SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Hi-Res, Reviews, Part 1 of 3 Jazz
Published on June 1, 2004
FRED SOKOLOW with Junior Brown and Ian Whitcomb (Sokolow, vocals and guitar; Jr. Brown, pedal steel, vocals; Ian Whitcomb, ukulele, accordion, vocals; Michael Ros, saxophones; Jeff Faulkner, bass; Matt Betton, drums) – AIX Records DVD-A & DVD-V AIX 80021:
This could be a companion to the Ian Whitcomb DVD-A we reviewed in last month’s Hi-Res section. The focus is again on vintage songs but this time more solidly from the 20s and 30s and a few a bit jazzier than on Whitcomb’s previous effort. Also similar are the fascinating little tidbits of intros to the 11 tunes. Sokolow has some great stories to tell, having fronted his own jazz, bluegrass and rock bands for many years. Steel guitarist Brown is at home on both rock club stages and at Grand Ol’ Opry. Both Brown and Whitcomb play and sing on two or three of the tracks. In addition to the vintage tunes, Sokolow himself wrote two of the songs. A quirky sense of humor is found in many of the songs, such as the two by Fats Waller. The video presentation side of this feature-packed disc is a kick with its often split-screen views of the different players. The “Stage” mix is the DTS-encoded one, as opposed to the more distantly-miced “Audience” mix in Dolby Digital. The combination of the higher-res lossy codec with the live action videos provides a most enjoyable experience that I believe would appeal more to most people than the no-visuals highest-res 96K DVD-A side of the disc – at least on their initial viewing. Following that, the real audiophiles would probably then listen to the DVD-A side (also the “Stage” mix) in future auditionings, because it definitely does clear away some of those aural scrims. If all DVD-As were as good as AIX’s, audiophiles would be more accepting of the new format vs. SACD.
If you’re just learning about AIX’s offerings, let me list everything to be found on most of the DVD-A releases from this enterprising small label: Both DTS and Dolby 5.1 mixes of the music – one “Stage” and one “Audience,” a 96K/24bit PCM stereo mix, a 96K/24bit 5.1 DVD-A mix, a video of the complete recording session, bios of and interviews with the performers, a still photo gallery, comprehensive notes, channel ID test and setup tones, a printed booklet with further notes and credits. Tracks on this disc: Every Day’s a Holiday, It’s Like Reaching for the Moon, Is It True What They Say About Dixie?, Neglected, I Wish I Were Twins, Halfway to Heaven, Me and the Man in the Moon, How Could We Go So Wrong?, I Believe in You and Me, There’ll Be Some Changes Made, Something Tells Me
Five Songbirds – A Reference Collection of Female Vocalists – FIM SACD 048 – Stereo Hybrid SACD:
This SACD from First Impressions offers a compilation of works from their own releases, and also licensed from other labels that FIM previously released on very highly regarded XRCDs. The five “songbirds” are Esther Ofarims, Patricia Barber, Jacintha, Ayako Hosokawa and Marie Nakamoto – and an opening note in the accompanying booklet from FIM’s Winston Ma expounds on not only his love of the female voice, but also its value in evaluating audio systems.
I really love the multichannel dimension of SACD playback – despite the additional equipment and time required tweaking speaker placements, levels, etc. – the additional effort required is totally rewarded by the experience. Although multichannel has totally tainted my listening preferences, I still listen to a ton of stereo recordings (though more and more often with Dolby Pro Logic II). This stereo-only disc so envelops and immerses you in the soundfield, it’s easy to totally forget any multichannel bias. From the opening notes of Ester Ofarims’ Kinderspiele (sung in German), it doesn’t matter that most folks listening won’t have a clue what she’s singing about – the sound of her heavenly voice is so captivating, you just don’t want her to stop!
The two artists here that I was able to compare recordings on were Patricia Barber and Jacintha. Patricia Barber may be somewhat of an acquired taste for some – her totally offbeat (and sometimes deadpan) delivery of pop tunes like A Taste of Honey and The Beat Goes On may not appeal to everyone, but she just knocks me out! Comparing the FIM disc to my Mobile Fidelity SACDs revealed little, if any, difference – both sounded excellent – which makes one have to think about these often-traveled master tapes, and if there are any generational differences between what FIM and MoFi used. You’d never know it.
My experience with the Jacintha songs was identical – comparing them to the Groove Note SACD showed no appreciable differences. If you’ve never heard Jacintha sing, you owe it to yourself to either get this disc or any of her Groove Note SACDs. The acapella segments of Danny Boy and Over The Rainbow are just drop-dead gorgeous – her voice is absolute ear candy, and the taste you get here will leave you wanting more, for sure!
That leaves two artists I had not previously heard, Ayako Hosokawa and Marie Nakamoto. I have a small problem with Ayako Hosokawa’s vocal delivery – she has that kind of classic “warble” in her voice that one often hears from Japanese vocalists singing in English. This may or may not put you off – you be the judge. Marie Nakamoto’s diction is superb, with only an occasional trace of any accent, but her song selections, Georgia On My Mind and What A Difference A Day Makes, are given excellent readings.
I can’t recommend this disc highly enough – not only as an evaluative tool, but for the excellent music within that will only leave you wanting more. Very highly recommended!
Tracks: Kinderspiele; A Taste of Honey; Danny Boy; That Sunday (That Summer); Georgia On My Mind; Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup/La Vie En Rose; Una Matica de Ruda; The Beat Goes On; Tears In Heaven; Autumn Leaves; What A Difference A Day Makes.
Eden Atwood – This is Always, The Ballad Session – with Bill Cunliffe, Piano / Tom Harrell, Trumpet and Flugelhorn / Darek Oleszkiewicz, Bass / Larance Marable, Drums / Groove Note GRV1022-3 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:
I love the SACDs from Groove Note – they’re about as close to reference quality as it gets, both in stereo and multichannel sound – so I was really looking forward to hearing this multichannel SACD from Eden Atwood. So I can’t begin to tell you how it has really come as quite a disappointment to me that the performance here is so dull and lifeless. The backing group is first-rate, with the fabulous Bill Cunliffe on piano and Tom Harrell on trumpet. The sonics are near reference quality – both totally expected from Groove Note. If this were just an instrumental album, I’d hardly have a complaint. But Ms. Atwood’s totally lackluster performance just never seems to take off. On a couple of the tracks, Deep Purple and Serenata, she almost seems to shake the funk, only to plunge in even more deeply on the successive tunes.
I’ve listened to this record quite a lot recently, and in all fairness, it just hasn’t grown on me at all – you almost get the impression that Eden Atwood wanted to be anywhere other than the studio on that day. I’d pass on this one.
Tracks: Without A Song; This Is Always; Day By Day; Blame It On My Youth; Deep Purple; You’re Nearer; Serenata; You Leave Me Breathless; Come Rain or Come Shine; For All We Know.
Two terrific big bands in hi-res surround – one on DVD-A and one on SACD…
The Steve Huffsteter Big Band – Gathered Around – 20-piece big band with Huffsteter, Lee Thornburg and Buddy Childers, trumpets; Bill Perkins, sax; Jock Ellis, trombone – AIX Records DVD-A, Video etc. – AIX 80026:
Huffsteter played for years with such as Ray Charles, Pearl Bailey, Louie Bellson and Clare Fischer. He’s been rehearsing his dream big band for years as well and now has the opportunity of presenting it with a sonic and visual impact that few bands have access to. He discusses in his interesting video interview on the disc how getting a computer and the proper software enabled him to finally write out the many notes required for all these arrangements for the band. The album title is obviously double-meaning, since the players were gathered around in a circle with Huffsteter in the midst. All eight tracks are his originals and I loved the general tone and feeling of the band because it reminded me strongly of one of my very favorite big bands – Gerald Wilson’s (see following review). Huffsteter’s sound on trumpet (and Flugelhorn on some tracks) is clear and sensitively-phrased. The impact of the band in surround is full and rich with accurate spatial placement of all the players. And there’s not really that much difference between the DTS “stage” mix and the DVD-A stage mix. 3x compression isn’t so bad with the perfectionistic recording and encoding carried out by Mark Waldrep on all his discs if your preamp or receiver has a decent DTS decode facility. And you get to watch the videos – often split-screen – of the band and Huffsteter in action. In fact this proved one of the most enjoyable jazz videos I’ve seen in some time now. Tracks: Moacir, Circles, Nighwalk, The Quest, 3 1/2, Autumn Returns, Fool’s Silver, A Waltz & Battery.
*****MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH***** Gerald Wilson Orchestra – New York New Sound – Mack Avenue Records Multichannel SACD MAC 1019:
I reviewed the original 44.1 CD of this album back in October. I’ll save you the effort hyper linking and just paste it all in below. So is the hi-res and surround a worthwhile improvement on the original? yes, Yes YES! The CD had great sonics and sounded pretty good in surround via Pro Logic II, but this is the Real Thing and the increased transparency, spatial accuracy and impact is very real. What a kick to enjoy my favorite still-performing big band as though I was right on stage with them!
At age 85 Gerald Wilson is still going strong. This amazing and amazingly under-appreciated figure in modern jazz has had a career that practically covers the history of jazz. He is a composer, arranger, trumpet soloist, band leader, film scorer and educator. Plus the father of the new jazz guitar lion Anthony Wilson. Wilson the very elder studied with Buddy Bolden and worked with Jimmie Lunceford, Basie and Ellington. Strangely, as with another amazing longtime jazz pioneer, Bennie Carter, Wilson has failed to receive anywhere near his due.
Wilson’s hallmark is the use of rather thick and wide voicings which nevertheless ride over an often mesmerizing rhythmic feeling which really swings. He leaves plenty of room for his soloists; such as on this CD Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron and Clark Terry. Two of his tunes here I fondly remember from the Monterey Jazz Festival in the 60s: Theme for Monterey, and Blues for Yna Yna (his Siamese cat). Viva Tirado is one of his several Latin tunes which honor various toreadors that he adores (sorry). If you haven’t heard Gerald Wilson before you’re in for a big treat. Sonics are excellent. Tracks: Milestones, Blues for the Count, Equinox, Viva Tirado, Teri, Blues for Yna Yna, Theme for Monterey, M Capetillo, Josefina, Nancy Jo.
The Retro Jazz Quintet – David Garfield, piano; Walt Fowler, trumpet; Larry Limas, tenor sax; Ernest Tibbs, bass; Oscar Seaton, drums – AIX Records DVD-A, video etc. AIX 80022:
Garfield’s name may not be widely known but he has scored and recorded for films and commercials, played on over 80 albums and produced 25 himself. He was musical director for George Benson and Dianne Reeves. His sidemen have played with such as Frank Zappa, Manhattan Transfer, James Taylor, David Benoit and Grover Washington Jr. This is a straight-ahead modern jazz session of nine tunes, including four originals from Garfield himself. My fav of the set was their loving nine-minute treatment of Sigmund Romberg’s lovely Softly As in a Morning Sunrise. Limas turns in some nice solo work on sax. I was wishing Garfield hadn’t done so many tracks on his electric piano – it gave a sort of dated 60s-jazz feeling to the album and the pickup wasn’t of the best fidelity compared to the grand piano or other instruments. Again, I found the DTS stage mix a lot more fun than being restricted to the higher-res DVD-A audio and missing the often split-screen video coverage. There were no interviews or video intros to the tunes this time; I guess Garfield just wanted the music to speak for itself.
– John Henry
A pair of quite different pianist/composers herewith…
Dave Brubeck, solo piano – Private Brubeck Remembers – Telarc multichannel SACD plus bonus CD interview by Walter Chronkite – SACD-63605:
Great idea for another entry in the huge Brubeck discography. Dave says these 14 tunes are almost an autobiography of his Second World War years. And the story is filled out in fascinating fashion by the second disc, which is a relaxed 52-minute interview conducted by Walter Chronkite. Among other discoveries it turns out both of them were located in some of the same places during the heat of the war – Brubeck entertaining the troops as leader of a band and Chronkite reporting. Brubeck is no stranger to sitting in front of a live mic with just his solo unaccompanied piano, but this time the tunes a bit less of the jazz standards. He delivers some very straight and others swings mightily. The enhancement of the hi-res surround is subtle vs. the original standard CD release, but it is hearable on even entry-level gear. There is also a 20-page note booklet with many original WWII-period photos and commentary by Dave. I’m sure this will be a wonderfully nostalgic package for many collectors. Tracks: For All We Know, Something to Remember You By, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, Don’t Worry ‘bout Me, For You, Where or When, Lili Marlene, It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie, When I Grow Too Old to Dream, We Crossed the Rhine, Please Be Kind, Weep No More, The Last Time I Saw Paris, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To
Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners (with Ernie Henry, tenor sax; Sonny Rollins; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Max Roach, drums & timpani) – Riverside/Fantasy mono SACD RISA-226 0:
This l956 album on LP was regarded as a turning point in the public’s acceptance of the quirky jazz pianist/composer. All five tunes with the exception of I Surrender, Dear (a Monk piano solo) are Monk originals in his wonderfully off-center style. There are some changes of instrumentation in the album: On Bemsha Swing Clark Terry replaced Henry and Paul Chambers replaced bassist Pettiford. Also on that track Max Roach noticed some timpani in the recording studio and decided to play them. Similarly Monk had noticed a celeste and put it at right angles to his piano so he could play piano with his left hand and the bell-like instrument with this right on his tune Pannonica. Since this was just a mono session, is the SACD version worthwhile? Well, I still had the original LP and the answer is Yes – and I’m certain if you have the Fantasy OJC-series CD reissue of this the improvement will be even greater.
Skol – Oscar Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Stephane Grappelli, violin; Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, bass; Mickey Roker, drums – Pablo/Fantasy stereo SACD PASA-2308-232-6:
1979 was the year and Denmark’s Tivoli Concert Hall was the venue for this gem of a live concert recording. Though Peterson was the headliner, everyone here really shared the spotlight and together they produced one of the great jazz sessions ever. Five of the six tracks are standards and the concert closes with the blues which gave the album its title. The opening Nuages is the longest of the tracks and conjures up the Hot Club of France in which Grappelli played along with fellow gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The international language of jazz was clearly understood by the supportive crowd at the Copenhagen concert. I ran this thru my ProLogic II decoder and got a more involving live concert ambiance, since all the new Fantasy SACD are stereo only rather than multichannel. Tracks: Nuages, How ‘Bout You?, Someone to Watch Over Me, Makin’ Whoopee, That’s All, Skol Blues
Spyro Gyra – The Deep End – Heads Up multichannel SACD HUSA 9085:
The popular fusion jazz quintet which took its style from Weather Report and Return to Forever is celebrating 30 years of music-making with their third album for Heads Up. They’ve excelled at their own identifiable sound while simultaneously being open to trying out new things. Saxist/leader Jay Beckenstein says the title of this new effort indicates that he wanted to delve deeper into emotions than the group has done previously. Various members of the ensemble contribute the 11 tracks, although four of them are from Beckenstein. There’s a lot of color and drama in these tunes, and the uptempo ones really move. Some are hard-edged and others smoothly lyrical. This band is perfect for the coming-at-you-from-all-directions surround approach since they’re such high energy. A number of guest artists sit in on some of the tracks: different drummers and percussionists, plus famed vibist Dave Samuels on four of the tracks. Tunes: Summer Fling, Eastlake Shuffle, Monsoon, As You Wish, Soburg Sam, The Crossing, Wiggle Room, Wind Warriors, In Your Arms, Chippewa Street, Beyond the Rain
Johnny Frigo with Bucky & John Pizzarelli – Live from Studio A in New York City (with Ron Carter, Michael Moore, Butch Miles) – Chesky multichannel SACD264:
Recorded in the fine acoustics of RCA’s famed Studio A, this session was taped back in l988. I’m curious where the other three channels of this terrific surround mix came from since Bucky (John’s dad) says in the note booklet “we used only one mike…we sat around the mike: the five of us.” I did find that the surrounds are only used for low-level ambiance, unlike some other Chesky surround mixes. Anyway, the proof is in the pudding and I couldn’t find this album more tasty! It’s my kinda jazz – shades of the Hot Club, small group swing, and violinist Frigo (who played bass for more of his career than violin) reminds one of the great Joe Venuti. Both Pizzarellis play their standard five-string guitars on most of the tracks, but on Stompin’ at the Savoy they switch to their special seven-string models because neither Frigo nor the other musicians play on this one and they needed the seventh string to play some bass lines to support their guitar duo. 14 Tracks: Pick Yourself Up, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, Detour Ahead, Just Friends, Estrellita, Stompin’ at the Savoy, Early Autumn, You Stepped Out of a Dream, In a Sentimental Mood, The Song is You, I’m Through with Love, Summer Me Winter Me, Tangerine, I’ll Never Be the Same
Mongo Santamaria and Friends – Mambo Mongo – Chesky multichannel SACD 263:
Another older session, this one from l993, and here remixed with most of the attention on the frontal soundstage and just subtle ambiance on the surrounds. The instrumentation is basically an octet plus Santamaria on his congas and two different flutists guesting on two tracks apiece: Hubert Laws and Dave Valentin. Marty Sheller was the musical director and conductor of the ensemble and also did several of the arrangements. The Havana-born conguero was one of the originators of Afro-Cuban jazz and collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and others. This session concentrates on the Latin jazz idiom, with much repetition of the powerful polyrhythmic montunas that build to compelling heights. I really dug Valentin’s flute solo on Caribbean Sunrise. I didn’t have the original CD of this one but the hybrid CD layer here (which is usually somewhat better than the original CD-only) can’t hold a candle to the clarity and snap of the stereo SACD layer. Tracks: Dark Before the Dawn, Caribbean Sunrise, Mambo Mongo, Los Ninos del Mundo, Cali, Are They Only Dreams, Cuco Y Olga, Azteca, La Mogolla
The Gene Harris/Scott Hamilton Quintet – At Last (Harris, piano; Hamilton, tenor sax; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Harold Jones, drums) – Concord Jazz multichannel SACD -1036-6:
Another fine reissue effort from another label. This was a l990 session and Concord had the multichannel masters to mix a very active surround field, as on all their SACD releases. Harris is a versatile and powerful pianist and Hamilton has been a mainstay of the Concord catalog. Then we come to Herb Ellis and the late Ray Brown. What can be added to their glowing resumes as a couple of the top names in modern jazz? Most of the ten tunes are standards but not hackneyed ones. There’s a blues Milt Jackson composed for pianist Harris and the session closes out with a Ray Brown original blues. Tracks: You Are My Sunshine, It Never Entered My mind, After You’ve Gone, The Lamp is Low, At Last, Blues for Gene, I Fall in Love Too Easily, Some of These Days, Stairway to the Stars, Sittin’ in the Sandtrap
Albert King – I’ll Play The Blues For You; Stax/Fantasy SXSA-3009-6 Hybrid Stereo SACD:
There’s blues and then there’s Albert King. On this record backing is provided by the Bar Kays & The Movement, and don’t forget the killer horn section! The combination is just dynamite and adds another dimension to what could have been a more conventional blues record. The backup band is surely an addition that will help to bring new listeners into the fold and help popularize the genre. In this way it sounded more like some of the B.B. King records I’ve heard. Albert King is at the top of his game on this record and the editor of Guitar Player Magazine gives an excellent description of his skills: “Albert King is the Muhammad Ali of blues guitar—a heavyweight with finesse, a bruiser with grace. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I couldn’t have said it better myself; prepare to get stung by one of the greats. Pick it up!
The recording quality is much better than you’d expect for this type of record considering it was recorded live, and its age—over 30 years old. Songs included are: I’ll Play The Blues For You (Parts 1 & 2); Little Brother (Make A Way); Breaking Up Someone’s Home; High Cost Of Loving; I’ll Be Doggone; Answer To The Laundromat Blues; Don’t Burn Down The Bridge (‘Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across); Angel Of Mercy.
Jazz In An R&B Groove; High Note HCD 6012 Stereo Hybrid SACD:
What’s this disc about? “The Music must move you. This is the criss-crossing of Jazz with R&B grooves that keeps the pulse going, not too fast, but enough to lift the spirits—and the feet! The songs evoke memories of the groove so familiar. Like an old friend.” You got it? What you have here is a compilation of tunes (some jazz, some otherwise) performed by modern artists. Audio quality on most of the tracks is above average and approaching the quality offered by better CDs. Bass had a tendency to sound a bit fat/muddy on a couple of the tunes, but it wasn’t enough to be bothersome—in fact on a different speaker system it was barely noticeable. The recording often sounding like it was made in a moderate sized venue instead of a studio—the sax on certain tracks sounded like it was in a chamber and not a soundproofed room.
Vocal tracks are mixed with pure instrumental numbers throughout the disc. I liked the tunes by Houston Person more than some of the others. Overall, the musicianship is solid and the recording is enjoyable, though not groundbreaking. It’s good background music–I’ll be keeping it. Songs included are: Irene Reid-What A Difference A Day Makes; Houston Person-What’s Going On; Dakota Staton-Night Life; Houston Person-Let’s Stay Together; Red Holloway-Watermelon Man; Della Griffin-This Bitter Earth; Houston Person-At Last; The Charles Earland Tribute Band-The Closer I Get To You; Ernie Andrews-Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool; Irene Reid-I Believe I Can Fly; Bruce Williams-Our Day Will Come.