Audio Ideas, December 2011 - Recent SACDs, CDs, Blu-rays, & Other Confections (Or Not)!

      Date posted: December 21, 2011

Regeneration - Stephen Lyman
Regeneration: Stephen Lyman, guitar  IsoMike #5598 SACD 4-channel Surround

This SACD was recorded in the Weber (pronounced “Weeber” by the locals) State University concert hall in Salt Lake City, where Ray Kimber has hung his IsoMike array for ongoing recording purposes. Already, some very fine recordings have come out of this venue, including several by the Fry Street String Quartet of works by Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and other composers, reviewed elsewhere on this site. The IsoMike recording system, developed by Ray Kimber (Kimber Kable), uses a large hung microphone array so baffled as to minimize inter-channel acoustic interference, and thereby increase detail, spatial precision, and honesty of ambient field. Because these SACDs are neither peak-limited nor compressed at all, they sound softer initially to the ear, especially with rather introspective music such as this. However, when peaks do occur they are very powerful and clean, demanding great transient power in an audio system.

Stephen Lyman plays a classical guitar, and all of the short pieces are either of his composition or arrangement. The album starts with Toru Takemitsu’s  All In Twilight, followed by arrangements of 3 of Bartok’s 44 Duets for Two Violins, the rest of the program being Lyman original compositions. His playing throughout is unusually clean, with minimal fret noise, this highlighted by the recording process. As a onetime guitarist myself, I can appreciate this technical prowess alone, which gives the music a special clarity and accessibility.

The program is carefully paced and ordered to be heard as a single expression, and makes for very enjoyable listening, so much so that I have put it on numerous times without actually thinking about it as review material. Perhaps that’s the highest praise I can give this lovely SACD. Lyman’s compositional style reminds me of Bach at his most reflective, developing themes so reflectively that they float in the air of time. The Three Sketches caracteristiques transition smoothly into his Regeneration Suite, which offers quite striking dynamics in Part II. The following Two Etudes are “expansions for the technique of guitar performance, with sentiment and reference to compositions of the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos”, according to Lyman’s liner notes.

All in all, this album is a lovely and virtuosic collection that plays as a single suite, varying in intensity and colour in a most satisfying way.
Jimmy Cobb - Jazz in the Key of Blue
Jimmy Cobb Quartet: Jazz In The Key Of Blue - Jimmy Cobb, drums; Roy Hargrove, trumpet/flugelhorn; Russell Malone, guitar; John Webber, bass   Chesky SACD344 Multichannel Surround

This is one of the most natural surround SACDs I’ve heard yet, with Malone at left, Webber centre, Cobb’s small drum kit (snare with brushes, and a cymbal) spread at right, and Hargrove waving his breathy trumpet or flugelhorn at several degrees on either side of centre most of the time. Recorded with a SoundField  microphone, the sound is essentially discrete ambisonic, with front emphasis. The dynamics are very realistic, especially on the horns, and the drumming subdued and sweet, with all that taste that Jimmy showed over 50 years ago on Kind Of Blue. Malone’s playing is, alternately, very melodic, and rhythmically secure when comping behind Hargrove. These guys are really in a groove for these sessions, which like KOB was, are, as they say, “live off the floor”. It’s all improvised, and very laid back and lovely in a combination of standards (Emily, Stairway To The Stars, What Will I Do) and less well-known tunes like Cobb’s and  David Matthews’ Remembering U  (it must be new, since it uses Tweetspeak), and With You I’m Born Again  by Carol Connors and David Shire.

Roy Hargrove is one of the better and creative young horn players out there, his breathy tone becoming as as recognizable as that of sax legend Paul Gonsalves. He shows an ease of phrasing and warmth of style that is all his own. The other quartet members, mostly rhythm session when Roy plays, are just about perfect in mood and execution. Russell has an especially nice bass solo on Emily, and the Cobb brushes are always there throughout the album.

Bob Oxley has his own take on Jazz In The Key Of Blue  (live off his keys, so to speak), in the most recent Ox Box, and he very kindly makes some references to my own jazz recordings, so I’ll conclude by saying that this Chesky release joins my short list of favourite and best sounding Jazz records of all time, very much what I aspired to in executive producing and engineering my Bellingham Sessions a dozen years ago.
Dean Peer
Dean Peer: Airborne  ILS195909  CD

Many audiophiles will know and appreciate the percussive bass guitar playing of Dean Peer from his several recordings, including his solo effort, Ucross. Introduced at the 2011 CES, His newest solo effort, Airborne, continues in that tradition of unusual original music and sounds from his instrument. I was fortunate enough to be given a copy by Angie Lisi of American Sound, and we’ve finally gotten around to reviewing it.

It’s too bad that Peer’s recordings don’t have that extra element of fidelity offered by SACD, especially in sheer transient punch, but both Ucross and Airborne make the most of the capabilities of the CD medium. However, the album is available on “the new audiiophile format USB 24/96 2.0 FLASH DRIVE”, as is Ucross (according to his web site,  But who wants to play it on a computer? I guess that’s where your USB DAC comes in.

As all-instrumental music, the titles of the tunes have significance only for the composer/player, I suppose, this also true of the remarkable music of Toronto guitarist Ray Montford. Perhaps the suggestion of a mood is all the listener can take from the title of any given song. In the notes for Ucross we get some short comments on how the music came about, but we are not so blessed with Airborne, so one has to appreciate the songs on the fly, so to speak, with very personal titles like Lucy Blue, Lord Zuthula, Swinney Switch, and Waimanolo Ohana  each offering their own little mysteries. At least when Bob Dylan stopped offering notes, the songs spoke for themselves. I suppose much of the work of Miles Davis also did, too, without notes, but we listeners are always looking for context.

The playing of Dean Peer is unique in its use of high-neck harmonics to provide a more guitar-like and even other-worldly sound from his custom-made bass’s 5 strings. In Airborne, he also uses a lot of tremolo, and is accompanied by a pretty splashy drum kit, so I guess the album isn’t quite solo, after all. It’s not music I’d tend to listen to a lot, more dependent on virtuosity than melodic brilliance, but I urge you to listen to the samples on the web site to see if it pushes your musical buttons.

Bela Fleck

Rocket Science:  Bela Fleck & The Flecktones   ECM-CD 2133  CD

If you love virtuoso banjo, nobody’s got chops like Bela Fleck. It’s another record I want to love, but can’t. I played a bit of banjo (and I mean a bit!) in my folkie days long ago, just enough to appreciate the technique, and to feel in the fingers just what’s going on. Well, there’s always a lot going on with the irrepressible Bela, and his surrounding “Tones” are all amazing players in their own right. Of course, Bela has “flecked” his way to stardom exploring all the possibilities of his instrument in almost every musical genre.

As with Peer’s Airborne, there are a bunch of unexplained titles to evoke something about the music, but such names as Life In Eleven, Earthling Parade, or Sweet Pomegranates, really do let the music speak for itself. The search for meaning goes on. My favourite song here, Like Water, is quite reflective, and not as hurly-burly as much of the rapid-fire rest of the album. The harmonica stylings of Howard Levy are rather reminiscent of Toots Thielmann or Muzzy Marcellino, and percussionist Futureman is having a ball, but bassist Victor Lemonte Wooden anchors the rhythmic proceedings well, also doing some fine bowing in Earthling Parade. Perhaps the central theme in an album that is going in all directions at once would be summed up in the song title, Falling Forward.

But the impulsion of Bela’s driving banjo gives Rocket Science its amiable boost, and though the sound is a little opaque, this outing is surely a must-have for Bela Fleck fans ( I’d like to have heard this recording in SACD quality.

Bachman & Turner, Randy Bachman, C. F. Turner   BOS-CD-02  CD

This collection of new songs, which sound as if they were thrown away years ago by a broken-down blues player, should be titled, “Bachman-Turner Underdrive”. I haven’t heard such an embarrassment of rock cliches since Spinal Tap did it in parody. The lyrics are trite, the melodies muggy, and the sense of commitment and “drive” definitely last night’s bottle of bourbon. My wife was appalled to hear that this effort emanated from her home town of Winnipeg (Whippanegg?). And the musical sound is a jumble of overdubbed electric strumming.

Maybe this music is just the ticket for the newest radio format: Geezer Rock. I guess I won’t tell my ex-wife that this album was mixed  (perhaps an appropriate term) on Salt Spring Island where she lives. But maybe she heard the noise.

Here’s a typical lyric from the desolate mind of Randy Bachman: “Sun comes up in the mornin’/moon comes up in the night/I come out when you call my name/Cus you got the sugar and you got the spice…I say hi dee hi/I say hi dee ho/We’ll all be a slave to the rhythm/And that’s just the way it goes.”

And here’s some Turner inspiration: “The boss was on the blower/Said the bottoms fallen’ out/Yah the man was in a fever pitch/What we worked for was in doubt/Said he had to cut the excess fat/We were it, and that was that.”

And then there’s the song, Repo Man, “He’ll come to your city/He’ll come to your town”, and I shouldn’t go on, but, “He’ll get a great big truck and tow your swimming pool…”

“Surely you jest”, you say. What’s Shirley got to do with this? But Randy does give credit to “Jill and Karen…for keeping my messes organized.” All I can suggest in conclusion, is that this kind of musical “mess” is definitely for either mindless robots or connoisseurs of accidental self-parody. At least Spinal Tap were genuinely funny. Much studio time and money was expended on this exercise in Alzheimer hubris. The final question is, why?

Sophe Milman

Snowbird Songbirds:

I Like Men: Reflections of Miss Peggy Lee, Carol Welsman   Welcar Music   WMCD366

In The Moonlight, Sophie Milman    One Entertainment (advanced pressing) CD

Canada seems to produce a continuing succession of fine female Jazz singers, the two profiled here notable for their cool, sophistication, and style. I’m also quite attracted by the simple sweetness of Suzie Arioli and her trio, often heard on CBC jazz programs, but don’t have any of her CDs. Carol Welsman brings a strong musical background to her singing (her father was a longtime Toronto Symphony player, her grandfather a founder of same), as well as a very nicely husky and melodic voice, with sure intonation and great rhythmic sensibility. In other words, she swings, in the process making this album move along very enjoyably.

The true tribute to “Miss Peggy Lee” is to sing her songs well, with verve and style, and without imitation. And Carol Welsman does just that. A particular standout is the ballad, The House On The Hill, where her simple piano accompaniment allows the lovely textures of Welsman’s assured voice to caress the lyrics of Jerome Kern. Cole Porter’s Just one Of Those Things  gets a Latin flavour that gives it a nice propulsion, and her scat singing in unison with her very interesting piano playing shows her real Jazz talent. Remind Me (Dorothy Field, Jerome Kern) is another ballad where Welsman’s breathy voice is evocative of La Peggy, but her interpretive approach is all her own.

With Fever, Lee’s biggest hit, respect and restraint are shown to a song that has been covered by many artists, including Elvis. Here she chooses to swing rather than provide the taut Lee approach, with bongos again adding a Latin flavour. The band for this recording is Pat Kelly and Pierre Cote, guitars, Jimmy Branly, drums, with additional percussion by Kevin Ricard and Cassio Duarte, and appearances by clarinetist Ken Peplowski and Saxophonist Tom Scott. I have been listening to this album in regular rotation, and continue to enjoy her piano playing more, as I become a little less transfixed by her gorgeous voice.
Carol Welsman
The 3-fold paper and plastic packaging is very tasteful, with excellent notes by Jazz writer Don Heckman in the also 3-fold booklet within. All in all, this is a nicely realized album that I hope will give Carol Welsman the greater recognition she deserves.

Sophie Milman is another Canadian Jazz voice of note, her new album being perhaps a little torchier than Welsman’s latest offering.The album is nicely arranged for orchestra and small groups, though in the former setting the strings sound rather thin, and only 6 songs are so favoured. Sophie seems to have legions of fans, but I’m not about to become one. I find her singing too mannered, marred by frequent nervous trills, and poor diction as she tries to bend each song to her will. Milman is at her best in the 7 songs with simpler accompaniment. There’s some fine instrumental work from the small groups, too, notably on accordion in “Till There Was you”, and “Ces Petits Riens”, and the smaller rhythm section allows her to articulate the lyrics somewhat better than with the orchestra.

The blurb that came with the disc comments on, Sophie’s “rich, sensuous voice that puts a thoroughly modern spin on the legacy of immortals like June Christy and Carmen MacRae…” But the excesses of Sarah Vaughan come to mind when I listen to Milman warping her notes and slurring her words. Christy was the epitome of clarity, which was why she could sing so well with big bands, while Carmen MacRae caressed her lyrics without bending them out of shape. Perhaps Sophie Milman will learn the lessons of diction and vocal control with time, and perhaps come back to some of these standards with greater clarity of voice and interpretation.

Peter Gabriel

Two Exceptional Music Videos:

Les Paul - Chasing Sound   KOCH VISION KOC-DV-6432   DVD

Peter Gabriel - NEW BLOOD Live In London   Eagle Vision REALWORLD EVB333909   Blu-ray

These two titles couldn’t be any different from each other, I’m sure, but they share an excellence of production and execution, and each focuses on a major musical talent whose careers started more than 40 years apart.

Chasing Sound is a look at the career, and guitar and recording innovations, of Les Paul, not to forget his spectacular musical dexterity with the electric guitar he invented. Paired with the irrepressibly pitch-perfect Mary Ford, they became a hit machine in the early 50s, his development of overdub recording the perfect way to showcase her singing and unique harmonies.

One thing Paul notes, with some regret, is that the better their technology, the fewer the hits. Such tunes as Lover, Mockingbird Hill, and How High The Moon  were recorded on a single track (mono) AMPEX machine procured for him by Bing Crosby, on whose show he and Mary were appearing in the late 40s. Paul added an extra playback head to feed the previous signal back into the next overdub. That’s how multiple voices and instruments came to be recorded on a single audio channel. Stereo made it a little easier. So, even before he invested in a 4-track machine, Les had mastered the technique of cumulatively copying from one track to another to build Mary’s many harmonies, and more than one guitar line. Thus, not only were their recordings vocally sophisticated, but also filled with multiples of Paul’s virtuoso rapid-fire guitar playing.

Even as a kid, Les Paul was experimenting with electronics, and before the 2nd World War (and tape recorders, which came from the Germans) with disc cutters, which he carried from hotel to hotel as he toured, playing and documenting his music. I won’t tell any more of the story, but it is fascinating, and a narrative every tinkerer audiophile or professional recording engineer should know. This documentary is so germane to the history of music recording that it was shown publicly earlier this year to members of my local Audio Engineering Society chapter, of which I am a proud Lifetime member (though i don’t make many meetings, being isolated up in the King Township countryside north of Toronto).

The extras on the disc that give more insight into Paul’s many studios are a must-watch for the more technically inclined. There are also numerous complete tunes, and more complete interviews with Les and friends, including Chet Atkins, with whom he made an album called, Chester & Lester. I love it! If you have any interest in the history of musical technology, you must own this DVD.
Les Paul

I’ve not been a huge fan of Peter Gabriel over the years, but his albums So, and Shaking The Tree  remain in the collection, the latter in SACD. New Blood (also available in 3D Blu-ray, DVD video, and CD audio versions, the latter as a studio-recorded rendering) presents a performance of songs from these and other previous albums, as well as new material. Elaborately staged at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo Theatre, London in March of 2011, it features the New Blood Orchestra, replacing Gabriel’s typical techno array of electric instruments and drums with the normal orchestral complement of strings, brass, woodwind, tympani, and percussion.

Shaking The Tree (Geffen 069 493 628-2 SACD) is a greatest hits grouping that shows off the execrable sound of the original recordings of Salsbury Hill and Sledgehammer, but also brings back in SACD splendour (stereo) the poignant performance with Kate Bush of Don’t Give Up. I’ll talk more below about stereo recording and the latter song as we get transfused into New Blood.

And speaking of stereo, the production values of this concert extravaganza do not include surround sound, which Peter Gabriel dismisses in one of the interview extras. He believes that since we have but two ears, all we need for the full sonic experience is two channels. This is something i would strongly disagree with for the simple reason that for a hundred thousand years man has depended on his ability to hear all around him with precision, which has saved him from being trampled by Mastodons and eaten by Triceratops. Therefore, hearing music in surround better helps to get our more civilized attention.
So this Blu-ray release is offered in dts-HD, Dolby Digital, though the box states also (in very small logo print) that the latter is “5.1″. The video is “High Definition Widescreen 16:9″. Well, that’s for sure, but there’s no surround in the supposed 5.1, so I chose the DTS Master track, which at least allows the option of matrix surround from my Sunfire Cinema Grand  decoder/preamp.

All that sorted out, one can appreciate the extraordinary production values, with lots of overhead projections and other distractions, as well as the music, with backup singers Melanie Gabriel and Ane Brun adding much of the colour to the songs. Unfortunately the blond Ms Brun left me longing for the sweetness of Kate Bush in Don’t Give Up, Brun’s overly emotive singing spoiling the clarity and pathos of one of Gabriel’s greatest paeans to the common man. Otherwise the overall performance is an encompassing experience (despite being all up front), and the orchestra somewhat thumpy at times in its wall of acoustic sound. Of course, this is collected and compounded by a colony of microphones all over the stage, so you can’t expect anything resembling a natural soundstage in a massive mix such as this (look at the mixing board in the extras).

Visually, it’s quite a feast of colour and images above the stage, and a very enjoyable concert with lots of dynamic range, coolly controlled by Gabriel and his minions to provide a suitably absorbing spectacle. Just crank it up and relax in the frontal  wall of sound!

Andrew Marshall

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