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45 SACD & DVD-A Reviews!
November 2003 - Part 3 of 3 - Jazz, Show & Classical
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Music from the Miramax Motion Picture “Chicago” - Music by Kander & Ebb - Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax multichannel/stereo SACD-Only ES 87018:

It’s hard to find credits on this disc for Kander & Ebb, who wrote the original Broadway musical of Chicago, or even for Bob Fosse, who staged it. Everything is slanted toward the blockbuster movie of course, with the note booklet foldout carrying shots of the leading actors - Catherine Zeta jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah. The notes also have complete details on who sings and speaks on which tracks, and all the members of the orchestra. Sixteen tracks of songs from the film are followed by two tracks not heard in the film: a sort of rap version of Cell Block Tango that gets back to the sort of music Queen Latifah was performing before she made her musical splash in Chicago, and Love is a Crime, sung by someone named Anastacia which I couldn’t even stand listening to so I can’t tell you about it.

It is great to have the improved-fidelity multichannel impact of hearing this great musical film - especially in such demo-quality hits from the show as Cell Block Tango, Razzle Dazzle, and When You’re Good to Mama. But since the film is so visually, ah..arresting there seems to be more missing from the experience than when seeing it on the theater or home theater screen with less-perfect data-reduced 5.1 sound. I think most people would far prefer the DVD (reviewed here last month) to the SACD in this case. Perhaps this is a case for offering both in one package, as is beginning to happen more and more. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

A series of audiophile A/B and even A/B/C comparisons...
Herb Ellis/Joe Pass (with Jake Hanna & Ray Brown) - Seven, Come Eleven - Concord Jazz multichannel SACD-1015-6:

This was only the second LP issued by the new Concord Jazz record label in 1974. It was recorded in the summer of 1973 at the Concord, California Jazz Festival - which took place then in the small Boulevard Park in downtown Concord. An’ I wus there. Bay Area jazz writer Phil Elwood wrote the original liner notes which are reproduced here, and he observed that he felt the exchanges of the two great guitarists preserved here comprised one of the most incredible recorded musical documents ever committed to tape. Bassist Brown and drummer Jake Hanna were no slouches either. I was surprised to find that even this early in the label’s life they were recording multichannel, so the surround mix can put you right in the middle of that small crowd in downtown Concord just as I was in 1973. The informality of the occasion can also be ascertained by hearing both on and off-stage voices - such as Ray Brown clearly asking for a hot dog with no mustard. The uptempo blues that closes out the seven tracks is a fitting wrap up to this outstanding two-guitar classic. Tracks: In a Mellow Tone, Seven Come Eleven, Prelude to a Kiss, Perdido, I’m Confessin’ That I Love You, Easy Living, Concord Blues.

Concord’s fine jazz catalog has been of interest to audiophiles from their start. About a year ago the Hi-Res Music label reissued this same recording under license from Concord as a two-channel-only 96K DVD audio disc. An A/B comparison was naturally in order. I played the multichannel SACD on my reference modified Sony 9000ES so that only the stereo mix was accessed, and played the DVD-A version on the Lexicon RT 10 universal player I was reviewing (at more than twice the original cost of the Sony).

The first thing I heard was entirely different mixes from the two stereo sources - showing, I would guess - that both were mixed down from multi-track masters, but in different ways. (So that means yet another prospective opportunity to compare the two formats accurately is not really possible.) The new SACD had the drums mixed to right of center and the guitar on the right channel sounded more forward and dynamic. There were more background sounds of the audience than on the DVD-A. The DVD-A had the drums mixed to left center, both guitars sounded a bit more distant and less dynamic and there was a quieter audience background. Overall, the DVD-A had slightly more clarity but less of the deepest bass response of the SACD and the soundstage had more center fill than on the SACD. In spite of the greater hole in the middle and the right-favoring balance I preferred the SACD stereo mix. As to musicality, realism and those sorts of fine points I really couldn’t discern a major difference between the two formats. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Ray Brown Trio - Soular Energy - (Brown, bass; Gene Harris, piano; Gerryck King, drums; with guests Red Holloway, tenor sax & Emily Remler, guitar on Mistreated But Undefeated Blues) - Concord Jazz/Groove Note stereo SACD GRV-1015-3:

Recorded in San Francisco in l984, Ray brought former Three Sounds pianist Gene Harris in from running a music program in a hotel in Boise, Idaho. Brown only went into the studio with one written-out chart - his own Mistreated But Undefeated Blues, and he invited Holloway and Remler in to join the trio for that number only. The other seven tunes are all standards but the input from each player was new and original and a swinging time was had by all. Tracks: Exactly Like You, Cry Me a River, Teach Me Tonight, Take the A Train, Mistreated..., That’s All, Easy Does It, Sweet Georgia Brown.

Earlier this year Hi-Res Music issued a stereo DVD-A made from these same Concord masters. And along with the Groove Note SACD came a Groove Note audiophile LP. (At least I thought it was Groove Note, but I see there is no credit for them on the sleeve- only for Concord and “Pure Audiophile Records.”) So another comparison was on tap. We’ll go into the vinyl in more detail in an upcoming all-vinyl review section, but the brief three-way comparison showed quickly that it had the edge, with the piano sounded more mellow and realistic coming out of the analog grooves. The higher notes of the piano are extremely hard and steely on both the DVD-A and the SACD, and my Celestion speakers are never ones to exaggerate that type of timbre. For a pianist such as myself those treble notes were almost painful to listen to on both digital formats. (And detractors of moving coils claim they exaggerate just such frequencies...bah!) Plus Brown’s bass also had more body and richness on the LP. This was one of the first times where I found the DVD-A and SACD sound almost completely identical - this was auditioning the DVD-A on the Lexicon RT 10. Perhaps if auditioned on my Toshiba DVD-A player the sonics would have favored the SACD version. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

LA4 - Just Friends (Laurindo Almeida, guitar; Bud Shank, also sax; Ray Brown, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums) Concord Jazz/Groove Note stereo SACD GRV-1016-3:

This 1978 session for Concord by the chamber jazz-ish quartet led by guitarist Almeida has long been the most popular of several discs they recorded for the label. I personally always enjoyed their laid-back sound which sometimes reminded me of the early Chico Hamilton Quintet. But in later years Bud Shank decried the quartet, referring to it as the LA Snore. I believe it was on this album that I first because familiar with Chick Corea’s exciting Spain - and it gets the lengthiest treatment of the five tracks. Which are: Nouveau Bach, Carinhoso, Just Friends, Medley of Love for Sale & Love Walked In, Spain.

The new Groove Note stereo SACD came with the new Groove Note 4-sided 45 rpm 180 gram double LP of same. So right off the bat we have an uneven playing field here - if a good 33 rpm can stiff a hi-res digital format you know a 45 rpm or direct-to-disc will probably have an unfair advantage. And so it was. I used my favorite track - Spain - which is spread over the entire fourth vinyl side. Almeida’s guitar had a very subtle edge on the new SACD over the former two-channel DVD-A, sounding somehow more musical, but going to the LP raised the stakes considerably. Now it really sounded like an acoustic guitar and not just a digital mock up of it.

The mix on the two new formats sounded exactly the same this time, so I listened more closely to see if I could identify any sonic differences between the two. What I hear is at the just-noticeable-difference level, but I can describe it as the hi-res PCM approach sounding more pristine and accurate than the SACD - sort of scrubbed clean - not filtering out any of the music (as did those early attempts at noise reduction using No Noise) but sounding just a little too pristine and specific for comfort. On the other hand the DSD/SACD leans toward a more analog sound, more relaxed and seemingly easier to visualize the players in front of you (but in this case not as easily as on the vinyl!). The DVD-A is more disembodied sounds in a space. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Jaco Pastorius Big Band - Word of Mouth Revisited - Conducted by Peter Graves - multichannel SACD with Enhanced CD-ROM section Heads Up HUSA 9078:

This unusual lineup of virtuosi bassists is a tribute to the music and spirit of the late Jaco Pastorius who came to fame with Pat Metheny, Weather Report, Joni Mitchell and his later Word of Mouth big bands. He revolutionized the electric bass guitar in jazz and fusion, moving it from a supportive role to one of leadership. Bassist Christian McBride calls him the Charlie Parker of the electric bass. (Pastorius died in l987 after a serious downturn from mental problems.) The 14-piece band is fronted by Graves who led the band at a club in Ft. Lauderdale visited by major jazz figures, where Pastorius developed much of his arranging and composing chops. Some of the most talented bass players today are guest soloists in these charts of Pastorius originals arranged by Graves and others. Included are McBride, Marcus Miller, Gerald Veasley, Victor Wooten, Victor Bailey, Richard Bona, Jeff Carswell, Jimmy Haslip and David Pastorius. There is also a previously unreleased track with Jaco himself. The intent of the disc is to display the daring approach to the bass used by Pastorius. Some of the tracks are introduced by Jaco’s voice on the studio squawkbox giving instructions to sidemen taken from earlier recordings. Some are rather strong in the funk or fusion area and not among my favorites, but others of his imaginative settings for the electric bass were truly ear opening.

By the way, the actual disc says only Stereo and both the disc and jewel lack the multichannel indication but it is multichannel. I had trouble getting into the original stereo CD version, but this exciting multichannel mix from Michael Bishop kept my interest throughout. It think it sets a standard for how a jazz surround mix should be done. My increased appreciation for the music when presented this way vs. ordinary stereo was similar to a previous case involving some free jazz expression which lost me completely in stereo but pulled me in via the multichannel version. And this may be the first SACD to include an Enhanced CD-ROM feature. Actually, it doesn’t include the typical music video of one track of the album as do most Heads Up Enhanced CDs; instead it has a link to their web site where there are several video interviews with some of the bassists represented on the disc talking about Pastorius and his influence on them. The note booklet states there are ten videos - that is incorrect. And you need Mac software I don’t have to view them, so I was unable to report on them.

Tracks: Havona, Teen Town, Punk Jazz, Barbary Coast, Killing Me Softly, Used to be a Cha Cha, Wiggle Waggle, Continuum, Elegant People, Opus Pocus, Domingo, Forgotten Love, Punk Jazz Revisited. Purchase Here

- John Henry

Mel Tormé with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass - Velvet & Brass - Concord Jazz multichannel SACD -1011-6:

Arranger and valve trombonist McConnell has been around for a spell with his brassy big band; he made some direct discs for a Canadian label back in the direct disc era. Mel Torme needs no introduction. The late jazz singer had a readily identifiable voice that was called The Velvet Fog, and there was nothing towards which he directed his vocal chords that couldn’t be made his very own. The liner notes for the hi-res multichannel reissue of this 1995 session are by Rex Reed of all people - who announces that Torme is his favorite singer. He mentions how unique Torme was - that everybody tries to imitate Sinatra but nobody imitates Torme. The surround mix is excellent, using the surrounds for some backup singers and various percussion but having Torme’s voice and the bulk of the brass up front and swinging. His choice of tunes was always the best too. Witness: Nobody Else But Me, Liza, If You Could See Me Now, I Get a Kick Out of You, Have You Met Miss Jones?, Love Walked In, Autumn Serenade, My Sweetie Went Away, I’ll Be Around, On the Swing Shift, High and Low, In the Still of the Night, I’m Glad There is You. Purchase Here

Cal Tjader - La Onda Va Bien (with Mark Levine, piano/Fender Rhodes; Roger Glenn, flute & percussion; Vince Lateano, drums & percussion; Rob Fisher, bass; Poncho Sanchez, congas & percussion) - Concord Jazz multichannel SACD-1020-6:

I would have never thought back when I was carefully wiping off my bright red vinyl mono Fantasy Tjader LP with the cartoon cover of all the little Mexicans sitting in rows in the shade of a giant cactus that one day in the future I would be enjoying Tjader’s infectious Latin music in full enveloping surround sound with no rumble, snaps or crackles. This effort from the late Latin jazz pioneer was made in l980 and the first for the newly-launched Concord Picante label devoted to Latin jazz. His brilliant playing on the vibes has never sounded quite so rich and resonant. And the Latin percussion instruments come thru with a clarity and transient accuracy they never had before, while producing plenty of opportunities for involving surround sound display. Perhaps the “get off your booty and dance” feeling engendered by Tjader’s music came from his having been a tap dancer earlier in his career. The stereo mix has even more impact percussion-wise; some may prefer sourcing from it but running thru Dolby Pro Logic II for the surround effects. Purchase Here

- John Henry

PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf; JEAN-PASCAL BEINTUS: Wolf Tracks - Narrators: Mikhail Gorbachev/Sophia Loren/Bill Clinton - Russian National Orchestra/Kent Nagano - Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 51185 011:

The above is no joke - the voices of Gorbachev, Loren and Clinton are really featured in this special disc. They donated their efforts and royalties from the disc sales will be shared by four charities: Green Cross International (founded by Gorbachev), The Magic of Music (which brings music into the lives of children worldwide), The International AIDS Trust, and the Wolf Conservation Center. Gorbachev speaks a very short introduction, epilogue and an intermezzo between the two works, in Russian with a translator. The Italian actress narrates the Prokofiev and Clinton gets Wolf Tracks (some would say appropriately, but not me). The orchestra was recorded in Oakland, California while on a U.S. tour and the three narrators were recorded separately. Sophia gets our vote for a terrific narration job that should appeal to all ages. And the orchestra plays to a fare-thee-well. Telarc’s patented bass drum sound is very important in this work and keeps it exciting. The 5.0 channel orchestral surround on both works is realistic and involving, though the necessary over-balance on the narrators makes for a rather unnatural acoustic.

The new take on Peter and his wolf by French composer Beintus has some forgettable music and while Clinton’s voice is fine, he sounds like he’s reading rather than acting like Sophia. His involvement in this ties in with his interests in environmental and wildlife conservation, and the new story stresses the idea of letting the wolves do their thing without the encroachment of humans. It’s all a very positive and important thing we should support, but I’m afraid it struck me as a bit too preachy and talking down - even if it is for all ages. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Septet Op. 20; Octet Op. 103 - Camerata Freden - Tacet multichannel DVD-A DVD D115:

Another super-involving multichannel release from Tacet, who believe in involving the listener to the max by placing the musicians entirely around you rather than just trying to emulate the proscenium-oriented staging of most other multichannel classical discs. These two works are early Beethoven, following the general style of the serenades of Mozart and others, but with a more substantial feeling about them. There are diagrams for the placement of the musicians and they are different for the two works since one involves one more player than the other. Of course there are almost twice as many players as channels, so the 2nd oboe and 2nd bassoon are placed to the direct left and right of the listener - in the phantom side channels, so to speak. And the 2nd French horn is placed at the center rear (without using one of the 6.1 formats). For the Septet the violin is given a larger spatial area at left because of its importance musically in the work, the clarinet is at right and the double-bass at center rear this time. Great chamber music involvement to be sure! Purchase Here

- John Sunier

VIVALDI: 12 Concertos Op. 8 - Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione - Stefano Montanari, violin/Paolo Grazzi, oboe/Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone cond. - Audiophile Series Arts Music 96K/24 stereo DAAD (DVD Video format) 47572-6 DVD:

This is a surprise; had thought the 96K DAAD format was long gone but recently we had a gospel DVD using it and here is a release dated 2000 from Italy using the same. Probably the producers wanted anyone with a DVD player to be able to access it rather than requiring a DVD-A-capable player. Of course most earlier DVD-V players downsampled the 96K to 48K so the sonic improvement wasn’t as major, but at least they could hear it. To wrap up the audiophile comments on this one, fidelity is top rate - very rich string tone and depth to the ensemble. It also provides a perfect signal to process with Pro Logic II for a terrific surround soundfield.

Now - the music: This is the opus that starts off with the Four Seasons concertos, so that part of it is surely going to duplicate at least one CD in your collection or you wouldn’t be reading this review! The sales point here is that this is one of that new breed of earlier music ensembles that puts some real guts into their interpretations. They play with great gusto and verve - not quite as roughly as Il Gardino Armonico - but certainly lively to say the least. If that other Italian ensemble sounds to you a bit too close to a rock string quartet, perhaps you will find the Accademia Bizantina a just-right combination of informed musicology, interpretive energy and pleasant timbre. The other eight concertos - beginning with the dramatic Tempest At Sea - are given equally alive treatments that make them sound like fresh Vivaldi rather than freeze-dried. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Some more releases of interest from the German-based classical DVD-A label Nishimura...
Italienische Nacht (Italian Night) - Music of ROSSINI, DONIZETTI, BELLINI, VERDI, GIORDANO & PUCCINI - Soloists/Würzburg Philharmonic/Daniel Klajner - Nishimura DVD-A 010:

One might think initially that this is a 12-track collection of instrumental arrangements from well-known operas. It opens with the Wm. Tell Overture and continues with music from Nabucco, La Traviata, Tosca, Rigoletto, Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and others. Upon listening one is surprised to find that after the opening overture the rest of the disc is a recital of opera arias featuring two vocalists: Anke Endres and Gilbert Mata - the latter a native of Texas. There is no mention of these being sung arias anywhere on the jewel box or notes except for the short bios of the two vocalists. There is also no libretto for the arias, which would have been an additional clue to their existence. Neither is there mention of this being a live performance with an audience. I also could not find a Dolby Digital 5.1 option for those using standard DVD video players.

That said, the performances are on a very high musical level. The sonics gave an excellent feeling of the hall venue, putting the listener about in the center rear of the live audience. Nishimura thoughtfully provides an entirely separate mix for the stereo option - a single-point stereo mike pickup - since creating a mix from the five-mic surround setup was deemed inappropriate. While the orchestra sounds fine, both the stereo and 5.0 options reveal the singers to be extremely distant in perspective, almost like deliberately offstage voices in a complete opera recording.

Cello Music at Aachen Cathedral = BACH: Five Choral Preludes; RHEINBERGER: Abenlied, Pastoral, Elegie; FAURE: After a Dream; D’HERVELOIS: Suite; MARCELLO: Sonata No. 5 - Marion Basting, cello/Franz Vorraber, pipe organ - Nishimura DVD-A plus binaural option DVDA-008:

Bravo Nishimura! I’ve been pushing for hi-res disc labels to record and include a binaural dummy head option since the new formats were first announced, and now someone has finally done it! (Telarc said they were considering this step but haven’t implemented it yet.) There is room for alternate tracks besides the DVD-A and Dolby 5.1 and binaural only requires two channels and can get by with only 44.1K sampling. There’s even more room in Nishimura’s case because they eschew the Dolby Digital DVD-Video tracks. What I don’t quite understand here is the placement of the dummy head at what is called The Emperor’s Throne - which is situated in the rear of the cathedral. That means the ample reverberation of the cathedral is experienced very realistically for the pipe organs. But the cello is everywhere - its sounds swirling around one’s head rather than being pin-pointed in front of the organ pipes on the right - what a proper binaural recording should achieve. Wearing the required headphones I felt as though I had arrived late for the concert and was stuck in the back, standing for its duration. (There is no mention in the printed materials about the binaural option or the need to wear headphones, but it is discussed in one of the on-screen information frames.)

There’s another interesting use of dummy head binaural on another Nishimura disc - Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Songs of Praise. Here it was used only to record a ten-minute excerpt from a rehearsal of the choir and orchestra. The recording engineer suggests it would also be useful to optimise the setup of your surround speaker system to match the sound of the hall. It’s too bad the entire work wasn’t recorded binaurally because the balance of the soloists, chorus and orchestra is excellent and with headphones you are right there in the hall. However, it was extremely difficult to access this track, labeled Group 3. There was no navigation screen again, just the Nishimura logo, and on one player there seemed no way to reach it, but in playing the buttons on the remote I finally hit the Search button and that found it. On another DVD-A player neither the Search nor Track buttons worked, but using fast forward found the Group 3 binaural track.

But on to the music itself and the surround sound: the central part of the cathedral is octagonal in shape and on its second floor is the main pipe organ, flanked by two additional organs. The cello soloist sat in front of the right organ. The one-point stereo recording was focused on the cello and the multichannel recording was made further back. Nishimura does not use MLP data reduction on any of his 5.0 PCM tracks - they are simply 48K/24bit Linear PCM. The choral preludes of Bach have been transcribed for many different instruments; the ones heard here are by the famed cellist Pierre Fournier and give the leading voice line to the solo cello. D’Hervelois was an 18th century composer who in his suite used some of the old French dances. The last of the four here shows the influence of Alessandro Scarlatti. Benedetto Marcello was a composer only in his spare time. His sonata, as arranged for cello and organ, is a brief four movement work of great beauty.

MOZART: Symphony in A Major KV 201, Piano Concerto No. 9, KV 271 “Jeunehomme;” SIBELIUS: Romance In C Major; LISZT: Malediction For Piano And Orchestra - Franz Vorraber, piano/Southwest German Chamber Orchestra/Vladislav Czarnecki - Nishimura DVD-A-006:

This disc does indicate on the jewelbox it is a live recording, made in the chapel of Bad Homburg Castle in Hessen, Germany. The 5.0 channel recording, using B&K mics, is designed to recreate the acoustic of the chapel in one’s listening space. Perhaps due to the smaller venue the micing here sounds appropriate and not too distant from the players. The soundstaging is more accurate and enjoyable than on the other more distant pickups on this label. There is no onscreen display with the disc aside from the Nishimura logo, and the disc defaults to the 5.0 48K Linear PCM tracks on DVD-A players, so to select the one-point stereo option (which is only for the two Mozart selections - evidently space ran out) you would have go in and make changes to DVD-A player setup.

The oddest thing about this disc is possibly the statement in the booklet that “A concert program representative of Mozart’s own time has been meticulously reconstructed...” Whaat? With works by Liszt and Sibelius? It certainly gets your attention if its slipping when the program shifts from the Mozart to the Liszt selection - which incidentally is quite some exciting playing. An unusual but still highly recommended DVD-A for your library. Possibly difficult to find these in North America, so try:

- John Sunier

BACH: 15 Two-Part Inventions; ROBERT SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke Op. 12; CHOPIN: Two Etudes; LISZT: Gnomenreigen - Franz Vorraber, solo piano - Nishimura DVD-A 004:

A well-recorded and well-played piano recital. You’ll have to excuse me if the Two-Part Inventions remind me of early piano lessons and lessen my interest. Though if they were on the harpsichord I’d perk up some. It would have been nice to have English translations of the eight Schumann Fantasy Pieces but with a bit of effort we can look them up in Google. The Liszt evocation of massed gnomes was a challenge for me when I was a piano student. Vorraber brings the recital to a gothic sort of big finish with this energetic work. The MLP-free 5.0 surround is extremely crisp and natural, demonstrating that its not overkill to used multichannel for reproduction of solo instruments.

- John Sunier

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