Recording of June 1993: The Oxnard Sessions, Volume Two

MIKE GARSON: The Oxnard Sessions, Volume Two
Mike Garson, piano; Eric Marienthal, alto & soprano sax; Brian Bromberg, bass; Ralph Humphry, Bill Mintz, drums
Reference Recordings RR-53CD (CD, LP to come). Keith Johnson, eng.; J. Tamblyn Henderson, prod. DDD. TT: 73:50

Some listeners will remember Reference's first volume of Mike Garson, recorded in 1990 by Keith Johnson in the Oxnard Civic Auditorium. The Oxnard Sessions: Volume One was rapturously received by an audiophile press eager for substantial music in topnotch sound. This second volume, most of which was recorded in 1992, is even better. Pianist Garson and his trio are more alert and energized, and the sound, created by Keith Johnson's High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD) process, is marginally clearer and more precise than that on Volume One. The sound is, in fact, startlingly good—the piano is full but not muddy, the bass is tight, and the drums are accurately portrayed with a bit of zing. On his numbers, alto saxophonist Eric Marienthal plays with a big, lyrical tone that stands out from the band, which is carefully imaged without exaggerated separation.

The 1992 sessions were meant to produce merely a few numbers, which were to be added to the outtakes from the original 1990 recordings. But, according to the producer, the band got on a roll and produced enough exuberant new music to create a second disc. We are given a bonus—two numbers from the 1990 sessions, which allow the listeners to compare the HDCD recordings with those made before the process was in use. I find the new recordings superior, though not radically so. Reference says that the differences will be more evident once their decoder is on the market—at least to those willing to buy such an item! The producers attribute the improved sound to their improved process—one wonders, though, if other variables, such as microphone placement, have been accounted for.

Putting such questions aside, one can revel in the vim and variety of the music. Garson, who has played with David Bowie for years, made his first album as a leader in 1979. He's expanded his technique since. Much of the music is tartly lyrical, as in the seemingly misnamed "Rumble." Garson decorates his melody with showy arpeggios and vigorous scales, then plays a thumping chorus of two-handed scales in doubletime before bringing in the band in a swinging 4/4. After a similarly exotic introduction, he reinvents Miles Davis's "All Blues," with Brian Bromberg's bass brought forward beautifully. Garson plays Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings" soberly, deliberately restricting his left hand to square-sounding, on-the-beat chords. Elsewhere, he flies, and his rhythm section follows him ecstatically. Garson comments in his notes that Oxnard Two is his favorite of his recordings. It's a fine disc by any standard.—Michael Ullman