As I have often stated in this column, remastering the classic music from the past in the newer high-tech formats is no guarantee that better sound will result. There are many reasons for this, starting with the engineer and the equipment he uses to transfer the original analog source, through the condition of the source tapes (which are prone to deterioration over time), to the policies set by producers and record companies for the sound they want to achieve. But all things being equal, the higher resolution that results from any of the advancements in the digital audio format (whether they are remastered in SBM, XRCD, HDCD, DVD-audio or SACD) theoretically should provide the listener with sound more closely approaching that of the original source. This is owing to its superior digital specifications, and assuming that the reissue engineer is not modifying the signal in any way. In a sense, recording a digital signal using any of these advanced technologies is something analogous to recording at a higher tape speed in analog. I don't mean to suggest that the process is the same, but that improvements in sound quality can usually be heard in an analog recording done at 30 ips (inches per second) compared to one done at 7.5 ips.
An instance of a recording from 1959 that is not well known outside a small circle of jazz enthusiasts demonstrates this well. During the taping sessions for the now legendary Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue, both stereo and monaural tape machines were in use. These two recorders were fed the same signal, but there was one big difference: the monaural recorder was taping at 30 ips, while the stereo machine was taping at 15 ips. Audiophiles who have heard both, point to a clarity and noiseless quality coupled with greater dynamic range in the mono record that isn't quite there in the stereo version. Modern-day collectors are, as a result, willing to pay far more for an original mono pressing than for the stereo.
The XRCD series of recordings is generally available in attractive hard-bound book style jackets with a suggested list price of $31.98. This is a bit high priced, even by audiophile standards, as most of the gold CDs from companies such as DCC and Classic Records are sold for several dollars less, even though many of these have been lower 16 bit recordings. Nonetheless, most of JVC's recordings reissued in the XRCD format feature artists and albums that appeal to a broader audience, and are not licensed strictly on the basis of a marketing strategy targeting audiophiles. The bulk of these releases feature jazz artists that were popular in the `50s and `60s, and not limited to "blockbuster" titles. In many cases they are outside the mainstream, offering avid jazz fans the opportunity to hear historic performances in a format suggesting JVC's attention to detail in reproducing the best sound possible through their process.
Winston Ma's very excellent release, The Super Extended Sound of TBM (FIM XRCD 018), is a prime example of a reissue combining the XRCD process with the meticulous care of a dedicated production team that offers superb results. From start to finish, this collection of 11 light jazz selections from the Three Blind Mice catalog provides the listener with exceptional sound; sound deserving of the "Audiophile Reference" category into which Mr. Ma has placed it. For readers who are not familiar with the "TBM" label, it and Audio Lab were among the labels imported from Japan for the audiophile market during the `70's, first by Jim Bongiorno (of Ampzilla fame), and then later by AudioSource. Some of these became popular among audiophiles, most notably the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio's rendition of "Misty" that appears in this collection, and the Isao Suzuki Quartet's "Aqua Marine" from the album, Blow Up (not appearing here). One of TBM's trademarks is close microphoning techniques, resulting in an abundance of dynamics. These tracks on the FIM CD certainly demonstrate this.
I did a comparison of "Misty" on the new XRCD and a TBM sampler released in the `80s called The Famous Sound of Three Blind Mice (TBM CD9001), and found the improvements in all of the sonics to be blatantly obvious. This was the only track common to the two CDs. Both of these recordings appear to feature transfers from the original master tape that attempt to replicate it as closely as possible. Yet, the newer transfer offers a degree of transparency that the original does not have. Although the liner notes for the original CD release, manufactured in Germany, goes into detail on the analog recording techniques and processes, its discussion of the A to D transfers does not provide us with enough information to determine precisely how the transfers were done, or with what equipment. The new FIM collection was mastered under the supervision of TBM producer, Takeshi "Tee" Fujii, at the JVC center in Japan. Unlike several other FIM CDs I've auditioned, this one does not offer much in the way of technical information on the transfer process. One thing is certain, though, the sound has a continuity of excellence through all of its tracks. This collection will appeal to a broad range of listeners because its selections are varied so greatly, but uniformly enjoyable (9/6).
Another excellent sounding XRCD jazz release from First Impression Music is Over The Rainbow (FIM XRCD 024). It features a number of duets with Tony Overwater on acoustic bass, and Yuri Honing on tenor sax (on 2 tracks), and Maarten Ornstein on bass clarinet and tenor sax on the other 8. The title of the album comes from the song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" featured in the movie, The Wizard of Oz. The balance of the CD's 10 tracks are mostly standards -- "When I Fall In Love" and "What's New" for example -- along with a reprise of the title track. This album is one that grows on me the more I hear it, especially with the repeat of the title cut. In this rendition, Maarten Ornstein takes the tempo up a half-beat, and his tone becomes vaguely reminiscent of Paul Desmond. Ornstein steals the show again on "What's New." This is, perhaps, the best track on the album. Overwater's bass solo of "When I Fall In Love" and "Pour un Enfant Terrible" spotlights his talent for improvisation. Although these players are unknown to me, their interpretations are warm and heartfelt, and the playing is superb. The sound is quite natural with excellent imaging and a wonderfully understated dynamic balance (9/9). This recording was licensed from Turtle Records.
FIM's reissue of Flamenco Passion (FIM XRCD 023) doesn't fare quite as well, owing to circumstances beyond their control. The master tape, licensed from World Class Records, sounds natural enough, but the lack of exact imaging downgrades its sonics a notch from the 2 previous albums. Aside from this one shortcoming, I find the sound very natural and dynamic. The sound of the plucking of the guitar strings is quite impressive, with near-perfect transients, and superb percussives. This recording features the flamenco guitars of Gino D'Auri who composed all of its 8 selections. He is backed by three other musicians, and noted vocalist, Palmas, famous among flamenco enthusiasts (8/8).
Another recent set of recordings using JVC's process comes to us from Fantasy, Inc., one of the most successful family of jazz labels around. The company is offering two series of K2 reissues. Each offers 10 titles currently, and each of the titles is limited to 10,000 copies worldwide. One series is called The Prestige 50th Anniversary Special Commemorative Editions; the other, unnamed, offers releases from several other Fantasy-affiliated labels, including the Riverside and Contemporary catalogs. These limited editions are distinguished from Fantasy's standard releases by their cardboard outer sleeves (with the standard jewel case inside), and their slightly higher, but very reasonable suggested list price of $14.98 -- reasonable particularly in view of prices for most XRCD titles. In the recent past, many of the titles in these two series have been available in special audiophile gold CD editions from DCC and Chad Kasem's Analogue Productions. The titles from DCC have recently gone out of print, and have been available at reduced prices (although still higher than the new Fantasy releases) from any of the several mail order companies catering to audiophiles. Fantasy has also reissued their entire Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog in the K2 format.
The first of these I'll report on is totally new to me. I have, after nearly 20 years of friendship, come to understand why KWN would include Thelonious Monk's Greatest Hits from Columbia Records in one of his early lists of desert island music. The album is Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (JCD 46-2), recorded in April, June and July, 1957, but not released until 1961. What is offered here is all that remains of their sessions together. I can't begin to tell you how incredible the music is. I bought the album because I am very much a fan of mid-century jazz saxophone players -- Parker, Rollins, Coltrane, Hawkins, Desmond and a host of others. In fact, I once related in this column that I thought the Creator bestowed the sax upon us so that we could all enjoy jazz. Pianos, guitars and brass are great, but to this writer, nothing compares to the evocative nature and sonority of a saxophone, no matter whether it's a tenor, alto or soprano. I have to tell you though, that it's Monk at his piano who shines brightest here. His ventures into atonal improvs are beyond comparison; his compositions stellar -- all 6 of them (2 are bonus tracks, not appearing on the original LP). It is, after all, a recording that might be considered one of a teacher and his prized pupil. Critics consider this album one of Monk's best. It well represents the music he wrote that musicologists cite to describe him as the most eccentric jazz musician of the century. The album features 3 quartet selections, 2 septets (with Coleman Hawkins as an added attraction) and one 9:42 piano solo, "Functional," closing out the disk.
Coltrane had gone to work for Monk at New York's Five Spot shortly after he (Coltrane) parted company with Miles Davis in 1957. His association with Monk proved to have quite an impact on him, as evidenced by the evolution of his playing found here and later on Giant Steps. For all intents, Monk was his tutor, and Coltrane would later recount stories of going to Monk's house early mornings for advice on problems he was having with some chord progressions. During performances, Monk often left the stage for long periods, allowing Coltrane to experiment with the involved soloing which would become his trademark. The tracks are all mono, of course, but don't let that dissuade you from picking this up. The sound is excellent, if only slightly reticent, for its age. Since I don't have another issue of this recording with which to make comparisons, I really can't make any comment on any improvements that the K2 process might be providing. Even though the recording is not stereo, Monk and Coltrane enjoy distinct locations within the smaller mono sound stage. If you are a Monk fan who has been toying with buying this CD, do it and enjoy; you can thank me later. If you are one who hasn't yet grown to appreciate Thelonious Monk, I'll suggest that you start with the hits CD that KWN recommended many years ago, then try this one later (7/10).
Another amazing Monk reissue in the series is Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (PRCD 7075-2). The album features a 23-year-old Sonny Rollins blowing supremely on three of its five selections, with Monk providing solid backing on two standards, "The Way You Look Tonight," and "I Want to Be Happy," and a 10 minute extravaganza called "Friday the 13th" -- one of the best Monk compositions I've heard. This selection adds Julius Watkins on French horn, his solo adding immensely to the harmonic playing that Monk and Rollins give us. Monk also appears here in a trio with Percy Heath (bass) and Art Blakey (drums) on two of his own compositions, "Work" and "Nutty." The five selections on this CD were recorded between November, 1953 and October, 1954, well into Monk's career, but before Rollins would receive critical acclaim for his ground-breaking work on Saxophone Colossus in 1956 (see below). Rollins had appeared on recordings with Clifford Brown as early as 1949 when he was 19, but this set of recordings, begun just 4 years later, demonstrates his maturing process quite well. As with his work with Coltrane on the album mentioned directly above, Monk provides Rollins with an exemplary foundation for his improvs, while providing his usual masterful playing when he takes his own solos. With the exception of "Friday the 13th," this album is more conventional than the Monk/Coltrane, and results in a set of tunes more universally accessible. Being a few years older, the mono sound quality is not quite as good as on the other disk either, but still very well done for its age. To my knowledge, this recording has not been available in a special audiophile release prior to this (6/10).
After his departure from the Miles Davis Sextet in early 1960, pianist Bill Evans formed several trios. One of the most successful of these included Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums. This Evans trio recorded two of the most important jazz albums of the period at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, a mere 10 days before LeFaro would die in an auto accident. The better known of these two is Waltz For Debby (RCD-9399-2), originally a collection of 6 of the 23 tunes recorded that day, clearly showing Davis's impact on Evans. Critics regard the album definitively for its interrelationship of the trio members, and the use of scalar, rather than chordal improvisation. As with the earlier CD reissue of Waltz, Fantasy has added 4 bonus tracks from these sessions, including an alternate take of the title cut. Comparing the sound of the new K2 release to the original CD (OJCCD 210-2) from the mid-`80's, I find the newer one to differ mostly in the upper frequencies. On "My Foolish Heart," Motian' s brush work on the cymbals is a bit more evident, and there is a smoothness to Evans's piano that helps to add solidity to the overall sonic picture, representative of the sound throughout the CD. The new K2 CD is also recorded at a higher level (which seems to be the case for nearly all of the reissues I've sampled over the past year). It is not, however, any more transparent than the original CD release, so I would not say that the differences between the two are substantial enough to warrant replacing your original with this new one if you are happy with it. I have not heard Chad Kasem's gold CD release of this music, but I suspect it would not add much to the total enjoyment of this classic album. The music stands on its own, and is recommended in any of its currently available formats; the K2 rates a 7/10, the original a 6/10.
I don't find it at all odd that Downbeat readers named Sonny Rollins their artist of the year in 1998. Rollins has been producing some of the best jazz on record for more than a half-century. Certainly he owes much to the great sax players who preceded him, but he developed his own sound, and has contributed much to the pantheon worth returning to time and again. Saxophone Colossus is his most famous album (I saw an original pressing of the 1956 LP sell on ebay for more than $1,600 late last year), although there have been too many milestones in his early career to say, definitively, that this one recording epitomizes his work. Although this is an excellent album, so is Tenor Madness, a full-steam-ahead foray into improvisational bliss with none other than John Coltrane blowing some special magic on the title cut; so are Way Out West, Sonny Meets Hawk and The Bridge, Sonny's acclaimed return to the recording studio after several years absence. To appreciate Rollins as one of the most important mid-century jazz artists, one needs to appreciate that bebop, or simply bop, essentially a variation in harmonic and rhythmic complexity on earlier jazz forms, figures prominently into his development.
Bop emerged in New York some time in the early 1940s. It found its principles in such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but its proponents were far more numerous and varied than these few examples. A key element in bop is the replacement of the drums with some other instrument (usually the upright bass) as the timekeeper, and either the guitar or piano setting chords. With its faster tempos and changes, bop demands greater agility from its players in both their lead and backup roles. While the style often had its basis in old standards, artists would avoid playing the melodies just as often and move through a series of improvisations on them. Experimentation with improvisations on the melody had begun in the swing era, Benny Goodman providing us with a great example of one who excelled in this venue. Appearing on records as early as 1949 (The Amazing Bud Powell), Sonny Rollins at the age of 19 shows us his facility with bop through his innate grasp of thematic improvisation and his amazing ability to shade melodies individualistically. He would become the most influential soloist in jazz within the next decade. (For a thorough discussion of bop, please refer to the Grove Dictionary of Jazz.)
Three of Rollins's albums and collaborations have appeared in the two Fantasy K2 series. They are Saxophone Colossus (PRCD 7079-2) and Way Out West (CCD 7530-2), which will be reviewed here, and Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, discussed above. Neither of the albums considered here should be strangers to audiophiles, as they both have been among the many Rollins records to be reissued in audiophile pressings as CDs by DCC, Classic Records and MoFi. Colossus has been one of several to have appeared on heavy vinyl analog pressings as well.
Jazz musicologists unanimously agree that Saxophone Colossus is one of the most important documents in all of mid-Fifties jazz because, like Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue, which would follow three years later, Colossus makes a significant contribution to the way the music is shaped. Within the scope of bop, the Rollins composition, "Blue Seven" appearing on the album, effectively demonstrates the thematic development concept within his three improvisations in the song. Unlike many CD recordings featuring vintage jazz, this one has no bonus tracks, but contains only the five selections that comprised the original album (the DCC gold CD offers bonus music). I compared the new K2 version to my standard Fantasy release on CD, and found the sound improved in several ways. While the recording was made in 1956, and therefore too early to be recorded in stereo, the soundfield on the newer K2 appears to be more expansive and transparent. Rollins and the other members of his group appear more solidly within the small monophonic stage as a result. There is no apparent increase in dynamic range or frequency response as noted in my comparisons between the K2 and original CD versions of Bill Evans's Waltz For Debby, but the recording is transferred to CD very well nonetheless. As with most CDs released these days, this one is recorded at a much higher volume level than its predecessor. In comparisons between these two CDs and the DCC vinyl LP, recently deleted from their catalog, I'll just mention here to any readers who have this version that it's not time to dumpster the vinyl yet. Saxophone Colossus is the right choice for persons who have an interest in Rollins, but have not yet been exposed to his music (7/10).
If your music has to be in stereo, though, consider the second Rollins CD to be reviewed here. Recorded just nine months after Colossus, Way Out West gets its title from the fact that, unlike Sonny's earlier albums that were recorded in and around New York, this one was taped in Los Angeles. That and the fact that this is one of the few recordings made in which Rollins is accompanied by Ray Brown and Shelly Manne are all that differentiate this from the styles heard on Colossus. Rollins's talent for transforming "corny" songs into intriguing jazz reflects his ability in thematic improvisation. Listen to "I'm An Old Cowhand" and "Wagon Wheels" for examples of this. Aside from the fact that this one is a trio recording, and Colossus is of a quartet, one might consider this to be a continuation of his earlier album. The stereo recording quality is much better sounding on the newer K2 than on my original Original Jazz Classics CD. Not only is the recording fuller and better balanced, there is a bit of texture added to the sound of the saxophone making it sound more like an instrument than a recording of one. Ray Brown's bass also benefits from this; here it has body and depth. Treble components of the music seem more extended, but smoother at the same time. I don't believe the qualities I have described here are the result of trickery from equalization. Instead, I think that the original tape is of a quality sufficient to squeeze out just a bit more detail and clarity. The instruments still don't "get out of the box," so this recording, as with so many other early attempts at stereo has Rollins coming directly out of your left speaker while the drums and bass are coming at you from hard right. In all, Way Out West is the best sounding of the Fantasy K2s I've auditioned so far (7/9).
As much as I would like to continue reporting on Sonny's music (he is, after all, my favorite Jazz musician), there aren't any more Fantasy K2 releases at this time. Turning to the Modern Jazz Quartet now, we have Django (PRCD-7057) released in the Prestige series. The development of the MJQ is often compared to the evolution of the music from which the quartet takes its name. Its original members, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown, constituted the rythmn section of Dizzy Gillespie's band of the late 1940s. Their earliest recordings were as the Milt Jackson Quartet on the Dee Gee label in 1951. They were the longest-running small jazz group in the history of jazz, existing through a few personnel changes from 1952 to 1974, and then reforming in 1981 to continue on into the 1990s.
Unlike so many of their contemporaries, the success of the group rested largely in its accessibility to audiences outside the realm of the typical jazz fan. Their records could be found in many a home that had no other jazz albums at all. This was due in large part to John Lewis' knowledge of and training in classical music, and to the approaches these artists took in presenting new music to their listeners. One critic, Joe Goldberg, noted in his book, Jazz Masters of the `50s (MacMillan, 1965, page 114), that their success was due to the fact that "vibraharpist, Milt Jackson, [was] a man held captive in the sinister thrall of John Lewis," and that the differences between the two artists "amount to a miniature history of the two main directions jazz [had] taken since the death of [Charlie] Parker. That prime exponents of these two directions are the major soloists of the same quartet has made the MJQ one of the most fascinating, valuable, successful and frustrating units of the fifties."
Django was recorded in three sessions between June 25,1953, and January 9, 1955, at studios in New York and in Hackensack, NJ by legendary jazz engineer, Rudy Van Gelder. Percy Heath replaces Ray Brown on bass for all eight of the selections, as Brown had other obligations. From the first bar of the title cut and throughout, we find how insightful were Goldberg's descriptions; here are juxtapositions of classical, almost Bach-like, compositions with jazz improvisation. Marvelous stuff, this, though perhaps not as well known to contemporary jazz collectors as The European Concert or The Last Concert. The Monaural sound is up to the standards of the others in this series (6/10).
Before I close this installment, I would like to take a poll. In 50 words or less, I'd like you to tell me about your all-time favorite jazz album. If you can't make up your mind on THE one that's your favorite, then by all means tell me about as many as you like. Since I concentrate on reissues though, I would ask that you limit your discussions to recordings originally made no later than 1975. Email your thoughts on this to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and, like, stay cool, man.--SGB
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|Title Annotation:||sound recordings|
|Author:||Baird, Steven G.|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2001|
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