Bill Berry (born 9/15/1930, died 11/13/2002) was one of the most underrated cornet/trumpet players of the latter part of the 20th century. Despite his relatively meager recorded output though (All Music Guide on the Web lists only seven albums to his credit), Berry appeared as a backup musician on scores of recording sessions for a number of labels. Seasoned audiophiles will remember him best for the direct-to-disk recording he did for M&K, For Duke, released in 1978--the same year Concord Jazz released his Shortcake (CJ-75), one of my all-time favorites.
Prior to striking out on his own, Berry was a member of several notable big bands, including those of Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Duke Ellington, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He formed the L.A. Big Band in 1971, which he continued leading on a part-time basis for decades to come, and he appeared regularly on Merv Griffin's television show. Berry recorded two albums for Concord Jazz, Hello Rev (CJ-27) in 1976 and Shortcake two years later. The first of these lists his L.A. Big Band in the credits while Shortcake derives from two sessions featuring a quintet and a septet using different sidemen for each. Notable among these are pianist Dave Frishberg, the saxophones of Marshal Royal and Lew Tabackin and Bill Watrous on trombone. The album is a potpourri of moods ranging from an upbeat, Dixieland-like "Avalon" and "Royal Garden Blues" to the bluesy, melancholic "Bloose" (one of two Berry compositions on the album) and the wistful "I Didn't Know About You."
As with so many of the recordings that Phil Edwards engineered for Concord Jazz in the '70s, Shortcake stands head and shoulders above many of its contemporaries in the sound department. I first became aware of how good this record sounded late one night in 1981. I had installed a new, very expensive moving coil cartridge (a Koetsu Onyx) on my turntable, but had been disappointed with the sound I was getting from it. A visiting audiophile friend from New Orleans had long since retired when my several hours of cartridge tinkering brought me to Side 2 of the album. My revelation to the sonic wonders of Shortcake came with the opening notes of Bill Watrous' captivating intro to "Royal Garden Blues." The tinkering had revealed the ambient qualities of the sound stage so well that I thought to myself that I'd never heard anything in the big band venue sound so natural on a record before. So taken was I that I went and roused my guest and then my wife, summoning them to hear for themselves this amazing discovery. The sound coming from the system took mere seconds to prompt a "Wow!" from my guest and more reserved words of approval from my wife. From that point onward, the sound of Watrous's trombone here has been a reference for me in assessing the sound of audio systems, but in fact the entire album ranks as one of the five best Edwards-engineered recordings I own.
I was quick to buy another copy of the recording when Concord re-released it on CD in 1994 (CCD-4075), but much of the magic of the original LP was mysteriously missing. True, it revealed a lot of the ambient nature of the LP--and, thankfully, the tape hiss too--but the CD turned out to be a little bright and two-dimensional compared to the record. I kept this for the bonus track, "Stella By Starlight," but when I wanted to hear the album as best I could, I kept returning to my vinyl copy until 2002 when I made a gift of the album to my friend and fellow music enthusiast (and T$S subscriber!), Kevin. Not to worry, though: Kevin is a man of extraordinary talent when it comes to recording an LP to a CDR; much of what he sends me is truly astonishing. Shortly after I sent the record to him, the CDR clone of the LP, complete with artwork, appeared in my mailbox. And, since Kevin and I currently use the same phono cartridge I have the benefit of hearing my LP in PCM digital as near to the original as possible for the format.
As luck would have it 2002 brought Dennis Cassidy, head of Pure Audiophile Records, to my attention. The fledgling company had just released its first Concord Jazz reissue on high quality vinyl, Karrin Allyson's Ballads (PA-001), and I was privileged enough to hear this marvelous work in all its glory, thanks to Dennis and the painstaking engineering work of Stan Ricker. As more luck would have it, Mr. Cassidy later solicited my opinion as to which of the many great Concord rifles should receive the Pure Audiophile treatment, and Shortcake was at the top of my list.
So, here it is, appearing as catalog number PA-004, and with some welcome surprises too. Not only has the bonus track from the CD been added to the original LP lineup, but two tracks that Berry recorded for Concord's various-artist compilation, Tribute To Duke (CJ-50), are here too.
As with the three previous Pure Audiophile reissues, Shortcake appears on two half-speed mastered LPs instead of one as it did originally. This allows for the analog master tapes to appear in the format with less compression than they would on one disk, and one hears the advantages of this approach from the outset. While there's nothing about the original release that detracts from its sonic qualities, and it provides such excellent sound overall, Ricker's work here offers the lifting of a thin veil on the original you wouldn't know was there, and it does so without altering any of the tonal and acoustic subtleties that have made this recording a favorite of mine for decades.
Both Ricker and Cassidy get a gold star for the work they've done here, and I am confident in bestowing this recording my award for the best reissue of 2004 without waiting until year's end; I can't imagine any other reissue that could approach this one's qualities. It receives my highest recommendation to readers who still own a turntable and can appreciate the qualities of analog recordings.
More SACD Reissues From Audio Fidelity
On the SACD front, Audio Fidelity has reissued at least another half-dozen quality recordings featuring the fine engineering of Steve Hoffman since I last reported on the label. The two most recent of these are Bob Marley's Young Mystic (AFZ-021) and Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall (AFZ-020). I'll confess to not being much of a fan of Reggae, but for those readers who are, this one is sure to please. The Reed release is right up my alley, though, and if you are one who enjoys this album and owns a copy of the collectible Mobile Fidelity gold CD, be advised that here's a great example of having your cake and eating it too: sell the MoFi to a collector, buy this new, better-sounding release and pocket the difference. Not only does Hoffman provide you with a better sonic interpretation of what's on the master tapes than what you'll find on the MoFi, he went to the trouble to replace those few electronically-re-channeled-to-stereo tracks with their mono originals; 7 of the album's 23 tracks are mono. I look forward to more releases from Audio Fidelity. They lead the pack in boutique labels for sound and they're not insanely overpriced as are the competition's.
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|Author:||Baird, Steven, G.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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