AM Finds Some Special Vinyl in Speakers Corners, Union Station, Abbey Road & Other Places of Pure Pleasure

      Date posted: September 10, 2008

I have to confess that in 2008 I’ve been very remiss in my music reviewing, and not for want of available recordings. There have just seemed to be too many other distractions, such as tuner and projector projects (the former in its final phase, and the latter just getting lit up, so to speak, with two reviews already posted), recording projects (two organ CDs with Ian Sadler), and numerous other activities, including grandchildren and the day-to-day running of AIG. But coming back to vinyl, especially with the offerings of Audio Basics’s enthusiastic Benjamin Scarcelli, has given me good company and good listening, and quite literally, Pure Pleasure, one of the audiophile labels we’ve been sampling.

Another label, Speakers Corner Records of Germany, was kind enough to send us a few of their LPs directly, all classic reissues, though not all classical. Not at all classical is a blockbuster set from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab of Union Station Live, and we’ll also comment on another MFSL LP set from country blues singer Dave Alvin. And, venturing into the rock scene of Yesterday, why not go to Abbey Road at EMI with LOVE, an anthology of Beatles songs put together by the 5th Beatle, George Martin, and his son Giles for Cirque de Soleil. We’ll also be reviewing that one in DVD-Audio surround soon. And on the folk side, we find some classic Joni Mitchell and new Ray Montford, his first vinyl venture. This summer, my turntable has had my head spinning as much as the weather did! But the first label I want to offer is…
Ray Brown/Soular Energy
Audiophile Master Recordings

The releases we have from this reissue specialist are all Jazz, Soular Enegy, with the Ray Brown Trio (PA-002, 2 discs, 33.3 rpm); Bill Berry, Shortcake (PA-004, 2 discs, 33.3 rpm); and Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles and various other singers (PA-009, 2 discs, 33.3 rpm). The latter I’ll leave for last, since there are a lot of voices and music to talk about, with some pretty unusual repertoire, even for the Genius. Maybe not quite in the genius class is Karrin Allyson, whose album, In Blue  (PA-007 2 discs, 33.3 rpm) flirts with jazz and musical mimicry. More on this below.

What these recordings share is production values and sound quality, not always a given with Concord Jazz over the years. And they’ve never been heard better in vinyl than here, spread over 4 sides, as half-speed mastered by Stan Ricker, and pressed in 180-gram virgin vinyl by RTI. The discs are all dead quiet but full of life sonically. As an aside, I much prefer the sound of 33 1/3 LPs over 45-rpm discs, and feel the extra dynamics can come from widely spaced, deeper grooves, rather than a higher speed; after all, as CD-4 quad showed, LPs can span a frequency range to beyond 40 kHz, so there’s no inherent advantage in speed, as there is with analog tape.

If there’s any technical criticism I can make, it’s that the deep bass is a little overpowering, which may wake smaller speakers up, but in subwoofer-plentiful systems like mine, backing off bass is required. The sound is also a little dense and compressed in the Ray Charles, but more on that below

Soular Energy - I’m no stranger to solar, 4 panels on the roof of my cottage come Summer, but I think Ray Brown has something else in mind. This is a great record, especially for those of us who appreciate great bassists as I do, having recorded one in Chuck Israels (The Bellingham Sessions, Vols 1 and 2, AI-CD-011 & 013), and here Ray Brown’s wonderfully round tone is very prominent. The other Trio members are Gene Harris, piano, and Gerryck King, drums, with guest appearances on Mistreated But Undefeated Blues  by tenor saxman Red Holloway and the late, lamented, and lovely Emily Remler (I have an absolutely wonderful LP that she did with Larry Coryell, Together [Concord Jazz CJ-289], with them both wearing “We just did it!” smiles on the cover…HOT! And the playing is magical, too).

But back to Bassics. Side B (of 4) starts with a gorgeously relaxed version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘A’ Train, where Ray and Gene Harris seem to be so connected to each other and the tune is so bluesy, that it just gets up and struts around your room in slo-mo. The aforementioned Mistreated Blues comes next, and is followed by a quite haunting version of That’s All. This is the best side of the four, but that’s not to say that the others won’t be enjoyed more by other listeners. And the outtakes are even better than the original choices in two cases, the second A Train even bluesier, and the Mistreated  Blues an even hotter treat, especially Emily Remler’s blazing guitar solo. Maybe this is why they pressed this disc in red vinyl, the only one so favoured in the Audiophile Master review samples.
Bill Berry/Shortcake

Shortcake - Bill Berry is often a muted-trumpet kind of guy, but has little else in common with Miles Davis. In fact, this album comes off more as tribute to Duke Ellington and his players, Johnny Hodges in particular. But Alan Broadbent’s piano playing is very reminiscent of the Duke, and sets the pattern for the rest of the players, especially in Berry’s Bloose, while the other original by the cornetist, Betty, gives Marshall Royal a chance to outswoop Hodges on alto.

Bloose is a clear homage to the Ellington of Anatomy of a Murder, that bluesy soundtrack I’ve loved since I was a teenager, with Berry opening on vibes, and then switching to his cornet. But there are two groupings on the discs, the big band featuring Berry, Royal and Broadbent, with Lew Tabackin, tenor, Bill Watrous, trombone, with a rhythm section of Monty Budwig, bass and Nick Ceroli, drums. The small group, a quintet, features Berry and Budwig, with Frankie Capp drums, Dave Frishberg, piano, and adds Mundell Lowe, one of my longtime favourite guitarists. The music is all fabulously played, the musicians loose and tight at the same time, and the addition of three bonus tracks adds to the listening enjoyment, two of which come from another album, Tribute To Duke, and add to the Ellingtonian essence of this special Shortcake. This LP is a must-own for Jazz lovers on both sonic and musical grounds.
Karrin Allyson/Blue

Unfortunately, that can’t be said for Karrin Allyson’s In Blue. With a rather nasal, plain, and plaintive voice to start, she’s no Tierney Sutton for sure, and her major vocal skill seems to be an ability to mimic the style and mannerisms of the singers whose songs she’s covering. These include Joni Mitchell (Blue Motel Room)  and Bonnie Raitt (Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy, Love Me like A Man, neither written by Raitt, but made her own in interpretation), and perhaps others I don’t recognize. The album notes describe Allyson’s performances as “vibrantly painted in glowing and swinging Karrin Allyson hues”. Would it were true! But to my ears the swinging is imitation, and the singing limp rather than limpid. I hope she’s got a day job.

But maybe this LP set was made pale by the glow of true musical brilliance, as Ray Charles got together with his  favourite singers and had a blast! It was almost a musical “last will and testament” for Ray, and he made the most of it. His choice of singers does not include our Karrin, but does involve Bonnie Raitt, as well as Natalie Cole, Norah Jones, Gladys Knight (no Pips, just Raylettes), Diana Krall, as well as male vocalists Elton John (!), B.B. King, James Taylor, Michael McDonald, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrison, and Willie Nelson.

Every vocal performance on this album is memorable, but by far the most poignant is that with Willie, two old guys pondering their mortality in It Was A Very Good Year. I can identify with that. The sumptuous  orchestral arrangements are reminiscent of the Capitol albums by Sinatra at his peak, like Only The Lonely. That Genius Loves Company  was mixed at Capitol Studios in Hollywood seems appropriate. Ray even wakes up Diana Krall with You Don’t Know Me, a major accomplishment in my view, in a nice restatement of one of the great Charles hits. Seriously, though, all the vocal performances here are terrific, and very well recorded, the miking appropriately intimate. Other standouts are Fever, with Natalie Cole, and Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?  with Bonnie, though other listeners will have their own favourites. But Natalie has never sounded sexier, and Bonnie brought her slide guitar, and that’s all that matters.
Ray Charles/Genius Love Company
This album has also been re-released in multichannel SACD (Concord/HEAR Music SACD 1033-6), as has another Ray Charles classic, Ray Sings, Basie Swings (Telarc SACD 63679), and both are amazing immersive musical experiences! I’ll say more about that soon, but in the meantime, more LP reviews from the labels noted above will follow in the coming days.

 Andrew Marshall

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