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  AM Listens to More Vinyl - Mobile Fidelity, Pure Pleasure & EMI’s Abbey Road Rock Classics

      Date posted: October 27, 2008

AKUS - So Long, So Wrong
 MFSL’s Alison Krauss/Union Station & Patricia Barber Classics

AKUS have achieved superstar status in both individual and group efforts in recent years, with Krauss branching off into pop vocal albums, Dan Tyminski playing solo gigs like the Crossroads Guitar Festival and singing in such films as O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Jerry Douglas just about everywhere in dobro-land, including playing with Bela Fleck, and on lots of recordings. This limited edition 3-LP set, Alison Krauss + Union Station LIVE  (MFSL 3-281) is also available on 2 CDs, and we can only hope for a hybrid surround SACD. It has all the hits, as well as some extended live jamming, and will, I’m sure, keep MFSL in the black for some time to come, as well as making audiophile bluegrass fans like me very happy. It sounds best, and really live, in basic Dolby surround, with a great sense of audience at sides and rear, so much so that I think I’ll buy the SACD (if it indeed comes out) for the discrete surround. What else can I say?

Well, maybe that there are other MFSL AKUS releases, too, such as So Long So Wrong  (MFSL 2-276, 2 LPs), (which is more pure Bluegrass than their other hit album, New Favorite [diverse RECORDS/Rounder 001LP]). It’s got lots of dynamics on 4 sides, great and well-defined bass, with all those souful high harmonies and Alison’s piercingly sweet lead singing, of course. Other lead singers include Dan Tyminski and mandolinist Adam Steffey, who is no longer with the band. The core of this collection is, however, them hurtin’ songs where Alison bares her soul, like It Doesn’t Matter, and Deeper Than Crying. The album is, like the live one, beautifully packaged and printed, here in a double-fold, with an additional colour insert with all the player/singer/writer info.
Patricia Barber, Cafe Blue
Also gorgeously packaged, a boxed set like AKUS LIVE, is Patricia Barber’s Cafe Blue  (MFSL-3-45002, a special hand-numbered edition of 5 sides on 3 45-rpm LPs; mine is numbered 01359). As I’ve noted before, in my view, the disadvantages of this speed outweigh any perceived or imagined advantage. A standard LP has frequency capabilities to beyond 50 kHz (as CD4 quad showed), and the limited playing time makes them more cumbersome in playback, and expensive to manufacture and ultimately purchase.

That said, the percussion in particular is of very high resolution and subtlety, and dynamics are exceptional. Musically, Barber is something of an acquired taste, and better in live performance, as a recording I made from CBC’ Jazz Beat at the Montreal Jazz Festival attests. Her quirkiness and odd songs are better appreciated on stage than from the studio.

On this set, Nardis is a particular standout, the Miles Davis classic given a new style and substance by Barber. But this is one of two tunes on a full LP: disc 3’s side 2 is blank. It’s even worse than direct-to-disc, which is limited to roughly 20 minutes a side, when we here have 12 minutes and 24 seconds of music on a whole LP. But the sound cannot be faulted in any way, with fabulous drumming in this tune, as well as Barber’s mystical voice and insightful pianistics.

Pure Pleasure In Classic Jazz from Clark Terry, Ellington & Others

Turning to Pure Pleasure Records  from England (www.purepleasurerecords.com), we find 180-gram 33.3 pressings of jazz, blues, and a sprinkling of folk. But the core of their reissue catalogue is jazz, mostly small-group bop and big bands, including Duke Ellington on his international swings (quite literally). More on that below.

Clark Terry’s Color Changes was recorded in November of 1960 at Nola Penthouse Studios in sessions directed by the great jazz writer Nat Hentoff, and engineered by Bob D’Orleans, whose work I didn’t know before. Too bad he didn’t have his own studio in Hackensack like Rudy van Gelder, because he did very fine work, as this disc attests. Clean, dynamic, well stereo-placed, Color Changes (Pure Pleasure CJS 9009) also features some of the finest players around NY at their best. The rhythm section of Ed Shaughnessy, drums, Joe Benjamin, bass, and Tommy Flanagan, piano is great, with some super solos on reeds by Yusef Lateef, and on trombone by Jimmy Knepper, and, of course, Terry on trumpet and flugelhorn. The sound is what I suppose you could call “early garage band”, but very natural and unprocessed, a blessing, one feels when listening to some later EQd and multi-miked recordings of similar small groups. Stereo was quite new in 1960, and this is real stereo with a genuine soundstage, and almost as valuable for that as for the superb musicianship and great tunes.

There are echoes of Ellington and his small group work in several of these. Terry played with the Duke from 1951 to 1959, so he knows that sound well. The tunes are all original, by Terry, Yusef Lateef, and Bob Wilber. Any jazz fan, especially one interested in seminal bop, should have this LP in his or her collection. And the sound here is as fresh and brisk as it was on that November New York day in 1960. The notes describe Clark Terry as, “possessor of the happiest sound in jazz”, and it’s hard not to agree with that when listening to this superb LP. My copy was a test pressing from this British audiophile reissue label, available in Canada from www.audiobasics.com.
Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert
Another similar 2-disc set chronicles Duke Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert  in Manchester in 1969 (UAD 60001, 2LPs), recorded by the well-known British engineer, Bob Auger (who also recorded a classic Mahler 3d  6 months later with Horenstein in Croydon, a rather different challenge). This recording was done on short notice, about 48 hours, and was a grueling task for engineer and band, with two back-to-back concerts on the same evening (You have to love to play!), and the basic band of the day (Hodges, Procope, Turney, Gonsalves, Ashby, and Carney, reeds; Anderson, Williams, Rolf Ericson, and Mercer Ellington, trumpets, with Laurence Brown and Chuck Connors on trombones) with rhythm section of Rufus “Speedy” Jones on drums, and Victor Gaskin, bass. A notable augmentation of the Ellington anniversary sound is Wild Bill Davis on Hammond B3, which gives these concerts a unique flavour among the many, many recordings made by the band over many decades.

I have an earlier release of this concert, not the original UA, but one on Solid State Records, which I believe, retains all the original artwork and notes of the first two-fold package. My Pure Pleasure test pressings have nothing but “ONLY FOR PROMOTION” on all 4 sides, so it was good to be able to figure out the succession of the sides and their contents from the finished older set. I was also able to compare the two releases, the newer one re-mastered from the original analog tapes by Sean Magee at Abbey Road Studios (who when I visited them in the mid-70s, had one of the most sophisticated sonic restoration facilities in the world), and were pressed in 180-gram vinyl by Pallas, I presume a British pressing plant with high standards.

The sound quality of these 4 sides is exceptional, especially for a live event, and moreso for one with only 48 hours of advance planning. Unlike in studio sessions, Duke’s piano is well back in the soundstage, but the breadth of the big band is well conveyed, and dynamics are extraordinary, aided by silent vinyl surfaces. Any Ellington fan, indeed any jazz fan, should own this set in this version!

Also from Pure Pleasure Records come a pair of 2-disc sets that I would call, “for fans only”, Stevie Ray Vauhgan’s Texas Flood  (PPAN 38734), and an Eric Bibb album, also 4 sides, Painting Signs (PPAN 004). Both are impeccably pressed, with excellent sound that’s detailed and dynamic. Much of Bibb’s recording has been done in Sweden for Opus 3 records, but this album looks to have been recorded all over the place - Kent and Southend in England, Oakland CA, and Stockholm, with some live material from the Edmonton Folk Festival. The collection is urban blues at its best, and very unlike most of what I’ve heard previously from Bibb and his gentle Swedes. It’s often electric, with a heavy back beat. His father, Leon, might roll over in his grave if he heard where the kid was at musically. Aaron may have more to say about these LPs once I give them to him.

The things all the Pure Pleasure records I’ve auditioned have in common are superb sound, with unusual dynamics, and very silent surfaces. There’s also a naturalness to them that bespeaks great care in re-mastering.

Speakers Corner’s Eclectic Catalogue
Dorati/Bartok from Speakers Corner
If you look at this German company’s web site (www.speakerscornerrecords.com), you’ll find a quite unusual variety of types of music, from Elvis to Oistrakh, Mahler to Mingus, or Belafonte to Bartok. Speaking of which, one of the more interesting and historically important Mercury Living Presence LPs is Antal Dorati’s Bartok  disc with the Phiharmonia Hungarica (SR90183), which contains the Dance Suite, Deux Portaits, op. 5, and Mikrocosmos: Bourree From the Diary of a Fly.

Recorded in Vienna in June of 58 by C. Robert Fine, and produced by Wilma Cozart, this recording, like all these Mercurys, used 3 spaced microphones in front of the players. The sound is very deep, a little dark and warm, and makes up in ambience what it lacks in detail and sparkle. The performances are wonderful, nuanced and paced with perfect affection for the music. Dorati, who conducted the Detroit Symphony for many years, owned this music, and much else by other composers that came out of Eastern Europe.

Reviews are forthcoming from Bob of some other Speakers Corner  titles, but this disc I kept for myself is simply outstanding: very quiet, dynamic, and clean, showing off the limitations of the microphones of the day, to be sure, but this is still one of the very best classical recordings to come out of the very early days of stereo. Fine and Cozart were a great production team, and well ahead of their time. In their footsteps came another mixed gender team for Nonesuch, Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz, and they put that label on the classical map. I look forward to hearing more from Speakers Corner Records.

Audiophile EMI Emissions From Abbey Road
Beatles LOVE
Much of the Beatles catalogue has been reissued by EMI in new, heavy vinyl, as has the work of Pink Floyd, though in a more limited way. You can easily find the audiophile editions of either group (and anybody else) by searching on the Audio Basics.com  web site using the box in the upper left corner of the Vinyl section directory page.

What interested me in the discography of the Liddypool boys was the compilation done by George and Giles Martin for the Cirque du Soleil show LOVE (0946 379 1 1), which is also available in an incredible surround SACD that takes full advantage of the medium (My 10 Favourite Pop/Rock Surround SACDs are coming soon to this space). Here we have 4 superb stereo sides that reshape and reinvigorate many Beatles tunes. As DJs know, music is as much context as anything else, and the juxtapositions are fascinating and musically brilliant. The Martins, father and son, here prove clearly that they are indeed, the 5th and 6th Beatles.

Nonetheless, there will be many purists who do not like the mix of early and late songs, and unusual transitions between them. But most will, like me, take it for what it is, the soundtrack of a stage show, though I do have trouble imagining what circus gymnastics could go with this music. What I do hear is some of the best reproduction of Beatles music I’ve ever heard, in excellent pressings, and since there is something going on all the time, musical or ambient, surface noise never rears it ugly head.

What’s far from ugly is the packaging of the LPs, including a full-size 24-page colour insert that is utterly beautiful, a work of art on its own, and a joy for collectors. It starts with an outline of how the project became, began, and evolved, written by the Martins. It’s a fascinating tale: “We agonised over the inclusion of ‘Yesterday’ in the show. It is such a famous song, the icon of an era, but had it been heard too much? The story of the addition of the original string quartet is well known, however few people know how limited the recording was technically, and so the case was strong for not including it, but how could anyone ignore such a marvellous work? We introduce it with some of Paul’s guitar work from ‘Blackbird’ and hearing it now, I know it was right to include it. Its simplicity is direct; it tugs at the heartstrings.”

Another Beatles’ album that has been re-released in a revised form is Let It Be  (07243 595438 0 2). As first released, the album had been given some lush string arrangements by Phil Spector (now best known for his careless use of firearms), and these have been excised from the new edition, aptly called Let It Be… Naked. The songs have a new clarity and simplicity, in particular The Long And Winding Road, which was Spector’ed  into his typical wall of sound. The sound is also a lot better, with layers of analog dubbing lifted as they went back to original session tapes. There’s also some fine piano playing on this tune by Billy Preston, that was really not heard on the first release.

The double-fold edition is nicely put together, and  a 7″ mono 33.3 disc, titled Fly On The Wall, in its own glossy silver sleeve, provides rehearsal chatter that’s insightful about what the Fab Four wanted to do with this album in 1969, as well as some music and word play: “That was Can You Dg It  by Georgie Wood…” A large 20-page booklet is also part of the package, with more Beatles chatter, and a lot of interesting photos. The rehearsals were part of a film shoot that included a rooftop performance.

According to the booklet, “Glyn Johns…was invited to balance the Beatles’ sound for the rehearsals and concert. As usual, George Martin was the supervising producer but, as he recalled, had been instructed by John that ‘none of your production rubbish’ was needed!” Glyn Johns was to later become famous for his production work with The Who. I find the whole project very interesting and satisfying, much moreso than the original.

Andrew Marshall

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