a survey of fifteen jazz CDs in great sound
Classic music on great sounding CDs
Way back in the good old seventies, before Sony and Philips began the courtship that would beget the compact disc, record collectors knew to look for albums that were pressed in Japan by JVC, the Japan Victor Company. JVC used really good vinyl"virgin" (now, there's an advertising word to appeal to your average audiophile!)and produced thick, flat, quiet slabs of beautiful black. Yum.
Now, JVC is turning its attention in a similar way to CDs. XRCD (for "Extended Resolution Compact Disc") is JVC's attempt to push the CD format to its utmost, by paying close attention to every step of the mastering and manufacturing process. The resulting CDs are packaged in handsome book-style albums with the original artwork, which should help the purchaser feel better about spending two to three times the price of a regular CD.
Tom Netherland has reviewed the XRCD version of Steve Miller's The Joker, one of two pop albums JVC has reissued. (The other is Tina Turner's Private Dancer.) But most of the XRCDs so far are jazz and blues albums, which is fitting since the strengths of XRCD suit "naturally" recorded albums. The majority of the albums are drawn from the Fantasy jazz catalog, the mother lode of classics from labels like Prestige, Riverside and Pablo. There are also albums from AudioQuest and Analogue Productions, two audiophile labels specializing in blues and jazz. Finally, there are some original issues from JVC itself.
I listened carefully to fifteen Fantasy-derived XRCD albums, and as many comparable regular issues as I could easily find, on a variety of stereo playback systems from a portable with headphones to a couple of good home systems and even a boombox. I am happy to say the XRCDs really do sound better. Overall, they rank with the best sounding CDs I have heard. In no case was an XRCD CD worse sounding than the original I compared it to. In all of the albums, I heard an excellent octave-to-octave balance to the sound, with no particular frequency range highlighted. The instruments (and voices) had an easy, natural sound, with a good sense of immediacy. (Which made them much less tiring to listen to than most CDs, thank goodness.) The sense of space surrounding the musicians, if it was captured in the original recording, was well represented. The small dynamic inflections that can make the turn of a jazz phrase meaningful, were there.
So, are they worth the price? Well, that depends, of course. JVC has the good sense to start with albums that were well-recorded to begin with (by well-regarded engineers like Val Valentin, Allen Sides and the jazz master, Rudy Van Gelder), and in some cases the original album was also mastered pretty well to begin with. This is especially true of the AudioQuest and Analogue Production albums. In these case, the difference between the currently available regular price CD and the XRCD may not be enough to justify the price. But in other cases, if you care about the sound of the albums you listen to, you will want the XRCDs.
I have arranged the albums more-or-less chronologically, which happens to cluster them by label too. I have listed the closest currently available comparable album for comparison. Almost all of the Fantasy catalog albums are available (often at a bargain price) in the Original Jazz Classics (OJC) series, with the original album artwork. Some of these are still available as LPs too, for those who appreciate them, but these are disappearing quickly.
JVC has other goodies in its XRCD catalog. I plan to save my pennies for Count Basie's 88 Basie Street (a great Allen Sides recording), Duke Ellington's Duke's Big 4 (a rare non-big-band album by Duke), The Bill Holman Band's Brilliant Corners (great big band arrangements of Monk) and Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane (a drop dead classic).
One final note. Recently, JVC introduced XRCD2, a claimed improvement over the first generation. Four of the albums I listened to were XRCD2 albums and for none of these did I have a comparable XRCD album. But JVC provided an XRCD2 sampler which included versions of some of the tracks issued on regular XRCD albums. Based on what I heard comparing them, I would say XRCD2 offers a marginal improvement over XRCD, but not as great as the difference between XRCD and the run-of-the-mill CD.
Now, on with the music!
Miles Davis All Stars
JVC CD JVCXR-0047-2, monaural, 1954 (37:56) (Prestige/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-213-2; originally Prestige LP P-7076)
Let's start with one that belongs in your jazz collection. Miles with a great rhythm section of Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. Joining him in the front line are Lucky Thompson on tenor, Dave Schildkraut on alto, and J.J. (or, as it says here, "Jay Jay") Johnson on trombone. All recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in glorious mono. One hundred percent classic, from start to finish.
The XRCD stomps the OJC CD in naturalness and overall balance of the instruments. There is a genuine crack to the ensemble sound that the OJC lacks.
JVC CD JVCXR-0046-2, monaural, 1954 (46:21) (Prestige/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-245-2; originally Prestige LP P-7109)
Okay, put this one in your collection too. Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, half of the Modern Jazz Quartet at the time, are back again, and are joined on two takes of the title tune by their MJQ compatriot, vibes player Milt Jackson, and Thelonious Monk. Miles asked Monk not to play during his solos, which evidently miffed Monk. The second take of this classic blues by Jackson (whose nickname is "Bags") was the one originally released, and it positively crackles with energy.
On the rest of the album, Bags is replaced by Sonny Rollins on tenor and Horace Silver replaces Monk. What a lineup! They dig into three Rollins classics, "Airegin," "Oleo" and "Doxy," and two takes of Gershwin's "But Not for Me."
The XRCD is sweeter than the OJC CD, with much more sense of the "air" around the notes played, and in the (Van Gelder) studio itself. The unnaturally plangent tone of the piano on the OJC is replaced by a round, grand sound on the XRCD. The dynamics are much sharper: when Miles punches a note, on the XRCD it really snaps.
The Modern Jazz Quartet
JVC CD JVCXR-0203-2, monaural, 1955 (36:36) (Prestige/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-002; originally Prestige LP PR-7005)
This album captures the MJQ playing mostly standards, with one tune each by Milt Jackson and pianist John Lewis. (At this point, Connie Kay had replaced Kenny Clarke on drums.) A wonderful, if short, album with some fine solos.
The XRCD2 recording, by Rudy Van Gelder again, is very natural. I didn't have any other copies to compare it to, but with simple well-recorded music like this, part of the beauty lies in how well it is reproduced, so I'd bet the XRCD is the way to go.
Rollins Plays for Bird
JVC CD JVCXR-0055-2, monaural, 1956 (43:34) (Prestige/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-214-2; originally Prestige LP P-7095)
"Bird," of course, being Charlie Parker. This album was recorded after Bird died, and begins with a seven-tune medley of standards he like to play. Well, it actually begins with Rollins' tenor sax shouting Parker's famous intro to "Parker's Mood" ("Yah da dahh! Da da didi didi, yah dah diddy," or, as Eddie Jefferson set words to it, "Pardon me!do you know the way to Kansas City?") Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Wade Legge on piano are the other main soloists, and they rip through the tunes Rollins has chosen in a surprisingly upbeat fashion.
Then we get Rollins' "Kids Know," which is that rarity, a jazz waltz. Max Roach on drums does a great job keeping the beat springy (he once recorded an entire album of tunes in three-time, so he must like it). And it finishes with "I've Grown Accustomed to You Face," from "My Fair Lady," which had just opened on Broadway.
In spite of the tunes being standards, a waltz, and a show tune, this is not a polite, laid-back recording. The energy crackles and surges from the speakers. Again, I did not have a comparison, but the XRCD sounds just great. For a monaural recording, it has surprising depth, and the instrumental sounds are very realistic. (Another fine job by Van Gelder.)
The Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight
JVC CD JVCXR-0034-2, monaural, 1956 (57:17) (Pablo CD 2405-431)
Ben Webster on tenor with Tatum on piano. It just doesn't get much better than this. All the tunes are standards, from "Gone with the Wind" to "Night and Day." I heard the version of "My Ideal" here on the radio a few years back, and immediately went out and bought the Pablo CD. Just drop dead beautiful. Here, as in the rest of the tunes, Tatum takes the intro and first solo, ornately pearlescent and elegant, then Webster exhales his solo with gruff majesty and restraint. What a wonderful contrast!
The recording, by Val Valentin, is a little less intense and captures less of the recording space than the ones by Rudy Van Gelder. (Rudy had a great studio.) Maybe because of that, the differences between the Pablo CD and the XRCD are less apparent, mainly consisting of much better bass (which is very welcome) and, again, more natural instrument sound. Believe me, you want a record that captures as much of Ben's subtlety as possible: he was a master of the aside.
Settin' the Pace
JVC CD JVCXR-0202-2, monaural, 1958 (40:49) (Prestige/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-078; originally Prestige LP PR-7213)
An early recording by Coltrane featuring three uncommon standards and a tune by Jackie McLean. Already, you can hear him straining at the edges, feeling the constraint of the song format even while he honors the melodies. Red Garland has some good solos on piano, and the inimitable Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums round out the quartet, but it is Coltrane's show all the way. His fiery solos on "If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You" and McLean's "Little Melonae" are classic Trane.
Another fine Van Gelder mono recording, in XRCD2 format. I did not have a comparison, but again this one sounds just fine, thank you. Coltrane's frequent passages of rapid notes are clear and clean, and Art Taylor's percussive accents spurring him on are right there.
The Little Giant
JVC CD JVCXR-0046-2, 1959 (34:21) (Riverside/Fantasy CD OJC-136-2; originally Riverside LP RLP-1149)
Griffin is a tenor player who is, well, as short as your typical trumpeter, therefore "The Little Giant." He played on some great sessions with Thelonious Monk, and just turned seventy last year, still playing from time to time. Here he leads a big-sounding sextet with Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Julian Priester on trombone joining him in the front line. Five of the six tunes are jazz originals (one blues-based), with "Playmate" the very non-standard standard.
The group rages through the tunes, with the rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, piano, Sam Jones, bass and Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums hustling to keep up with the leader and his brassy friends. Great stuff. I have always liked Griffin's ballsy playing, and it is fun to hear the always interesting Priester early in his long career, which has ranged from blues to jazz-rock to free music.
The recording, by Jack Higgins, leaves lots of space around the instruments, but on the OJC CD, things sounds a bit murky and clumped together. This clears up a lot on the XRCD, with the instruments (in stereo this time) separating out spatially. The drums, which are splotchy in the OJC, clear up considerably and the energy level, already high on the OJC, bumps up another notch or two.
JVC CD JVCXR-0050-2, 1959 (56:46) (Riverside/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-033-2; originally Riverside LP RLP-1142)
From the piano, Kelly leads a trio with a Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. At the time, these three were the rhythm section for Miles Davis' quintet, so they play together with ease. On two tunes, they are joined by Nat Adderley on cornet, Benny Golson on tenor and Bobby Jaspar on flute. The seven tunes include three by Kelly; the rest are jazz favorites.
The trio settings are especially welcome. Kelly is a fine pianist who seldom got the chance to record on his own, and it is great to hear him stretch out here. Chambers also has some impeccable (as usual) solos. (Someone once said a definition of swing is "any two consecutive notes played by Paul Chambers" and that is evident here.)
The recording by Jack Higgings does a very good job capturing the difficult tonalities of the flute and cornet. But the trio sound varies slightly from track to track in a way that can be a bit disconcerting if you are listening closely (as I have been). I only had the XRCD to listen to.
JVC CD JVCXR-0033-2, 1960 (36:02) (Prestige/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-297-2; originally Prestige LP P-7180)
Gene Ammons played about the soulfulest tenor sax you could care to hear. He is joined here by a rhythm section featuring Tommy Flanagan on piano (see Pete Kelly's review of his trio album, Sea Changes) for soul tunes, blues and standards like "Canadian Sunset."
Very relaxed andwhat's the word I want? colloquial, like listening in on a conversation among friends.
Another Rudy Van Gelder recording, with lots of echo wrapping around Ammons' sax for that soulful sound. The XRCD is (no surprise) clearer and more natural than the OJC CD. For example, on a slow blues called "Hittin' the Jug" ("Jug" being Ammons' nickname), Art Taylor's tick on the cymbal during Doug Watkins' bass solo acquires a true metallic ring that is missing on the OJC.
Bill Evans Trio
Sunday at the Village Vanguard
JVC CD JVCXR-0051-2, 1961 (69:48) (Riverside/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-140-2; originally Riverside LP RLP-9399)
One of the great jazz recordings. Bill Evans' first trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, captured live on the last day of a four-day stand at New York's Village Vanguard. "Solar," from the Miles Davis "Walkin'" album, reappears here, along with tunes by Gershwin and Cole Porter, two tunes by LaFaro and a Disney tune by Sammy Fain ("Alice in Wonderland"). Four welcome four alternate takes are included. I am not usually a big fan of alternate takes, but here they are not rote replicas of the master versions, and so are very welcome.
The whole trio worked together flawlessly, with Evans and LaFaro conversing telepathically throughout, solos blending into joint improvisations. LaFaro set a new direction on the bass, improvising high on the fretboard, with rapid runs almost like a guitarist. Ten days after this was recorded, he died in a traffic accident, only twenty-five years old. This recording and Waltz for Debby, recorded the same day, are the best of his legacy.
The recording captures the trio full on, as well as a lot of the atmosphere of the Vanguard. The XRCD is fabulous, rich and clear. Motian's brushwork on the cymbals is a joy to listen to (how many times can you say that of a CD!?) I didn't have another CD version to compare, but I did have three LP versions: a 1973 Milestone twofer of the master takes from the Vanguard sessions, the mid-eighties OJC original-cover reissue, and the corresponding LPs from a ten-disc box set of Evan's complete Riverside recordings. The OJC sounds more "digital" (as in glassy and brittle) than the XRCD, and is probably from a digital master; it also has only the original six tunes. The Milestone twofer is much better, with the instruments sounding more like themselves, but it does not capture as much of the club atmosphere as the XRCD. The LPs from the box set, although from the mid-eighties like the OJC, were evidently remastered by someone else, because they sound the best of all the LPs, and are a match for the XRCD.
Good Old Broadway
JVC CD JVCXR-0035-2, 1962 (35:09) (Contained in On Broadway, Prestige CD PRCD-24189-2 (76:50); originally Moodsville LP MVST-23)
The original Moodsville album is not available in Fantasy's OJC series, but all eight songs on the album are on a Prestige compilation that also includes eleven other tunes from two Hawkins' albums. All seventeen tunes were recorded in 1962 by Rudy Van Gelder, and they all feature the same lineup (Tommy Flanagan, piano; Major Holley, bass; Eddie Locke, drums). So, you can get a thirty-five-minute XRCD or, for less than half the price, a Prestige CD over twice as long. No contest, right?
It's not that simple, unfortunately. When I listened to the Prestige CD, I found it tasteful, prettyand boring. After all, the tunes were all familiar, if not hackneyed"I Talk to the Trees," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "The Man That Got Away"and with Hawkins and Flanagan as the only soloists there wasn't a lot of variety to the sound. Yawn. Then I listened to the XRCD: what a difference! Small inflections, not only in Hawkins warm tenor, but in Flanagan's piano playing and Locke's brushwork, made the music come alive. A really clear example of how the quality of the sound can affect the gestalt of the music. It's still not a barn-burner, mind you, but a fine, classy album.
If you want some pleasant, but genuine, jazz to play in the background while you torque your wrench, and you don't want to put another CD in too soon, get the Prestige. But if you want to listen to the Hawk teach lessons about how to sing a song, get the XRCD. I sure wish JVC had reissued On Broadway, though.
Bill Evans Trio
At Shelly's Manne-Hole, Hollywood, California
JVC CD JVCXR-0036-2, 1963 (55:19) (Riverside/Fantasy LP and CD OJC-263-2; originally Riverside LP RLP-9487)
Another live trio recording from Evans' Riverside years, this time with his third trio (after Chuck Israels replaced Scott LaFaro on bass, and Larry Bunker replaced Paul Motian on drums). The tunes this time around are mostly familiar standards by the likes of Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart and Jerome Kern. If it lacks the stunning magic of the Village Vanguard recordings, it is still a superb jazz piano trio recording. No alternate takes, but one tune ("All the Things You Are") that was not on the original LP is added. This is a sunny album for Evans: he must have had some good smack that day.
I compared the XRCD to the OJC CD and to the corresponding tracks in the ten-LP box set of Evans' complete Riverside recordings. The original recording has a lot of bass energy, and the XRCD does not play this down. There is also a lot of high energy from the piano, maybe even a tad too much at times. This is a case where, although I think the XRCD is a probably a good representation of the original master tape, you may not care much for the resulting sound. The OJC is almost as thick in the bass, but the piano sounds pretty good. Even though it is not as clear as the XRCD, some might prefer it. The LPs from the box set are, well, boxy sounding in a strange way, with much of the life and air drained away.
Count Basie & Oscar Peterson
JVC CD JVCXR-0206-2, 1978 (37:44) (Pablo/Fantasy CD OJC-790; originally Pablo LP 2310-086)
This album finds two pianists with very different styles pairing off. Basie is the lapidary minimalist, playing one perfectly placed note where others, like, well, Peterson would be a prime example, would run a flashy scale. (As you might guess, I favor Basie's approach.) They try to meet somewhere in the middle on this recording, and for the most part succeed. A gently swinging blues-based session, well-recorded by Val Valentin.
I had no comparison, but the XRCD2 recording is mighty fine.
Crazy and Mixed Up
JVC CD JVCXR-0204-2, 1982 (37:44) (Pablo CD 2310-821)
The divine Sarah singing standards, backed by a quartet including Roland Hanna on piano and Joe Pass on guitar, on an album she produced herself. The songs are mostly known quantities like "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "You Are Too Beautiful," with a couple of ringers by Brazil's Ivan Lins. While the focus is on Sarah, this is really a quintet, as best shown by the up-tempo version of "Autumn Leaves," which Sarah scats, leading the group like a horn player. A fine relaxed and swinging session, one of Sassy's best.
Another fine XRCD2 album, with a very natural balance. I had nothing to compare it to.
Quietly ThereZoot Sims Plays Johnny Mandel
JVC CD JVCXR-0040-2, 1984 (42:56) (Pablo/Fantasy CD OJC-787-2; originally Pablo LP 2310-903)
This is a fine example of Zoot's laid-back tenor sax playing, on some ballads and bossa novas by Johnny Mandel. (You will probably recognize "Cinnamon and Cloves" and "Emily.") An excellent sounding album, recorded by Allen Sides in Oceanway Studios back in 1984. (There is such a considerable resonance to Zoot's sound that might make you think it is some artificial reverb, but this is just the sound of a real tenor player in a real space.)