The Fifth Element #33

In my October column, I began putting together a stereo system for a hypothetical high-school music teacher who wanted to reproduce in his or her home perhaps 80% of the frequency range and dynamics of live music, but who wanted to spend only about 20% of what an ambitious audio system would cost.

That 80/20 ratio corresponds to Vilfredo Pareto's principle that for many systems (he was thinking of economies and societies rather than stereo systems), 80% of the consequences flow from 20% of the causes (footnote 1). For the purposes of this exercise, I'd peg a more-ambitious-than-usual two-channel system at $35,000 to $50,000. So, 20% of that works out to about $7500 to $10,000.

I got as far as wholeheartedly praising, but ultimately moving on from, Harbeth's wonderful little HL-P3ES2 ($1595/pair, stands required), their drop-in replacement for the BBC's LS3/5a. I then passed over Audio Analogue's Primo integrated amp ($799), largely for ergonomic reasons that you may or may not agree with. I concluded that column by deciding that Magnum Dynalab's MD-208, a 100Wpc, FM-only receiver ($2975), was an excellent but by no means the only possible choice for a music lover who wants great sound but who doesn't want to become an equipment hobbyist, much less own his or her own soldering iron.

There were giants in the earth
I'll take up that quest again in a moment, but first I must tell you this: Absolutely drop everything you are doing (including reading this magazine) and immediately obtain for yourself the wealth of riches contained in Verve's The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions boxed set (5 CDs, Verve B0003252-02 QS01). I was absolutely knocked out by it. Part of my reaction was my delighted surprise that the recordings were not quite what I was expecting, on two counts.

1205fifthgranz.jpgHere's why. Norman Granz was one of the most important jazz promoters, impresarios, or career-makers of the second half of the 20th century. His stature was matched only by the Newport Jazz Festival's George Wein. (You can read Nat Hentoff's appreciation of Wein here.)

Granz started out in the early 1940s, putting together groups of musicians to play together in clubs in Los Angeles. He hired musicians not to make up bands as such, but rather to put on somewhat competitive showcases of soloing. Some contemporaries referred to these events as medieval jousting tournaments.

Granz was also among the first (if not the first) to recognize the potential for cross-marketing live performances and recordings. Fortuitously, that coincided with the launch of the long-playing vinyl record. Jazz at the Philharmonic was both a series of live concerts and a series of very successful live recordings.

However, the dark side was that Granz enjoyed stirring up a musical fight, as long as it was someone else's reputation that would suffer—the live concerts he produced could be faulted for a certain gladiatorial state of mind. Some of the musicians who worked for Granz resented this. Other musicians simply refused to play his game—foremost among them Miles Davis. That said, Granz always courageously refused to put on shows for racially segregated audiences, and as a rule he paid black musicians working for him the same as whites; if there were disparities, reasons other than race were the causes.

So when I put on the first of the five CDs in this set of all Granz's Jam Session studio recordings, I prepared myself to sit through 16 choruses of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." Wrong-ola. After the upbeat opening number, I was transfixed by some of the most heartfelt and sensitive solo ballad playing I have ever heard. The tunes and soloists on the first "Ballad Medley" say it all (solo start times given, because the liner notes don't):

0:09 "All the Things You Are" (Kern-Hammerstein); Barney Kessel, guitar
2:02 "Dearly Beloved" (Kern-Mercer); Charlie Parker, alto sax
3:42 "The Nearness of You" (Carmichael-Washington); Ben Webster, tenor sax
5:43 "I'll Get By" (Ahlert-Turk); Johnny Hodges, alto sax
7:17 "Everything Happens to Me" (Dennis-Adair); Oscar Peterson, piano
9:14 "The Man I Love" (Gershwin-Gershwin); Ray Brown, bass
11:04 "What's New?" (Haggart-Burke); Flip Phillips, tenor sax
13:10 "Someone to Watch Over Me" (Gershwin-Gershwin); Charlie Shavers, trumpet
15:14 "Isn't It Romantic?" (Rodgers-Hart); Benny Carter, alto sax

Parker, Webster, Hodges, Phillips, and Carter, all on the same track? Oxygen, please. If you're anything like me, by the time Charlie Shavers weighs in with "Someone to Watch Over Me" (a tune I heard Stephane Grappelli play live), you'll be just a puddle of lard. In point of fact, I was already rather gelatinous come Flip Phillips' "What's New?" You can regulate your watch by the rhythm section of J.C. Heard, Ray Brown, and Oscar Peterson. Later jams include Count Basie, Louie Bellson, Buddy DeFranco, an impossibly young Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Wardell Gray, Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Rich, and Willie Smith. Um, what are you waiting for?

The second aspect where my all-wetness revealed itself was the sound. It is very, very good for its time (from 1952 on). Not quite up there with Ella Fitzgerald's Cole Porter Songbooks (also produced by Granz), but very good nonetheless. Timbres are very natural (session photos show vintage RCA ribbon microphones), and dynamics are okay but not great. Even though these are all mono recordings, you do get some sense of the spaciousness of the large studios in which they were made. At one point in "What's New?" you can hear someone knock over or drop a beverage bottle of some sort—a real audiophile moment, that one.

Over and above this set's fastidious remasterings, its extensive liner-notes booklet is as good an introduction to the post-WWII jazz scene as one could hope for. The art on the original album covers is reproduced on the front and back of each CD's discpak (each CD contains the content of two original LPs).

The bottom line is that The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions barely slows down as it picks up its "Record To Die For" endorsement on its way to that Desert Island. If you don't check it out (your local public library may have it, or be prevailed on to order it), it surely will be your loss.

Sibling rivalry
Back to work. On the assumption that our hypothetical music teacher would want to hear nearly the full frequency and dynamic ranges of orchestral music (or, for that matter, of band music), I requested a speaker similar to but larger than Harbeth's LS3/5a replacement, the HL-P3ES2. That speaker was the S6e from Spendor, another company that traces its roots back to the BBC's engineering department.

I really liked Spendor's less-expensive S5e ($1799/pair) when I heard a pair of them at Home Entertainment 2004. I agreed both with Art Dudley's review (Stereophile, September 2004, Vol.27 No.9) and their receiving a joint Product of the Year award in the Budget category (December 2004, Vol.27 No.12). My thinking was that the larger, more expensive S6e ($2399/pair), a floorstanding two-way with a 6.5" woofer and a 1" soft-dome tweeter, would have enough bass to fill the bill. It didn't quite work out that way. To my surprise, while the S6e did have more bass than Harbeth's HL-P3ES2, it didn't have that much more bass.

Footnote 1: It is a gross oversimplification to claim that Pareto said that 20% of your customers account for 80% of your business. But hey, he shouldn't feel too bad—Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." Try correcting that little myth.