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As Music Fans Where Do We Sit With Pono?

Pono Player

With over $4,000,000 raised in kickstarter funding over seven days, the last week has seen the rise and rise of Neil Young's new music player Pono - or at least the notion of it. But whilst this concept of high quality music on the go seems initially well supported, questions are starting to surface about the product.

I have to admit that the first time I watched the Pono trailer, with it's home movie approach to documenting the reaction of the musical great and good, I was completely taken in. It is a very clever piece of footage; there are no high definition shots or expensive studio settings, just our musical hero's in a variety of mundane locations discussing this revolution in sound. 

The questions then, seem to be in the detail. Pono is a portable music device designed to play high quality FLAC files which will be sold from the companies online store. All seems fine so far, until we consider that Pono are offering these high quality FLAC files in varying resolution (dependent on the quality of the available master recordings):

  • CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
  • High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files 
  • Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files 
  • This raises three scenarios. Either all albums are priced the same and some are better quality than others. Record's with better quality master files available are more expensive. Or, and it should be noted that I am speculating here, a pricing structure will come into play - making downloading your favourite album a lot less enjoyable; Do you opt for the 1411 Kbps file (guaranteed 6 times more audible information than MP3) or pay extra and go for the 9216 kbps version (30 times more audible information than MP3), and if Pono is about obtaining the best sounding music why give us the option to compromise on that ethos?

    Elsewhere on pricing, the pono tech video presented by Pedram Abrari (SVP Technology & Engineering) shows us a snapshot of the store in which albums are priced at $17.98 (£11.92). Compare that with the $9.99 that iTunes offer the same album's for and there is a sizeable gulf between the two providers.

    A Snapshot of the Pono Store

    Pono seems to be based on a 'You get what you pay for' attitude, and the device, like all quality products, looks as if it is going to take some considerable personal investment. Before you write the venture off though, just step back and consider how nice it is to have a music product pitched at people to really enjoy music on, rather than making listening a bi-product of commutes or gym sessions.

    The startup certainly has its fair share of high profile backers, and with one of the most iconic singer/songwriters of all time at the helm, it is little wonder that so many have engaged with Pono so quickly. Despite concerns I remain with Neil on this one, and I love the idea of looking back in ten years and grimacing at the concept of ever having listened to something as compressed as an MP3.



    OKO: I Love You Computer Mountain

    The above OKO press shot keeps you guessing. At first glance this mismatched quartet of scruffy Irish instrumentalists offer little in the way of implied imagery; there is nothing to suggest what they do, no uniformed image, no symbolic backdrop, not even a full set of instruments. Granted the inclusion of a keyboard may offer some insight into their sound, but this is directly contradicted by the ukulele - an instrument which does not feature on their records. With such disregard for aesthetics It would seem that OKO are happy to let their music do the talking for them, a notion evidenced by their latest release I Love You Computer Mountain, which speaks louder than any ultra-photoshopped press shot could.

    The record sees the quartet journey through a series of skeletal compositions, utilising their significant instrumental ability to improvise and embellish along the way. It's an album packed full of synthesized sounds and manipulated instruments, but importantly it knows where it faces overkill and the band reign it in accordingly. In fact the use of sounds heard on the record makes for a really interesting listen; from high frequency melodic bleeps to full baritone dubstep-esque runs, there is enough variation to retain interest whilst tackling some tricky soundscapes. Elsewhere the grooves on the album pitch themselves at alternative rock, but alter where necessary to provide a varied sense of pulse which is so integral to the OKO sound.

    This is an album for sound lovers, a truly exploratory excursion which leaves any notion of limitation in its wake. I Love You Computer Mountain will be released through Diatribe Records on March 21st.



    March Brings About The Two Most Perplexing Videos Of The Year

    The general consensus of the British public seems to be that March has gotten off to a bizarre start. Eight days in and a host of political, environmental and artistic curve balls have left us all in a state of social purgatory. On one hand the weather seems to have concluded that it's stance on copious levels of rain fall has become untenable, with steady glimmers of sunshine emerging through fractures in a stubborn grey sky. Elsewhere though, stories of BBC funding cuts and a growing deficit in English football have been dwarfed by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine - a matter in which I am not nearly educated or brave enough to comment on. 

    So who do we look to in these uncertain times? Where the imminent capitulation of a rain cloud could drag our national mood back into the mire, or the apprehensive twitch of a trigger finger could spark war. I personally find solace in the music of my favourite artists, a set of creative's whose output is an enjoyable constant amidst a world of unpredictability. Therefore I was thrilled with the news that new videos from both Bristol quartet 'Get The Blessing' and London favourites 'Polar Bear' were on their way. These, I was sure, would set me on the path to relaxation.

    I was wrong.

    In fact these are two of the most curiously eccentric videos you are likely to see all year... I'm back to square one.



    New Kit Downes Music Previews Upcoming Album 'Trickotareco'

    There are few more exciting opportunities for me to reflect upon how far we've come with Jazz Shaped than an email from pianist Kit Downes. The 2010 mercury prize nominee was one of the first people that I interviewed when starting this site, and the pull of his name attracted enough readers to breathe valuable life into the blog. Since that first meeting Downes has further established himself as a stalwart of the British jazz circuit; a fantastic musician Involved with a growing number of reputable projects - the latest of which was detailed in his email.

    Kit has spent the last 10 months putting together new material for cello,piano and organ, producing a set of tunes that will be played by himself and cellist Lucy Railton. The duo are set to record a full album throughout 2014 but have just released 'Alliri', the promising first fruit born of this exciting new collaboration. With its stripped back style and haunting melodic phrase that lingers throughout, 'Alliri' suggests somewhat of a departure for a pianist that we are used to hearing in larger ensembles. It certainly is a move away from anything we've heard Kit embark on before, but moments of brilliant unison and wildly varied dynamics ensure that any unfamiliar musical territory is met with intrigue over apprehension.

    The piece is a great indication of the project to come, and I can't wait to hear more from a different side of Kit.


    Also check out Kit's interview with Marlbank about the project here.


    Neil Cowley Trio Announce New Studio Album With A New Direction

    Neil Cowley Trio

    It will not come as a surprise to regular readers that the band to drag me from my dissertation and back into the blog is The Neil Cowley Trio. I have long been an admirer of their work; that punchy melodic phrasing and energetic delivery style is synonymous with the majority of instrumental music that I enjoy, but these guys do it with an edge. They're a different prospect to other jazz trios, an outfit of endearing misfits fronted by a braces wearing, classically trained prodigy - one who signifies their inability to conform by stamping his Dr Martins' into the floor and balancing a toy dinosaur on his piano during live shows. They're as individual musically as aesthetically, and although their back catalogue shows the progression of a hook-centered take on jazz music, it has been just that - a development on a winning formula.

    It seems that the band have reached a new phase though, preparing to address the softer, more gentle side of what they do. A statement released last week gave details on their next studio record and explained that 'Gone are the familiar hook laden tunes and pounding crescendos, replaced, in the main, by shifting, expansive melodies and longer elegant passages'. The statement also suggests that this record is the bravest of their career, a notion that I'd have to agree with considering their association with such a defining sound.

    So why this change? Perhaps the soul of their lead composer has gradually softened through fatherhood, I know they're big cricket fans - could the record be a solemn interpretation of England's ashes campaign this summer? We can speculate all we want but it would perhaps be more relaxing to sit back and await the arrival of the wiser, more sophistocated Neil Cowley Trio mark II.

    Touch and Flee will be released through Naim Jazz on June 9th.