Note: for the full suite of measurements for the PSB Imagine B50 loudspeaker performed in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council, click this link.

July 2024

In last month’s column, I looked at two jazz recordings released in the early ’60s and how they represented part of the last wave of releases before the onslaught of the British Invasion. If anyone took that as my agreement with the “jazz is dead” trope, this column should serve as a spirited rebuttal.

Yes, the sale of jazz recordings took a severe blow shortly after the Beatles flew into New York City in early 1964 to take up their three-week residency on The Ed Sullivan Show, and sales have never returned to the apex of 1959 (the year that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and numerous other landmark albums were recorded), but—sales figures aside—jazz now feels far more vital than anything that shares musical DNA with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

James Hale

Davis and Coltrane may be long dead, while Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger continue to defy the Reaper, but young improvising artists are still emerging to blow you away.

As evidence, I give you drummer Ivanna Cuesta, bassist Kim Cass, and saxophonist Oded Tzur. Hailing, respectively, from Santo Domingo, Bar Harbor, and Tel Aviv, these three burgeoning artists have a collective age of about 100. An extremely diverse cohort, each will release new recordings this summer, comprising some of the most engaging and exciting music I’ve heard this year.


In keeping with this theme of shattering musical truisms, I don’t think I could pick a more apt piece of equipment than PSB’s Imagine B50 loudspeaker, which lists at a mere $699/pair (USD). After Dennis Burger raved about a pair of these diminutive speakers on SoundStage! Access, I had to hear them for myself. Just as Cuesta, Cass, and Tzur defy any notion of jazz’s demise, these 11.8″H × 6.75″W × 9.8″D minimonitors powerfully counter the notion that you can only enjoy immersive sound from much larger, more expensive speakers.

As Dennis noted, the only physical sign that these might not be your average bookshelf/small-room speakers is the fact that the 1″ titanium-dome tweeter is positioned below the 5.25″ woven-carbon-fiber midrange-woofer. Even with a rear-facing slotted port, there’s not much to make you expect that these will fill any room with music, especially not one the size of my 2400-cubic-foot living room, where I’ve relocated from my attic during the heat of the summer.


The cat’s long out of the bag regarding how well these little boxes perform, so with them hooked up to my NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier, I settled back to focus on the three new recordings. I only had advance digital files, and I played each album from my MacBook Pro, which was connected to the NAD amplifier’s USB input.

A Letter to Earth

In an art form where who you’ve worked with is an important indicator of your promise, Cuesta has thoroughbred cred. She has studied composition with the late saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Esperanza Spalding, and performed with the likes of Kris Davis, Tia Fuller, and Jane Bunnett. Pianist Davis joins Cuesta on A Letter to the Earth (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, Orenda 0108) along with saxophonist Ben Solomon and bassist Max Ridley. Pauli Camou adds some vocal effects.

Although quite brief at just 33 minutes, the album seems longer due to Cuesta’s expansive compositions, which carry the listener from the stress of the modern city (“Chaos”) through the more generalized anxiety of the larger world (“Humans vs Humans”) to the struggle to find calm amidst it all (“Duality”). The throughline is the combination of the leader’s taut drum work and Solomon’s grainy tenor horn. A young veteran of bands led by the late Wallace Roney and pianist Aaron Parks, Solomon has a distinctive voice that contributes greatly to the personality of the entire recording. The Imagine B50s did an exceptional job of setting his textured sax apart from the rest of the band.

Bassist Ridley is a Boston native—one who has been immersed in music from a young age, as the son of two professional opera singers—and he’s a standout, anchoring the moody title piece. Again, the diminutive speakers expressed his resonant tone with clarity and clout.


Davis, of course, is a standout on anything she lends her talent to, which is a major reason she’s quickly become one of the highest-rated keyboardists in contemporary jazz. Her wide technical range makes her ideal for this music, enabling her to convey the confusing emotions and clash of realities on “Chaos,” the moody ennui of the title piece, and the restrained impressionism of “Ongoing Cycles.”

Overall, A Letter to the Earth put me in mind of the early works of Tyshawn Sorey, another percussionist with the tools and techniques to compose across a wide range of styles. Cuesta is clearly among those whose career development will be worth tracking.


Speaking of Sorey, his presence was one of the things that attracted me to Cass’s Levs (24/96 WAV, Pi 102). The drummer/composer calls Cass “a singular composer and player [with] a technical command of the instrument on the level of the most celebrated virtuosic performers in any genre of music.”

Cass has also caught the ear of John Zorn, who, like Sorey, demands that musicians think broadly and perform his music with a high standard of execution.

So I expected great things, and Levs delivered with a gorgeously textured set of 13 pieces—only one more than four minutes long—heavily dependent on tone and musical gestures. The opening “Slag” spreads Sorey’s drum kit across the soundstage, an immediate challenge to small speakers, and again, the results exceeded expectations. Cranking the volume filled my large room quite satisfactorily. I kept the volume up for the second piece, “Fog Face”—which introduces some electronics, played by Matt Mitchell—and was impressed by the exceptionally clean sound delivery, every element pinned in place without any distortion.


For inspiration, Cass turned to a set of hand-notated scores from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—including works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arnold Schoenberg, and Pierre Boulez—and his compositions were created from the bottom up, starting with his bass parts before writing the piano contributions so they’d lock into what he would be playing on bass. The results are evident on pieces like “Time,” which features a charged bass/piano movement and subtle accents from Sorey, and the title piece, where some muted electronic texture burbles under a complex bass/piano line. On “Jungle,” the piano is merely a tinkling tickle low in the mix, bolstered by electronics and a dark-toned euphonium, played by guest Adam Dotson. In the words of Sorey, Cass’s compositions contain “manifold aspects of time, temporality, and groove.”

Indeed, the pieces on Levs only truly reveal themselves through close listening. While typically that kind of approach sends me to headphones or speakers as immersive as my usual Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanders, the compact Imagine B50s were more than up to the challenge.

My Prophet

Although raised in Israel, 40-year-old Oded Tzur found inspiration for his work in traditional Indian music, but was faced with the challenge of executing microtones on the saxophone. This pursuit led him to study with the renowned flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia in 2007 and a long exploration of how to convey what he learned through the large horn. Moving to New York City in 2011, Tzur formed a quartet that immediately began drawing comparisons to John Coltrane’s classic foursome of the early ’60s. His current lineup includes pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and Cyrano Almeida on drums.

My Prophet (16/44.1 WAV, ECM 2821) is Tzur’s third album for the German label and continues his exploration of finely textured music.


Following a brief introduction, “Child You” presents the band in unison flow, a light, well-demarcated piece that is built around a circular, fluttering sax solo that finds Tzur sticking with his instrument’s upper range. To my ears, his tone is reminiscent of Warne Marsh, although Tzur’s advanced microtonal approach adds another dimension, and his sound is somewhat grainy when he bears down at higher volume. Listening to him across the six pieces here—in addition to a deep dive into his two earlier ECM recordings—makes me think those comparisons to Coltrane are fairly specious. He’s his own man.

If Tzur is a revelation to you that also sends you off to his other recordings, you’ll likely be looking for more music featuring Hershkovits, too, because My Prophet shows him to be an extremely diverse, fluid player with a precise touch. His work on the title song is particularly interesting, as he flows from very soft accompaniment to a colorful middle section, before handing things back to Tzur for some especially flute-like sax.

Of these three musicians, Tzur is the biggest revelation to me, showing once more that ECM label head Manfred Eicher and his team have their ears open for exciting new artists.


On the topic of revelations, hearing this range of music through the diminutive Imagine B50s has made me re-think what a pair of small speakers can deliver. In my next column, I’m going to up the ante, combining them with Marantz’s no-nonsense Model 50 integrated amplifier and the spectacular vinyl remastering of Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun.

. . . James Hale

Note: for the full suite of measurements for the PSB Imagine B50 loudspeaker performed in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council, click this link.