Supersounds (Fall 2000) - New Sounds From Old Tapes

      Date posted: September 20, 2000


     New Sounds From Old Tapes: The Classic 96/24 DVD Jazz Reissues and JVC’s XRCDs Upsampled

John Coltrane - BLUE TRAIN
Cannonball Adderly - SOMETHIN’ ELSE
Wynton Kelly - KELLY BLUE
Mickey Hart and Planet Drum - INDOSCRUB

     I’ve probably touched on this theme before in relation to great jazz recordings being reissued, but it doesn’t stop amazing me how good many of these recordings from the late 50s and early 60s sound. As a recording engineer, I’m pretty familiar with what it takes to get good sound, whether one is recording classical music, jazz, or anything else. As I’ve said to people before, Rudy Van Gelder is my recording god, because he got such great sound consistently in his New Jersey studio, and made the transition to stereo so effortlessly. But there were other recording engineers and producers who were also ahead of their time in getting great sound onto their Ampex 350s and other stereo machines of the era.

     But what I’ve been hearing from these 96/24 DVDs is something their producers and engineers never heard, denied the full fidelity they had captured by the technology of their time. In those days the playback tape heads simply weren’t good enough to fully reproduce the signals with their full frequency response and resolution, and the play electronics were also pretty noisy.

     In analog recording the width of the head gap is less critical than that for playback, and the narrow gap play heads typical today could not then be manufactured. So Van Gelder never ever heard his master tapes the way we can on these DVD audio discs.

     A couple of these reissues are from JVC’s XRCD catalogue, and they sound exceptional, too, especially when upsampled through the Assemblage D2D-1/MSB Link DAC III combination. Though they don’t quite achieve 96K resolution, they do sound better than most CDs.

Keyboard Titans

     There have been a lot of great pianists in jazz, and almost as many styles, from traditional stride players like Fats Waller and Dick Hyman to elegant stylists like Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner. It’s perhaps unfair to even categorize players at this level; they should just be appreciated.

     Three whose threads wound through much of the jazz of the 50s and 60s were Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and Kenny Drew. All were composers and arrangers, too, and these albums showcase these talents.

      Least known is Kenny Drew, whose recording, Undercurrent (Blue Note 84059/Classic DAD1024) features his own compositions, and probably dates from 1962 (what, a jazz recording with no dates?!). Good jazz needs good players, and there’s no problem here: Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Hank Mobley, tenor; Sam Jones, bass, and Louis Hayes, drums. The title tune starts the set off in a lively fashion, and establishes a strong ensemble feel, with strong solos by, first Mobley, and then Hubbard. Drew’s piano seems to spend most of the time in the background, and the drums are very much in the foreground, with a kickdrum that gets down to 25 Hz. I don’t know much about Louis Hayes, but he’s a helluva drummer. His sound is explosive and dynamic, which also nicely describes the sound of this DVD disc.      

     Whatever the year, Rudy Van Gelder really got it all on tape, and the sound is fabulous. Drew plays a lot of notes in his solos, but with a fluidity and logic that is very attractive, while the energy of Hubbard and Hayes, in particular, propel the session into the realm of classic bop, with the anchor being Sam Jones, whose great beat keeps everybody else from flying off in all directions. Freddy Hubbard’s solo in Groovin’ The Blues is especially creative and exciting, after a somewhat laconic opener by Mobley, who seems a little disinterested throughout. Drew’s tunes are all accessible riffs, with titles like Funk-cosity, and The Pot’s On.

     Altogether, Undercurrent is original, accessible jazz from the era just before it started to get weird with the new thing. And I wonder why as fine a composer as Kenny Drew never did become as well recognized as Kelly and Evans.

    These two pianists have in common that they both were a part of one of the best selling jazz albums of all time, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue (which I now have on SACD, but have yet to hear in this format). The title Kelly Blue was more of a pun on the expression “Kelly green”, though this album was made in March of 1959 between the two Columbia sessions for the Davis album. Could be the case that Daviis’ classic album wasn’t even named when Wynton Kelly wrote Kelly Blue for the sessions. It was engineered by Jack Higgins somewhere in New York, and the reissue is a JVC XRCD disc (jvcxr-0050-2), originally released in the Riverside Contemporary Series (1142).

    The key players are basically the same band, too, with Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums for all tunes. The title tune and Keep It Movin’ add Nat Adderley, cornet; Benny Golson, tenor; and Bobby Jaspar, flute. At the time, both Adderley and Jaspar were playing a lot with Cannonball’s group. Just about the only guy missing here are Miles and Coltrane.

     In his autobiography, Davis says, “I think it was the best small band of all time, or at least the best I had heard up until that time.” But it was fated to be a brief collaboration, because not only were Kelly and Cannonball forming their own groups, but also Coltrane.

    Kelly’s piano style comes closer to that of Bill Evans than Kenny Drew, with more energy than Evans, but fewer notes than either. He was always right on or a little ahead of the beat, and had a special way of alternating single notes and clusters of chords that always made musical sense in the end. The two sextet numbers, Kelly Blue and Keep It Movin’ are both tight arrangements of original tunes, and an additional take of the latter is added to this CD. The rest of the CD is trios, in which Kelly’s style predominates, with the solid rhythm section behind him. These include standards: “Softly, As In A MOrning Sunrise, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, On Green Dolphin Street, and Willow Weep For Me, plus anoother Kelly composition, Old Clothes. A particular standout here, as in many dates with his brother and with J.J. Johnson is Nat Adderley, whose ability to light up a solo is unrivalled.                        

      What I like especially about the rhythm section is what you also hear on Kind Of Blue, the marvellous rim work of Cobb, and Chambers’ solid and melodic bass playing, though he does not play with a bow at all here, something he did on many other albums.     

    The sound is excellent in Kelly Blue, coming close to the resolution of the DVDs, and the piano sound is especially good. If you are one of the many fans of Kind Of Blue, make sure you also acquire this historically important companion recording.

    Historical importance can also be attributed to Portrait In Jazz, as one of the half-dozen albums he made with bassist Scot La Faro, this one in late 1959, after Kind of Blue.     

     Miles Davis has quite a bit to say about Evans’ compositional contribution: “I didn’t write out the music for Kind Of Blue, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing…Everything was a first take, which indicates the level everyone was playing on. It was beautiful. Some people went around saying Bill was co-composer of the music on Kind Of Blue. That isn’t true; it’s all mine and the concept was mine. What he did do was turn me on to some classical composers, and they influenced me. But the first time Bill saw any of that music was when I gave him a sletch to look at just like everyone else. We didn’t even have rehearsals for that music - we’d only had about five or six in the last two years - because I had great musicians in that band and that’s the only way that can work.”

     While what Miles says may be true in his recollection, Evans gets a compositional credit on his own reworking of Blue In Green on Portrait In Jazz, of which two versions are offered on the CD (JVC VICJ-60139). I think Davis’ comments are rather disingenous, when his “concept” was, in fact, to have the musicians act as composers, especially Evans in mapping out and anchoring the “spontaneity” in the ‘Sketches”.

     I have a very good LP of this album (Riverside RLP-1162), and I compared it to the XRCD issue. Though the CD has better separation, the LP has a little higher resolution, especially on Paul Motian’s cymbals, though the CD (when heard upsampled to 96 kHz) has solider bass. The tunes are mostly standards: Autumn Leaves (also 2 takes) Witchcraft, When I Fall In Love, What Is This Thing Called Love, Spring Is Here, and Some Day My Prince Will Come, with an original called Peri’s Scope added.

     Bob Oxley will be looking at a group of jazz trio recordings, mostly piano based, but this trio is arguably the best and most inventive that ever played, at this time and even later when Chuck Israels took over from Scott LaFaro and brought a different sensibility to the bass (I never could quite take to Eddie Gomez’s sparer, drier style of bass playing). I you don’t have any Bill Evans Trio recordings, this one is a good place to start, and you’ll probably start a collection, as I did, with essentials being Waltz For Debby, The Village Vanguard Sessions, Everybody Digs Bill Evans and Explorations (with Scott LaFaro), and Moonbeams, How My Heart Sings, and Time Remembered (with Chuck Israels). JVC has also rereleased Sunday At The Village Vanguard JVCXR-0051-2). And a final note on Portrait: as one of the new generation of XRCDs pressed in Japan (they stopped US production last year), the notes are all in Japanese except for those on the reproduction of the LP back in the booklet; prepare to get out your magnifying glass.

Cannonball and Trane

     I won’t say too much more about John Coltrane’s Blue Train after Derek Pert’s excellent analysis within his profile of this jazz giant in our last issue. Kenny Drew and Paul Chambers are also heard on this 1957 recording, with Philly Joe Jones on drums, Curtis Fuller, trombone, and Lee Morgan, trumpet. The recording was made by Rudy Van Gelder, and seems a little overly reverberant in the ensemble passages on the title tune.

     As Derek noted, the DVD (Classic DAD 1028/Blue Note 1577) sounds excellent, while the Blue Note reissue LP I have lacks bottom end (my note on the jacket back reads, “silent pressing; no bass: crank sub”), but sounds very natural otherwise, while the DVD has greater detail and intimacy, as well as a more open top end. Musically, I’ll just observe that, in my view, Curtis FullerG and Lee Morgan pretty much steal the album from Coltrane with their blazing solos.

     Finally, one of my favourite of this era’s Van Gelder treasures, produced by Alfred Lion, who did the great Prestige albums with Miles (Workin’, Relaxin’, Steamin’, Cookin’), Somethin’ Else. (Classic DAD 1022) Here Miles, who respected the young Cannonball (whose nickname is a corruption of “cannibal”, a name he earned in his youth for being such a prodigious eater), that when they later toured, it was Adderley who kept the band’s finances and paid the musicians. Miles obviously also wasn’t averse to playing sideman with him in this quintet, which also included Hank Jones, piano, and Sam Jones, bass, with the great Art Blakey offering a relaxed precision on drums, sounding quite unlike the explosive presence he was in Hank Mobley’s Roll Call (Classic DAD 1016).

     Cannonball pays his tribute to Miles by giving him the first solo in Autumn Leaves, which Davis plays brilliantly, followed by Adderley’s gorgeously warm alto, both sounding comletely relaxed and in control. Cannonball’s main inspiration was Bird, but he plays his similarly detailed and melodically brilliant solos at about half the speed (I remember that one of my older brothers had a record player that would operate at 16 rpm, and he used to play his Charlie Parker LPs at half speed just to hear that Bird hit all the notes when playing that fast).

     But Somethin’ Else is a pretty laid back album, with standards (Love For Sale, Dancing In The Dark), and several originals, including one by Nat Adderley, One For Daddy-O, dedicated to a Chicago jazz DJ. The title tune, Somethin’ Else is a call and response blues that would later mutate into what Miles called The Theme, used to end sets in clubs and concerts, but here it turns into a long free-ranging trumpet solo, followed by an equally exploratory solo by Cannonball, with a very interesting block chord solo by Hank Jones following.

     The sound on this DVD disc is simply superb, representative of Van Gelder’s best work, and that’s good, because the CD reissue was flawed by overly bright sound, and a flat perseepctive, where here it’s like the players are in the room, especially Adderley, with that intimate lower register on his alto sax. This is one of my favourite jazz recordings, and an essential part of any Davis/Adderley discography.

Demoing to a Different Drummer

     Whenever my friend Robert Deutsch has saomething new to demonstrate to me, he invariably , inevitably, and eventually plays a track from a CD by Mickey Hart and Planet Drum. Whether it’s his big Dunlavy loudspeakers, the PS Audio AC amplifier, or some other piece of gear he’s reviewing for Stereophile or Stereophile Guide To Home Theater, after a couple of show tunes, we always get down to the big baddaboom of this percussive group.

     That’s OK, because the next time we have lunch up in my neck of the woods, I’ll play him a track or two (there are only two) from Indoscrub, and he won’t get bored because the whole DVD disc is less than 8 minutes long. I suppose that’s not entirely true, in that the two songs are repeated in triplicate in 96/24 matrix surround audio, Dolby Digital, and DTS discrete surround.

     The pictures accompanying these are a kind of video graffiti, images sped up or otherwise altered to accompany the pulsating music. There’s also an interview with Mickey Hart.

     Indoscrub is an up-tempo number with lots of big drum, while Endless River is slower and more atmospheric. Both sonically and visually, you could say that the latter is the planet, while the former is the drum.

     It was quite easy to compare the three mixes in the home theatre room, and though the Dolby Digital and DTS ones sounded pretty similar, the 96/24 version, though billed as stereo, had at least as good surround sound as the discrete versions through the matrix decoder of my venerable but indomitable (and very good sounding) Denon AV-500 from the 96/20 DAC of the Pioneer DVL-90 DVD/LD player. The discrete versions were played through the Technics SH-AC500D and the Toshiba SD-4109X DVD player (the DVL-90 will not output DVD DTS); in fact several players were employed in comparisons, including also a Pioneer DV-525 player, one of the best 96/24 budget players I’ve heard.

     In every case the clear winner was the high resolution mix, which was faster, cleaner, more resolute (as another alleged audio writer might say), and more involving to the listener. That didn’t surprise me, though devotees of DTS surround discs might disagree. We’re dealing with digital reproduction systems that are two generations of quality apart (CD being in between them), and neither Dolby Digital nor DTS can offer even CD sound quality with their bit-starved data streams.

     But it’s nice to have the clear comparison, even though you can’t switch in midstream, the menu requiring a pause and restart of either selection. By the way, both tunes come from the Mickey Hart/Plane Drum CD Supralingua, the title of which translates into English as “The language of Toyota sport coupes”. Just kidding…

     The differences were most noticeable at frequency extremes, with the bass of the 96/24 versions much solider, deeper and more tuneful, and highs, especially percussive transients, cleaner, tighter, and faster. And the differences were not subtle, except between the two surround systems, if there were, in fact, any at all. The 96/24 version also surround decodes very nicely, in fact (which it should, having not only higher resolution but greater phase accuracy than 44.1/16), sounding almost discrete in Dolby Pro Logic, though it’s more impressive through the Denon’s Variomatrix with its full-range surrounds.

     There’s also a quite vacuous interview on this DVD with Hart, who talks about “the magic at the end of the rainbow” in the creation of this music, and cites the influence of The Grateful Dead. He explains that the use of voice “beyond words” is behind the title Supralingua, so I guess old Mickey doesn’t even own a Toyota.

     I found Indoscrub an interesting tool for comparisons, if not compelling music making, though it would have been nice to also have CD-quality reproduction on the disc as well.

     And this leads me to my final thoughts on the subject of surround music and the resolution of various digital formats. I’ve had a bunch of DTS CDs on hand for some time now, and every once in a while I put a few into my DVL-90 (which has no problem with the CDs’ digital stream) and have a listen through the processors or receivers I’m reviewing.

     These include DTS CDs for which I have regular stereo equivalents, as well as in some cases SQ LPs. I find that every time I start to do comparisons, the CDs, and especially the LPs, are so sonically superior to the DTS versions that I truly wonder about the future of DTS. And that’s without even thinking about the gimmicky, unnatural surround mixes on many of the pop discs. In my view, it just doesn’t sound good enough for serious listening to music.

     And, as a final related thought, I can’t see the reasoning in the DVD Audio community with respect to multichannel recordings unless these serve realism of musical reproduction. I also perceive that most audiophiles who would embrace a higher resolution music reproduction format prefer to listen in straight stereo. In this respect, I see myself as an exception, because I’ve always liked a natural ambience around and behind, both in my own recordings, and when listening to any recording. I wonder if it isn’t just the desire of the large music companies to induce us to once again replace our libraries of CDs (as we did our LPs), but this time with more expensive multichannel audio DVDs that is behind this impetus. In other words, are we just listening lemmings to them?

     Andrew Marshall

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