Kudos are certainly due to Kimber Kable for its production of Joe McQueen’s “Ten at 86”. There is so much to be enthused about for both the music and the production.
First, I must admit there was a considerable deficit for me to overcome to allow even minimal enjoyment of this disc even before I opened it up. I saw the picture of this old guy (Joe McQueen) on the cover and me being completely and shamefully disrespectful of my elders I said to myself “Hey, I better listen to this disc fast, quick, and in a hurry, because I don’t think this guy is going to make it to the end of the 5th track let alone the 10th.” But let me give you firm assurance that was just my indiscreet and unthinking ageist bias rearing its ugly head. Like mother always says “never judge a book by looking at the cover”.
But even as I was listening to the first track (of 10) I was not particularly enthused with what I was hearing either in terms of musicianship or sound quality. There seemed to be a puzzlingly lack of dynamics or life in both. But midway through the first track I instinctively turned up the volume that had been set to “normal” for most discs. I quickly discovered I *really* had to crank it up to get the music to sound as loud to which I am accustomed for jazz (in a real setting). That is, loud but not overly so. Clearly, the musicians and the sound quality had been severely bottled up by the low volume setting and giving it some throttle was all that was needed to really make the music take off. (It has become increasingly clear that perceptively low recording levels, in the interest of dynamic range, have become a key ingredient in the recipe to making the best recordings. Good audio engineers seem to know that).
Regarding the performances, while I know what I like, I’m certainly not qualified to properly differentiate “good” jazz from “run-of-the-mill” jazz. I enjoyed the renditions of what was, for me, a balanced eclectic mixture of familiar and not so familiar compositions. The more learned students of jazz among us could find the presentations overly safe or pedestrian. While certainly not “innovative”, I found the musicianship to be outstanding. I thought the sidemen were especially accomplished and the combo well rehearsed. The arrangements abundantly illuminated their respective talents. In addition to McQueen on sax the combo includes bass, piano, drums, trumpet and Harmonica and, in the final track, a jazzy and enjoyable vocal by McQueen himself. I have found that a combo of this size and mix has a lot more creative upside potential than, say, a comparably talented trio or quartet.
The more I listened to the sound the more it became apparent that, with respect to quality, something was undeniably different here. The music was so completely “unsmeared”, presented with a sunlit clarity when compared to the vast majority of recordings I have heard, even “good” recordings. And this applies to not just the percussion, but to all the instruments and the space in which they were being played.
After listening to the disc for the first time I reached for the liner notes and learned about the IsoMike technique. Actually the picture of the mike set up that is shown in the liner notes looks a bit nerdy or eccentric. Sort of like those dumb looking “Serious Listening” leather (vinyl?) ear appendages that some donned (including yours truly) 15 or so years ago. Was it this Isomike technique or just careful microphone placement and great mastering that makes for extraordinary sound quality? It was probably equally important doses of each.
Over the past year I have learned almost to an incontrovertible conclusion that two channels for classical music are hopelessly inadequate (when there is a multi-channel alternative of the same performance). But it is not always so clear-cut for jazz. But I have found that rear channel intrusion, most of which I don’t particularly care for, that is found in some jazz music is simply because the artist or the engineers or both simply want it that way. An aggressive mix found in some jazz releases, such as Telarc’s “Monte Meets Sly and Robbie” (which I love to death) is an artistic choice, not an insoluble mix of the genre and the technology.
And over the past few years it is clear to me that sound engineers are learning (and it is a learning process) to better exploit the special virtues of multichannel. To be sure, Joe McQueen’s “Ten at 86”, is the quintessential utilization of multi-channel in jazz. There is no center channel utilized here, although you would never suspect it by listening. And the surround channels are utilized to an effective perfection. As with the best multichannel SACDs in my collection, to the listener who is not aware that a multi-channel source is being played it simply sounds like the best “stereo” presentation that a two-channel system could muster. That is, until you switch to stereo and the acoustic space significantly flattens. In listening to this SACD the first couple of times I don’t recall being aware, even sub-consciously, of the rear channels unless I was intent on making a two-channel/multi-channel comparison (which I rarely do anymore because it’s rudely disruptive and almost always a waste of time).
I have one other Kable Kimber IsoMike production I have yet to listen to, the Haydn String Quartets Opus 9 and 77, performed by the Fry Street Quartet. Based on my most positive and sensory experience with Joe McQueen’s “Ten at 86”, I await my first listen to these performances with heightened anticipation.
— Robert C. Lang, guest reviewer
[Reprinted with permission from the Hi-Rez Highway forum at AudioAsylum.com]