1996 Records To Die For Page 11

Robert Harley

STEPS AHEAD: Steps Ahead
Michael Brecker, tenor sax; Eliane Elias, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Mike Mainieri, vibes, synthivibe, marimba; Peter Erskine, drums
Elektra Musician 60168-1/2 (LP/CD). Steps Ahead, prods.; James Farber, eng. AAA/AAD. TT: 47:07

Since its 1983 release, Steps Ahead's eponymous first record hasn't been far from my turntable, CD transport, or car stereo. This group of extraordinarily talented players brings a modern touch to straight-ahead acoustic jazz that carries the music forward from where they found it.

Steps Ahead played live together for four years before making this record; it shows. The musicians support and inspire each other to achieve some of their best recorded work. Bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Peter Erskine, two of my favorite players, make strong contributions individually and in support of the extended and expressive solo work by Brecker, Mainieri, and Elias. The record's seven original compositions also show! case these players' ability to create wonderfully lyrical and inventive melodies.

The sound is excellent (particularly on LP), with an open transparency, wide dynamics, and smooth tonal balance.

MIKE GARSON: The Oxnard Sessions, Volume Two
Mike Garson, piano; Eric Marienthal, alto & soprano sax; Brian Bromberg, acoustic bass; Ralph Humphrey, drums; Billy Mintz, drums (one track)
Reference Recordings RR-53 (LP), RR-53CD (HDCD CD). J. Tamblyn Henderson, prod.; Keith O. Johnson, eng. AAA/DDD. TT: 73:52

The Oxnard Sessions, Volume Two is a jazz-loving audiophile's dream: great musicians, inspired playing, and jaw-dropping sound quality. Garson is an amazingly talented pianist and composer ("Waltz for Bill"!) who always puts his prodigious technique at the service of the music.

The stunning recording quality accurately captures the sense of real instruments in an acoustic space, particularly on LP and HDCD-decoded CD. The recording's transparency and resolution uncannily convey the spontaneous music-making that went on in the sessions, providing a more direct path of communication for the music. A must-have for all jazz lovers. (XVI-6)

Larry Greenhill

THE EAGLES: Hell Freezes Over
Geffen GEFD-24725 (CD). Eagles, prods.; Elliot Scheiner, eng., mix (live tracks); Rob Jacobs, eng., mix (studio tracks). ADD. TT: 74:10
Although they didn't include my favorite, "Lying Eyes," there's enough good stuff on the Eagles' reunion CD to make me feel 20 years younger with the first few notes of "Desperado" or "Life in the Fast Lane." Time has thickened Glenn Frey's and Don Henley's voices slightly and slowed the tempos on some cuts, but "Hotel California" ' new concert opening and closing work much better than the original studio version. Henley's voice sounds better for not being buried in studio reverb, and is enhanced here by added dynamic range, subterranean drums, bass slam that doesn't quit, superb air and soundstaging, and pinpoint placement of the acoustic guitar and keyboards. Best is the moment of recognition when the crowd finally realizes which song is being played and goes wild. Play this cut on the biggest, baddest audio system you can afford.

JOHN RUTTER: Requiem, Five Anthems
Turtle Creek Chorale, The Women's Chorus of Dallas; Nancy Keith, soprano; Joel Martinson, organ; David Williams, harp; Christopher Adkins, cello; Dennis Brickman, oboe; Michael Burton, timpani; Michael Pfeifer, percussion; Ross Powell, clarinet; Michael Sullivan, Lois Weaver, flute; Timothy Seelig, conductor
Reference Recordings RR-57CD (HDCD CD). J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr., prod.; Keith O. Johnson, eng.. Second Engineer, Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer, HDCD eng. DDD. TT: 59:34

Reference Recordings' Keith Johnson has authored other favorite albums with state-of-the-art sound, but not until Requiem did the music meet the second R2D4 requirement for me: state-of-the-art music/performance. Rutter's music, dedicated to the memory of his father, was inspired by Fauré's Requiem. This CD is my favorite for performance of the male chorus and the instrumentals, and the well-defined soundstaging of the two choirs and instruments---helped, doubt, by the HDCD encoding process. I return again and again to hear the thunderous, subterranean sustained organ pedal notes on "Lord, Make Me and Instrument," the blend of male tenor voices, organ, and clarinet on "The Lord is My Light and My Salvation," and the gorgeous soprano voice of Nancy Keith on "Lux Aeterna." Totally enthralling, emotionally uplifting choral music. (XVII-11)

Michael Fremer
No CD is worth "dieing" for, but I'd crawl under a moving 10-wheeler to retrieve a British Track Records pressing of Axis Bold As Love. But that's another story...
JANIS IAN: Breaking Silence
Analogue Productions AAPP 027 (LP). Janis Ian, prod.; Jeff Balding, prod., eng.; Doug Sax, mastering. AAA. TT: 44:44
Janis Ian has been one of our finer singer/songwriters for decades; this heartfelt collection, one of the most honest recordings I've ever heard of any genre of music, proves it. Now that this exquisite all-analog production is available on vinyl, the original CD, good as it was, sounds smothered and indistinct. (Eat your digital heart out, Al Kooper.) Sonically natural, convincing, and overwhelming. Gold CD available for the analog-challenged. (XVII-1, XVIII-2)

MEL TORMÉ: Mel Tormé and Friends
Recorded Live at Marty's, New York City
Finesse W2X 37484 (2 LPs). Norman Schwartz, prod.; Dale Ashby, "Big John" Laberdie, engs. AAA. TT: 87:00

Any artist who can make a Billy Joel song tolerable gets my nod---the "Velvet Fog" 's version of "New York State of Mind," sung before an adoring 1981 NYC club crowd, is only one highlight on this two-LP set (nla), which also includes Tormé's brilliant vocal improvising with Gerry Mulligan and a duet with Janis Ian (a coincidence re. the above).

Tormé's vocal daring throughout, and his ability to bring a lyric to life, will have you gasping, as will the breathtakingly honest recording: turn the lights out, close your eyes, and you're at Marty's!

British Polydor Deluxe 2442 147 (LP), MCA 2295 (LP). OOP. Glyn Johns, prod., eng.; Doug Sachs (sic), mastering. AAA. TT: 37:00
Atco 90097-2 (CD). (If you insist, but all sonic bets are off.)

The original "unplugged" session, recorded 1976/77, features Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, and others on selected tracks. An intimate, accomplished acoustic set (some well-placed elec! tric guitars added) of mostly original tunes. Townshend and Lane mesh like a couple blokes, bringing an air of informality to what is actually a very carefully arranged program.

Sonically, it puts Clapton's Unplugged to shame: gorgeous, liquid vocals and acoustic guitars, convincing bass and drums. The string section on "Street in the City" is redolent with wood. The finale, "Till the Rivers All Run Dry" (dedicated to Meher Baba), is one of Townshend's most heartfelt performances.

Reprise MS 2145 (LP). Denny Bruce, John Fahey, prods.; Doug Decker, eng. AAA. TT: 28:00
Bill Johnson came running when I played this in Audio Research's CES room. I found him a copy but he never sent me a $10,000 Audio Research amp to play with. Where's the justice?

This is a short, sweet set of nostalgia from the master picker, accompanied on some tracks by a traditional jazz combo. This 1973 issue (nla) was recorded at Western Recorders and United Studios in Los Angeles. If those mean nothing to you, where ya been?

Fahey's idea was to capture the feel of a simpler time, long gone: the sound is spacious, and transparent, with a distant perspective. It'll take you there. A trifle, but fun.

HANK GARLAND: Jazz Winds from a New Direction
Columbia CS 8372 ("six-eye" LP). AAA. TT: 32:00

Look, I'm not giving you stuff you can pop over to your local Tower and buy. These are Records To Die For, right? You'll have to eat some dust or pay big bucks for this one, also out of print. An odd 1960 jazz set featuring Nashville Cat guitarist Garland ! and timekeeper Joe Morello and nimble-fingered bassist and frequent Ellington cohort Joe Benjamin, and a 17-year-old vibe player from Boston named Gary (I look like a geek now, but give me a few years) Burton---it swings like crazy and offers sonis to swoon from. The Nashville audio is not up to New York's 30th Street, but what is?