Being There: Reflections on Ways of Experiencing Jazz

I remember the only time i ever saw Chet Baker. It was at Parnell's, a jazz club in Pioneer Square in Seattle, long since defunct. It was a few years before Baker died under mysterious circumstances, in Amsterdam in 1988, after a life of creativity, notorious dissipation, and addiction.

Emaciated, with a caved-in face, he already looked near death. He played like an angel. I remember something that happened to me toward the end of the night. Sometimes last sets in jazz clubs, when the crowd has thinned, seem to exist outside of time. There came a moment when, almost alone with Baker's soft trumpet glow, in the presence of a lyricism ethereal as mist, I suddenly felt like I had been taken out of my body. It was a feeling of surpassing peacefulness. I had been released from the bondage of self. This instance of spiritual liberation came at the hands of a junkie, but the only drug involved was music.

I have often thought that such moments made me a music collector and an audiophile. I wanted to be able to repeat that experience, and others like it. I wanted to be able to choose the sensation of being there. For me, and I suspect for many readers of this magazine, that desire leads to the acquisition of better and better playback equipment and more and more recorded music. It also leads to the realization that recorded music varies enormously in its sonic quality and character, and therefore in its ability to provide the illusion of being there.

This is a story about one audiophile's pursuit. The subject is large. I could focus on gear, talk about my first, worst, best-loved music system—it was a KLH Model Eleven—and the many increasingly expensive systems I have owned since. I could discuss my permanent, ongoing search for the right jazz recordings (since jazz is my drug of choice).

Instead, I will attempt to understand—and in so doing convey—a narrower, more specific, sometimes elusive truth: that in the experience of recorded music, the quality of the music and the quality of the recorded sound are interdependent.

As a practical matter, Stereophile provides two ratings with every record review: "performance" and "sonics." But they are not entirely separable. The illusion of being there requires both. This story deals with some jazz albums that meet those requirements—excellence in both performance and sonics—and seeks to understand how those records got made.

This may be the time to remind ourselves of an obvious fact: That sense of being there is indeed an illusion. A recording is a reproduction. Italians have a good name for a recording: "registrazione," or "registration." Keith Jarrett, a skeptic, has a different word. He has said that a recording is like a "fax" of a concert. But whether a recording is a reproduction or a registration or a fax, the point is to make it seem real, to get as close to being there as possible.

Since the 1970s, one label has been famous for making people aware that some jazz recordings sound better than others: ECM. Thousands of pages, in many languages, have been written about "the ECM sound," but no commentator has isolated its particular magic. No one has been able to explain fully why, when an ECM album begins, a hush descends on your listening room.

The ECM sound is grounded in the aesthetic consciousness of legendary producer Manfred Eicher. But the label's culture is so strong that its sonic identity is sustained across a range of musical styles, engineers, studios, and producers.

Case in point: Steve Lake. As a member for decades of ECM's inner circle in Munich, he writes the label's press materials and liner notes. He has been called "ECM's undercover producer." He supervised the March 2019 session for the remarkable album Three Crowns by Polish alto saxophonist Maciej Obara. (ECM excels at finding the emerging badasses of European jazz.) The engineer was Gérard de Haro, and the studio was La Buissonne, in Pernes-les-Fontaines, France.

On Three Crowns, the opening hesitant, widely spaced piano notes by Dominik Wania and the first plaintive saxophone call from Obara set a rapt atmosphere that is never broken, even when the music grows turbulent later on. As a listener, you're immersed in the aura. Everything that happens, including the swirling, shimmering cymbals of drummer Gard Nilssen, deepens the drama.

I asked Lake to provide some insight into how he conceives of his role of producer, within the ECM aesthetic. From Munich, he responded: "Commitment and focus are the primary qualities needed. I think one of the things that Manfred is very good at . . . is the goal of keeping projects on their particular artistic and musical trajectory. The idea is that an album is a story unfolding, and you have to be faithful to its plot line. It doesn't have to be a straightforward narrative, and there may be detours, or flashbacks, or dream sequences, but the thing is still moving forward with a sense of integral cohesion."

As for what the ECM sound is and how it's produced, Lake said that he is probably "too close to the subject": "Not many people have heard all 1700 ECM recordings, but I have." If he had to identify "common denominators," ideas like "clarity" and "transparency" would come up. (Those terms should ring true to all who have loved the ECM sound.) He quoted an avantgarde trumpet player who never recorded for ECM: "'It's a matter of following the sound.' Donald Ayler said that, and I think it's worth adopting as a motto. To be able to follow the sound, as a listener and as a player, you need to be able to hear what is going on. ECM productions . . . have illuminated the detail in the music in new ways."

ECM is not the only label that can foster vivid illusions of being there. Consider "I Fall in Love Too Easily" from the Fred Hersch album Alive at the Vanguard, on Palmetto. There's no place most jazz fans would rather visit, vicariously or otherwise, than the Village Vanguard, the most revered jazz club in the world and a famously fortunate acoustic space in which to record music. (To date, 156 albums —and counting —have been made there.) Hersch's clear piano notes enter and then linger in the room, which comes fully alive when John Hébert's deep, warm bass looms over the melody. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to put yourself at one of those tiny white tables, in perhaps the second row.


Tyler McDiarmid recorded the album, working with his frequent collaborator Geoffrey Countryman. McDiarmid has become one of the busiest jazz engineers in New York and therefore the world. Like many engineers, he started as a musician (further proof of the unity of "performance" and "sonics"). He has a master's degree in jazz studies from NYU. He has been a lead technician on Saturday Night Live for six seasons. "I never studied engineering officially," he told me. "I learned on the job." When asked the eternal jazz question—which are better, live or studio recordings —he answered, "Live recordings are where I started. I do a lot of studio work now, but if I had to choose, I prefer live. The mentality is completely different. In a studio, even with a band that is not 100% rehearsed, by the time you get to the second or third track, there's usually something missing. You've lost that first-take feeling. Musicians play a little differently in a studio when they know that something can be fixed. And nine times out of 10, they're not in the same room with each other."

As for recording in the Vanguard: "Most jazz clubs are subpar, acoustically, and you've got to try to make it work. But the Vanguard just sounds good. It sounds natural in there, to begin with. Still, players are close together on that stage and things are going to spill into other things, for sure. So it's about learning where to place the mikes. Where we put the room mikes really makes a big difference for how live the recording feels."

"The equipment I use is a big part of my sound. I have lots of ribbon mikes and some vintage Neumann tube mikes. I use top-of-the-line Apogee A/D converters. My specific angle always comes back to my being a musician. What I strive for in a recording is to recreate the feeling I get when I'm up on a stage with other musicians, playing my guitar. I tend to err on the side of less reverb, less compression, less EQ, because I'm after that feeling of being in the midst of the music."

A major live recording by McDiarmid (and two other engineers, Countryman and James Farber) is Lines of Color, by Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project, on Blue Note/ArtistShare. Truesdell conducts a world-class 25-piece orchestra playing previously unknown Gil Evans arrangements at the Jazz Standard in New York. Big jazz bands are famously difficult to record live. Lines of Color puts you in the believable presence of a great orchestra on the job. All the nuances of Gil Evans's art are rendered, and when the full ensemble kicks in, we get to hear the crowd react to the crescendos. McDiarmid said, "We went in and miked every instrument individually, with the finest mikes we could get. It was a massive setup."


jtshaw's picture

I never heard Chet Baker live, but I treasure several of his late-career performances. "Chet Baker in Tokyo" captured him in 1987, and the two volumes of "Live in London" caught him in 1983. These recordings include passages that evoke moments that "seem to exist out of time." Even toward the end of his life, when the alcohol and heroin exacted their maximum dues, Baker was sometimes able to enter a zone that few musicians ever approach. Ever so thankful for the recordings that allow us to marvel.

Mr. Conrad: several years ago Stereophile published your review of John Raymond's "Real Feels," his first recording with Gilad Hekselman and Colin Stranahan. I was intrigued and purchased the CD, which led me to become a Raymond and Hekselman completist. Two years ago I heard Real Feels (flugelhorn, guitar, and drums; what a combination!) at the Noce nightclub in Des Moines. I am not quite 60 years old, but those two sets may well prove the most wonderful evening of jazz I'll ever experience. Thank you so very much for sending this reader off on the adventure, and I hope several others as well.

fetuso's picture

This was a very enjoyable and thought provoking article. I'm going to have to read it again with a pen and paper. I don't mind.

cognoscente's picture

Chet Baker In Tokyo [Live]: a recording that I use to enjoy the full potential of my stereo equipment (its in my reference playlist). Not only good in terms of sound (for a live recording) but also in terms of music / performance. "Almost blue" from this concert is one of my all time favorites.

AaronGarrett's picture

I think you describe exactly what we are chasing. One of the most striking experiences like this I've had was when I went to an Elvin Jones show a few minutes late, and was seated directly in front of the drum set. The experience was otherworldly. The closest I've come to Elvin Jones on recordings is the astonishing Sonny Sharrock record Ask the Ages, particularly Bill Laswell's recent remastering.

Herb Reichert's picture

for this beautifuly-layered piece of music writing. I enjoyed and I learned and I was inspired. Now want to experience more of what you've experienced. Like fetuso, I plan " read it again with a pen and paper."


Bogolu Haranath's picture

Read it again, but slower the second time :-) .........

francescoragni's picture

Great article. I remember the first and only time that I saw Chet Baker in 1986. He looked like a ghost but played like an angel. I asked him to play "You Go To My Head" that he had just registered in duo with Paul Bley (amazing record "Diane" from SteepleChase) but he said he didn't remember the words so he couldn't. We chatted for a while before the concert and he signed a record that I had brought. I agree that Chet Baker in Tokyo is one of the best recorded and with great music.