House Picks (Part 2)

The last entry, House Picks (Part 1), began with my writing “I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I’m evaluating a new piece of hardware or software, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.”

In the first part, I wrote about recordings of classical music.  This is because some of my all-time engineering heroes have primarily recorded this genre and because recordings of this type of music tend to be documents of real performances as opposed to the studio creations that dominate in the more popular musical genres.

In the world of popular music, it is more challenging to find recordings with great sonics.  There are several reasons for this.  Most typical studio productions are made using a large numbers of closely placed microphones.  The recordings are subjected to varying amounts of dynamic compression, sometimes used as a special effect but more often simply for the sake of loudness.  And lastly, what is commonly referred to as “stereo” is actually derived electronically during the “mix” where the individual monaural tracks are combined into two channels and each sound is sent to either the left channel, the right channel or some combination to give the appearance of the sound being somewhere in between.  Any sense of depth and space also tends to be created electronically rather than captured acoustically.  Even so, there are examples that, in spite of all the processing, still effectively convey musical meaning within the context of the sounds they provide.

To my ears, some of the best among these are the solo albums by Mark Knopfler.  The first one I heard, Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Brothers 47753) was a great help when I was evaluating various means of isolating gear from external vibrations.  As the gear got better isolated, it was easier to hear the distinctive way Mark picks the strings of his guitars.  (Not that one had to listen for this; it just became more obvious.)

More recently, having purchased the rest of his catalog, I’ve often played tracks from The Ragpicker’s Dream (Warner Brothers 48318), Shangri-La (Warner Brothers 48858), Kill to Get Crimson (Warner Brothers 281660), Get Lucky (Reprise 520206), and all the others.

Another artist in the pop realm whose recordings I find sonically superior is Rickie Lee Jones.  Just yesterday, the track “Tigers” from Traffic from Paradise (Geffen 24602) provided some insight into the new degree of low level information being revealed by the most recent change to the system.  It is always amazing to me how, after knowing an album inside-out for many years, there may still be new sounds to hear in it.

Other Rickie Lee Jones albums that I find sonically special are The Evening of My Best Day (V2 Records 22171), The Sermon on Exposition Blvd (New West NW6112), and Balm in Gilead (Fantasy 31760).

Of the albums I’ve had the pleasure of mastering, my favorites are Enya’s Watermark (Geffen 24233) and the entire Bob Marley & the Wailers catalog in the series I did for the Tuff Gong label in 1990.  Of the Marleys, I’ll often pick Survival (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) or Exodus (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) when I want to test the system.  Another one of my prime choices from the albums I’ve mastered is Work of Art’s Waves (Sword In The Stone SSR56).

Finally, nothing tells me more about how a system (or device within it) is performing than recordings I’ve made myself for my own Soundkeeper Recordings label.  Having stood at the position of the microphone array at the recording sessions, and having compared the signals from the mics with what I was hearing in the air, provides a unique perspective into each of these projects.  Even more than when mastering an album, where one learns every little sound during multiple listens over the course of the mastering process, having made the original recording and been in the space with the players during the event itself, affords an unequaled vantage point on the reproduction of same.  With this in mind, I’ll always bring out the recordings I know best of all.  These include Work of Art’s Lift (SRx001), Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn’s Equinox (SRx002), Jason Vitelli’s Confluence (SRx003), Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ Americas (SRx004), and Work of Art’s Winds of Change (SRx005).

The postman just delivered a package with some new albums I ordered.  I hope its contents are the makings of a future “House Picks” entry in this blog.  I’m off to the studio/listening room.

Giving Thanks

All commercial implications of the current holiday aside, I believe it is good to stop once in a while and observe a Thanks giving.  Somehow, even the name of the holiday seems to have been altered over the years, to the point where it is usually pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.  I hear most folks speak of the holiday as “thanks-gi-ving” but I prefer to call it the Thanks-giving, thereby placing the emphasis on its true meaning.

Now, as we approach the release of the latest Soundkeeper Recording, I want to pause for a moment and give thanks to the artists who have enabled me to undertake this long held dream.

Let me begin with Art Halperin, who started as a mastering client and whom I came to greatly admire as a composer, arranger, and musician.  When I told him I wanted to start a label and about the particulars of my goals, as well as the demands these would place upon the players, Art immediately volunteered his band, Work of Art, for the first project.

Those who play music with Art and those who know him socially share a unique camaraderie that could only arise in the presence of Art’s spirit and the warmth he exudes.  In some ways, the experience is a “you had to be there” but at the same time, this comes through in spades on Art’s recordings.  Perhaps because recording live really captures the essence of an event and not just its sound, this is especially true of his work for Soundkeeper.  Art, that first album being named Lift was as apt a title as could be, because that is what you and your music do for folks’ spirits.  Thank you.

It was at a social gathering that an acquaintance began speaking of Haitian music and asked me if I’d ever heard of Markus Schwartz.  I hadn’t heard of Markus before and despite my love of world music, I was not familiar with the music of Haiti.  I was in for a fabulous musical treat.  I attended his next live performance and was immediately smitten by both the music and his artistry.  I knew at once that I wanted to record this ensemble and spoke with Markus and the other players immediately after the first set.

The album we made together, Equinox, was a landmark for me.  Except for what might be termed a “warm up” session, where Markus and his band, Lakou Brooklyn, got familiar with the recording method, the entire album took only four hours to record!  The performances were entrancing and led me to appreciate the wider world of Haitian music.  Markus, the music is as organic as can be and is soulful to the max, just like you.  Thank you.

Another artist who started as a mastering client is Jason Vitelli.  There is a rare musical pleasure when one finds oneself listening to a true original.  Such was the experience of listening to Jason’s debut album, with its angular melodies, complex arrangements and literate lyrics.  On that album, Jason played almost all the musical parts himself.  For a Soundkeeper project, to be recorded live, without overdubs, he had to assemble a brand new band, finding players with the right musical chops who were also sympathetic to a new and different musical vision.

Jason, to this day, I am in awe of the concentration of effort you put into making the recording we call Confluence a reality.  Tirelessly auditioning players until a real, unified band was assembled, working with them as individuals and in sub-groups to hone arrangements, and ultimately delivering a unique collection of songs ranging from solos, a duet, trios, full ensemble pieces and some hard electric rock, all in your one-of-a-kind style.  Thank you.

One of my favorite musical idioms is the jazz quartet.  I’d always wanted to record a jazz quartet direct to stereo, with air around the players and natural sound from their instruments.  While recording Equinox, I came to appreciate the musicianship of the bass player on that project, Paul Beaudry.  As we got to know each other, I learned of Paul’s quartet, Pathways, and of their Jazz at Lincoln Center and U.S. State Department sponsored trips to different parts of the world.

After they returned from one such trip to Central and South America and the Caribbean, Paul wanted to record an album of the music they learned in several of the countries they visited.  The result was Americas.  Paul, the voice you give to your bass and your sheer energy never fail to catch my ear.  I still recall quite clearly just how difficult it was to sit still during the sessions and not just get up and dance around the auditorium.  Thank you.

Now we come full circle, with a new Soundkeeper Recordings project to be released within the next few weeks.  Eight years after the first album was released, it was time to rejoin Art Halperin and his band, Work of Art.  As always, Art, your special brand of magic fills everyone’s heart with joy.  How wonderful it has been to watch your development as an artist, and how lucky I feel to record another album with you.  Those beautiful songs and rich vocal harmonies you created for the new album stir my soul, as I’m sure they will for other listeners to Winds of Change. Thank you.

I’ve said before that making records is much harder work than many folks realize.  Remove the convenience and safety of the modern studio and it is harder still, particularly on the players.  But the best rise to the occasion and create something unattainable in any other fashion.  Art, Markus, Jason, and Paul, a heartfelt thank you for the friendship you give to me, your virtuosity, and for the music you give to the world.  I admire all of you and am more than fortunate to have had the opportunity to record your music.  Play on, my brothers!

Americas

Among my favorite musical constellations are those comprised of jazz quartets and quintets.  Indeed, much of my personal music collection is filled with albums by classic quartets and quintets.  These albums are musical riches I’ll enjoy for many years to come, however, I’ll also always wish the recordings themselves did greater justice to the pantheon of jazz geniuses.  Having mostly been recorded using the studio techniques that have since become the norm, we hear the great horn players as if listening with an ear in the bell of the instrument or at best only a few inches away.  We hear the pianists from a position under the lid of the instrument (!) only inches above the hammers.  We hear the bassists as if our ears were close enough to the instrument to get in the players’ way.  Sometimes we don’t even hear the instrument but an electronic representation as provided by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.  And the great drummers too often end up being heard with a severely reigned in version of what used to be the dynamic drive they provided—that is, when their drums and cymbals are not completely overloaded and distorted.  Fabulous as the music is, these recordings do not sound the way those musicians sounded.

Recording a fine jazz quartet or quintet using the Soundkeeper approach was something I looked forward to for a long time.  After meeting Paul Beaudry and being very impressed with his melodic sense, overall inventiveness and stamina as a musician, I spoke with him about the idea of doing a Soundkeeper project together.  We met again on a number of occasions and Paul expressed interest in a recording based on some recent experiences he’d had where his band went abroad.  The trip was part of a Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad tour co-sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  The band, known as Paul Beaudry & Pathways, visited Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Nicaragua and Honduras, giving concerts, holding musical seminars and learning the local music.  Paul wanted to record an album celebrating the music of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.  In addition to music from each of the countries they visited on the tour, Paul included music from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.  There was also one beautiful composition from the USA, written by the band’s pianist.  With the concept in hand, Paul also had the album’s name: Americas.

After investigating a few other potential venues in which to record, I chose to return to the same 1908 auditorium in which I’d recorded the last two Soundkeeper projects.  The acoustics are just right and the room’s Steinway grand piano (also dating from 1908) is sweet.  The challenge was to capture the sound of each player as well as their interactions with each other, which are such a crucial component of the spontaneous creation that is jazz at its best.  I wanted to hear not simply Paul’s bass but his fingers pulling on the strings of the instrument.  A prime objective was to maintain the natural perspective of a listener in the best seat at the performance, rather than from a too close, artificially “zoomed in” point of view.  I wanted to hear the wood in the Steinway, with its natural brilliance and warmth.  I wanted the weight and metal of the tenor saxophone (and the reed of the soprano), which to my ears, are not usually captured on jazz recordings but are always in great evidence when in the presence of a horn player.  And I wanted the expansiveness of the drums as the drummer moved around the set, going from drum to drum and cymbal to cymbal.  I wanted to capture the full range of dynamics without any sense of restriction.  In typical studio recordings, where the balances are achieved electronically by the engineer, players often seem to swing forward for their solos, then retreat as the solo ends, as if each sat upon a trapeze.  As I much prefer having the musicians themselves create the musical balances, this recording needed to accommodate the band’s overall dynamic shifts as they provided each other the space to “stretch out” at different points along the way.

Such were our goals going into the recording sessions and much to my joy, the players facilitated the accomplishment of these goals.  I had recorded Paul before, when he played on Equinox, so he was already familiar with the auditorium and with my recording methods.  He had communicated this to the other players, each of whom took to the approach with an open mind, an open heart and a readiness to explore the musical and sonic terrain together.  For me, the experience was one of exhilaration as I watched the meters, periodically checked the sound with headphones and otherwise just sat dancing in my seat, moving to the music they made for the microphones and for each other.  Even now when I listen to this recording, I find it impossible to sit still.  This is moving music.  With AmericasPaul Beaudry & Pathways clearly demonstrate how music transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries, providing a truly universal means of communication.

The Americas page on the Soundkeeper Recordings Web site contains more information about the album, including samples from all the tracks, lyrics, quotes from reviews of the album, photos from the recording sessions and a link to an interview with Paul Beaudry.

Thank you Paul.  I’ve always loved the contrabass and your mastery of it speaks directly to the soul.  Thank you too for introducing me to some great music from foreign lands, assembling a great bunch of players and for doing the first straight ahead jazz quartet project on Soundkeeper Recordings.