Special Features

Audiophile Vinyl Reviews


Published on May 1, 2005

It’s been too long ago that we published our last vinyl reviews, and we have a stack of ten of them to cover this issue. This undeniably high-resolution format (when done correctly) has been finding new fans at a goodly pace and in fact (though I feel it somewhat embarrassing to reveal) has been outpacing in sales the combined sales of both SACD and DVD-A formats. Younger audio buffs are discovering vinyl for the first time with many rock albums issued simultaneously now on both CD and LP. Older collectors who got rid of their turntable or record changer some years ago are going back to vinyl with one of the many high quality turntables now on offer. They find CDs just don’t float their boat anymore.
Sure, there’s a number of hassles in the vinyl enjoyment experience we don’t need to go into now, as well as the expense. But there are plenty of pros vs. the cons. There have been major improvements in high end record-playing gear in the last ten years or so. 180 and 200 gram pressings have reduced the possibility of warpage while improving fidelity. You have more of a genuine product with vinyl – a beautiful package with easy to read notes and 12-inch-square artwork that can really be appreciated. Such as THIS ONE of Karrin Allyson - imagine this 12 inches square! And the sonics on a good playback system are nearly always superior in naturalness, non-irritating timbre (especially of voices and strings) and more “air” around the performers. Those of us who are fans of surround sound for music are sorry vinyl is only a two-channel format, but most vinyl-lovers are staunch two-channel people anyway, and for us insurgents there is always Dolby Pro Logic II or one of the other matrix surround decoders (but NOT the “boingerizers!”) to provide something of the surround experience. You don’t have to purchase just new audiophile pressings such as reviewed below if you don’t want to; those who kept their LP collection are discovering them all over again with enhanced playback equipment and a record cleaning machine. There are also audiophile discs of the past available on eBay and elsewhere, such as the now-seldom-seen Direct Discs. Every audiophile should have one of those in their collection at least, for a demonstration of what is possible with the supposedly “obsolete” needle-in-the-groove.

OK, off we go at 33 1/3 rpm:

Miles Davis Blue Note 10-incherMiles Davis – Young Man With a Horn – (with J.J. Johnson, Jackie McLean, Gil Coggins, Oscar Pettiford & Kenny Clarke) Blue Note 10-inch LP Modern Jazz Series 5013 (from Classic Records) ****:

Talk about nostalgia for some of us! Would you believe an audiophile pressing 10-inch mono LP? Well, believe it! Classic Records even replicated the back cover, which has no liner notes but just lists of other early Blue Note 10-inchers by Thelonious Monk, James Moody, Erroll Garner and others. Also to the non-raised-protective-edge of the disc as later LPs have. There isn’t even a mention in small print of Classic Records. (The one item that certainly wasn’t part of the original release is the plastic sleeve around the disc.)

Oh yeah, the music: This is early Miles and much more melodic than the bulk of his recorded repertory. His tone is richer and more romantic-sounding than on later recordings. His solos on Yesterdays on this disc are simply enchanting. In spite of the more conservative approach there is nothing ordinary or boring about these half dozen tracks. Joining Miles in the front line are J.J. Johnson’s trombone and Jackie McLean’s sax. You have to get up more frequently with this disc, but every vinylphile should have at least one 10-inch (uhh, isn’t there a double-entendre blues song about that?) Mine is going to be nestled right next to that terrific mono Count Basie LP with the atom bomb on the cover that Classic issued a couple years back. Tracks: Dear Old Stockholm, Chance It, Yesterdays, Donna, Would’n You, How Deep Is the Ocean.

John Lill plays Schumann - vinylROBERT SCHUMANN: Etudes symphonique; Fantasy in C Op. 17; Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26; Kinderszenen Op. 15 – John Lill, piano – Greenpro 4001 & 2 (2 discs), 75:50 ****:

This is our only classical vinyl this time, but it is a very special effort from leading recording engineer Tony Faulkner. He has been interviewed in Hi-Fi News and elsewhere on his reservations about digital recording and how he obtained a couple of used Studer A80 master open reel tape recorders, had them tweaked by Tim de Paravicini, and is using them to record material such as this album in both analog and digital formats. The digital master was used to produce a CD for Music for Pleasure, while the analog tapes are the sources of this double-LP on Tony’s own label – Green Room Productions.

I didn’t have the CD for comparison, but Hi-Fi News found that the piano had greater sustain and carrying power on the analog recording – the digital in comparison sounding leaden and lacking brilliance and sparkle. There was more of a 3D realism with the analog. I remember a listening session at an audiophile society shortly after the compact disc came out. Many of us agreed that though there were some problems with strings and human voice, piano reproduction was better than vinyl due to the rock-steady pitch accuracy of the digital clock system. This is due to the ability to easily hear wow, flutter and other pitch artifacts most easily in piano music. Surprisingly, in the Hi-Fi News comparison, the analog tapes beat out the digital in spite of this. Of course if the vinyl pressings or your turntable are not up to snuff pitch variations may come into play in final playback. I heard not a hint of instability, and I am both highly sensitive to it, plus I have no “AC flywheel” gadget on my SOTA turntable anymore (lost in moving).

Pianist John Lill has had a concert career of over 50 years and is regarded as the leading British classical pianist of his generation. He decided to do an all-Schumann album, opening with the fairly well-known Fantasy in C and closing with the very familiar Schumann standard piano suite, Scenes of Childhood – played by many piano students. However simple these 13 piece may seem, it takes a major artist to bring the miniatures to life in a fresh manner. Lill does this superbly with subtle phrasing and dynamics that elevate the music above the commonplace.
The Fantasy embodied themes which to Schumann suggested the difficult years when Clara Wieck’s father (and Schumann’s teacher) forbade him to see her. He told Clara later the first movement described a deep longing for her. The second is a brisk march with a big finish and the third surprisingly a quiet and dreamy 13-minute ending statement.

But the unusual selection here is the rarely-heard Faschingsschwank au Wein (Carnival Jest from Vienna). It is a suite like the Scenes of Childhood, but has only five sections and the first of them over nine minutes long. These are character pieces like the longer suite, but have normal titles such as Allegro, Scherzino and Finale. Most are boldly exuberant and lighthearted in nature, with the Intermezzo a glorious lyrical miniature that might be a Schumann lied. Lill was especially taken with this little suite, which he said he had never played publicly before. However, his interpretation reveals great passion, and the notes report that he played it from memory! The notes for this double-LP album cover the three faces of the album aside from the front cover. They include an essay on Schumann and the three works, the feature from Hi-Fi News titled Back to Analog, a Martin Colloms column from the same publication on the technical side of the production, and finally a bio of pianist John Lill. This album appears to support Faulkner’s allegations that analog recording and mastering to vinyl can still outshine the latest digital process on standard CD!

- Intro & above reviews: John Sunier

Ray Charles duet LPs

Ray Charles – Genius Loves Company (Duets with Natalie Cole, Elton John, Norah Jones, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Michael McDonald, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor) – Concord Records/Pure Audiophile Records PA-009 (2) ***:

This is the Grammy-winning album which has put Concord Records in a very good place financially, and has been released on both SACD and CD. Dennis Cassidy of Pure Audiophile obtained the original analog two-track master tapes, and has transferred them to four LP sides of HQ-180 gram virgin vinyl with three tracks per side in this limited edition package. The grooves are spread out on each side much as the 45 rpm audiophile 12-inchers, thus reducing groove echo and distortion. A wonderful 12-inch-square photo of Ray adorns the inside of the album – something you don’t get on either of the 5-inch formats.

I compared the CD layer, SACD stereo mix and the vinyl set. Let’s dispense with the CD – sounds opaque, “pushed” and rather lifeless. Some of the instrumental accompaniment sounds a bit too electronic/synth-like. I found the SACD – playing the stereo mix on my best two-channel Sony player with its Dan Wright mods – just about identical to the LPs. Possibly a modicum more “air” around the various voices on the vinyl, but extremely subtle. Also the vinyl seemed to have a slightly deeper bass end. At this point it’s not really needed to talk about the musical aspects of this final Ray Charles album, but I should say that I’m one of those who feel it’s far from a total success – in spite of the Grammy. Some of the duets are good but others fall flat, and perhaps some of the singers shouldn’t even have been selected to sing with Ray. But for me the saddest part is the weakened voice of Ray, heard clearly in some of the duets such as the one with Willie Nelson on It Was a Very Good Year, and now heard even more clearly on this technically superb vinyl transfer.

Tracks: Here We Go Again, Sweet Potato Pie, You Don’t Know Me, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word, Fever, Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?, It Was a Very Good Year, Hey Girl, Sinner’s Prayer, Heaven Help Us All, Over the Rainbow, Crazy Love.

Karrin Allyson LPKarrin Allyson – In Blue (with Danny Embrey, guitar; Mulgrew Miller, piano & Fender Rhodes; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums, Steve Wilson, alto & soprano sax) – Concord Records/ Pure Audiophile Records PA-007 (2) ****:

I got acquainted with Karrin Allyson’s special song stylings on the Concord Jazz Voices DVD we received recently (before I sent it off to a reviewer). I missed the original Concord CD of this album but after auditioning this double-LP set I can call myself a fan and forget about Diana Krall. Her voice is not large but it’s versatile, swinging and sexy, and I love her selection of tunes. They run from jazz standards to soul jazz, ballads, pop, and blues. The theme of blues is emphatically brought out by these two pressings being on bright blue vinyl! In the past I had thought that colored vinyl was noisier than the black, but the surfaces on these 180-gram discs are silent. Looks great spinning on your turntable.

Allyson’s band deserves no little credit for making this album a great one. Miller is one of the best pianists around, and Steve Wilson’s tasteful sax solos come in at just the right time and don’t outstay their welcome in the tunes. I especially liked Allyson’s picking tunes by such unexpected writers as Oscar Brown Jr. (two of his), Blossom Dearie, Mose Allison, and Matt Dennis. The with-lyrics versions of both Bobby Timmons’ instrumental Moanin’ and Benny Golson’s Whisper Not are included. Jazz writer Leonard Feather wrote the lyrics for the latter and also worked with Lionel Hampton on Evil Gal Blues. Sonics are great – wide-range and impactful – and Karrin’s voice is intimate and obviously closely-miced but not too breathy. I’m frankly more into instrumental jazz than vocal but this one is going to get a lot of playing!

Tracks: Moanin’, Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy, Long As You’re Living, My Bluebird, The Meaning of the Blues, Hum Drum Blues, How Long Has This Been Going On, West Coast Blues, Evil Gal Blues, Blue Motel Room, By Bye Country Boy, Love Me Like a Man, Angel Eyes, Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues, Whisper Not.

Bill Berry - Shortcake LPsBill Berry – Shortcake (Bill Berry, cornet; Marshal Royal, alto sax & clarinet; Lew Tabackin, tenor sax & flutes; Bill Watrous, trombone; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Alan Broadbent & Dave Frishberg, piano; Chuck Berghofer & Monty Budwig, bass; Franke Capp & Nick Ceroli, drums) – Concord Records/Pure Audiophile Records PA-004 (2) ****:

Another double-disc transfer from Concord’s original analog 2-track master tapes to these analog LPs. (The sleeve says “180-gram Colored Virgin Vinyl” but mine were black; course that’s means colored with lampblack.) Bill Berry will be known to most audiophiles as the leader of a similar small group on the highly-sought-after M & K direct disc “For Duke.” There’s even three tracks of Ellington tunes here, so it’s almost a For Duke volume 2. Berry played for a while with Ellington and has been leading various big bands for some time now. There are actually two groups on this recording: a quintet with Dave Frishberg on piano and Mundell Lowe’s guitar pitted against Berry, and a septet with the guitar and with the youngest member of this seasoned bunch of jazz veterans, Alan Broadbent.

The alternations of the two ensembles adds a lot of interest to Shortcake – sort of like getting both strawberries and cherries on yours. One of the wildest arrangements is Berry’s take on the traditional Royal Garden Blues. There’s some dissonances never heard from a trad jazz band; all seem to have great fun with this one. The players are set securely in a wide soundstage in front of you and the switches from quintet to septet are usually clearly apparent. Piano reproduction is especially realistic, and there’s no guessing the contrasting styles of Broadbent and Frishberg at the ivories. The last three tracks are listed as bonus tracks but I’m not sure if that means they were not on the earlier CD version. This is terrific music presented with the utmost fidelity – all concerned deserve highest praise.

Tracks: Avalon, Betty, Bloose, I Didn’t Know About You; Royal Garden Blues, Moon Song, I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You, What Am I Here For, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Stella By Starlight.

Art Pepper LPArt Pepper – So In Love (2 tracks with Hank Jones, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Al Foster, drums. 3 tracks with George Cables, piano; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – Analog Productions Revival Series APR 3013 ****:

There is no listing of the original label for this classic Pepper alto outing, but it looks like it could be one of the Fantasy jazz labels. The year was l979 and he had some of the top sidemen in jazz of the day supporting him. After the quirky opening Thelonious Monk standard and Pepper’s own Blues for Blanche, the rest of the album stresses the lyrical side of this bedeviled jazzman who wished he were black. Great sonics with fine presence. I was furnished a test pressing, so can’t speak definitely about the finished product.

Tracks: Straight No Chaser; Blues for Blanche, So In Love, Diane, Stardust.

Sonny Clark, piano LPSonny Clark, piano – Cool Struttin’ (with Art Farmer, trumpet; Jackie McLean, alto sax; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums) Blue Note1588; Classic Records ****:

There’s no date on this album but the rear jacket notes say High Fidelity, seeming to indicate it is mono (a Rudy Van Gelder recording effort). However, on the front cover is pasted a big gold sticker saying “STEREO.” I remember really loving those albums with such a sticker that come out in 1959, 1960 and perhaps a bit later. So that helps date the session. It also exhibits the rather widely-separated two-channel emphasis of those earlier stereo recordings.

Among Clark’s influences were Tatum, Waller, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, George Shearing and Thelonious Monk. He selected his sidemen for this recording date and the smoothly musical style of Art Farmer makes an interesting contrast with the sometimes squawking tone of saxist McLean. There are only four tracks, so there’s plenty of time for some soloing in depth. The first side is a pair of Clark’s own tunes, including the title tune which was inspired by his wife. Nat Hentoff wrote the original liner notes.

Tracks: Cool Struttin,’ Blue Minor, Sippin’ at Bells, Deep Night.

Mingus Impulse reissue LPMingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus – Charlie Mingus plays in and leads an 11-man ensemble in mostly his own compositions (incl. Britt Woodman, Booker Irvin, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Charles Mariano, Jerome Richardson) – Impulse! AS-54/Speakers Corner import ****:

This 1963 Impulse album really featured Mingus in a big way, with his name repeated five times on the cover. And it stands as one of the most important of his recorded repertory. The burly and grouchy bass player, composer, arranger and band leader regarded himself as an “animal trainer” in keeping his sidemen performing up to his expectations at all times. And that wasn’t easy for these top jazzmen either, since Mingus was famous for changing his charts all the time and singing the changes in tunes over the phone to his players – then demanding something different from them onstage! I recall doing some photography backstage at a Newport Festival with Mingus arriving in high dudgeon because one of his sidemen hadn’t yet arrived – who had all the music with him! To give Mingus the benefit of the doubt, he was a genius and he did have some horrific bad luck in his life.

Six of the seven numbers here are Mingus’ – he learned arranging from Duke Ellington and emulated Ellington in liking to slant his charts specifically to the individual talents of his sidemen. The non-Mingus tune is the Duke’s Mood Indigo. The others are full of the gutsy, forceful and strongly rhythmic Mingus style and several feature the strong and meaty sound of his acoustic bass front and center, which often serves to drive on his players to greater spontaneous emotional expression. IX Love is lyrical but still retains the strongly-stated Mingus approach. For some echt-Mingus, dig Better Git Hit In Yo’ Soul with its rousing, bouncing rhythms and hand-clapping.

Clapping is a great test of fidelity and comes off with startling realism here. So does Mingus’ bass in the dead center of the soundstage. In fact, rather than suffering from the hole-in-the-middle effect of many early stereo recordings, this one seems to have two holes – one on either side of Mingus in the center – whether you have a center channel speaker or not. Almost like the players are in three different studios. (I was wishing for the very useful L + R knob on my Apt-Holman preamp of yore.) The deep bass notes of Mingus’ instrument are cleanly and tunefully reproduced, and the drum set sounds less tinny than on many early jazz recordings. I have some original Impulse LPs but not this one. Speakers Corner points out that most of them suffered from “streaks.” I’m not sure what that means – perhaps something lost in the translation from the German – but I know that this disc sounds 100% better than those Impulse LPs I have. A very odd notice on this disc which I remember being nonplussed by years ago on the original Impulses: The 1963 artwork is replicated here and in large letters on both the back cover and inside it says ETHNIC FOLK-DANCE MUSIC! It doesn’t sound like Mingus’ humor. Go figger…

Tracks: II B.S., IX Love, Celia, Mood Indigo, Better Git Hit In Yo’ Soul, Theme for Lester Young, Hora Decubitus.

Oliver Nelson Sextet LPOliver Nelson Sextet – The Blues and The Abstract Truth (Nelson, alto & tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax & flute; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; George Barrow, baritone sax; Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) – Impulse AS-5/Speakers Corner ****:

Oliver Nelson was one of the great arrangers in modern jazz, who came to attention with his series of small-group LPs on the Prestige label. This 1961 release was a bigger budget effort with more time, and the ability to secure Bill Evans and Freddie Hubbard for the session. He wrote and arranged all six tracks especially for the recording. The alto and flute solos of Eric Dolphy added a great deal to the ensemble and are one of the highlights of this disc. Nelson strove to put the blues in modern garb and his superb charts used for this session are studied today in jazz schools as examples of the best techniques. He played around with unusual keys and tonal centers, and with blues structures that were not limited to the standard 12 or 32 bars. This is pretty dense and chromatic stuff – not your typical Basie arrangements – but careful listening reveals many treasures. Sonics are first rate of course.

Tracks: Stolen Moments, Hoe-Down, Cascades, Yearnin,’ Butch and Butch, Tennie’s Blues.

Jimmy Giuffre 3 vinylThe Jimmy Giuffre 3 – The Easy Way (Giuffre, reeds; Jim Hall, guitar; Ray Brown, bass) – Verve MG VS-6095 *****:

The unique timbre of Jimmy Giuffre’s soft and gentle clarinet and saxes lights up this brilliant collection of small group swing dating from 1959. Ain’t no honking here! The trio is without percussion, which is fine with me – often preferring a chamber jazz sort of sound. Ray Brown’s walking bass keeps Giuffre and Jim Hall moving right along with vigor. Hall was the perfect choice to complement Giuffre’s style, since he has also made a career out of a unique soft and gentle sound. Giuffre accents the lower registers of both his clarinet and sax here, which together with the low tones of both Hall and Brown results in some sexy, almost suggestive moods. Giuffre composed six of the nine tunes and the trio dug into all of them spontaneously in the studio. Great music, great players, great sound.

Tracks: The Easy Way, Mack the Knife, Come Rain or Come Shine, Ray’s Time, A Dream, Off Center, Montage, Time Enough.

- above reviews: John Henry




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