I recently visited a twentysomething relative who works as a lawyer in a large city. Like many young professionals, she lives in a compact one-bedroom apartment, sacrificing living space for the downtown location. She has a large-screen TV, a small desk, and little room for anything else. One thing she does have is a vintage turntable, but it isn’t hooked up. For music, she streams through a Sonos speaker.
Do I have a solution for her!
The Borea BR03 BT powered speaker system ($799, in USD), from French manufacturer Triangle, is the perfect answer for people who want hi-fi in small spaces. The BR03 BT is sold as a pair: a primary speaker that contains the amplifier and other electronics, including a phono stage, and a conventional passive speaker—the secondary speaker. Each enclosure measures 8.1″W × 14.1″H × 12.4″D. The stylish system can fit just about anywhere and comes in a range of finishes to match your décor.
The class-D amplifier in the primary speaker has an output of 60Wpc. Each speaker contains a 1″ silk-dome tweeter and a 6.5″ midrange-woofer with a cellulose paper cone, and has two rear-firing bass ports. Triangle helpfully recommends the speaker system for use in rooms up to 130 square feet. I’d concur with that estimate; it sounded fine in my attic office. No need for a subwoofer, although there’s an output for one. In addition, the primary speaker has a pair of RCA jacks that can be set for phono or line-level operation, a 3.5mm stereo input, and an optical S/PDIF input, plus a Bluetooth receiver with support for the premium aptX codec.
Gordon Brockhouse put the system through its paces in an extensive review this summer on SoundStage! Simplifi. For my part, I wanted to concentrate on how this system would work for someone like my young relative when paired with an old-school turntable.
When I dropped by, I mentioned that I had recently caught a performance by venerable jazz saxophonist George Coleman. I was delighted to learn that my young relative had become a fan of jazz, favoring classics from the 1950s and early ’60s. I thought that nothing would sound better, spinning on her vintage turntable and playing through the Borea BR03 BT, than one of the latest releases from Joe “Tone Poet” Harley and Blue Note Records: Herbie Nichols Trio (BLP 1519). Pianist Herbie Nichols led the three sessions that yielded the ten performances captured on the LP, featuring Max Roach on drums and Al McKibbon or Teddy Kotick on bass. The sessions were recorded in 1955 and 1956 by Rudy Van Gelder, at his legendary living-room studio in his parents’ Hackensack, New Jersey, house.
Born January 3, 1919, in New York City’s San Juan Hill neighborhood, Nichols had a prime gig by the time he was 19, playing piano in the house band at one of the jazz cauldrons where bebop was born: Monroe’s Uptown House on Harlem’s West 134th Street.
While others in his orbit—young musicians like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker—would step directly from those hothouse music labs to become the leading lights of bop, Nichols chose another path. He began writing jazz criticism for the New York Age, worked as a shipping clerk, and joined the US Army for a two-year stint in 1941.
Although he achieved some recognition in 1952, when pianist Mary Lou Williams released a handful of his songs, Nichols failed to catch the wave that the beboppers rode to stardom. He continued to pursue minor-league journalism with the Music Dial, played piano at a variety of second- and third-tier gigs around Manhattan, and hounded Blue Note cofounder Alfred Lion for a shot at recording his own music.
Lion and partner Francis Wolff finally gave Nichols an opportunity in 1955, and he recorded a dozen compositions with McKibbon and drummer Art Blakey. Some of those pieces—particularly “Shuffle Montgomery,” “Amoeba’s Dance,” and “Blue Chopsticks”—would eventually become among the hippest tunes a bandleader could call at a live gig. But in the mid-1950s, Nichols wasn’t getting much love.
He was back in Hackensack, with Roach replacing Blakey for a more sophisticated rhythmic setting, in August 1955, and then once more, on April 19, 1956, with Kotick subbing for McKibbon.
That was it for Nichols’s relationship with Blue Note. He’d get one more opportunity to record his music—for the Bethlehem label—in 1958. Another ten songs were cut at that date, but they did little to change the pianist’s career trajectory. The only major notice he would receive from the jazz press came after he died from leukemia on April 12, 1963.
Ironically, Nichols’s fortunes have risen since then. In addition to that belated notice in the music media, his reputation received a huge boost when the estimable Black scholar A. B. Spellman featured his story in the pivotal 1966 book Four Lives in the Bebop Business. Then, in 1972, Nichols received more postmortem attention when Diana Ross starred in the film Lady Sings the Blues, named for the song written by the pianist and adopted (and renamed) by Billie Holiday, who contributed the lyrics.
By 2017, when he was belatedly inducted into the prestigious DownBeat Hall of Fame, Nichols had become one of the hippest composers a jazz musician could highlight at a gig or on a recording. Latter-day pianists like Geri Allen and Frank Kimbrough featured his compositions and touted him as a neglected jazz giant, and jazz historians began to offer postmortem analysis and context.
When I asked writer Mark Miller, who helped spark Nichols’s revival with his biography, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life, why the artist hadn’t attracted more attention when he was alive, he replied: “[His musical language] wasn’t the language that was in vogue [in the ’40s]. He tends to get slotted in with Monk, and although I think they were equally creative, I don’t think he was the iconoclastic pianist that Monk was.”
Asked to summarize why Nichols continued to scuffle when Monk and other contemporaries had achieved stardom by the late ’50s, Miller said, “He simply wasn’t on the scene.”
“It’s bizarre,” Kimbrough told me when Nichols received the Hall of Fame honor. “He wrote about twice as many tunes as Monk, yet he’s always been famous for being unknown.”
If there’s any fairness to be found in Nichols’s life beyond the belated accolades, it’s in the fact that his core Blue Note recordings have seldom been out of circulation since the mid-1960s. The label has always kept them on the market in one form or another. That said, Harley told me that he and engineer Kevin Gray took their usual open-minded approach to the master tapes.
“Once we put the tape up, we never try to match the sound of the OG release,” Harley told me in a recent exchange. “To do so would just mean matching the compromises Rudy was forced to make in making LPs in that era. Instead, we take our cues from the sound of the master tape.
“I can’t recall what specific moves we made,” he continued, adding that the mastering took place more than two years ago. “I know ours sounds more resolved and more dynamic than my OG, which was compressed to a degree, which makes it sound louder.”
Taking Harley’s sage advice to volume-match with my older version of Nichols’s music, I cued up the new release on my Pro-Ject Debut Pro turntable and ran a pair of AudioQuest Wildcat cables to the Borea’s primary speaker.
As soon as I had set the tonearm down on “The Gig,” one of Nichols’s best-known compositions, the speaker system showed its stuff. My first thought was: “This is some nice bass for such small speakers.” McKibbon’s accompaniment popped. Much more than I expected, in fact, given the size of the speakers and the fact that the manufacturer thought it necessary to provide a sub output. No need to annoy the neighbors adjacent to your small apartment; these little workhorses sound fine on their own.
Throughout the ten pieces, Roach provides typically simmering, elegant swing—his immense power coiled just below the surface.
While not as revelatory as some of the other Blue Note recordings Harley and Gray have taken on—I’d say their work on Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships still holds that prize—the trio’s performances pulse with energy and glow with creativity. It’s little wonder that so many later musicians have been attracted to these engaging compositions; they’re rife with personality and wit.
They remain cool tunes, and while Nichols’s playing can indeed sound like he’s channeling Monk’s idiosyncrasies, he clearly has a personal voice. Had he lived longer and been open to working with the rising new breed of talent in the early 1960s, it’s entirely possible that he might’ve become a late bloomer like Hill was. There’s no telling how he might’ve evolved.
Imagining Nichols playing alongside Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, or Lee Morgan gives me a wistful thrill.
. . . James Hale