Recording of February 2024: Jerome Sabbagh: Vintage

Jerome Sabbagh: Vintage
Sabbagh, saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Joe Martin, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums
Sunnyside SSC 1698 (LP). 2023. Jerome Sabbagh, prod.; Ryan Streber, Pete Rende, Bernie Grundman, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

This is an album with serious audiophile cred. It was recorded to analog tape on a Studer A800 MKIII at 30ips, by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York. It was mixed, also at 30ips, on a custom, tubed Ampex 351, by Pete Rende. Bernie Grundman mastered it for vinyl and cut the lacquer, direct from the analog tape, on an all-tube system. The executive producer for the vinyl version is Hervé Delétraz of darTZeel, who, Sabbagh told me, helped finance the mastering and pressing. Sabbagh listened to the acetates and test pressings at Ana Might Sound in Paris.

As you might suspect after hearing all that, Sabbagh himself is an audiophile: Ken Micallef profiled him in 2018 in his "Musicians as Audiophiles" series. Among other cool components, he owns a Garrard 401 turntable.

But in contrast to most new audiophile LPs—I'm intentionally excluding audiophile reissues of classic records—this one features frontline musicians. First, in addition to Sabbagh, is jazz-piano great Kenny Barron, perhaps best known for the jazz ensemble Sphere, his work with Dizzy Gillespie, and his past collaborations with Stan Getz; Barron has a chapter in Gene Rizzo's The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time. Bassist Joe Martin seems to have played with every great contemporary, including Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner, and Chris Potter. He is Sabbagh's regular bassist, a member (with Ben Monder and Ted Poor) of his regular quartet. And then there's that current young titan of jazz drums, Johnathan Blake.

Upon listening to the album, I found the title a bit of an enigma: The songs are mostly straightforward, but there's nothing especially "vintage" about the music (unless "vintage" means lacking any pretense of "out"-ness or experimentation). So I asked Sabbagh. "At first, 'Vintage' was simply the name of the song that starts the record," he replied. "That song was written years ago. It seemed like an old-school kind of song, hence the title. Then I decided to title the album after the song. It wasn't meant too much as a statement, perhaps more like an allusion. To me, it fits the ethos of recording all in a room, of trying to let the music happen in an organic way and not overthinking things, and overproducing things. It's the way most great jazz records were done in the past, and it's certainly a way that I can relate to. ... But it also seemed to genuinely fit what is one of the most straight-ahead records I've done, especially with a true master such as Kenny Barron involved."

Vintage was made like that, with the musicians together in a room. "We didn't really have partitions. We tried to set up in a way to minimize bleed, using angling, mike placement, and some distance. We still had bleed, but, since we mixed the record, we could experiment with what sounded better to us. Not all bleed is bad. It's good to get the feel and the sound of people playing in a room. Also, the music is much better that way, in my opinion. As much as I care about the sound—and I really try hard to make the best sounding records I can—I care about the music more."

Which is what makes this a Recording of the Month instead of just another audiophile LP. Vintage is a proper jazz record, with talented musicians playing well, listening to and following each other. It's a mix of covers (Tadd Dameron's "On a Misty Night"; Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing"; two Monk tunes—"We See" and "Ask Me Now"—and original Sabbagh compositions. Side 1 is the Sabbagh/Kenny Barron show. The rhythm section is more prominent on side 2, except the final track, which is all Sabbagh and Barron. The musicians are New York–based (Sabbagh was born in Paris), but to me the music has a West Coast vibe in that even the upbeat numbers have that laid-back feel.

The same could be said about the sound: excellent but laid-back. Easy to listen to. (Perhaps "vintage" fits here as well.) Compared to most mainstream records, it's on the mellow side, resembling what you'd hear in an intimate club. Sabbagh's tone is mellow; it's a tenor, but it sometimes has a timbre close to an alto. On Barron's piano, you hear more sustain than transient, more wool and wood than metal string (although this varies from track to track). All of which makes it easier to hear into the soundstage; the recording has good depth, and the more you turn it up—up to a point of course—the clearer the window into the studio becomes.

Great vintage photos by Berenice Abbott adorn the front and back covers—2 × 144 square inches of analog goodness. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke.—Jim Austin

PeterG's picture

Yes! Excellent straight ahead jazz with incredibly good sound. The record fills the room just beautifully, it's in the same league as the best UHQRs for sonics. A must buy

otaku's picture

That is my grandfather's store on the album cover.

Severius's picture

"Among other cool components, he owns a Garrard 401 turntable."

That's great. But, I own an even lower-fi turntable. Yes, even lower fidelity then that "cool" idler drive Garrard.

I own a Philco radio console. That's right, Philco - just as shown in the cover art picture of the album reviewed here. It's massive. It's almost 6 feet wide. The sound it produces makes everything sound as if it's coming out of a giant wooden barrel. Yeah.

The turntable has a 10 inch platter, and a heavy, steel tonearm with no counterweight. It's a fully automatic changer, so you can stack 6 records, push a button, sit back, and let 'em drop. Yeah! Yeah!

The wow & flutter and the rumble really warmup the sound.

So, it's the super-ideal Jim Austin/Ken Micallef sound. Ultra-low-fi. Rock on.

saxman73's picture

Hi Severius,

Jerome Sabbagh here.

I have no idea what the "super-ideal Jim Austin/Ken Micallef sound" is but I can assure you my Garrard 401 functions quite well. It was completely gone over by Steve Dobbins of Xact Audio. There is no audible rumble at all, and pitch is perfectly stable on piano and high saxophone notes. I most certainly didn't get it because it was "cool".

I've now heard megabucks turntables many times, including some that are among the most respected in the world. The Mark Dohmann Helix 2 sounded particularly amazing to me (and it should, for the price), but I think my "humble" Garrard 401 holds its own.

In fact, if you are ever in Brooklyn, I hereby invite you to listen to it yourself, so you can have an informed opinion.

Best regards,

Jerome Sabbagh