Joint Recording of June 1991: The Oxnard Sessions, Vol.1

MIKE GARSON: The Oxnard Sessions, Volume One
Mike Garson, piano; Bob Summer, trumpet; Bob Shephard, sax; Rick Zunigar, electric guitar; Brian Bromberg, acoustic bass; Billy Mintz, drums
Reference Recordings RR-37 (LP), RR-37CD (CD*). Keith O. Johnson, eng.; J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr., Marcia Martin, prods. AAA/DDD. TTs: 49:53, 75:51*

Wow! This album is something else. For lovers of modern jazz, Reference Recordings has released the album we've been waiting for.

Multi-talented keyboardist/composer Mike Garson served for several years as David Bowie's music director. Not bad for a Juilliard-trained classical pianist! Garson is also a prolific composer, credited with over 1300 pieces of music. One of these, "Without Self," starts Oxnard off. A spirited jazz waltz, it features outstanding ensemble playing and sparkling solos by Garson, Bob Shephard on soprano sax, and Billy Mintz (who goes berserk during his drum solo). Obviously, Garson has chosen his sidemen well. The band works together as a unit with lots of give and little take. "Nothin' To Do Blues," also by Garson, is a trio with a humorous, impish feel which reminded me of Thelonious Monk. There's some great acoustic bass playing by Brian Bromberg, especially on his solo. The standard, "Tenderly," is given a solo treatment by Mike displaying not only his command of the piano but his understanding of the instrument's history in jazz. Garson has learned well.

The ballad "Wind Beneath My Wings" is another trio setting; this time the mood is relaxed and melancholy, Garson displaying a keen touch. The sound is particularly seductive, with the piano's rich, resonant harmonics riding on waves of sound created by the acoustic bass and tasty drum accents. A great song, and one of my favorites on the album. And what a magnificent instrument Yamaha Concert Grand #4541100 is! "Spontaneity" is a high-powered trio, the boys going full-tilt. Garson shines here, really flaunting his chops. Miles Davis's "Solar" is done as a guitar/piano duo with Rick Zunigar really digging in. Garson doesn't hold back either, reminding me in places of Lennie Tristano. I especially liked the improvised counterpoint between the two halfway through the piece. The puckish trio version of the evergreen "Sweet and Lovely" sounds as if everyone was having a good time (based on the vocalizing I heard), Brian Bromberg contributing another great bass solo. "Oh, Lady Be Good," solo Garson, is a musical tour-de-force, effectively incorporating diverse piano styles. If there was any doubt as to Garson's abilities, this cut should quell them.

The recording puts you just in front of the stage at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, which has, in Garson's words, "superb acoustics for piano, with beautiful natural reverb." I concur. The level of detail captured and the believability of the sound are stunning. If ever there was a "there" there, it's manifested on this album. The hall sound is the best I've ever heard. That Keith Johnson managed to capture each subtle detail of the marvelous-sounding Yamaha Concert Grand, yet preserve its firm placement within the soundfield, is a testimony to his genius.

It's somewhat disconcerting to hear music this well recorded. With the volume turned up and the Jeff Rowland Model 1 amp in the system, I sensed the barrier between live and recorded music was being dramatically erased. I only missed the extraneous and often distracting noise of a live audience. CD and LP sound remarkably similar. The DMM LP (flat as a pancake, and with surfaces that disappear, thanks to RTI of Camarillo) has the unsettlingly quiet background associated with digital; the CD has a level of ambience recovery usually associated with analog. Both approaches let the music shine through. If pressed to pick nits, I'd say the LP rendered the piano's upper registers with a bit more thickness, the nasal, raspy sound of the soprano sax was a tad more convincing, and the heft of the acoustic bass could be more easily felt. If all CDs sounded this good, though, record reviewers would spend more time discussing the music. The CD includes alternate takes of four of the songs and lets the listener in on performance details (count-offs, studio chatter, etc.) usually kept behind the scenes.

Mike Garson is one hell of a talented, versatile musician; RR-37 demonstrates this by mixing robust, balls-to-the-wall jam-session combos with often intense, though sometimes introspective, piano solos. Reference Recordings has once again served the music lover well; I recommend Oxnard Volume One highly. Now, Marcia, when do we get Volume Two?—Guy Lemcoe