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AXPONA 2024: Jeff Wilson on Music

jeff wilson axpona 2024

At the 2024 AXPONA there were, if I heard correctly, around 220 rooms where music played on high-end systems. That’s a lot of equipment and a lot of music. Obviously what happens in those rooms is the main focus of the event, offering audiophiles an opportunity to actually listen to equipment they read about but seldom get a chance to hear.

That’s not the only reason people attend AXPONA, however. That fact became clear the minute the event officially started, when people filed into the Record Fair at 10 am on Friday morning on a quest for vinyl. A lot of records sold that morning, and they continues to sell all weekend. Some record collectors were trying to get their hands on limited edition new releases that evaporated in the first few hours, and there are also those albums collectors are surprised to see in the boxes because they assumed they were officially out of print—or at least I did. I seemed to recall Ferit Odman’s all-analog vinyl LP Dameronia with Strings quickly going out of print some years ago, but somehow one showed up in a box on Friday. I already owned a copy, but after I gushed about the album to one of the dealers (and it is great, if you can get your hands on a copy) the record collector standing next to me expressed interest in it. He won’t be disappointed.

So yes, there was all sorts of vinyl at the event. Music Direct, Analogue Productions, Elusive Disc, and Direct Audio all filled long tables with boxes of new vinyl, offering record collectors a great opportunity to stock up on audiophile LPs as well as general titles. When I returned on the second day, I noticed some boxes that were nearly empty. “Did you sell all those?” I asked a dealer. His answer: “Yes. We should have brought more jazz.”

That exchange reminded me of one reason I like audiophiles. In the general marketplace, jazz hovers around two percent of overall sales. It’s been that way a long time, and unless Taylor Swift decides to start singing standards it’ll probably stay that way. In the audiophile community, however, jazz fares much better than it does with most listeners. Partly jazz sells so well in the audiophile community because there’s a clarity to a good jazz recording that brings out the best in a stereo. It isn’t only about sound, though. The popularity of archival recordings—which very rarely have audiophile sound—remind us that, when it comes to certainly jazz icons, audiophiles with listen to substandard recordings because they love the music.

Along with new vinyl, there was a significant uptick in used vinyl at the 2024 AXPONA compared to any previous year, and as a record collector myself, I was impressed by the broad selection of styles and reasonable prices. The amount of used vinyl this year almost equaled the new titles, and there were enough LPs there that the quantity rivaled the record shows I’ve attended. Some of the used dealers were from the Chicago area, but I also met a dealer from Indianapolis while one dealer toted his personal collection from Los Angeles. To those record dealers who live in or near Chicago, you should consider setting up there, because, as you already know, audiophiles aren’t afraid to spend money.

Adding something special to the event were some talented musicians who integrated with the event in interesting ways. Saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh, whose all-analog recordings I discussed in my recent feature on audiophile jazz that appeared in Issue 348, played tenor sax over backing tracks at several points over the weekend. Listening to Jerome’s recent all-analog LPs on the Sunnyside label, I was struck by how well the recordings captured the tone of his horn—so well that, while sitting in the room during one of his performances that used no mics or amps, it struck me how closely the real thing resembled the sound I heard on the recordings. Jerome is launching his own audiophile label in August, and you can learn more about that at the website for the record company, www.analogtonefactory.com.

 

Jerome Sabbagh

In a similar vein, vocalist Anne Bisson sang over recorded tracks during the event and sold copies of her latest LP, Be My Lover, a mixture of classic rock covers and newer material.

Anne Bisson

Another musician who attended the event was wearing two hats. Garth Powell from Audioquest presented seminars on how to optimize audio systems for efficient noise-dissipation, but, as I discovered when we were discussing my audiophile vinyl feature in Issue 348, he’s also the percussionist for Zen Widow, a jazz trio I discussed in that article while Derk Richardson reviewed the record in the same issue.

Garth Powell

The lineup for the free concerts on Friday and Saturday night was impressive. Guitarist Bobby Broom has played with Sonny Rollins, Sado Watanabe, David Murray, and others. As a leader, he’s had albums on Arista, Criss Cross, Delmark, Origin, and other labels. One of the highlights of his performance with an organ trio was a smoking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” And on Saturday night the Americana group the Secret Sisters cast a spell over the audience. If you haven’t them harmonize, on record or live, you’re missing something.

In June of this year Impex Records will release a 1STEP of the Frank Sinatra album Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra, and one of the highlights of the event was hearing historian, archivist, author, and producer Charles L. Granata weigh in on the reissue, which he has worked on with Impex since the project was first conceived. Along with Abey Fonn from Impex, Granata did an excellent job of giving the background of this record, which, when it came out in 1950, did much to revive Sinatra’s career. It also happens to be a memorable upbeat album that finds Sinatra surrounded by swinging musicians. Fortunately the master tape for this album was in excellent condition, and the test pressing of this mono LP had a clarity that’s hardly a given for a tape that’s been sitting in the archives for 70 years.

Abey Fonn and Charles L. Granata

The curated listening sessions that took place after most of the listening rooms closed their doors were also a nice touch. Greg Weaver, “The Audio Analyst,” held some LP listening sessions where he shared selections from great-sounding albums along with commentary and insights. Included on his setlist were the Mobile Fidelity’s edition of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King plus MoFi’s 1-Step of The Eagles’ Desperado. In another curated listening event, Greg Berron again hosted some of his Legendary UHA After Hours Analog Tape Events, which always draw a crowd.

For someone reporting on AXPONA, the show is frustrating because time flies by so quickly. But did I enjoy myself? Absolutely. Along with listening to music in dozens of rooms, I talked music day and night with fellow music lovers, and I appreciated the opportunity to do so. Signs at the event announced that vendors and attendees from over 50 countries around the world were in attendance. That leads me to another reason I like audiophiles: They’re an international community, as I was reminded countless times at the event. In one of the rooms this year, someone who saw my name tag introduced himself because he’s a fan of The Absolute Sound. It turns out he had flown to the event from Chile not as an exhibitor but as an attendee. Thank you, Hugo Salinas, for reminding me what one of the fringe benefits is of this event: It brings people together. Thumbs up to that!

Hugo Salinas

Tags: AXPONA MUSIC SHOW REPORT

Jeff Wilson

By Jeff Wilson

This will take some explaining, but I can connect the dots between pawing through LPs at a headshop called Elysian Fields in Des Moines, Iowa, as a seventh grader, and becoming the Music Editor for The Absolute Sound. At that starting point—around 1970/71—Elysian Fields had more LPs than any other store in Des Moines. Staring at all the colorful covers was both tantalizing and frustrating. I had no idea who most of the artists were, because radio played only a fraction of what was current. To figure out what was going on, I realized that I needed to build a record collection—and as anyone who’s visited me since high school can testify, I succeeded. Record collecting was still in my blood when, starting in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati Public Library book sale suddenly had an Elysian Fields quantity of LPs from people who’d switched to CDs. That’s where I met fellow record hawk Mark Lehman, who preceded me as music editor of TAS. Mark introduced me to Jonathan Valin, whose 1993 detective novel The Music Lovers depicts the battles between record hawks at library sales. That the private eye in the book, Harry Stoner, would stumble upon a corpse or two while unraveling the mystery behind the disappearance of some rare Living Stereo platters made perfect sense to me. After all, record collecting is serious business. Mark knew my journalistic experience included concert reviews for The Cincinnati Enquirer and several long, sprawling feature articles in the online version of Crawdaddy. When he became TAS music editor in 2008, he contacted me about writing for the magazine. I came on board shortly after the latest set of obituaries had been written for vinyl—and, as fate had it, right when the LP started to make yet another unexpected comeback. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling to document all the record companies pressing vinyl. Small outfits were popping up world-wide, and many were audiophile-oriented, plus already existing record companies began embracing the format again. Trying to keep track of everything made me feel, again, like that overwhelmed seventh grader in Elysian Fields, and as Music Editor I’ve found that keeping my finger on the pulse of the music world also requires considerable detective work. I’ve never had a favorite genre, but when it comes time to sit down and do some quality listening, for me nothing beats a well-recorded small-group jazz recording on vinyl. If a stereo can give me warmth and intimacy, tonal accuracy, clear imaging, crisp-sounding cymbals, and deep, woody-sounding bass, then I’m a happy camper.

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