October 2008

Jon Faddis: Searching for Sonic Truth

Like all audiophiles, Jon Faddis can remember the exact moment he became one. It was 1971, he was 18, and he had just come east from Oakland, Calif., to New York to be the featured trumpet soloist in Lionel Hampton’s band. He moved in with Lew Soloff. (Lots of trumpet chops in that apartment.) Soloff owned a stereo system that was close to state-of-theart for its era. As Faddis remembers Soloff’s set-up, and rattles off the brands and model numbers, you can hear the fond nostalgia in his voice: “Lew had Bozak Concert Grand speakers with 14 drivers a side. The system was tri-amplified. There was a Crown DC300 solid-state amp on the bass, and two tube McIntosh 2105s on the midrange drivers and tweeters. The preamp was a Mac C-28, and the turntable was a Thorens.”

Faddis is slightly disappointed in himself that, from 1971, he doesn’t remember the phono cartridge. He says softly, “Lew and I used to sit up and listen to records until the wee hours. That system was something beautiful. It was just a revelation to me, the way it sounded.”

Both Faddis’ career in music and his own hi-fi systems have evolved upward since 1971. From trumpet prodigy beginnings, he became first-call studio musician, leader of in demand small ensembles, conductor of several important jazz orchestras and noted educator. He is currently the musical director of two big bands, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band). The latest recording in his large discography is 2006’s Teranga, on Koch.

He bought a stereo system right after he moved into his own place in Manhattan. (The real estate agent told him the apartment was soundproof. His new neighbors told him it was not.) “My first stuff was nothing special. I got a Marantz integrated amp. Later, I remember, I had an Analog Engineering Associates preamp and two Luxman 3045 tube monoblocks.” As Faddis reminisces, he seems to organize his personal history (as audiophiles tend to do) according to the gear he owned along the way. “In the late ’70s I had a Nakamichi 1000 cassette deck—one of my favorite components ever.” (Even now, many years after cassette technology has become irrelevant, Faddis’ voice reflects pride of ownership. In the ’70s, the “Nak” 1000 was the finest and, at around $1,000, most expensive cassette deck on the planet.)

The breakthrough into real high-end audio came with his purchase of a pair of B&W 801 Series III speakers in the late 1990s. He still owns them. “Of course, getting the 801s meant that I had to upgrade all my other components,” says Faddis. “I have a pair of Hafler Trans-Nova amps, a Cello Palette preamp, a Roksan turntable and a Meridian 506 CD player. I’ve tried a lot of different cables. Right now my speaker cables are TARA Labs.”

The fact that virtually every component in Faddis’ system is considered a classic says something about his taste. He explains why he has stayed with this combination: “I love the resolution. If it’s a bad record or one of those early digital CDs, that’s what you hear. If it’s a good record, that’s what you hear. A high priority for me is octave-to-octave balance. I want to hear the truth. If I listen to the Count Basie band on a really good system, like mine, it can almost approach what the band sounded like live. Most of the people I like to listen to unfortunately have passed on. Getting all I can from their records is really important to me.”

Considering that they are people who make a living crafting highly sophisticated sound, there are fewer jazz-musician audiophiles than you might expect. Two reasons are obvious: economics and space. High-end audio systems are expensive, and they often require more square footage than a Manhattan or Brooklyn flat can afford. But there are other, subtler, more elusive reasons. When you talk to jazz musicians about sound in general and audiophile sound in particular, you often encounter a paradoxical complex of attitudes including distrust, intimidation and resigned passivity. Roberta Piket, an excellent pianist (her latest album is Love and Beauty, on Thirteenth Note), is not an audiophile, but she is interested in the complicated relationships between working musicians and sound.

“I think a lot of players get frustrated about the whole sound thing,” she says. “Most live music takes place in clubs with mediocre sound systems. Jazz musicians rehearse acoustically a lot of the time. So musicians know what instruments are supposed to sound like, but they don’t hear it in clubs, and they often don’t hear it on CDs. If you don’t have a really good system, CDs can sound harsh. Then, on the flip side, some musicians are alienated because they think audiophiles won’t listen to a recording that is not audiophile quality, even if the music is great.” Faddis agrees that many musicians get frustrated: “They have the attitude, ‘Why are we doing a sound check? When we do the gig it’s going to sound totally different.’”

But Faddis believes musicians do themselves a major disservice by opting out of the sound issue. “I think musicians should take a more active role in their sound and what’s going to be presented to an audience, whether live or recorded,” he says. “When I do concerts with one of my big bands, at Carnegie Hall or in Chicago, I will go out into the audience to hear how the band sounds and talk with the sound engineer, to make sure that he gets a balance I’m happy with. A lot of times you go to a club or a session and the engineer will put up a generic mic for the trumpet. So I went and bought a Neumann U 89. Now I don’t leave home without it. It gives me the best chance to sound good.”

Faddis knows that owning a good home system gives a musician an advantage: “In a recording studio, you’re listening to this thing called studio monitors, and I’m not a big fan. They are lacking in ‘PRAT’—pace, rhythm and timing. When I did my last recording, Teranga, when I listened in the studio it would sound one way, but when I took it home and played it on my B&Ws, it would sound totally different. It was only by playing early mixes on my home system that I could tell things weren’t focused the way that I wanted.”

Faddis says that Teranga “is pretty much the first time that a record company has left me alone.” He was involved in every step of recording and mixing the session at Bennett Studios in Englewood, N.J., and mastering it at Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine. (The mastering studio, by the way, contained a pair of Eggleston Works Ivy Reference loudspeakers that profoundly impressed him.) “I am very happy with the final result,” says Faddis. When you play Teranga you hear why. It is a special album, both musically and sonically. It has that sense of truthful objectivity that Faddis calls “balance.” Instruments are clearly arrayed in a three-dimensional acoustic space. Faddis’ brilliant sonic signature on trumpet, his distinctive pronunciation, is vividly rendered.

Faddis’ passion for and involvement in sound have led him to a crucially important insight, one that too many musicians fail to understand. “The sound engineer is your cocomposer,” he says. The principle applies to both live performance and recording. The artistic achievement of Teranga is inseparable from its sonic immediacy. Faddis’ “co composer” at Bennett Studios was engineer Brian Dozoretz.

Michael Arnopol is another jazz musician/audiophile who has found that his knowledge of sound and his onstage and studio work are beneficially interdependent. He has been, for all practical purposes, Patricia Barber’s only bass player. Their association goes back to 1980, and he has been on every one of her albums, from Split, in 1989, to the new The Cole Porter Mix, on Blue Note. Arnopol’s bass contributes the nasty snap within Barber’s quartet. It anchors the floating smoky whisper of Barber’s vocal instrument.

It is not entirely coincidental that Arnopol has participated in some of the most renowned audiophile recordings ever made. Barber’s early albums on the Premonition label, like Cafe Blue and Nightclub, especially as reissued in SACD by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, are widely regarded as sonic masterpieces. They have been used as first-call demo material in hi-fi stores all over America. In the critical spectrum of bass, where Arnopol functions, they are stunningly deep and fast. They were engineered by Jim Anderson, with whom

Arnopol enjoys a relationship he describes as “symbiotic.” “The way Jim perceives bass, and the sound I want to get, work well together,” says Arnopol. “I want a dark, dark sound, with enough attack to put it through, but without any overhang.” Arnopol’s own system contains Inner-Sound Eros hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers with their own crossover/bass amplifier, a Parasound amplifier (“designed by one of the greats, John Curl”) for the electrostatic panels, and a preamp by Antique Sound Lab (“a Chinese company that makes incredible sounding tube gear”). His CD player is a modified Philips SACD1000, and his turntable is a Rega Planar 3. “A big priority for me has to be bass pitch definition,” he says. “But really, imaging is the ball game. I like to hear the whole width and depth of the soundstage. On my InnerSounds, if you listen to Steely Dan’s Aja, the background vocals are way to the left and right of the speakers. I just love that shit. I just feel that’s what stereo is all about.

“I love electrostatics. The original Quad ESL-63 is probably the best speaker ever made—at least from 100 to 10,000 hertz,” says Arnopol. “I’m much more insane about my live sound than about stereos. I always talk to the sound guys. Even onstage I can tell if there’s too much bass or there’s overhang. One of the great things that Jim Anderson did for me is that, previous to Jim, if I got a recorded sound as good as my live sound, I was a happy camper. But Jim got a recorded sound that I could never get as a live sound. When I heard it on my home system, I realized it was exactly what I want to be hearing. Jim helped me bring that out, so that’s kind of my Holy Grail. If I inch towards that, I’m happy.”

For all their obsessiveness, Faddis and Arnopol are relatively pragmatic, as audiophiles go. Both love vinyl, but not to the point of disowning digital. Faddis travels with an iPod. (“I love the portability. You can take it anywhere.”) In the studio, Arnopol always insists on hearing a track or two played back on a boombox—presumably in deference to Patricia Barber fans with limited disposable incomes.

But for the most part, audiophile passion is a quest for The Absolute. (Faddis finds the iPod sonically acceptable only because he replaces the standard iPod earbuds with his beloved, trusted reference headphones, Sennheiser HD650s, and he bypasses the iPod output stage with a $600 iQube headphone amp.) Inevitably, quests for The Absolute for what Arnopol calls “the Holy Grail”—have a way of running smack into practical considerations. Faddis fantasizes, if not about those Eggleston Works Ivy Reference speakers at Gateway Mastering (which cost as much as two really nice cars), then perhaps about an entry-level pair of Egglestons (which only cost as much as one fairly nice car). But he also reports that currently his wife is very focused on new windows for their home. Arnopol sounds almost forlorn when he muses, “You know what I’d really like to get? Those new Quads, ESL-2905s. But … they’re about 12 grand, I think.”

And what of Lew Soloff’s classic vintage system from the Golden Age of hi-fi? He still owns it. He still loves it. It’s in storage. It went into storage when Soloff moved into a studio apartment in Manhattan.

What does Soloff listen to now, you ask? The question was put to him, and his answer will bring tears to the eyes of audiophiles everywhere. Reluctantly, with deep chagrin, he admitted, “Well, nothing at the moment. I have a Brookstone $200 system still in a shopping bag waiting to be set up.”

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