Monday, September 20, 2010

Twelve Inches of Pure Pleasure!

Originally I was writing in this blog only when I was traveling, assuming no one would care about any of my day-to-day thoughts. But since no one is reading it even when I'm on the road, what difference does it make? So I'll write for my own bemusement.

Here we go.

The other night I was listening to records, yes, the black vinyl ones, on my marvelous audio system. It was late, midnight, at least, and I was groovin' to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring...several versions of that monumental work, in fact.

And as I put on what was the very first recording of that masterpiece that I had purchased, way back in early 1970, I had some fantastic flashbacks, well, vivid memories, surrounded by ponderings and deep (!) thoughts. I bought that record, a three-disc set in fact, in Houston at the very beginning of my 10-year career in retail record stores...while still in high school. The box was a collection of Stravinsky's three most famous ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, all conducted by Stravinsky himself. I remember that buying this set was a very big deal...THREE LPs! I think it retailed for about $14.99 and since I got the employee discount, it probably only set me back about ten bucks. But since I was making just $1.65 an hour, that constituted a full night of work—in those days I worked nights and Saturdays, twenty hours a week.

I remember listening to the records over and over, but with far more concentration on The Rite of Spring, because, honestly, it is a far better piece of music in my opinion—somehow I knew that even then. It is wild, crazy music that caused a small riot when it debuted in Paris in the early twentieth century. This fact, and of course, the music itself, really struck a chord with my young, rebellious soul. And, just like last week, I remember listening mostly late at night, after finishing my homework, an usually with the lights off. This was really moving stuff from the still-young Russian genius!

But I also recall listening with the lights on, reading over and over, the little booklet describing each of the works, largely in Stravinsky's own words. I did the exact same thing the other night. And as I did so, I was reminded again of a time long gone, when we all listened more seriously, or at least more intently, usually reading the album jacket repeatedly as the disc played for the third or fourth time, just home from the store, and fresh out of the shrink wrap. The twelve and a half-inch format of LP artwork just makes doing that more, well, doable, and so much more fun than squinting at the minuscule type on CD booklets. It just ain't the same. No way, no how.

I'm so happy that I was together enough as a kid to buy that Stravinsky box way back when, and that I played it only on good equipment...the discs are still in pretty much mint condition, more than forty years after the fact. Mint. Like minty.

And from that erupts a bit of musing about time.

I recall, when I was really getting into music and records, say about 1965, 1966, when my pop finally got his mom to let me explore the old Victrola in her house. In a little cubby behind one of its doors was a small collection of 78rpm discs, most of which belonged to my dad. I don't remember much about the titles, other than some bird call recordings, but they were pretty scratchy and a bit of a challenge to listen to on that machine. He explained that the records had been played with cactus needles during WWII because there was a shortage of steel to make the standard metal, but disposable needles. As a result, those discs had seem some wear and tear. My Grandmother promised that Victrola to me since my pop was its principal user and since she knew about my budding passion for music, but when she passed away, my aunt who lived with her and who was a bit confused about her mom's true wishes, granted it to one of my cousins. My mother told me to keep my mouth shut, which I have done since 1983........until NOW!!! The secret is out. That's my Victrola, Cousin Jimmy!

A Victrola Like My Grandmother's

At that point—1966, let's say—these records and this Victrola were only about 30 years old!  But to me,  they seemed very much like pre-historic antiques! Delicate, kind of crappy sound, they seemed very, very old and out of date. But compared to today's memories of my Stravinsky box, not to mention my even older Beatles and Byrds records, they were still young! Now this strange perspective of time is very wild! Not only are my records older, in relative terms, but it seems like thanks to somewhat better technology over all, the music and the sound of these mid-60s classics hold up after all this time, yes, even the Beatles and Byrds and Spencer Davis Group LPs. Back in 1966, those Maurice Chevalier 78s, or whatever else my dad had around from the '30s,  sounded extremely dated, not just to me, I'm sure, but they surely even sounded odd to my dad, as familiar as the recordings were to him.

So what is that all about? Is time stretching? Is music getting better? Wait, I know THAT ain't true! It only gets worse year by year. So I guess time stretches somehow. Is it as we get older? Is it tied to climate change? Is everyone experiencing this, or is it just me?

Help! Someone tell me!

Ok, here's the finale, or, at least, you will be grateful, the cessation of this babbling. The first thing I did after getting my first record store job in January of my senior year in high school, 1970, was to drag the old man down to the local stereo shop so I could finally get the really good system I'd dreamed about for years! Until then I had been using 99-buck cheapo boxes from Sears, Penny's, wherever.  But we went to Home Entertainment, a shop on Kirby, not terribly far from our house and convinced him to co-sign on an installment note for a six-hundred dollar audio rig. By today's standards it would sound pretty bad, but to me, the Sansui receiver, the house-brand speakers and, above all, the classic AR turntable with its Shure M44 cartridge (fuck, how do I remember all that?) sounded like heaven in my bedroom.

The Original AR Turntable, A Classic!

Yes, somehow I knew that the manually operated AR turntable with nothing more than an on-and-off switch, was a far better choice than the snazzier automatic Duals and Garrards so popular back in the day--and, it cost much less to boot!  It is still a classic design, so simple, yet so elegant. People are always looking for them on eBay, so those AR guys must have been doing something right. It was all of eighty-nine bucks, new, in 1970.

Today, I am listening to much better audio equipment. But is no more complicated than that AR 'table. Less so, at least for my turntable which doesn't even have an on-and-off switch! It is a boutique-made Nottingham turntable from England designed by Tom Fletcher, a dixieland jazz player in England, probably in Nottingham! Ok, the tonearm is more complicated than the AR's, but not by much, and mostly in its ability to be a bit more finely tuned. But, still nothing automatic about it. It's a motor, a platter that spins on a bearing ( a finely engineered bearing though) and a nicely adjustable tonearm. I like the idea that the designer has a name, that he owned the company when I got the table (Tom got sick soon after I got mine and then sold the company), and that Mr. Fletcher himself insisted that his USA importer send me a sample table for review in JazzTimes in 2006. He never did that for other reviewers, but he said to his US reps, "This guy gets it. He knows it's about music, and he understands music." Or something to that effect. I was flattered. So I eventually had to buy the damn turntable because it totally changed my listening habits. No more CDs, LPs only.  I'm on my second Nottingham now, the first was fantastic, and more than adequat, but I decided to move up the line a tad to get even better sound.

Here's the Nottingham 294 Ace Space turntable I now own:

Nottingham 294 Ace Space Turnatable
The very first minute I cranked up that first Nottingham I was astonished with the realism of the sound, and I was instantly re-converted to the glories of LP sound. I rarely listen to CDs anymore. They don't sound so perfect after hearing the Nottingham. In fact, though I can still hear the music through the digital crud, they don't sound MUSICAL. Not like vinyl, and I have a $2500 CD player, not some circuit-city-sony-panasonic miracle box. LPs simply do sound better. Come over and I'll prove it. You WILL believe your ears! It's pretty cool!

Now, replacing that Sansui receiver and several other amps and preamps along the way, I now am the proud owner of a pair of handmade Shindo Corton-Charlamagne EL34 mono block amplifiers from Japan. As well, I have Mr. Shindo's Monbrison preamplifier which feeds the signal to the amps, which, in turn feed the music to my also handmade DeVore Fidelity Nine speakers which are made by my buddy John DeVore in his Brooklyn Navy Yard shop. Again, it's very satisfying knowing that my audio gear was thought up and made by individuals folks with whom I have some connection, and not some marketing committee in some tedious multinational electronics corporation. You know the ones, you own them, look at your television!
The Shindo Corton-Charlamagne EL34 Mono Block Amplifiers
My Shindo gear did not come off the rack in some warehouse, but instead, was built by Mr. Shindo and his son after I told the USA importer, Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports, that I was craving some additional Shindo magic. A few weeks after I sent that monkey-on-my-back email, some boxes arrived on my front porch, directly from Mr. Shindo's enchanted cottage in Japan.

Did I mention that there are no transistors in Shindo's gear? No? Well, there is not a single one. Zip. Instead, he relies on the superior sound and musicality of old-fashioned vacuum tubes to cast his magical spells. Like the Nottingham, the designs are simple and time-proven. And they sound fucking amazing. Come over and I'll prove it to you! ( I really will!)

DeVore Fidelity Nines
John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity makes some of the very best loudspeakers in the USA, well, the world. No question. And they are not exorbitantly priced, but neither are they cheap. But for the money, they present such musical value that I can say that they possess few, if any, equals anywhere. No kidding. Again, simplicity. A box and three drivers...perfectly sized, positioned and implemented, all in a pretty little cherrywood box. John! I love you! Thanks for the endless hours of musical pleasure, you are a genius...just like Ken and Tom. How could I live without you three guys? You've made my life so much happier, so much better. It's just too bad not everyone gets to hear music the way I do.

But you could get close. Throw away the CDs. Get back to LPs. I promise you'll get so much closer to the performance of every disc you play.

(After I wrote this, I realized I forgot to mention that the record/music industry has, with each step forward in technology, made a giant stride away from the real, startling, hair-raising sound of the music, of the performance and of the performer. Thanks to Jonathan Halpern and John DeVore, I learned last year that those funky, old scratchy 78s, when played on decent equipment, trump the sound of even the best LPs. THAT was friggin' amazing.

And it's pretty well agreed that CDs do not capture the true essence of music the way LPs can. MP3s? Well, let's just say, sonically, they suck even more. Why are people satisfied with these decreases in quality of musical reproduction? Why do people like McDonald's? Ease and convenience, that's what I think.

For more on this idea of the sound of music getting worse with each "improvement" in technology, see this piece I penned for JazzTimes magazine a few years back:

Save your iPod for the gym, but leave it in your car when you get home. You won't be sorry if you have LPs spinning in YOUR livingroom...

Oh, here is my system in context. Pardon the mess!!!

The Audio System of Mike Quinn in Portland

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rio de Janeiro: Cuidado!!! I am coming back soon!

Just bought my ticket to head back to Rio. Will again get chances to hear live shows by Epoca de Ouro and Paulinho da Viola. And will work hard to get the recording we produced in 2001 of Epoca de Ouro, the last to feature Dino Sete Cordas and César Faria, released independently in Brasil and/or the USA.

Looking forward to great food, great music and great amizade (friendships).

Funny thing: I was just talking about this yesterday. The worst coffee I've had in a very long time was on my trip to Rio last year!  Brazil!!!  What has happened to your coffee?????

Ok. More on this soon...

In the meantime, here is the Japanese cover of the CD in question. It has apparently sold pretty well, but we have gotten no figures...the music biz in Japan is a shady as in any other country.

Conjunto Epoca de Ouro, recorded Aug 2001, released, finally, April 2010!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fabled 4-Day Chinese Food Orgy in Richmond and Vancouver, British Columbia

Just spent a long weekend in the Greater Vancouver area indulging in some of the great Chinese y'all have to offer. It was pretty overwhelming, and we could have used an extra week...just to skim the surface. There is just way to much to explore, and 4 days are just not enough.

My old high school bud Jim Scheppke was driving his son Daniel back to his third year at the University of British Columbia and invited me to go along for the ride...and for the food. I was not sure I wanted to invest the long drive for only a few days of eating, but finally said I would join in on the fun. So on a Wednesday afternoon, we all piled in to Jim's loaded-down-with-college-kid-supplies Honda Fit (not a very large car) and off we went. We spent the night in Seattle (actually Des Moines) at Jim's mother's house...I've known these folks since I was 15, and I always considered Dorothy to be about the best of my friends' moms, and she's still very spry, and very, very involved in Democratic politics.

Early on Thursday, we were off for Vancouver, Jim drove, I played DJ and Daniel slept and listened to his iPod in the backseat. As soon as we arrived, we started eating, and we didn't stop until Sunday afternoon with one quick dip into the lamb kebabs of the Xi'an Cuisine food stall of the Richmond Public Market. By then, I was ready to avoid Chinese food for a long time! Yeah, we had burgers in the other Vancouver, just north of Portland, Sunday night. Nice change of pace.

So, what did we eat? Won't get into deep details on any particular meals, but here are some highlights. We hit, among others, the following: Richmond Public Market (Xi'an Cuisine, Xin Jiang Delicious Food), Crystal Mall (Northern Meixi Fast Food, Wang's Shanghai Cuisine and Want Want Hot & Spicy House), Nine Dishes, Bushuair (Hunan) "O'Tray Noodles, Chuan Xiang Ge (Sichuan).

We agreed that the best overall meal was the mostly Hunan stuff we had at Bushuair Restaurant, though negotiating that weird menu is truly a challenge for those who do not speak or read Chinese. But we did ok and really enjoyed the smoked pork belly dish, some great pickled long beans with pork, the Mao's Favorite braised pork belly and a great rendition of the Sichuan chicken dish variously called ChongQing or 1000-chile Chicken. The prickly ash/sichuan peppercorns they used were the most pungent numbing examples I've ever had (and the next night, we had the same peppercorns at Nine Dishes...they are covered with little white spots, unlike any I've seen before...anyone have any idea where to get those? If at Nine Dishes sent us to Rice World, but I don't think we found those specific buds...though they were included in an impulse-buy bag of spicy peanuts, obviously from Sichuan, I picked up at the cash!!!).

Had the Jian Bing at O'Tray Noodles, President Plaza, and that was nice, but actually, one of the highlights of the whole trip was the bowl of "tofu pudding" I got to fill out my breakfast menu. It was savory, deeply flavored, complex and just plain yummy. Not totally sure what was in it, but chile oil and sesame oil or paste seemed to be part of the mix. So simple, yet so complex! Get this!!!

Xi'an Cuisine was nice, but, honestly, and I can say this generally speaking about most of what we had on this trip, that there were few WOW!!! moments of transcendent food. In NYC/Flushing, I have many of these "Holy Crap! I want more of that" sort of experiences...the now famous Xi'an place in Flushing is a good example: his cold noodle dish is far more interesting, more flavorful, more satisfying to the palate, and he includes some house-made gluten cubes in the mix. And his lamb and pork burgers are better than any we had on this trip, except maybe the lamb version at Want Want Hot & Spicy House at the Crystal Mall...those were superb, the bread was absolutely fresh, the lamb perfectly cooked and seasoned. The Sichuan stalls and restaurants in Flushing (NY) seem to offer more vibrant flavors and renditions of all the stuff sampled on this pig-out. These are just my opinions and I don't want to imply that the food in Vancouver was not was. And the variety is astonishing. Just not enough wow-factor to my tastebuds.

Nine Dishes was a great experience. The food is ok, but it was fun just soaking up the scene there, and the charisma of the Big Boss Man, Mr. If. Very cool. the Sichuan sausage was fantastic, the water boiled fish was good, but was lacking any broth (water) and seemed to be 99% oil in which the fish and chiles were floating...still good though! And you can't beat his $2 beers!

I would like to go back to Chuan Xiang Ge and sample more of their menu, the food was very good, but 3-4 dishes are not enough to get the total picture. Would also like to try other Sichuan-centric restaurants since that cuisine appeals to me, a displaced Texan, the most. The cold chicken with chile garlic sauce appetizer was my personal favorite here.

Went to several markets and grocery stores: Rice World, T&T, Big Crazy and an Indian place somewhere in east Richmond....all yielded some great finds. Vancouver folks are lucky to have such wonderful places to shop nearby. In Portland, Oregon where I currently reside, most markets are owned by SE Asians, and the selections are light on hard-core Chinese, especially Sichuan, ingredients. I now need more of those peanuts, so will have to drive back up just to get those!

I'm including a link to a little video tribute I shot during the trip. For the best resolution, change the 360p setting on the progress bar to 480p....

I'd like to thank my online Vancouver food gurus for their great tips, reviews and comments: Dylan, fmed and Ben (and his ChowTimes site); they lead us to all of these great places. Can't imagine covering so much ground without their did we do this in pre-Internet days???

Vancouver, I'll be back soon! Save some food for me!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A rather amusing, but XXX-rated Chinese menu

I found this a few years ago and have decided to share after a 4-day orgy of Chinese food in Vancouver and Richmond, British Columbia where I saw a fair version of hilarious of which follows this jewel! (Click to see a readable version of these.)