Dyad Plays Puccini (CD review)

Lou Caimano, alto saxophone; Eric Olsen, piano. Ringwood Records.

Mixing jazz with classical is not new. The Jacques Loussier Trio, for instance, have been doing it for the better part of the last fifty years. Besides, audiophiles love the idea because they mostly listen to jazz and classical, anyhow, two genres most often heard live unamplified and, therefore, best to make comparisons in the quality of home playback equipment. So, here we have the jazz duo Dyad--Lou Caimano, alto sax and Eric Olsen, piano--playing music of Italian operatic composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924).

OK, Puccini may be the stretch. It’s maybe easier to imagine jazz arrangements of Stravinsky, even Verdi, than the bold lyricism of Puccini. Yet Caimano and Olsen do their best and come up looking for the most part pretty good. Just don’t expect as much classical as jazz. While Dyad begin with some of Puccini’s most-famous melodies, the tunes themselves tend quickly to get lost amidst all the lively riffing. What we get is not quite classical laced with a little jazz as it is jazz laced with a little classical.

Whatever, the music is still fun and extremely well played, so who cares how we define it. Whether it will please all classical fans or all jazz afficionados, however, is another question.

A little on the matter of the duo’s name: The word Dyad derives from the Greek, meaning “two” or “a pair.” That makes sense, given there are two musicians involved.  Dyad was also a word the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras applied not only to the number two but to matter itself. Well, for sure, the musical pair Dyad do matter. They make some beautiful sounds together; and maybe credit Olsen’s wife, an operatic soprano, with coming up with the album’s theme in the first place. She commented to her husband that the sound of Caimano’s alto saxophone reminded her of an opera singer, and, thus came about Dyad Plays Puccini.

You can hear a brief snippet of the opening number below, “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme. The waltz has a nice, bouncy cadence; Caimano's sax glides effortlessly; and Olsen's piano (a 127-year-old Steinway B grand) provides a sympathetic accompaniment.

"Ch'ella mi credo" from La Fanciulla del West is perhaps a better illustration of Puccini's lyrical style, and Caimano's sax here really does sound as though it's "singing." It's among the loveliest tracks on the disc.

Next, we get the Act I Overture to Madama Butterfly, and while it's not quite as effective in communicating Puccini's grand operatic style, it does offer a comely upbeat interlude. After that is "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme, one of Puccini's most recognizable melodies. However, taken out of its operatic context, I'm not entirely sure it works as well as some of the other tunes Dyad play. It seems a tad forced, as though Caimano and Olsen are trying too hard to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Still, there's much to enjoy, including the soulful alto sax and the sometimes playful piano interplay.

And so it goes through the album's ten selections, some hits, some near misses. "In quelle trine morbide" from Manon Lescaut comes off sweetly; “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi again seems a touch labored and not quite soaring enough; and "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly presents some of the nicest interplay between the sax and piano on the program.

The standout on the set for me, though, was “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. It clearly bridges the gap between opera and jazz, thanks in large part for its playing it straighter than most of the other songs. It's less an outright jazz interpretation and more an operatic transcription (and a very good one) that conveys the tragedy of the opera.

The final two numbers are "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from La Rondine, a pleasant, lightweight affair that gets a bit rowdy toward the end; and the ubiquitous "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, in which Dyad make a good stab at jazzing up a perennial favorite with uncertain results. I liked the Eastern overtones it supplies, with a prominent part for Olsen's piano work; yet it doesn't always catch fire or exhibit Puccini's noble, imposing scope.

Still, this is enjoyable album, filled with grace and poise, that kept me fascinated for its duration. If I have any minor criticisms, it's that I missed having track timings on the packaging (they're printed on the disc itself, but what good is that while you're playing the disc); and I missed an enclosed booklet of notes (there are only a couple of paragraphs printed on the Digipak container).

Lou and Eric produced the album themselves with the help of audio engineer Philip Ludwig, recording it at the Ridgewood Conservatory, Ringwood, New Jersey in July, 2012. The sound is maybe the best part of the show. The engineer has miked it at just the right distance to produce a natural, realistic effect, the musicians appearing slightly recessed behind the speakers instead up-close and in your face. Detailing is lifelike, too, yet smooth and resonant, with a good sense of the room in which they're playing. Dynamics, frequency response, impact, air, and general transparency are all equally fine.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa