New Stereophile Jazz CD Available

In his primer this week on compression, Wes Phillips mentions the now-ubiquitous use of "louderization" in CD production, which fills in the musical valleys and flattens the expressionistic hills to make a recording sound uniformly loud. Stereophile editor John Atkinson has long railed against this practice, so when Bob Reina asked John to record his new jazz quartet, Attention Screen, John felt that this would be the opportunity to put his money where his mouth was. He would record the band, which mixes electric instruments—guitar and bass guitar—with acoustic—piano and drums—as though it was a classical acoustic ensemble, with no equalization and no compression. By doing so, he would demonstrate that even so, the sound would still have dynamics and impact, that making an honest recording does not have to be an obstacle to powerful sound quality.

"If there is one aspect of modern rock recording techniques that tires me," he writes in an article on the making of the CD scheduled to appear in Stereophile's September issue, "it is the overuse of compressors and limiters. Not only are songs dynamically squashed to the point where they sound uniformly and fatiguingly loud throughout, even when played quietly, but the natural dynamics of the drum and bass guitar tracks, in particular, are reduced so that they are reproduced at an unrealistically uniform level."

The goal was thus to make an honest non-classical recording, JA relying on each musician's ability to create music-defining sounds that left room for the three others in the dynamic, spatial, and frequency domains. Fortunately, in Attention Screen, he would be working with a band where that was possible. All four members—Don Fiorino (guitar, lap steel, lotar, taro patch ukulele), Bob Reina (piano), Chris Jones (fretless electric bass guitar), Mark Flynn (drums)—are composers and virtuosi, with chops developed both on the road and in music schools like Berklee. The music they play is spontaneously improvised, much as if the four guys had met by chance in the street and had a conversation. "Attention Screen is an attempt to do collectively in real time what a single composer does over a much longer period," explains Bob Reina. "To do that, we have to listen very carefully to what the other three guys are doing, and we have to react immediately to everything we hear to move the piece in a different direction. It's satisfying, but it's also a nerve-racking process."

Nerve-racking it might be, but the musical results are extraordinary. JA recorded Attention Screen last February at Manhattan's Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, using a mix of distant and close mikes with a minimal signal path, and capturing all 10 tracks with 24-bit resolution and an 88.2kHz sample rate. You can find Wes Phillips' review of the concert here; Wes also contributes an informative essay on Attention Screen's music and the art of improvisation in the 20-page booklet included with the CD's Digipak.

The 67-minute CD, the magazine's 21st release, contains six of the eight improvisations that were recorded. While the average level is lower than usual for a rock recording, the dynamic range is indeed extreme, as you would expect from a good classical recording. Yet all the impact you would expect from a rock recording has been preserved. "The tonal colors, the stereo image, and the range of dynamic expression you hear faithfully reflect what the audience experienced that magic night in Merkin Hall," sums up JA.

You can buy Attention Screen: Live at Merkin Hall from our e-commerce page. The price is an affordable $12 (plus S&H). We all hope you enjoy listening to it as much we did making it.