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Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 1 - January 2002

DVD-Audio Multichannel Discs

HANDEL: Music for the Royal Fireworks; Water Music Suites 1 - 3 - London Sym. Orch. (Fireworks)/Prague Chamber Orch. (Water)/ Sir Charles Mackerras - EMI Classics 4 92400 9 DVD-A:

This is another resuscitated quad analog recording from the late 1970's, when quad LPs had just about died out but Angel continued to master many classical sessions in four channels just in case. Since I still own a number of Angel's so-called compatible SQ quad LPs plus the Cantares SQ processor I can make comparisons. I didn't have the LP of this particular one, but judging from similar era Angel product the quality of the 4.0 DVD-A is hands down superior to the primitive matrixed surround of the SQ LPs. There is less noise and distortion, better sound staging, extended frequency response, and of course no vinyl surface noise or turntable rumble. The center channel and LFE channel are not really important for this type of music in surround - though if they existed, additional side/height channels might add a great deal to the surround experience.

Mackerras is a winner in Handel/Mozart/Haydn repertory. He gives it a sprightly and enthusiastic demeanor that never suffers from exaggerated reverence that can drag it down to the soporific level. And while not employing original Baroque instruments, Mackerras on the other hand hews to recent more authentic performance practice than some past Handel interpreters such as Stokowski. Though I did miss Stoky's actual fireworks sound effects, which would have been great in surround! The visual portions have some illustrations of royal festivities befitting the various movements, but like most of the visual material on classical DVD A discs, I doubt if I would ever look at it again when listening to them.

- John Sunier

RAVEL: Quartet in F Major; DEBUSSY: Quartet in G Minor; FAURE: Quartet in E minor - The Guarneri String Quartet - SurroundBy Entertainment SBE 1004-9 DVD-A:

As with their DVD-As covered last month, SBE eschews the Dolby Digital tracks that allow playing of their discs on standard DVD video players. Instead they provide some of the very few 192K stereo mixes so far available on DVD-A, plus the usual 24big/96K surround mix (though it is 4.0 rather than 5.1). There are also additional CD-ROM features. The photo gallery consists of about three dozen photos of the recording session, as well as other photos of the quartet. It adds another dimension to listening to the music to be able to see the mike and performer setups in detail. There is no commentary, aural or printed about the photos but they are still interesting to run thru using the advance button on your remote. Bios on the performers are also provided. The note booklet is also quite detailed - more so than with most other classical DVD-As.

One gets a bargain, quartet-wise. Normally only the Debussy and Ravel Quartets are paired up on a CD but here the Faure is also included - which is an excellent match to the other two. All three are bursting with gorgeous melody and lovely harmonies. I've recommended them to newcomers just getting into chamber music and put off by the more standard quartet literature. (Another good choice is the two Borodin quartets.) The Guarneri is one of the top quartets in the business, they have made many recordings for RCA Victor in the past. Their silky intonation and phrasing is just perfect for this sensuous and intimate music. The surround channels are subtle and never exaggerated, but muting them completely causes everything to collapse unnaturally to the front and some of the magic of the experience to dissipate quickly.

- John Sunier

Bobby Short - Piano - SurroundedBy Entertainment SBE 1003-9 DVD-A:

Ah, it's difficult to find something sophisticated and witty to say about cabaret icon Bobby Short. He's been around seemingly forever now, doing the best of the gems from the Great American Songbook for his Manhattan and world-traveling devotees. A voice that's good but not the greatest around and a piano style that also is good but not spectacular. But put together with the unique attention to the message of the lyrics found with the very best of cabaret performers, you have a whole gestalt that is much more than its parts - a classy classic. Although titled "Piano," you know with Short it's not going to be entirely instrumental - he sings on two of the tracks (Smiles, and Maybe). Actually, his ivory-tickling is extremely impressive - I hadn't paid much attention to it in the past but with the up front clarity and realism of this DVD-A surround experience I found myself hanging on his every note and finding them fresh and exciting. The jazz element in his playing seems more prominent than I recall from Short's previous albums. His voice is front and center but the piano is spread out on all three frontal channels, suffering somewhat from the familiar too-wide piano soundstage, as found on most piano recordings. His sidemen are all superb too: the talented guitarist Howard Alden and trumpeter John Echert being the leads, along with bass and drums. Some listeners have felt the trumpet was out of balance with the rest of the instruments but to me it sounded just right.

The extras here will keep you occupied twice as long as just listening to the music all the way thru. What is described as The Video Segment is a fascinating interview with Short taped at the Cafe Carlyle. He speaks about his childhood, the early stages of his career, his connections with many music greats including Ellington, Strayhorn, Eubie Blake, Lena Horn, Sinatra and others. There is another separate menu just on Short, with a Bio, Discography, Awards & Honors, and a lengthy perusal thru his Scrapbook with Short's commentary on each photo of him as child, young performer, and with various celebrities. The menu selection called simply The Songs displays the sheet music cover for each of the tunes with some historical details, and gives you a choice of further spoken commentary on them either from Short himself or from music writer Robert Kimball. The Mix Diagram shows you exactly where each performer should be located in your listening room with proper speaker setup - there are eight specific locations in the same general area on the right for the various elements of the drum set alone. Finally, there is a useful section found on all SBE discs: How to Use This DVD. Here's the songs: Back Home Again in Indiana, Tea for Two, Maybe, Memories of You, As Long As I Live, Mood Indigo, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Lonely Co-ed, Dream Dancing, 'Round Midnight, If I Were a Bell, Isfahan, Smiles, I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good, Remember, After All, Lotus Blossom/Warm Valley, St. Louis Blues.

(Again, this is a DVD-A disc only, without the Dolby Digital layer for video DVD players. The same album is also released simultaneously on a standard CD with HDCD encoding. I haven't done a comparison as yet because I'm not yet hooked up for proper HDCD decoding, but no previous such comparison has yet shown the CD version of any sort to equal the fidelity of the DVD-A.)

- John Sunier

George Benson, Breezin' - Orchestra arr. & cond. By Claus Ogerman - Warner Bros./Rhino 76715-9 DVD-A:

I'm one of those instrumental fans who wish not only Benson but people such as John Pizzarelli and Nat King Cole had stuck with their guitars or keyboards and not switched to being primarily vocalists. However, only a few of the eight tracks here are vocals, and with the sure hand of arranger Claus Ogerman on this album, the many guest artists, and the attractions not only of six-channel surround but also videos and other extras on this disc, I was willing to give it a chance.

The tunes are; Breezin', This Masquerade, Six to Four, Affirmation, So This is Love?, Lady, Shark Bite, Down Here on the Ground. The original LP, issued in l976, lacked the last two tracks included here. The high-res six channel mix was made from the original analog tapes. The bonus video segments were of course taped recently. They include short comments about this watershed album with not only guitarist/singer Benson but also producer Tommy LiPuma, Al Schmitt, Phil Upchruch, drummer Harvey Mason and others. The complete lyrics to each song can be presented on screen for those songs with lyrics. There is good contrast among the eight tunes; among the points made by the video is that six of those eight tracks were first takes, a testament to how together Benson and everyone else was at this session. This Masquerade is of course the big hit on the album, and is a joy to hear in surround. I had forgotten how much of it is Benson's unique scat and vocalizing, with his voice sometimes blending amazingly with his guitar lines for fine effect.

The surround channels are primarily used for assorted percussion such as conga drums and shakers, but also aiding in giving the guitar a sort of floating quality - although you can still place it to left of center on the frontal soundstage. The opening strings on Lady surround one sensuously.

- John Sunier

David Alan - DTS 01079-9-1:

Allan is the front man of a band called PCH, and this is their debut album reissued under his name in a DVD-Audio version 5.1 mix, as well as DVD-A stereo, plus DTS-encoded 5.1 surround and lastly Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo for those without either DVD-A or DTS decoding. There's also room for some video extras. The surround mixes make good use of the 5.1 channels without the exaggeration of the rear channels heard on some DTS mixes. The tunes are: Locomotive, Give Me Back My Heart, Memorize This Moment, Marylou, Mississippi Girl, It Should've Been You, Dangerous, Are You Ready for Love?, The Further She'll Fly, The Woman in You. Country/pop singer/songwriter Allan is described as reminiscent of early James Taylor and on a few of the tunes that appears accurate. Nevertheless, I'll take Taylor anytime.

- John Sunier

SACD Stereo Discs

RICHARD WAGNER: Orchestral Highlights from the Ring of the Nibelungs. Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde - The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell - Sony Classical SACD SS 89035:

More select masters from the vaults of Sony Music being heard for the first time much as they sounded in the recording booth originally, these dating from l962 and l968. I'm definitely not a Wagnerite, but Szell whips up such drama and depth from his Clevelanders in these instrumental excerpts that I can't help but be captivated. (The absence of Wagnerian vocalists is also very vindicating.) One appreciates the originality and genius of Wagner's orchestrations even more without the singing. In fact, this is a wonderful way to plough thru all the important musical themes of all four too-long operas of The Ring, in the proper order, and to do it in about three-quarters of an hour! One would never suspect these are up to 40-year-old recordings!

- John Sunier

TORU TAKEMITSU: Rain Coming, Archipelago S for 21 Players, Fantasma/Cantos II (for trombone & orchestra), Requiem for Strings, How slow the Wind, Tree Line - Christian Lindberg, trombone/Kioi Sinfonietta Tokyo/Tadaki Otaka - BIS Stereo SACD-1078:

Takemitsu, who died in l996, is known for his dreamy, meditational nature-oriented music which is neither diatonic nor serialized. He has a unique capacity for communicating certain emotions musically. For that reason he was one of Japan's primary serious composers of scores for the cinema. The major work here is the mini-trombone concerto with soloist Lindberg, to whom he gives a long-lined opening solo passage. The work even shows some mild syncopation- the result of Takemitsu's interest in traditional jazz. The Requiem is a very early work and reminded me of a somewhat more relaxed and less shocking string lament by Penderecki. Tree Line is a melancholic and touching chamber work, again inspired by wild nature. Excellent playing from this small Japanese chamber orchestra and very natural string tone from BIS' engineering on the disc.

- John Sunier

Eric Bibb and Needed Time - Spirit & the Blues - Opus 3 SACD CD19411:

Eric is the Swedish-based son of folk music great Leon Bibb, and has made a number of albums for Opus 3 over the years. In this effort of about seven years ago he assembled a small group called The Deacons to back him up. He also uses an ensemble that includes mandolin, bouzouki, accordion and harmonica. Many of the tracks are just Bibb's solos and guitar accompaniment, whereas others pull out all the stops and involve as many as 13 players. This is basic churchy, grassroots folk music very artistically presented. The imaginative changes of instrumentation keep up the interest of listeners (such as myself) who are not heavily into folk music. All lyrics are included in the printed booklet.

The tunes: Lonesome Valley, In My Father's House, Needed Time, I Am Blessed, Just Keep Goin' On, Where Shall I Be; Woke Up This Morning, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, Braggin', Satisfied Mind, Tell Ol' Bill, Meetin' at the Buildin', Waltz.

Terence Blanchard, trumpet - Let's Get Lost - (The Songs of Jimmy McHugh) with vocalists Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves & Cassandra Wilson - Sony Classical SS 899607 SACD:

Blanchard is a highly creative composer/arranger/performer. For this album he honored the song-writing talents of McHugh, who had more of a jazz background than most Tin Pan Alley songsters - writing for the Ellington Band among others. I confess to not having previously included McHugh in my personal pantheon of Great American Song composers, but learning via Blanchard's efforts what terrific songs came from his pen I've been thoroughly elucidated. Blanchard selected four contrasting female vocalists to interpret the songs and customized the particular choices as well as arrangements to fit the various singers. The fifth element in this concept album is Blanchard's very expressive trumpet. Tenorman Brice Winston sits in on some tracks. The unforced depth and clarity of SACD highlights the subtle differences in timbre and delivery among the four singers. The tunes are: Let's Get Lost, Too Young to Go Steady, You're a Sweetheart, I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me, I'm in the Mood for Love, Don't Blame Me, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Exactly Like You, Can't Get Out of This Mood, Lost in a Fog, On the Sunny Side of the Street.

- John Sunier

Paquito D'Rivera and 12-piece band plus vocalists - Tropicana Nights - Chesky SACD 208:

Not the Tropicana in Vegas but the former one in Havana - called by many the world's most beautiful nightclub - is the focus of the latest CD from the Cuban reed instrument virtuoso. The 11 tracks celebrate the spicy fusion of American jazz with Cuban music which started in the 40s and is still going on. D'Rivera's own notes in the booklet describe the club as a center of Havana's pre-revolution night life. The strong jazz element in his arrangements prevents the stuck-record feeling some of us who are not serious salsa fans often get listening to Latin bands. And the precise and detailed DSD reproduction separates the many different timbres of all the Cuban percussion instruments heard in the band. The tunes: Mambo a la Kenton, Chucho, Cicuta Tibia, Siboney, Old Miami Sax, Tropicana Nights, Sustancia, Como Fue, El Coronel Y Marina, Mambo Inn, The Peanut Vendor.

- John Sunier

The Steve Davis Project - Quality of Silence - DMP SACD-04:

Drummer Davis leads a quintet with Tim Ries on soprano sax; John Hart, guitar; Andy LaVerne, piano; and Drew Gress, bass. The title of the album ties in with Davis finding himself drawn to the silences in music as becoming often more expressive than the sounds themselves. Together with DMP's CEO Tom Jung a studio recording setup was created especially to force the players to play more quietly and really listen to one another - none of them - even Davis himself - were put in an acoustic isolation booth, and on top of that nobody was supplied with the usual headphones. The result is a more intimate and delicate sound than 99% of groups with similar instrumentation ever achieve. I hadn't paid that much attention to Davis' other work on this label, but on the strength of this I would say he's part of that small coterie of drummers (Chico Hamilton and Connie Kay among them) who treat their drum set as a real musical instrument and not just a time-keeping noise generator. The whole concept of this album ties in perfectly with DSD's abilities to preserve very subtle sonic events ignored by the less frequent sampling methods. There's no shouting or honking here, and musical communication is the better for it. The tunes - mostly exhibiting a thoughtful nature - are: The Quality of Your Silence, Bye Bey Blackbird, One Two Free, I Thought About You, Yesterdays, Infant Eyes, Free to be Me, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I'm Old-Fashioned, Freedom, A Cole Porter Flat.

- John Sunier

Joe Beck, guitar; Ali Ryerson, alto flute; Steve Davis, percussion - "Alto" - DMP SACD-06:

Back in October I reviewed the "Django" SACD by this terrific duo (minus drummer Davis). Alto was actually released first, but I somehow missed it until now. The same qualities of simplicity, directness, and unique voicings of the two instrumental lines apply here. The rich throaty timbre of the flute melds perfectly with Beck's special alto electric guitar, which has three pairs of strings in three separate registers. I always felt the flute was the most electronic-sounding of orchestral instruments, so the combination of these two special timbres is a very successful one. The 14 tunes: Ode to Billy Joe, 'Round Midnight, Joy Spring, Mother's Day, Willow Weep for Me, Waiting if the Hardest Part, Summertime, Scarborough Fair/Norwegian Wood, Autumn Leaves, Cuidado, Song for my Father, What Would I Do Without You?, Billie's Bounce, We Will Meet Again.

- John Sunier

Manfredo Fest, piano - Just Jobim - (David Finck, bass; Cyro Baptista, percussion; Steve Davis, drums) - DMP SACD-05:

Fest has had a long career as one of Brazil's leading jazz pianists. It is natural therefore that he has been a faithful interpreter of many of the 300 songs penned by the late Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almedia Jobim. Just as with Terence Blanchard's McHugh album above, Fest has always wanted to record an all-Jobim album, and here it is. He selected an even dozen of them, combining some big hits with less well-known tunes that he felt should be more often heard. They're not all bossa novas - one is even a jazz waltz. Fest says of Jobim "He went beyond Brazilian...using a universal language that anyone can relate to," and his versions bring a more active jazzy virtuosity to the tunes that still retains Jobim's relaxed swing and sensuous melodies. The tunes: Waters of March, Wave, Desafinado, Double Rainbow, Amparo, Gil from Ipanema, Anos Dourados, Agua de Beber, Ligia, So Tinha que Ser Com Voce, Quiet Nights, Luisa.

- John Sunier

Freddy Cole - Merry Go Round - Telarc Jazz 69408 SACD:

The latest album from the younger brother of Nat King Cole was a delight in its CD version released in 2000, and the SACD release only doubles that delight with its enhanced realism and micro-detail. The instrumental contributions of the small group playing behind Cole are also more apparent not, including Lew Soloff's trumpet, alternating bassists George Mraz and Herman Burney, and piano Cedar Walton, who relieves Cole of his simultaneous piano accompaniment role on seven of the tracks. The tunes: Watching You Watching Me, It's Impossible, Merry-Go-Round, I Remember You, Forgive My Heart, Through a Long and Sleepless Night, If You Went Away, Take a Little Time to Smile, I Realize Now/I Miss You So, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, You're Sensational.

- John Sunier

Luqman Hamza - With This Voice - Groove Note GRV1007-3 SACD:

Hamza has been payin' his dues in the jazz world for many decades - though most under the name Larry Cummings. He played for years in Kansas City and Chicago, with people like Miles, Ray Charles and Jay McShann. His specialty has been jazz interpretations of love songs and one of his heroes has been Nat King Cole. His strong tenor voice and clear enunciation bespeak the classy, smooth style of Cole but with a distinctive sound of his own. His also holds his own as a jazz pianist - there are no other keyboards on this date. The other musicians are his good friend Sonny Kenner on guitar, Kim Park on alto sax and flute, Tyrone Clark, bass and Tommy Ruskin, drums. The 14 tunes: Born to be Blue, Feeling Good, My one and Only Love, Never Let Me Go, Weaver of Dreams, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Laura, What Does It Take, Just One of Those Things, With These Hands, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

- John Sunier

Joe Beard, featuring Duke Robillard and friends - Dealin' - Audioquest Music AQ-SACD 1055:

This is a fine example of the many audiophile blues recordings which have done much better sales-wise than audiophile jazz and classical, partly via reaching collectors with little audiophile interest but plenty of love for the blues. Joe Harley produced the session as he has many others for this label and others. Beard is a Mississippi-born electric guitarist and blues vocalist, who wrote many of the 13 tunes on this disc. Robillard is the second guitarist, Bruce Katz is the pianist who also swings the Hammond B3 on many rocking tracks, and 'harpist Jerry Portnoy does his thing on about half of the tracks. (Got no Complaint about him.) Have to admit I'm not a special blues fan, but any aggregation with both B3 and harmonica in it is probably going to be a kick to listen to. Even though it's not as large a band, the instrumentation and jazzy style here reminded me somewhat of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band which I used to greatly enjoy. The lyrics have a lot going for them too - often witty and poetically self deprecating - instead of the usual cliched laments of many blues songs. The impact of the band comes across with a clarity and concise soundstaging that's missing from most 44.1 digital blues recordings. The B3's left-most pedals will really rock your sub(s).

The tunes: The Bitter Seed, You Don't Love Me Anymore, Just Like a Fish, Life Without Parole, My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble, Holding a Losing Hand, Give Up and Let Me Go, Three-Day Love Affair, Making a Fool Out of Me, Long Tall Shorty, That So-called Friend of Mine, You'd Better Be Sure, If I Get Lucky.

- John Henry

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