Wednesday, February 3, 2016

2015 GS Mini-E Mahogany Acoustic Guitar Review

Hello!

I have spent a lot of time trying out travel guitars, and have played everything that Martin and Taylor have to offer. A while back I picked upa mahogany-topped GS Mini-e acoustic, and thought it was about time that I shared the results with the world.

Taylor guitars are fantastic instruments, and though the sound of their full-sized guitars is not my cup of tea, they have untold numbers of devotees that will say that I am full of it (and maybe I am). Most Taylor guitars are built in their San Diego, California factory, but some of their lower-priced instruments are built just across the border in Tecate, Mexico. These include the 100 and 200 series instruments, as well as the Baby Taylor and the GS Mini models.

For a travel guitar the GS Mini is awfully big -- most parlor and travel guitars are called ¾-sized guitars, and I call this one 7/8-sized. It has a 23.5-inch scale, and it measures almost 5 inches deep with a 15 inch wide body. For me, this disqualifies it as an airline travel guitar.

But, the Taylor GS Mini is a nice instrument, and it has a definite role to play in the musical world. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at how this thing is put together.

GS Minis are available with either a spruce or a tropical mahogany top, and I chose the one with the solid mahogany top. The top has X braces to keep everything together while still allowing it to vibrate well. The back and sides are made with a sapele laminate, which ends up looking like mahogany to me. The body has a tasteful black and while purfling, a simple rosette and a tortoise shell pickguard. The whole this has an even coating of matte-finish varnish.

The neck and heel are also made of sapele, and the fretboard is hewn from ebony, which is surprising on a guitar at this price point. The nut is a bit narrow at 1 11/16 inches width, but combining this with the shallow V profile of the neck you end up with a guitar that is nice for those with smaller hands. There are 20 frets standard-sized Taylor frets, and you will find 14 of them free from the body. The headstock has a simple overlay with a screen printed logo, and sealed-back chrome tuners. They are unbranded, but seem to be good quality, and they hold tune well between practice sessions.

The craftsmanship is up to Taylor’s high standards, with an even finish and a truly terrific job with the fretwork. The Tusq nut and compensated bridge are perfect, and this GS Mini came out of the box with a surprisingly playable low action with the OEM Elixir medium gauge Nanoweb strings.

Playability is also top-notch, taking into account the narrower neck, which makes fingerstyle a little more difficult for clumsy chaps like myself. This is a very easy to play instrument. This one came with a slightly higher action, so it was easier to dig in and I really like the way it plays.

The sound is amazingly big for a smaller guitar, living up to the GS in its name (Grand Symphony). This is helped by the big soundhole and the rounded back, the shape of which eliminates the need for back bracing. Of course the bass is not terribly thunderous, but it certainly has an even tone across the strings when playing with light to medium intensity.

The sound is big, and is a bit more sterile than the spruce top model. It lacks the warmth that I like in my little Martin, and it definitely sounds better plugged in, which is where the “-e” in the model name comes from.

The electronics package for the GS Mini-e is the Taylor ES-T system. This is an under-saddle transducer with individual elements for each string. The onboard preamp is powered by a 9-volt battery, with a battery life LED power indicator (which is lit when the battery is being used). The pickup also has a phase switch for feedback control, which is located on the preamp board inside the soundhole. It has a very clean and natural sound, and I have not run into any problems with feedback as I have experimented with it.

In case you were wondering, these guitars ship in a surprisingly sturdy padded soft case. Like all Taylor soft cases, it is that terrible tan color than gets dirty as soon as it comes out of the factory shipping box. It does a nice job of protecting the guitar, though

So, where does the Taylor GS Mini E fit in if it is too big to take on the plane? Well, it would still be great for a car trip, or if you have to lug your guitar around on the subway or bus. But where it really works is as a modern day parlor guitar. Its small size makes it great for kicking around the house, and as I said it would be a good guitar for smaller people. If you set it up with light gauges strings, it would be a great instrument for lucky kids and beginners.

The Taylor GS Mini has a list price of $828 and a street price of $629, which includes the aforementioned gig bag. Though I do not consider it to be the world’s greatest travel guitar, it is a very nice instrument that would be great for smaller-statured players, or for general playing around the house of campfire. Try one out, and see for yourself!

Mahalo!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Chris Bergson Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Hello!

This CD review was originally published in the August 28, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Chris Bergson Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Innsbruck Records

www.chrisbergson.com

www.innsbruckrecords.com

15 tracks / 62:45

It is not hard to find a great blues or rock guitarist, and tracking down a good singer and front man is a little harder, but they are out there. Songwriting clinics crank out more than enough new writers every week, and some of them can actually pen really nice tunes. But, finding a talented guitarist that is also an effective leader, singer, and songwriter is not an easy task, which makes Chris Bergson a true find!

Bergson is a New York City native who has lived in the tri-state area for his whole life, and who has been recording his music for the past 20 years. Chris’ playing has deep roots, and he is more than proficient in all genres of music, and he is even a faculty member of NYC’s 92Y (serving the community for 140 years), teaching jazz, rock and blues guitar. He has worked and played with the big names in the business, including B.B. King, Etta James, Norah Jones, The Band’s Levon Helm, and Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. He has recorded six studio albums, including the award-winning Fall Changes and Imitate the Sun.

This time around the Chris Bergson Band gives up a dose of their stage show with Live at Jazz Standard. This New York City club has been his home base for the past 10 years, and he drew these 15 tracks from two shows last summer. His usual four-piece group was up front, including Chris on vocals and guitars, Craig Dreyer on keys, Matt Clohesy on bass and Tony Leone behind the drum kit. They were joined on these gigs by the fine horn section of Ian Hendrickson-Smith and David Luther on sax, and Grammy winner Freddie Hendrix on trumpet. Roman Klun recorded and mixed this CD, and acted as co-producer with Bergson.

The first track on the disc is “Greyhound Station” and the band opens strong. Even though the club is called Jazz Standard and Chris was appointed the U.S. Jazz Ambassador by the Kennedy Center, this show is nothing but killer funky blues. After the guitar-heavy intro Bergson launches into the vocals and he belts them out convincingly with harmonies courtesy of Tony Leone. Chris also tears out a hard-hitting solo and lead licks throughout. This is one of the seven songs he co-wrote with his wife, Kate Ross – in fact this album was mostly written by Bergson, with eight all-new songs, and five older tunes that have been extensively remodeled.

After the horn-heavy “Mr. Jackson” (with horn arrangements by Jay Collins) the band is joined by special guest vocalist Ellis Hooks for “The Only One.” Hooks’ glorious voice pairs well with Bergson’s, and there is a Sam and Dave good times vibe at work here. The backline of Clohesy and Leone is spot-on but never goes over the top as this show is all about the songs, and the musicians are there to help tell the story, not to show off.

There is a touching moment as Chris puts Tennessee Williams’ poem “Heavenly Grass” to music. He plays a mean delta-style acoustic guitar against a sparse backdrop of bass, drums and just enough Wurlitzer of Craig Dreyer. This slow roller features extended solos from Bergson and Dreyer and is a nice partner to the next track, the soulful and inspirational “High Above the Morning.”

The two non-originals on Live at Jazz Standard are the harmony-heavy traditional “Corinna” and Ronnie Shannon’s “Baby, I Love You.” The latter is an instrumental that allows Bergson to spit out sharp lead licks on his guitar over the punctuation provided by the ultra tight horn section. The vocals leading up to this point were so compelling that the musicians were appropriately playing a supporting role, and it is nice to hear the band cut loose a little!

The heavy funk of “Christmas in Bethlehem, PA” makes sure that this is nothing like any holiday song you have heard before. Dreyer’s 1970s organ sound, Bergson’s processed guitar and Leone’s massive snare set the stage for Hendrix, who channels his inner Maynard Ferguson. The lyrics are full of hard luck and longing, and Chris sings them with all of his heart.

The final two cuts on the album are “The Bungler” and “Gowanus Heights,” both Bergson/Ross songs from his acclaimed breakthrough album from 2008, Fall Changes. Listening to these cuts is a reminder of what a well recorded, mixed and mastered album this is. The sound is clear, no instrument or voice seems too loud or soft, and there is a logical progression to the songs with natural sounding breaks in between. Kudos go out to Klun for his recording and mixing, and to Chris Gehringer for his mastering work – professionals like these guys make all the difference in the world.

Live at Jazz Standard is a fine piece of work from Chris Bergson, providing a realistic overview of his career to date, and it is much more relevant than any “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” album could be. Most artists would be content to rehash old stuff, but the Chris Bergson Band stepped up and provided more than enough new material for their old fans to enjoy. For those who were not fans before, this disc will convert them into believers and it may convince them to seek out his catalogue and maybe even inspire them to catch a live show the next time they are in New York City!

Mahalo!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fender Japan JB75B-100US Jazz Bass Review

Hiya!

I have always been a big fan of Fender of Japan, and today we are looking at one of their 1975 re-issue Fender Jazz Basses, model JB75B-100US. This model was never intended to be exported into the United States, and my friend Bruce in Tokyo found it for me. This is a fairly recent example, though later ones have been hard to date, as the serial number prefixes do not seem to mean much anymore. I figure it is around 5 years old, for what it is worth.

A casual look might lead you to believer that this is a Geddy Lee artist model, as it is a black Jazz with a black blocked and bound neck, but it is not. It has a conventional bridge, no signature on the back of the headstock, and a normal profile neck. It also has US pickups that are a definite upgrade from the Geddy models I have owned and played.

I have been unable to find specifications on this model, but chances are good that the body is alder, though ash is a possibility as this thing is the heaviest bass I have ever owned. Really – it comes in at over 13 pounds!

The original black poly finish is almost perfect, and there are no signs of playwear. The bound neck and frets are also in great shape, and the frets are level and well finished on the edges. The neck pocket fit is tight, and this is one of the cases where the fit and finish of Fender Japan instruments is indeed better than the US-made ones. With its full-sized chrome tuners, this one has just the right look and it is a doppelganger for Geddy’s 72 Jazz that he picked up from a pawnshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan for $200.

It plays absolutely killer, and sounds incredible. It far outshines any of the Geddy Lee Artist Model basses I have seen and played. These are hard to come by, and I have never seen on in the states. If you are looking for a good Jazz Bass, it would be worth importing one of these. Just be sure that you ask how much it weighs first.

Mahalo!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Joe Caro and the Met Band – Live in New York City

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the August 21, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Joe Caro and the Met Band – Live in New York City | Album Review

www.joecaroandthemetband.com

Innsbruck Records

www.innsbruckrecords.com

10 tracks / 78:27

Even if you have never heard of Joe Caro, if you are a fan of most any genre of music there is a good chance that you have listened to his work before. He is one of New York City’s most in-demand session and touring guitarists, and he took up the instrument when he was eight after seeing the Beatles on TV. He is well versed in blues and jazz, but he has worked with huge pop and rock artists, with credits that include Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Eagles, Stanley Clarke, Bobby McFerrin, Bon Jovi and Clint Black.

But Caro is also an inspirational bandleader, having formed BFD with Late Night’s Will Lee and drummer Steve Ferrone and subsequently tearing up the New York club scene. This group made a name for itself by featuring storied guest artists such as Pat Metheny, Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and the Brecker brothers. And more recently he fronted the Met Band who gigged every Tuesday at the Metropolitan CafĂ© over a period of eight years.

Joe Caro and the Met Band’s new release, Live in New York City, was recorded at Drom, which is the epicenter of music in the East Village. His line-up for this show was truly an all-star list of players that included Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff on trumpet, Anton Fig on drums, Blue Lou Marini on the sax, Clifford Carter behind the keyboards and Conrad Korsch on bass. Of course Caro played the guitar and handled the vocals, but he was also the co-producer of this project, along with Roman Klun who took on the recording, mixing and mastering chores.

This album has a wonderful blend of modern blues that makes for a pleasurable listening experience, and it is a joy to hear professional musicians who are at the top of their game. The often-covered “Labor of Love” by Tim Kaihatsu kicks off the set and these guys nail it. Joe’s voice is clear and strong, but this cut is not about the lyrics as each member gets the opportunity to show their chops. After hearing all of the solos it is apparent that this is a very well recorded show as the level is even for the voice and each instrument, and the overall sound is as clear as a bell. Klun did a fabulous job here!

Next up is a killer Denise LaSalle song from 1975, “Someone Else is Stepping In.” It is awesome that 40 years later her lyrics are so convincing that it is easy to picture her new way of wearing his hair now that she is a brand-new woman. Korsch holds down a fat bass foundation on this 10+ minute track with some help from Carter on the organ and Letterman’s Anton Fig on the drums. This one is considerably more complicated than the usual 12-bar blues, and as things move on the listener is treated to an extended guitar solo from Caro as well a trumpet battle between Brecker and Soloff.

Caro penned five of the songs that the band played on this evening, and the first of these is “In the Name of God,” which holds up examples of the excuses that people make for the terrible things they do. This blues song has pop undertones, but also a heavy dose of jazz and the horn section is up to the complicated arrangements. This is followed up by another original: “Upper East Side Blues,” a song of modern worries that hits too close to home in these troubled times. It has a cool layout, as it is a fairly traditional five-minute slow blues song with a six-minute rumba/fusion instrumental interlude in the middle.

An unexpected entry on the set list is a beautiful instrumental version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Strawberry Fields” from the Beatle’s 1967 Magical Mystery Tour album. Caro takes the melody with his guitar, and uses effects to create different textures and feels. Though this is rock, Carter’s piano work lends it a jazz feel, and it all comes together well here. This ends up being the best cover tune of the bunch, which is a tough call because there are also fine versions of Ray Charles’ “Mary Ann” (complete with a sexy Latin beat and a lurid back story) and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son.”

One of the standout tracks on Live in New York City is another original, “Love Don’t Bother Me,” a funky rocker which is pretty much a drum solo with a song happening on top of it. The band stays tight throughout despite huge swings in tempo and dynamics, making this an exciting listening experience. But it is not fair to call out a favorite, because there is not a bad song on this disc.

After the final song ends (appropriately titled “Going Home”) it seems like a shame that 78 minutes have already passed and there is nothing else coming. It is undeniable that Live in New York City is an excellent album, and it captures the energy and refined talent that Joe Caro and the Met Band brings to the stage. It would be a fine addition to most anyone’s CD collection, but after a listen it will also make you want to track down one of their live shows. At this point it looks like you will have to go to New York City to see them, but their website says there are plans for a tour. Stay tuned!

Mahalo!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Epiphone E212T Sheraton Union Jack Electric Guitar Review

Aloha!

Today we are looking at another great guitar value, and a pretty fun to play instrument – my Epiphone Sheraton that is painted up like the Union Jack.

In the first half of the 20th century, Epiphone was one of Gibson’s biggest competitors, so Gibson did the smart thing – they bought Epiphone in 1957. Gibson kept the brand name and started re-working the product line-up. In 1958 they introduced the thinline semi-hollowbody Sheraton electric guitar.

The original Sheraton was a set-neck twin-pickup model that used the same body as the new Gibson ES models. The big differences were the “Frequensator” tailpiece, multi-ply body binding and lots of inlay work on the headstock and fretboard. The pickups on the originals were New York single-coils.

As time went on there were specification changes, of course. In 1961 mini-humbucker pickups were swapped in and Grover tuners were added, and in 1962 the Epiphone “Trem-o-tone” tailpiece became available.

In 1970 manufacturing was moved to Japan, and full-sized humbuckers became the new standard for the Sheraton. In 1986 the Sheraton II was launched, with a stop-bar tailpiece being the only real change. As time moved on, production moved to Korea, with minor spec changes here and there.

So, the guitar I have was made in China last year, and it was finished by the factory in a gaudy Union Jack paint scheme over Alpine White. It has a laminated maple body and top with a mahogany center block (making it semi-hollowbody), and it is churched-up with single-ply white body binding.

The neck is mahogany,and it has a normal 24.75-inch scale. The 12-inch radius fretboard is bound, and it has 22 medium-jumbo frets hammered into it, as well as v-block pearloid fret markers. The neck profile is a 1960s profile SlimTaper C with a 1.68-inch wide nut.

The headstock is pretty darned big, 3-ply bound, and it has the traditional Epiphone vine of life inlay. Grover tuners are mounted to that headstock, and they are gold-plated, as is the LockTone Tune-o-matic bridge. There is no pickguard...

The electronics package includes a pair of Gibson USA mini humbuckers that are wired through two volume knobs, two tone knobs, and a 3-way selector switch. Did you expect anything different? I didn’t think so…

It is a lot heavier than expected, coming in at 8 pounds, 11 ounces, but it balances well on a strap so maybe that extra bulk prevents neck dive. It is a very easy playing guitar with a good action, and the frets are better than anything that is coming out of Gibson’s Memphis factory. It has good sustain and can achieve a sweetly mellow jazz tone, or can get some bite going for rockabilly or early rock and roll.

I like this Epiphone Sheraton a lot – it looks good, plays well and sounds good, enough so that I feel that it is just as good as a Gibson ES-whatever for a whole lot less money. How much less? These things have a list price a list price of $1349.00 and a street price of around 900 bucks, which includes Epiphone’s lifetime limited warranty, Gibson’s 24/7/360 customer service, and a really nice hard case. Or if you are really cheap, secondhand instruments can be had for around $600. Such a deal!

Mahalo!

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: John Mayall – A Special Life

Hello!

This CD review was originally published in the August 14, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

John Mayall – A Special Life

Forty Below Records

www.johnmayall.com

www.fortybelowrecords.com

11 tracks / 44:17

It seems like John Mayall needs no introduction, but there may be a few folks out there that have never heard of the Godfather of British Blues. Maybe they do not know that over the past 50 years he has led the ever-changing members of The Bluesbreakers, which has included other legends such as Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Taylor. Or that in the late 1960s he moved to Los Angeles and never missed a beat as he continued to spread his blue and rock, but this time with a progressive path that took his blues and rock to another level.

John’s work has resulted in over 50 albums to date, and he has played with every blues artist of note while touring nearly endlessly. It appeared that Mayall was hanging up his hat in 2008 when he announced that The Bluebreakers were calling it quits, but that was not the case. Luckily for us he could not sit still and in 2009 he put together a righteous band that in just a few short days cut Tough, a terrific album that spawned a new series of tours.

Mayall’s latest effort, A Special Life, picks up where his last album left off and it is hard to believe that there has been a 5-year dry spell since he last cut a new record. It is a blessing that many of the same personnel have returned, as they are as tight of a crew that a frontman could hope for. This leaner band is made up of Texan Rocky Athas on guitar and Chicagoans Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport behind the drum kit. John was the producer for this project, as well as taking on the vocals, piano, organ, harmonica, and clavinet. Once again, the album only took a few days to record, and it impossible to tell as it is a nicely-produced disc that benefitted from the toils of co-producer, engineer and mixer, Eric Corne.

The first track features special guest C.J. Chenier on accordion and vocals, and this is particularly apt as “Why Did You Go Last Night” was originally written and recorded by C.J.’s father, Clifton Chenier, the Zydeco legend. Mayall used to do this song back when Jack Bruce was in The Bluesbreakers, and it is definitely more blues than Cajun as Chenier belts out his vocals over John’s honkytonk piano stylings.

This is followed up by the straightforward blues rocker, “Speak of the Devil,” which was penned by former Mayall guitarist Sonny Landreth. This version is a bit faster than the original, and we get to hear that John still has a powerful voice as he holds his own again the blazing guitar of Rocky Athas. Davenport and Rzab nail a tight beat under their leader’s Hammond organ chords, and this song turns out as slick as can be. These guys having been touring together for the past few years, so it should be no surprise that they are still in sync. After this, John lets his harmonica fly as he honks out Jimmy Rogers’ classic, “That’s All Right.”

It is true that Mayall has nurtured generations of guitarists, but we have to remember that he is no slouch behind the fretboard either. John takes the lead guitar parts on Albert Kings’ “Floodin’ in California” and on the title track and he plays with poignancy and an artist’s touch. Any blues band out there would be happy to have him sit in on guitar!

John Mayall wrote four of the songs on A Special Life including a re-do of “Heartache” which originally appeared on his 1965 debut album. But his newer songs are stronger yet as he looks into things that are more current to him. The subjects include our terrible political climate in “World Gone Crazy” and the blessings and curses of his career in “A Special Life”. Of course he would not be the Godfather if he did not crank out a broken-hearted blues song, and “Just a Memory” fits this role perfectly, albeit with jazz-influenced piano. This slow-rolling song is powerful, and turns out to be a fitting way to end the album.

A Special Life shows that John Mayall is still able to bring out the best in a talented band, and that he has not been resting on his laurels. It is a well-crafted and personal effort and we can only hope that it will not be another five years before he hits the studio again. In the meantime, check John’s website for details of his North American and European 80th birthday celebration tour, which will certainly be worth your time!

Mahalo!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Glenn Frey: November 6, 1948 to January 18, 2016

Rest in peace, Glenn. You will be missed.