.6″W × 3.8″H × 10.5″D aluminum unit, the C 700 has a 4.25″W × 2.5″H color LCD screen that shows album art, details of the track playing, and track progress information when streaming music. When playing audio from components connected to the two sets of RCA inputs or the coax port, the LCD shows stylized VU meters for the left and right channels; very cool. As well as those analog inputs, the back of the C 700 is furnished with one set of RCA preamp outputs, a monaural subwoofer output (RCA), optical S/PDIF and HDMI eARC inputs, an Ethernet port, and a USB Type-A port for a portable storage device. The C 700 also has two-way aptX HD Bluetooth, so you can listen to music through wireless headphones and stream audio from any smart device.
Although the LCD screen lacks touch functionality, downloading the BluOS app to your iOS or Android mobile device gives you easy control. A good-sized knob on the front panel also allows you to manually control volume and switch between menus. Menu selections are made using two small pushbuttons.
Maximum resolution via the S/PDIF input, Wi-Fi and Ethernet, and from files on local and network drives is 24-bit/192kHz PCM. Rated output is 80Wpc continuous into 8 ohms or 100Wpc into 4 ohms, 20Hz–20kHz, both channels driven, at less than 0.04% THD; and 120Wpc instantaneous power into 4 or 8 ohms.
There’s a single set of speaker terminals that accept bare wire, spade connectors, or banana plugs. I used the latter on a pair of AudioQuest Type 5 cables to connect my Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers and dug into my top-10 releases from the total of about 350 that I heard in 2021.
A word about how I receive and listen to new music may be in order. I’ve been actively reviewing music—mostly jazz—since 1992, and reviewing on a regular basis for a global audience in DownBeat magazine since 1996. By 2010, I was receiving about 500 CDs in the mail every year; that sounds like a dream, but it was far too much music for one person to enjoy and ended up as a ridiculous amount of wasted plastic. Since 2017, I’ve been one of DownBeat’s lead reviewers in the magazine’s Hot Box section. Consequently, the number of pitches I get to receive downloads or CDs has spiked considerably. I’ve had to become much more selective in what I choose to receive, although some CDs still find their way to me unbidden. I also seek out a number of recordings—perhaps another 50—because I like an artist’s previous work or I’m curious about someone whose music I don’t know.
Still, 350 recordings represent way more new music than anyone is likely to play in a year, let alone listen to seriously enough to place on a top-10 list. Only my music-journalism colleague Ted Gioia publishes a substantial “best of” list, highlighting dozens of recordings he’s devoted serious time to; the rest of us can only manage to produce a “music I enjoyed most” selection in any given year.
So here’s what gave me the most pleasure in 2021, in alphabetical order:
Maya Beiser: Maya Beiser × Philip Glass (16/44.1 ALAC, Islandia Music Records)
Whether she’s interpreting the music of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, or—in this instance—Philip Glass, cellist Maya Beiser always brings the intensity. I was unfamiliar with the 59-year-old American musician until I read an enthusiastic piece about her a few years ago written by a friend, Martin Johnson, who has superb taste. A rave from him is rare, so I had to check her out. My introduction was her 2014 album, Uncovered, on which she interpreted composers as diverse as Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain, but it was her reimagining of Bowie’s Blackstar in 2020 that really made its mark on me. I was thrilled to hear she was turning her bow to Glass, and she didn’t disappoint. Layering and looping her cello, Beiser was able to channel the hypnotic propulsion that I’ve heard flow from Glass’s ensemble, but her ferocious style of playing took his music to a new level. Although I had frequently returned to it, I hadn’t listened to Maya Beiser × Philip Glass through my main system since I first downloaded it, so I eagerly cued it up on my Roon app to stream it via Apple AirPlay 2 to the C 700. Like the chalumeau range of the clarinet, the cello seems very human in terms of pitch and expression, and the full experience of Beiser’s musical being was on display: the burr of the bow on the strings; the wooden reverberation of a slap on the instrument’s hollow body; and, above all, the dexterity of her fingering. The music was enveloping, and Beiser’s passion indelible.
Borderlands Trio: Wandersphere (CD, Intakt Records)
For this one, which I reviewed in November’s column, I connected the C 700 to the NAD C 538 CD player I use as a disc transport, using an AudioQuest Forest TosLink cable. I was immediately reminded of the major role played by sonic textures in the music that pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Eric McPherson make together. Textures, along with space and flexible rhythmic motifs, are particularly essential on Wandersphere. This improvised work features long, open-ended movements in which the instrumental voices constantly shift. Crump’s mix on the disc creates a spacious soundstage that gives a lot of room for each performer, and the C 700 rendered it with exceptional precision. Davis’s piano sounded notably full and resonant. Wandersphere is a really gorgeous recording that suits a winter night.
Kenny Garrett: Sounds from the Ancestors (16/44.1 WAV, Mack Avenue)
If forced to choose, saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s 17th solo album would be my choice for best album of the year, a fact that was reflected by the five stars I gave it in my DownBeat review. Always a highly percussive saxophonist, Garrett has found an exceptional partner in drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., who’s best known for his work with Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington. With references as diverse as the Black Haitians who defeated Napoleon’s soldiers in the Caribbean nation’s revolution, John Coltrane, and contemporary hip-hop, Sounds from the Ancestors might stand as an ideal soundtrack for the work of Black Lives Matter activists and others who seek equality and recognition. To quote my original review, this is one of those rare works of art “that has a clear conceit yet doesn’t sound contrived.”
Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller: In Harmony (LP, Resonance Records)
I’ve been a fan of Zev Feldman and the label—Resonance Records—he co-leads for some time. This set of live recordings by trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Mulgrew Miller was the first opportunity I’ve had to sample the duo’s work on vinyl. For this one, I connected my Fluance RT83 turntable to an NAD PP 2e phono preamplifier via an AudioQuest Wildcat tonearm cable, which I then hooked up to one of the C 700’s line inputs with a Fluance RCA cable. Released on two 180gm discs, In Harmony presents spirited duets recorded at two separate shows in 2006 and 2007. While Hargrove sounds very present during both shows, Miller’s piano sounds thin at one concert. Some annoying overtones in the upper register point to obvious issues with microphone placement. But the joy shared by these two artists—Miller, the somewhat reserved stirrer of deep wells of soul, and the irrepressible imp, Hargrove—overrides any sonic issues. Both musicians left us far too soon, and this is a charming document of the generosity Hargrove and Miller showed in sharing their artistry.
Dave Holland: Another Land (24/96 WAV, Edition Records)
Perhaps it’s his austere British manner or the complexity of his compositions; whatever the reason, it’s easy to forget that bassist Dave Holland can rock out when he switches to an electric instrument. Another Land, a trio recording featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire, balances amplified and acoustic approaches, but Holland is never less than propulsive and engaging. He and Eubanks have always demonstrated an exceptional rapport, and the hard-charging, electrified performances here are reminiscent of their work together on Eubanks’s excellent Blue Note recordings from the early ’90s. Produced by Holland at Sear Sound, Another Land has both intimacy and power, as is evident in the file I played via my Apple Music account.
Daniel Lanois: Heavy Sun (16/44.1 ALAC, D. Lanois Production Maker Series)
One of the most respected producers and engineers in commercial music, Daniel Lanois’s albums always sound precisely the way he wants you to experience them, regardless of the style he happens to be pursuing. For Heavy Sun, an album that didn’t seem to catch much attention in 2021, Lanois recruited gospel singer and organist Johnny Shepherd to join him, guitarist Rocco DeLuca, and bassist Jim Wilson in a vocal quartet. Taking its cues equally from the refined music of Southern gospel groups and rawer forms like work songs and field recordings of prison road gangs in the South, Heavy Sun sounds both planned and spontaneous. But, above all, it’s genuinely human. It’s already evident that the pandemic has prompted some memorable work; Heavy Sun is likely to hold a place among the most uplifting of the era.
Lee Morgan: The Complete Live at The Lighthouse (CD, Blue Note Records)
The history of jazz is filled with tragic stories of careers cut short by violence or drugs, but trumpeter Lee Morgan’s demise remains singularly sad. The pathos lies not just in the fact that Morgan was shot to death by the woman who had likely saved his life by helping him kick heroin, but also that he died just after the core of this exciting set of live performances had been released. Substance-free, Morgan had recruited a fascinating array of musicians—Memphis-born pianist Harold Mabern, innovative reed player Bennie Maupin, electric-bass pioneer Jymie Merritt, and sturdy drummer Mickey Roker—for a series of shows on the West Coast. The selections released on a 1970 double album demonstrated that Morgan’s quintet was one of the most exciting bands in jazz, and announced that the trumpeter had rediscovered the magic he had displayed on numerous albums in the mid-1960s. Those elements are reinforced again and again on the eight CDs and twelve LPs that constitute this much-anticipated box set. As I wrote in my full-length review, these performances are filled with music that sounds “loose yet focused, constantly pushing forward, with the musicians exchanging ideas effortlessly.” Like Miles Davis’s box sets of multiple nights at the Plugged Nickel and the Cellar Door, these intense performances capture a great band at its creative peak.
Thumbscrew: Never Is Enough (16/44.1 ALAC, Cuneiform Records)
I was fortunate to see Thumbscrew—guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—at one of the trio’s earliest gigs, and it was obvious at that point that these three sound painters belong together. Whether collectively exploring knotted harmonies or soloing in distinctive voices, the members of Thumbscrew are constantly confounding expectations. Halvorson demands attention with her smeared octaves and odd intervals, and Formanek and Fujiwara are so singular in their approaches to the music that I have returned to this recording a number of times and haven’t yet had the same experience twice—the mark of a timeless recording.
The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore (HLS, Atlantic Records/Apple Music)
Adam Granduciel’s voice, with its hints of Bob Dylan, has been nagging at my ears since at least 2011, but I hadn’t felt the need to delve too far into his band’s first four albums. Streaming it through the C 700, I was reminded that my first sampling of I Don’t Live Here Anymore—the second recording by The War On Drugs for Atlantic Records, changed that. There was something—a new sense of purpose?—in Granduciel’s tone that caught my ear. Exploring more about the making of the album, I realized that I may also have been responding to the care the band took (three years, in seven different studios) to create I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Sonically buffed by the masterful Greg Calbi, the recording sets the standard in contemporary rock music—deep and beautifully textured. Granduciel’s lyrics have evolved to embody a kind of world-weary stoicism that reminds me of Jackson Browne and Gregg Allman—two of my lodestone singers—and I love the way he can step outside himself to make ironic cultural references like slyly name-checking Dylan and alluding to his lyrics on the title song.
Various Artists: Kimbrough (16/44.1 ALAC, Newvelle Records/Bandcamp)
For years, I steered clear of reviewing new music by the pianist Frank Kimbrough because we’d spent enough time socializing that I considered him a friend. Kimbrough had many friends—no surprise considering what a down-to-earth, funny, and thoughtful person he was. His death in 2020, from a heart attack at the age of 64, shocked the music community and fans who knew him from his steadfast presence in the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, his solo recordings, and his work as a member of the Jazz Composers Collective. Both within the collective and individually, Kimbrough was a prolific composer, and this collection of 61 of his pieces—performed by 67 artists who respected and loved him—offers expansive proof of his range. His work stretched from plaintive meditations like “The Call”—which features a collection of peers and students—to powerhouse romps with chop-busting changes like “Kudzu,” a great vehicle for saxophonist Steve Wilson. Pulled together by boutique hi-rez vinyl label Newvelle Records as the pandemic waned briefly in the spring of 2021, Kimbrough provides a great opportunity to hear stars like Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, and Donny McCaslin play in unique combinations and mix it up with young artists who had studied with Kimbrough. Available as a hi-rez download, all sales of the five-and-a-half-hour set benefit the Frank Kimbrough Jazz Scholarship at The Juilliard School, where he taught for many years.
. . . James Hale
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.