To Be Determined

    What Music Do You Play to Show Off Your System? Part Deux

    Issue 155

    Courtesy of Tom Gibbs.

    Courtesy of Tom Gibbs.

     

    In the last issue of Copper, I highlighted some of the many tunes I listen to for both pleasure and for equipment evaluation (see my article in Issue 154). But I ran out of space (and time) to touch on many of the selections that we listened to on New Year’s Day when my daughter and her family came over to celebrate the holiday. Here are a few more really great tracks that get spun on a regular basis in my listening room that I affectionately refer to as “The Dungeon.”

    A couple of additional tracks from British jazz vocalist Claire Martin made the list, from her 2005 album, When Lights Are Low. Claire Martin not only records and tours, but did a long-running live show in London with her then-cabaret partner, pianist extraordinaire Richard Rodney Bennett, who sadly died a few years ago. The album is a duet that features Martin on vocals and Bennett on vocals and piano – it would be Bennett’s last recording prior to his passing, and provides a fitting coda to his life’s work. It’s also one of the most well-recorded records of this type (or any, for that matter!) in my entire library. We listened to DSD 64 .dsf files sourced from my rip of the Linn Records SACD. This is a truly outstanding recording, and offers an exceptionally realistic aural portrayal of both vocalist and piano. Bennett is a much more accomplished pianist than vocalist, but you have to give the guy his props– he was 76 years old when this record was made!

    The two tracks segue into each other; the first, “Fools Fall In Love,” is a rarely-heard ballad from Irving Berlin that’s given a poignant reading from both Martin and Bennett. Claire Martin’s smoky-sweet alto is perfect for this tune, and Bennett’s artistry at the keyboard is on complete display – despite his advanced age, he was still at the peak of his powers as a pianist. As the final notes fade, it immediately transitions into Martin’s defiant and jubilant rendering of Harold Arlen’s classic, “I Got A Right to Sing the Blues.” Her rousing vocal is spot-on, and she proves here that she can belt it out with the best of them, while Bennett provides an appropriately rollicking accompaniment– this is a very entertaining pairing of songs!

     

    Next up are a pair of tunes from jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s trio from the 1996 album Earth Stories. Chestnut’s artistry is among the finest to be found in the current crop of jazz pianists. Schooled from the age of seven in the traditions of the Baptist church in his hometown of Baltimore, his playing is perhaps the most soulful to be heard of any modern pianist. The recording features Chestnut’s usual piano, bass, and drums accompaniment on most of the tracks, but fleshes out a few with a horn section. The two I’ve chosen here are blues numbers, “Grandmama’s Blues” and “Blues from the East.” The two tracks are 16-bit/44.1 kHz uncompressed FLAC rips from my CD; this is a truly superb recording that is among the best sounding in my entire digital library. It’s mood music that’s perfectly appropriate for late-night listening. And it’s very musical as well as dynamic; the recording engineer really captured the acoustics of the studio environment, and you can easily place the piano, bass, and drums in the sound field. Very highly recommended!

     

    Diana Krall has her share of detractors, but in the early days – before the record company attempted to start selling her image, rather than simply letting the music speak for itself – she created some darn great records. Her first mainstream album, 1996’s All For You, A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio on Impulse Records, remains in my book one of her very best. Produced by Tommy LiPuma, the album is a textbook example of great recording techniques. The track I most often listen to is “I’m Thru With Love,” and for replay, I’m using a 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC digital download from HDTracks that was uncompressed using dBpoweramp. The album is a trio date for most of the songs, including Diana Krall on piano and vocals, accompanied by a guitar and acoustic bass. The song was written by Fud Livingston, and was popularized in a version sung by Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 film Some Like It Hot. Krall offers an appropriately poignant rendering here; her piano work is superb, and her smoky, haunting vocal is absolute ear candy. I bought this album in 1996 having never heard a single track, and it’s been in constant rotation ever since.

    I have to admit, the next track flew under my radar for many years – I only first heard it at the Florida Audio Expo in 2020. Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going” was recorded at the same sessions as her classic album Blue, though the song predates the album by many years. Tom Rush recorded and released it as a single in 1966, and Joni’s release was as the B-side of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” from the For the Roses album, which followed Blue. It first appeared on disc on the 1996 compilation Hits, and how a song this great was left off a milestone work like Blue just baffles me. I guess she thought it was too old a song then and not in character with the rest of the album. When I heard it playing in Tampa, it stopped me dead in my tracks – I couldn’t believe how great the song was, and especially the realism of the sound I was hearing in the room at FAE. How was it I’d never heard this song – maybe one of Joni Mitchell’s greatest ever – before now? I guess I was too young to be familiar with Tom Rush’s version, and had stopped buying 45s by the time For the Roses was released. The track is taken from my 16/44.1 uncompressed FLAC rip from the CD, but it sounds as magnificent over my system now as my recollection of the sound I was hearing in Florida a couple of years ago.

     

    Ella Fitzgerald’s pared-down, small combo session that resulted in the 1961 album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie was a startling departure from the “songbook” series of large-scale orchestral albums she’d been recording with the likes of Nelson Riddle, Buddy Bregman, and Duke Ellington. The songs feature drums, bass, guitar, and piano, and the recording is a very intimate setting, with Ella’s voice up front in the mix and very personal. I own most of the “songbook” series, and many of them are basically superb recordings, though some exhibit a trace of a slightly metallic sound, which is especially noticeable on Ella’s vocals. There’s not a trace of that here, and Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie is one of the best jazz vocal recordings from that period, or any other, for that matter. The song I chose is Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and despite a gazillion various covers of Monk’s undisputed classic, Ella nails it here and totally owns it. The track was taken from a 24/192 FLAC digital download that was uncompressed using dBpoweramp.

     

    When Neil Young started remastering and re-releasing his catalog in the mid-2000s, he also took the unexpected step of issuing live recordings that had languished in the vaults for decades, never having had an official release. Among the first was Live at Massey Hall 1971, which captures Neil playing live at Toronto’s Massey Hall in between the albums After the Gold Rush and the yet to be released Harvest. It’s a really interesting glimpse into Neil’s process back in the day, and very cool to see how his pared-down interpretations of songs with only acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment compare to the full album versions. The recording quality is really superb;  you get an excellent impression of Massey Hall’s acoustic on this album; even on my stereo-only setup, when the audience applauds, it quite nearly wraps around you in the soundstage. And Neil has a “live in your room” presence. The track I chose is “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” from After the Gold Rush, and my library file is a 16/44.1 uncompressed FLAC taken from my CD rip of the album. The sound quality here is phenomenal, and as Neil tunes his guitar and immediately transitions into the song, the effect is spine-tingling. Highly recommended.

     

    When conductor Richard Hickox died of an aneurysm in 2008, it left a gaping hole in British classical music performance. I have many of his recordings, but I’m particularly smitten with his uncompleted cycle of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies on the Chandos label; he’d yet to record the Symphonies No. 7 (Symphonia Antarctica) and No. 9 prior to his untimely death. That’s a terrible loss, as I consider all his Williams recordings to be darn-near definitive. His recording of the Symphony No. 2 (A London Symphony) is constantly in my regular rotation, and the track I chose is the second movement Lento. It’s taken from my DSD 64 .dsf rip of the SACD, and it’s without a doubt one of the most dynamic classical music recordings in my entire library. The sound quality is absolute ear candy, and the music traverses a nearly mind-boggling range of emotions, but also contains a handful of orchestral climaxes that will test the capabilities of the very best amplifiers and loudspeakers. Very highly recommended!

     

    Sarah McLachlan had a really good run from the late 1990s through the early 2000s, and tracks from her albums Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Surfacing, and the live album Mirrorball are in my regular rotation. The three tracks I chose are from 1997’s Surfacing, and they all sort of segue into each other, creating a really effective range of moods. “Do What You Have to Do” is a languid number that focuses on McLachlan’s beautiful soprano with her own piano accompaniment. The track is fleshed out with bass, synths, and guitars, and the effect is simply stunning. “Witness” is a synth-heavy number that has a subterranean bass line that will shake your home’s foundation, and the keyboards are magically effective as the song poppily plays along. “Angel” (yes, I know it got played to death at the time of its release!) is a strictly acoustic tune again featuring Sarah McLachlan at the piano, and her plaintive rendering of the song offers a stunning conclusion to this trio of tunes. The sound quality is off-the-charts great for 1990’s pop; my 16/44.1 uncompressed FLAC rip was taken from my CD.

     

    Swan Lake - The Sleeping Beauty - Suites from the Ballets, Album Cover.

    Another lifetime of great classical performances came from Sir Charles Mackerras, who died in 2010 but left a long legacy of outstanding recordings, many of them on the Telarc label. One of the truly great ones is his 1987 album of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake/Sleeping Beauty Orchestral Suites, which is a magnificent recording in the grand early Telarc style, with plenty of orchestral bravado and bombast. This one came without the typical Telarc warning about digital transients (possibly overtaxing your system), but the orchestral climaxes and percussion will rock your listening room’s walls and test the moxie of your system’s capabilities. The two tracks I chose are from Sleeping Beauty, and open the disc with Introduction: The Lilac Fairy, and Adagio: Rose Adagio. Both are 16/44.1 uncompressed FLAC rips from my CD copy, but this disc is easily among the best-sounding classical music titles in my entire library – it’s one of those early Telarc 50 kHz Soundstream Digital recordings, and it’s a real shame that when SACD was still in its infancy and Telarc released a lot of those as SACDs that they didn’t do the same for this outstanding disc. Still, very highly recommended! (sorry, not YouTube video available for this title – I literally looked for an hour.)

    That wraps it up for this go-around, but there’s still plenty more to come!

    10 comments on “What Music Do You Play to Show Off Your System? Part Deux”

    1. It’s gratifying to see some overlap between my own demo tracks and yours.

      Re: Krall – It’s become fashionable to dump on Ms. Krall, but I have to agree with your statements. My introduction to her was the Cole Trio tribute album, back when it was first released (when Best Buy stocked and sold thousands of CDs, and had headphone listening stations at the ends of each aisle), and it led me to her earlier efforts, “Stepping Out” and “Only Trust Your Heart.” I thought her music was the very embodiment of the sparkling and virtuosic, yet accessible, jazz trio or quartet. I was dismayed then when she moved progressively further away from that model with each subsequent release, until it was clear she was being marketed as a chanteuse who plays piano, rather than a fine jazz pianist who also sings. I don’t know if we’ll ever know how much of that was her decision and how much the was the business people, but it’s probably fair to say she wouldn’t have gone along if she hadn’t liked the results.

      1. Craig,

        Diana Krall was never what I would call “classically beautiful,” but she was young and very attractive, and when you see live performance videos from that period, she was also a very confident and commanding stage performer. That said, she probably had some self-image issues as most everyone generally does — especially impressionable young women. Then throw a record company into the mix who was just as eager to cash in on her refined image as well as her immense talent — and they garnish her with diamonds and silks and lavishly display her in front of the camera — you have created a recipe for disaster, and I think that’s exactly what happened with Diana Krall. Once they created the idea that she was just as beautiful to look at as to listen to, that pushed her into a completely different direction than she might have otherwise gone in artistically, and it most definitely impacted her music.

        Despite all that, her early records are still incredibly well-recorded and sound pretty great on a good stereo — it’s too bad that they were played to death early on at stereo shows, which definitely left a bad taste in the mouths of many audiophiles.

        Thanks for reading!

        Tom

    2. Thanks, Tom

      When I saw the Copper Magazine in my inbox this morning I looked forward to your article. I will be checking out these tracks…

      I can recommend a great CD of a collection of Burt Bacharach songs, in many cases the songs are by artists that are not necessarily associated with them. A couple of tracks that I use a lot to evaluate a new system tweak are “Alfie” by Barbara Streisand and “Trains and Boats and Planes” by Astrud Gilberto. I think the mastering on this entire CD is excellent. The 2 CD set is called “Anyone Who Had A Heart” https://www.amazon.com/Anyone-Who-Had-Heart-Songwriter/dp/B00CA4RZWK/ref=sr_1_1?crid=306BZ5C7TT0IX&keywords=burt+bacharach+anyone+who+had+a+heart+cd&qid=1643639434&sprefix=burt+bacharach+anyone+who+had+a+heart+cd%2Caps%2C109&sr=8-1

      So much of what makes a track sound great is about the mastering. I maintain that an MP3 of the original master tape of “With The Beatles” will sound better than a Hi Res rip of the tape Capitol used to cut “Meet The Beatles”. You have cited a number of Red Book tracks in your recommendations, not just Hi Res. However, one thing I have noticed with Qobuz is that in many cases the tracks they identify as Hi Res sound better. There are a lot of bad sounding Qobuz tracks. Eli and the 13th Confession comes to mind.

      Can I ask a question about Aretha Franklin? It seems like many of her classic Atlantic recordings were made with her vocal firmly in the red on the VU meter. I call it the fuzz tone vocal. It’s on vinyl and any digital version I can find. Anyone else experience this?

      1. Bob,

        I have a number of CD rips in my digital library that — to my ears, at least — sound every bit as good as DSD or anything else. I think the recording and mastering have much more to do with it versus the bit rate or PCM versus DSD, etc. And I generally do believe that well-done high res transfers sound better than rips of Red Book CDs — but not always. I think a lot of it has to do with the digital to analog conversion — when you get into a higher-end DAC and associated electronics, it really changes the way things sound. A clear example for me is the 24/192 titles from Yes on HD Tracks. When I downloaded some of them years ago, I thought they sounded like absolute crap. After relistening to them recently on my current system, they sound much less objectionable than when I heard them for the first few times back then. That said, my SACD rips of the Steve Hoffman mastered Close To The Edge and Going for the One on Audio Fidelity are miles beyond any other digital version of those titles I’ve ever heard. It’s a real shame he didn’t get the opportunity to work on their entire catalog, and good mastering is obviously everything!

        I can’t really comment on the Aretha titles, although what you’re hearing doesn’t seem at all unusual for Atlantic recordings of that vintage. I’ll have to take another listen.

        Tom

    3. So far I can see only two instrumental tracks, both piano.

      I’ve always sampled from a wide range of solo instruments – strings, piano, woodwind, brass, percussion (for example Kuniko’s recordings on Linn). In particular, Tabea Zimmerman on viola (Solo II in particular), Sitar (Anouska Shankar, produced by Nitin Sawhney), classical guitar (William Carter, also on Linn) and Oud (Marcel Khalifé), solo male (Marcel’s son Bachar Mar-Khalifé is magnificent – try: Ya Balad) and female vocals (Barb Jungr / Man in the long black coat on Linn). Then move on to small groups. We seem to agree on Linn as a source for great recordings.

      I’ve not listened to it, but the Octave / Zuill Bailey cello recording is meant to be of high audio quality.

      1. My original list had 99 tracks on it — I’ve since added about a dozen more to that, and it spans a wide variety of genres, from classical, chamber music, jazz, pop, vocals, rock, synth pop, new wave, metal, folk, electronic, etc. I’m taking a break from this next issue but will return with another installment soon that will focus on rock tunes that I feel are very well recorded.

        As always, thanks for reading!

        Tom

        1. Always an interesting topic. Unlike most people, I just look for good sound, I don’t want an emotional reaction. I suppose for rock I’d go for Mark Knopfler and Dave Gilmour, who have extensive production credits and world class studios of their own.

          I went to a dCS launch event of the Vivaldi system in 2013 and they played some Vivaldi – Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op.8 on Linn, The Alison Ensemble. Probably SACD. They also played Nickel Creek’s first album from 2000, just a great recording. A holographic sound I’ve never forgotten. Also convinced me of the merits of CD.

          1. While I do have a few “good sound for the sake of good sound” discs, I generally avoid music that I don’t have some kind of emotional connection with. I’d actually probably prefer to listen to a scratchy remaster of a 78 of a performance that I emotionally connect with than a pristine one that has questionable performance values.

            There’s a jazz vocalist who makes the audio show circuits (especially the west-coast shows); her recordings generally feature stellar players and top engineers, and the sound quality is nothing short of superb. That said, the performances are about as soulless as imaginable, and listening to them are an absolute ordeal for me. I have DSD rips of two of her SACDs on my server; one of them she sent me as a promo, and the other I found sealed at a Goodwill on half-price day for $1.25. I generally have no problem paying $5-10 for used discs, sometimes for even just a single song, but her discs — even at a cash outlay of next-to-nothing — get zero airplay at my house, regardless of how great they sound. Sorry, that’s just how I feel about it!

            Tom

            1. It being rather late (1:23am) and my misreading the title taking short breaks whilst doing some work, I was thinking of my test tracks. Maybe it’s because I never show off my system!

              I have only one audiophile friend and he’s only heard my system once, and he didn’t like it. But then he has B&W speakers and I have Wilson. He likes cars, has several, I have no interest at all.

              All the items I listed is music I listen to, some very infrequently, when used for test purposes I use small excepts. Little of it is foot-tapping!

              1. You’re in the UK? I hear you loud and clear. I have a neighbor who’s an audiophile, and the first time he came over, brought a couple of laptops and microphones and ran frequency sweeps for about an hour. After he analyzed all the data, he proceeded to tell me how crappy my system measured. Then about a year later, he told me that he noticed some issues with his algorithms, and that his conclusions about my room were probably incorrect, and he wanted to come back over and take new measurements.

                Needless to say, it hasn’t happened!

                Tom

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