Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 1 - February 2002

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DVD-Audio Multichannel Discs

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34 - Delores Stevens, p./Ives String Quartet - AIX RECORDS AIX 80005 DVD-A:

The offerings from Mark Waldrep's AIX label offer a good deal more than other DVD-A discs. The effort that goes into these all-new recording projects is in strong contrast to some of DVD-A releases which merely recycle 4.0 quad masters from the 70s without substantial notes or graphics - giving those of us who had a quality quad open-reel setup back in the 70s the same thing all over again albeit with less hiss and a bit better resolution.

This attractive chamber music favorite comes with a video side to the disc, backed with a DVD-Audio side on the reverse. The recording session was held in 2000. The video side has a Dolby Digital 5.1 track plus DTS 5.1 with a choice of two different visual angles - the camera focused on pianist Stevens - or with a touch of the Angle button on your remote, a four-way divided screen showing the four separate cameras, each focused on one member of the string quartet for the entire work. In addition to this, there is a choice of two audio "angles:" the audience perspective or the stage perspective which puts the listener right in the middle of the quintet on the stage. I preferred the latter, which made one feel almost as though you were one of the performers.

Unfortunately, there is not room at the higher sampling rate for both audio angels on the DVD-A side, so only the audience perspective is provided. Comparison of the audience tracks between the Dolby Digital and DVD-A MLP sides immediately showed a lifting of an aural scrim on the music that was not noticed when first viewing the video side, but which became very easily recognized after the switch to the 96K/24bit DVD-Audio. I didn't repeat the A/B-ing with the DTS tracks - they're often a bit cleaner and more prominent surrounds but still not up to the transparency of the DVD-A tracks.

To give an idea of the extras on this and other AIX discs, here is a list of what options appear on the Main Menu:

Play All
The Composition
The Composer
The Performers
The Recording
The Disc
Audio/Video Setup
AIX Records
And selecting, for example, The Recording, brings this up next:
Technical Info
966/24 Recording
5.1 Channel Surround Mixing
Session Photos

The performance is excellent and the sound balance just right. The quartet members look a bit glum on the video side, but most of us would be playing the DVD-A side anyway. It would have been fun to have the high-res "stage" perspective available on the DVD-A side, and while it seems nit picking to ask for still more extras than this lavish package provides, I thought reproductions of some of the actual music scores would be of interest to many - perhaps all of one shorter movement such as the Scherzo, and changing from page to page as the movement progressed.

- John Sunier

JOHN McEUEN and JIMMY IBOTSON - Nitty Gritty Surround - Special Appearance by Jennifer Warnes - AIX Records AIX 80008 DVD-A:

Another new recording made especially for DVD-A and chock full of extra features. The idea was to assemble these alums of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a passel o' compadres (ten altogether) for an old-fashioned pickin' and singin' session that could be videotaped as well as recorded via high-res DVD-A surround. The site used was an old theater in Hanford California and the musicians sat around in a circle for their dozen tunes. This provided more interesting visual material for the video side of the disc than the aforementioned string quartet had. The extras even include some interviews and sort of home videos of some of the performers. In one a performer takes the viewer on a mock-instructional tour of his motel room facilities. McEuen's son Jonathan performs with his father on most of the tracks, and Warnes - the vocalist beloved by TAS's HP - sings on a few of the tracks. The sidemen/women are billed as the String Wizards.

Again there are two audio perspectives from which to choose: audience and stage. The video side has the audience mix in Dolby Digital and the stage mix in DTS, since there wasn't room for both in both formats. The DVD-A side has only the audience mix for the 5.1 surround tracks, but there is a separate 96K stereo mix provided rather than letting the hardware do its own mixdown of the surround tracks. The music is a nice relaxed acoustic jam without pretensions. I'm not a huge bluegrass fan but I found it thoroughly enjoyable, especially in learning the differing styles/sounds of some of the guitarists via watching the video side and then later hearing them more transparently on the DVD-Audio side. One can see by the tune titles that this is not a strictly bluegrass get-together.

Tracks: Miner's Night Out, Darcy Farrow, Moonlight Dancing, Acoustic Traveler, Somewhere Somebody, Too Late Love Comes to Me, Shady Grove, The Oak and the Laurel, Swing to Bop, It's Morning, Blue Days Sleepless Nights.

- John Sunier

INSIDE THE MUSIC: New Age (3rd Force, Ottmar Liebert, David Arkenstone, EKO, Neal Schon, Lara & Reyes, Craig Chaquico, David Lanz, Brian Hughes, Cusco, Jonathan Cain) - Silverline DVD-A 72434-92356-9-4:

Each of the dozen tracks of his compilation features a different New Age/Smooth Jazz performer and they have all been skillfully remixed to all three 5.1 formats: Dolby Digital, DTS and DVD-Audio. I was unable to access the DD or DTS tracks or even the main menu, but that was probably due to the occasionally-buggy operation of my present Pioneer DVD-A player. The disc did move from track to track and changed visuals accordingly - and it may be played without displaying any video visuals if you wish. The visuals accompanying the selections are highly processed travel shots such as the Eifel Tower and Pyramids. They're OK but once you've seen them and no longer require the on-screen listings of the selections and performers you will probably prefer not to use the video display option. After all, you can still identify the selections, should you need to, by the track number displayed on the DVD player. The mixes are interesting with a good feeling of envelopment that doesn't get overly corny or ping-pongy. This sort of music lends itself well to such show off surround. I would say this is one of the better non-classical offerings in the Silverline series.

FOURPLAY - (Lee Ritenour, guitars; Bob James, keyboards; Nathan East, bass; Harvey Mason drums) - Warner Bros. DVD-A 9 266556-9:

The DVD-A remix of this l991 smooth jazz classic adds not only much greater listener involvement in the music due to being placed in the middle of the musical mix, but also a higher degree of transparency that brings out subtle details in the music that were missed in the standard DVD iteration. Some vocalI found the original interesting but almost too smooth for my taste - having a certain sameness of groove throughout. In the higher res version both the laid-back inventiveness of Ritenour and James are placed in stronger relief and the interplay of the four jazzmen is more strongly presented due to the spatial separation. The remixer avoided the obvious approach of just putting each of the quartet members at a particular speaker, and uses the surrounds for a variety of both percussive and melodic purposes. Very enjoyable light jazz music-making. Selections: Bali Run; 101 Eastbound; Foreplay; Moonjogger; Max-o-Man; After the Dance; Quadrille; Midnight Stroll; October Morning; Wish You Were Here; Rain Forest.

- John Sunier

JOHN WILLIAMS: A. I. (Artificial Intelligence) Soundtrack from the motion picture, composed & conducted by John Williams - Warner Bros. DVD-A 9 48096-9:

The 17th collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Williams was not exactly Academy Award material but the soundtrack has some interesting material that translates well to surround in this remix of the original stereo soundtrack CD. William's use of choral sections, often heard in the surrounds, is quite effective. He achieves an other-worldly musical setting without being redolent of his Star Wars efforts. The main downer is the corny lyrics of the song For Always, heard in the middle and at the end of the 13-track disc, sung by Lara Fabian. I'm afraid this is one of those soundtrack albums (like most) that would have the most appeal to those who actually saw the movie - providing they liked it. The extras consist of a few still photos from the film and a page by Spielberg honoring Williams - that's it. I was hoping for at least the theatrical trailer; that has been included in several Enhanced CD soundtrack albums with far less real estate space on them.

- John Sunier

CARL E. SIMON - No Secrets - Elektra/Rhino DVD-A R9 8122 74384-9:

Ah, hard to believe this came out originally back in l972. Makes one feel really old...or really young, depending on viewpoint. This is her album with the ascerbic You're So Vain, purported to be about Warren Beatty. It's a kick to hear classics like this in surround for the first time - the back-up vocals and/or percussion accents coming from behind/sides. Also great to have the lyrics up on the screen to follow and those great shots of sexy Carly. The first laserdisc I ever saw was of a live appearance by Carly in, I believe, Grand Central Station. Wish there had been space for at least one actual video clip from that on this DVD-A. Tunes: The Right Thing to Do, The Carter Family, You're So Vain, his Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin, We Have No Secrets, Embrace Me You Child, Waited So Long, It Was So Easy, Night Owl, When You Close Your Eyes.

- John Sunier

Queen - A Night At The Opera; DTS-1091 DVD-A:

With the recent resurgence of interest in Queen's music after Freddie Mercury's death, and especially the continued use of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the Wayne's World movie and other films, it is no surprise that this was the disc chosen to head to multi-channel. It also happens to be one of their best albums, and it was great fun to be immersed in the music for the first time. Depending on the track, the surrounds have voices as well as instrumental content. From the main selection screen, you can watch a video of "Bohemian Rhapsody," or go directly to a particular track. Make sure to select the Title/Top Menu where you can access a picture gallery, lyrics, the video previously mentioned, credits, the DTS story, and the audio selection menu. In the audio menu, you can choose the multi-channel DVD-A track, the multi-channel dts 96/24 track, or a PCM stereo 96/24 track. Tunes on the disc: Death On Two Legs, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon, I'm In Love With My Car, You're My Best Friend, '39, Sweet Lady, Seaside Rendezvous, The Prophet's Song, Love Of My Life, Good Company, Bohemian Rhapsody, God Save The Queen.

- Brian Bloom

SACD Stereo Reviews

Satch Plays Fats - A Tribute to the Immortal Fats Waller by Louis Armstrong - Columbia Legacy CS 64927 mono SACD only:

This must be a first - not only the first mono SACD (in spite of the label on the printed side of the CD being a reproduction of the "Stereo Fidelity" red and black label of Columbia LPs) - but also the first with historical 78s dating back as far as l929. The famous original Columbia LP date is l955 - three years before stereodiscs came on the scene. It was a dozen years after the death of Waller, who had briefly played with Armstrong at a Chicago silent movie theater in the 20s. Louis and his All-Stars, including Barney Bigard on clarinet and Trummy Young on trombone with Velma Middleton sharing vocal duties when a female voice was appropriate on a song. The original LP had only 9 tunes. George Avakian's original notes are reproduced reduced down as the original LP back cover, but then thankfully they are also reprinted in the note booklet in readable-sized type.

For a CD reissue in l986 six of the tunes were mistakenly mastered from alternate takes rather than the same final takes as on the LP. For this SACD reissue producers Avakian and Tommy Rockwell went back to the original masters for the first nine tracks, and then added alternate versions of four of the tunes that demonstrated more than subtle variations from the chosen takes. Finally it was decided why not include all the best recordings of Waller songs that Armstrong had ever recorded in his career? Thus the final seven tracks date from l929 thru l932 and feature such jazz stars of that period as Zutty Singleton on drums, Earl Hines on piano and vocals, banjoist Mancy Carr, Pops Foster on bass, and Red Allen and Homer Hobson on trumpets. The most amazing achievement here is the clarity and impact of these old 78s! Aside from a hardly noticeable bit of background noise Satch and his cohorts come across with a similar impact to the l955 tapings. These are even better than the astonishing 78 rpm reissues from the same period by engineer Robert Parker (who even rechannels to stereo and surround sound on top of everything). What part the exceptional restoration work played in the resulting sound vs. What part the additional transparency of SACD reproduction played is unknown to me. Perhaps this points up the truth in the allegation of some retro-nerds that the high-speed grooves of these 78 rpm "direct discs" hold more sonic information than has heretofore been extracted from them! I felt it would have been more honest to at least omit the large Stereo labels on both the jewel box and the actual SACD if Sony Music wasn't going to clearly identify the album as Mono due to fear of reducing sales. But that's a minor grouse considering the boon of this most-complete-ever Satch/Fats collection and in by far the most transparent fidelity ever.

Tunes: Honeysuckle Rose, Blue Turning Grey Over You x 3, I'm Crazy Bout My Baby x 2, Squeeze Me x 2, Keepin' Out of Mischief Now x 2, All That Meat and No Potatoes, Got a Feeling I'm Falling x 2, Black and Blue x 3, Ain't Misbehavin' x 2, Sweet Savannah Sue, That Rhythm Man.

- John Sunier

Dances with Wolves - Original soundtrack composed and conducted by John Barry - Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax ES 46982 SACD only:

Not sure just why this particular soundtrack was selected for SACD reissue when there are so many exceptional tracks available from film composers with a bit higher standing than Barry, creator of most of the James Bond scores. The adventures of John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) were supported by an effective soundtrack, but aside from the film it sounds rather repetitious and dated. The full orchestral climaxes certainly come across cleanly and with strong feeling on the SACD. Some of the wolf and other nature sounds from the film would have been nice in a multichannel version of this soundtrack.

- John Sunier

Deep Forest III - Comparsa (Eric Mouquet and Michel Sanchez) - Epic ES 68726 stereo SACD only:

In their third album the imaginative duo continues to mix world music and modern studio sampling and electronics to achieve their unique highly rhythmic sonic world. This time influences from Madagascar, Cuba, South Africa, Mexico, Belize, Brazil, and Arab and Andalucian music mix with saxophones, flutes, accordion and lots of percussion on the 13 tracks. I would have welcomed translations of some of the vocal and choral sections. I didn't have a CD version of an earlier Deep Forest handy and this SACD is not hybrid, so I wasn't able to do a comparison. My sense is that with this type of heavily-processed studio creation the additional transparency of SACD would be less identifiable.

- John Sunier

Jacintha - Here's To Ben, a Vocal Tribute to Ben Webster - (with Teddy Edwards, tenor sax; Ken Akagi, piano; Darek Oleg, bass; Larance Marable, drums) - Groove Note GRV-1001-3 Stereo SACD:

The lovely voice of Jacintha assays ten ballads performed frequently by the last great saxist Ben Webster in this session that has now been issued on audiophile LP, standard CD and gold CD. A favorite vocalist with audiophiles, she has an amazing capacity for interpreting these songs with a sweet and unforced style that is perfectly captured by the highly-tweaked recording approach of the Singapore-based label. She interprets all these ballads in an even more quiet and subdued style than on her other albums. I have the gold CD version and did some A/B comparisons. The differences are not earth-shaking, but include a slightly deeper bass extension of the drums and string bass, better imaging on Jacintha's voice, and an impression that some diaphonous veils between the singer and listener have been lifted on the SACD version. I hate putting it this way, but Jacintha sounds more real, more intimate in the SACD version. Alright, she sounds sexier.

Tunes are: Georgia on My Mind, Our Love Is Here to Stay, Tenderly, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, How Long Has This Been Going On?, Stardust, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Pennies from Heaven, Danny Boy, The Look of Love.

- John Sunier

Myra Taylor - My Night to Dream - APO Records 2017 SA - stereo SACD :

Taylor was a dancer and singer in Kansas City and elsewhere 50 years ago and now thanks to Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studio and record label she is recording again. The title tune was a big hit for her back then, and she wrote an original (Hey There) especially for this recording session. She is supported by some top Kansas City sidemen in this sparkling blues and jazz album. Another song delight is her tongue-in-cheek Just Give Me a Man. Taylor certainly doesn't sound like her 85 years. I got to hear her at the recent CES and she's a kick and a half.

Tunes: Spider and the Fly, Take It Easy Greasy, Straighten Up and Fly Right, Still Blue Water, Lady Be Good, Sunny Side of the Street, This is My Night to Dream, Hey There, Since I Fell for You, Just Give Me a Man, Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean, I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire.

- John Sunier

Hollow Bamboo - Ronu Majumdar, Bansuri flute; Ry Cooder, guitar & oud; Jon Hassell, trumpet; Abhijit Benerjee, tabla; Rick Cox, elec.guitar; Joachim Cooder, percussion - Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-71-stereo SACD:

A pleasing mix of Indian and Western instruments here support the ethereal sound of the bamboo flute - India's version of the Japanese shakuhachi. Both instruments are very difficult to play, and the astonishing ornamentation and rapid runs are often breathtaking. Each of the instruments has its own unique sound and with the accuracy of the open reel analog recording and careful miking they can be located easily on the soundstage. Want a quick fix for more stress than you can stand? Just allow yourself to be immersed in this wonderful sound world for a time and close your eyes.

Tracks: Vaisnava Bhajan, Khrishna Kantha Kandam, African Queen, The Charmer of Braj, A Day for Trade Winds, Bay of Bengal, River Song, Hollow Bamboo.

- John Sunier

Indian Architexture - Dr. Ali Akbar Khan, sarod; Sri Swapan Chaudhuri, tabla - Water Lily Acoustics WLA-ES-20- (2 SACDs):

Another superb acoustic recording from Kavi Alexander's perfectionist label which records everything in analog form with vacuum tube electronics. This combination of analog/tube electronics and DSD/SACD digital reproduction results in an exquisitely detailed recording of the Indian instruments, allowing one to penetrate more deeply into the fantastic complexities of this seemingly simple music. After all, all there is is a single-line melody over a drone. But what goes on in that single line! - where all the focus is on the ornamentation, coloring or shading of the notes rather than on harmony and various voices. If you want to go into the complexities in detail there are two essays in the note booklet which will get you started, dealing not only with the musicology of Indian classical music but also the philosophy and Hindu beliefs in the Divine Mother. And/or you can just sit back in the here and now and let the note-spinning amaze your ears. Khan is at age 70 the world's greatest master of the sarod, and his art is on the same level as the composers he learned as a young man - Bach and Beethoven. The four complete Ragas on the two discs are all just short of a half-hour length - none of those "Readers Digest" versions (due to shorter playing times) heard on the LPs by Ravi Shankar that introduced many of us to Indian music.

- John Sunier

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