Nelson Brill highlights the joys of home listening

Real music lovers can find the melody in everything. From the park to the concert hall, our friend Nelson Brill is always on the hunt for great sound. In this blog, Nelson looks at different ways that music lovers can continue to see live shows virtually and how they can further their at-home listening experience by using Nordost’s Blue Heaven Headphone Cable! 


By Nelson Brill August 9, 2020

Getting lost in the rejuvenation that home listening brings, (taking time to listen without interruption to one’s favorite music on a quality high-end audio system) is a special gift in these tough and challenging times. I’ve been enjoying my time listening to the new reference high-end audio system that I reviewed last month (consisting of the Goldmund Telos 590 Integrated Amplifier partnered with Seidenton STB Studio Allnico loudspeakers and an Ensemble Dirondo CD player). I’ve also been listening to my headphone system to catch all of the terrific online concerts to benefit musicians and arts organizations worldwide.

If you enjoy listening to headphones, (either through a computer or through a dedicated headphone amplifier), here’s a simple, upgrade tip: think about swapping out that generic headphone cable and invest in a quality headphone cable. I highly recommend Nordost’s Blue Heaven headphone cable, (; $350 per 1.25 meter). Switching out the generic cable that came with my Sennheiser HD650 headphones for the Blue Heaven cable, I heard instant sonic improvements: a much quieter noise floor (that allowed more tactile and inner details of music to emerge); an overall improved tonal balance; an airier and wider stereo image and a greater coherency to the HD 650’s limited mid bass and upper bass. The Blue Heaven headphone cable took my modest HD 650’s to a new level of enjoyment and immersion – more toe-tapping and less listener fatigue (an important consideration when wearing even the best quality headphones for long periods).

So grab a pair of good quality headphones and equip them with a quality headphone cable like Nordost’s Blue Heaven and get more enjoyment out of all the vital music online to support musicians, local venues and arts organizations. Here are some upcoming online events that I will be checking out on my headphone rig:


-A celebration of the music of Jerry Garcia (on the 25th anniversary of his passing), to benefit the Rex Foundation, an organization that the Grateful Dead and friends started in 1983 to support local arts, science and educational organizations. [];

-Weekly concerts, dance performances and artist conversations presented by Arts For Art as part of their ongoing “Crisis Fund Benefit” [];

Ellis Marsalis Jr. – North Country Public Radio

-A series of concerts presented by irrepressible trombonist and humanist, Delfeayo Marsalis, as he organizes a new online benefit, (named after his late father, Ellis Marsalis Jr.), to help sustain New Orlean’s rich culture and its musicians [];

-A series of weekly Sunday concerts to support the international music and art scene in vibrant Provincetown, MA. [];

-Online concerts to benefit local music venues such as the weekly online jazz concerts presented by the venerable jazz club, Village Vanguard [] or the terrific weekly online listening sessions presented by Newvelle Records in support of their artists and their sterling recordings [;


-Online performances to help support local orchestras like the inspiring online Tanglewood Festival presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. []. The recent Tanglewood Gala featured a moving online tribute to the legendary violinist, Isaac Stern, with animated performances and conversations with many musicians touched by Stern’s genius and humanity. Catch it again if you can online – along with all the other weekly concerts and classes from the new Tanglewood Learning Institute– all to benefit the BSO’s vital activities and music.

Back in the listening room, here’s a new batch of audiophile quality CD’s that have been in heavy rotation for their smart musicianship, fresh sounds and superb recording qualities –all to lift our spirits!

First up is a CD from a trumpet maestro and great teacher who died recently and will be sorely missed: Wallace Roney. Roney’s 2019 Blue Dawn – Blue Nights [HighNote Records] is a gem of a recording powered by Roney’s mighty trumpet and his gift for bringing together young talent to feed off his exuberance. The opening number, “Bookendz”, is a great example: elemental bass and drums propel a bracing trumpet solo from Roney (his stippled bursts crackling with heat) along with bold solos from pianist Oscar Williams II (spinning carefree, light runs) and reedman Emilio Modeste (ranging with glee on his expressive soprano sax). Legendary drummer Lenny White contributes his dashing propulsion on his own tune, “Wolfbane”, his protean drums igniting a piercing Roney solo and another bluesy frolic from Modeste on his tenor sax. On other numbers, Roney’s talented nephew, drummer Kojo Odu Roney, brings his fresh energy to his drum kit where his cymbal/snare combinations resound with spacious, airy flow that foster the band’s pulsing groove and spunk.


In addition to propulsive nuggets like a jostling version of Dave Liebman’s “New Breed” (sweet and tart on Roney’s muted trumpet) and a frenetic “Venus Rising” with the band firing on all swinging cylinders, Roney and his young lions also dig deep into several heartfelt ballads. The softly caressed “Why Should There Be Stars” features Roney’s plaintive meditations where he utilizes silence between his notes as effectively as his crisp, clarion calls.

Getty Image: Wallace Roney

Roney’s shining trumpet is cushioned in Paul Cuffari’s warm bass lines (coherent to their purple depths) and Williams’ lightly patterned piano runs that resemble the spinning of a delicate spider’s web. All of these fresh sounds and grooves are captured in a wide-open and layered soundstage recorded in legendary Van Gelder Studio by Maureen Sickler and her team along with David Darlington’s talented mastering. Blue Dawn-Blue Nights is Roney’s parting gift: his trumpet keen and charging ahead (into posterity) with steadfast passion and playful joy, his encouragement of young talent insuring the future of the music.

Speaking of playful joy, there’s a lot of joy and sustenance to be discovered within the timeless songs of composers Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe, an exemplary team that was equally at home writing for Broadway or for the jazz stage. Many of their timeless songs have now been re-imagined by an impeccable jazz band led by the vivacious woodwind maestro, Adrian Cunningham on his new CD, Adrian Cunningham & His Friends Play Lerner And Loewe [Arbor Records, ARCD 19470]. Cunningham is joined by reveling companions-pianist Fred Hersch, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson- to deliver this garland of Lerner and Loewe songs teeming with swing and soul.

Cunningham leads with a supremely assured presence. He shifts effortlessly between his magnetic clarinet, sax and flute to mine the heart of each tune with a taste for slippery adventure that always returns to the irresistible pulse of these great melodies. Hersch, joined by his two trusted journeymen, Hebert and McPherson, is also an inspired force. It is a joy to listen to him at his keyboard as he unspools gossamer runs, melodic twists and gusts of low notes. Arbor Records’ Rachael Domber and her recording team bring their careful craft to capture the full harmonic body of Hersch’s piano, (a rare recording feat), the breathy flights of Cunningham on his woodwinds and all the crackling, alive drama in this zestful session.

Take a listen to the intoxicating duet between Cunningham and Hersch on their beautifully woven, “The Heather On The Hill”, or to the band’s “I Talk To The Trees” for music that sings with sultry, melodic spirit. Let this impeccable band swing you away on their arrangements of “I Could Have Danced All Night”; “I Was Born Under A Wandering Star” and “They Call The Wind Maria” – all graciously swinging gems highlighted by the comic slurs and growls from Wycliffe Gordon’s trombone (his embouchure captured tactile and slurry) or the brazen glow of Randy Brecker’s trumpet. The finale, “Brigadoon”, lands on tender ground easing us into another day with the curvaceous dignity of Cunningham’s glowing sax, Hersch’s soft keyboard caresses and the combination of McPherson’s circular brushes on snare joining Hebert’s bass lines, deep and embracing. This music is all about delivering the life-affirming spirit and wonder of Lerner and Loewe’s irresistible creations; it is a bundle of playful joy from start to finish.

It is also a treat to explore the music from a vocalist and composer who clearly treasures the stellar companionship of her band as much as her own vocal explorations. Singer, arranger and composer Susan Tobocman has released a new CD, Touch & Go” [Soliterra Records;] and exploring all if its wistful and swinging terrain is a joy on a quality audio system. From the opening deep bass/piano rumba driving Tobocman’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” to the swerving grooves of Tobocman’s original, “Make Believe”, there is fresh adventure with Tobocman’s improvisory playfulness and the superb companionship of her band: keyboardist Henry Hey (a creative presence throughout, unpredictable and fresh); guitarist Pete McCann (a marvel on his cool and vibrant strings); saxophonist Joel Frahm (delivering inspired grooves and churning, soulful heat); Matt Pavolka on his rich and vibrant bass; Dave Eggar on his radiant cello and Michael Sarin holding it all down with his fluid, propulsive engine. Tobocman’s vocals, lithe and expressive, float above this swashbuckling musical drama, her voice clarion and adventurous ensnaring the essence of each song with spunk and charm.

Tobocman is also a talented composer and arranger. Her original instrumentals on Touch & Go are a verdant landscape for her talented band to linger and stretch out. The band soaks up every chance to explore the creative nooks of Tobocman’s smart arrangements as on her swinging arrangement of “You Only Live Twice”, (taking the James Bond theme into rollicking new territory) or on her “I Could Get Used To This”, a bluesy walk on the pump of Frahm’s sax, Pavolka’s dapper bass and Sarin’s crisp cymbal hits. Her two delectable arrangements of the Beatles’ classic, “Help!” capture the beauty and verve of her writing. The first version is a quiet, cello-deep pool of soul with Tobocman’s stirring vocals lithe and restless. Her second version closes the album with fiery energy, power chords and vocal molten heat from this dynamic band – always looking for the next fresh moment to evolve in Tobocman’s creations.

Turning to a global canvas of shape-shifting beauty, we find the creation of dynamic pianist, composer and arranger, Ryan Cohan, who leads a stellar big band joined by the Kaia String Quartet in performance of his original compositions on the CD, Originations [Origin Records;]. This is music of open-eared exploration with a wide-open musical terrain where Arab melodies and rhythms meld with jazz and classical roots to inspire and beguile. The music allows capacious space for each musician to delight in their own instrument’s colors and textures to transform Cohan’s globe-spanning creation. The superb recording captures all of the diverse energy and dynamic contrasts in Cohan’s music with an up-front, crisp presence that delivers all the airy timbres and textures of this unique collective.

Ryan Cohan and Band – Steptempest

Each chapter of Originations contains surprising gifts of rhythmic beauty and melodic grace. Cohan’s inventions include soft shimmering ballads, such as his willowy “Heart,” propulsive and inviting on its dipping string caresses and the soaring colors of Tito Carrillo’s flugelhorn. The ensemble can also dance and soar, as on Cohan’s playful “Sabra” that swarms with staccato string lightness and teeming percussion, with Geof Bradfield’s pungent bass clarinet weaving its breathy, serpentine drama. “The Hours Before Dawn” evolves slowly on tremulous strings, plucky piano and the deep throb of bass clarinet alongside Michael Raynor and Omar Musfi’s rousing percussion. The prickly “Imaginary Lines” moves in quick pulses with John Wojciechowski’s clarinet nestled in Carrillo’s crisp trumpet calls. The adventure concludes with Cohan’s magnetic centerpiece, “Essence”, where a beautiful calm is followed by a dashing, dancing riot of instrumental colors. Here is a coiled blast of the blues, a pulse of a rhumba and a dash of bebop (in Wojciechowski’s playful flute solo) all dancing to Cohan’s sprawling vision. Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian – there are no borders to Cohan’s music: optimistic, rambunctious and flowing in its boundless quest for unity, light and dance.

The verve and beauty of Cohan’s music leads me to recommend one final CD in this latest roundup of audiophile quality recordings. This new classical gem is from another gifted composer, Jonathan Leshnoff, in his delectable exploration of the unique sounds created when a solo clarinet and bassoon join forces with a sparkling orchestra. Leshnoff’s Concerto For Clarinet and Bassoon is performed by the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by their Music Director, Manfred Honeck, and recorded on a new hybrid CD/SACD in sterling fashion by the recording team of Sound/Mirror in association with the Fresh! label of Reference Recordings [].

This recording gem (like so many other Reference Recordings) is a superlative example of how careful recording can bring the images of a full orchestra to vital life on a quality high-end audio system. Accompanying the notes to the recording, there is a photo of the Pittsburgh Orchestra on the stage of the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh. When one listens to this recording on a quality high end audio system, (like on the Goldmund, Seidenton, Ensemble audio system), each section of the orchestra is imaged precisely in proper position and height as they are pictured in their group photo. One can distinctly hear instruments layered in front or behind each other- a rare feat of recording. There is delight in hearing those clarion trumpets (positioned on low risers on the far-right of the Heinz stage) in all their regal glory. This is the essence of the audiophile thrill: to listen at home and re-create, as close as possible, the immersive experience of a live concert event.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Leshnoff’s Concerto For Clarinet and Bassoon, with this performance’s reveling soloists, clarinetist Michael Rusinek and bassoonist Nancy Goeres, is a questing piece taking full advantage of the spikey-sweet sounds of clarinet and bassoon in musical dialogue with a kinetic orchestra. Its three short movements offer trim, airy inventions that combine skittering melodies and runs (Leshnoff loves the sound of echoing ascending riffs that have clarinet and bassoon leaping in supple woody glow), with moments of soulful serenity. Leshnoff’s creation reminds me of the sunny and soulful music of another great American composer, Aaron Copland. I hear in Leshnoff’s inviting music elements of Copland’s open-hearted lyricism and an adventurous play with instrumental colors. Leshnoff leads his intrepid bassoon and clarinet creation into sprite new territory that both soothes the spirit and challenges the ear.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony also bring an immersive combination of soul and litheness to their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. This galloping and deeply moving piece sounds fresh and alive in the handsome timbres of the Pittsburgh’s string sections and in the bombastic crispness of the brass and horn sections that light up Heinz Hall with their regal, airy calls. Turn the volume up (with Reference Recordings their natural recording levels allow for this without compression), and hear how the Pittsburgh and Honeck mine each of Tchaikovsky’s stirring moments with deliberation and a great feel for momentum and pacing. Every nook and cranny of this majestic music is deeply explored in this performance. Highlights are many and include the beauty of the lithe curlicue motifs passed amongst the woodwinds in the First Movement; the dancing, resonant deep string pulses of the Second Movement and the Final Movement’s galloping rush of brass fury. Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece still delivers goose bumps and spiritual uplift as proven in this new Fresh! Pittsburgh Symphony recording that renews our spirits (bathed in its final trumpeting glory) for another day.

You can read more of Nelson’s concert reviews at

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