I am still fairly new to the world of audiophile-level listening, so take the following with a grain of ear-salt. But I DO know my jazz, so I think this might be a fun discussion to have. When I recently upgraded my sound system, having thought for many years that digital is better than analog, I surprised myself by electing to add a higher-level turntable and cartridge so I could maybe hear some of what the vinyl-raving was all about. I’m still learning.
Last night I listened on vinyl to the 1967 album “Happenings” by Bobby Hutcherson, with Herbie Hancock, piano, Bob Cranshaw, bass, and Joe Chambers, drums. This album was quite an ear-opener for me. First, I noticed that the soundstage was rather narrow and thought, “OK, another 1960s Rudy van Gelder recording where he seems to still prefer mono, but begrudgingly went stereo. And there was hardly any bass to speak of - I could hear it, but nothing like modern recordings. However, there was something really “right” about this recording, and that I think was its JAZZ. Van Gelder stated it himself many times, and several audiophile critics say it too - it might not sound “audiophile” when using the same standards as other recordings, because its audiophila is in its perfect congruence with the jazz performance. Any more bass would have been too much, had the cymbals b been more shimmering, the piano more in your face, and nope, the jazz would have been less. The drums are spread a little stereo, but they’re over to the right where the drummer sits not with a high-hat off-stage to the left and the tom-tom 20 feet away on the right. The piano had a little stereo, but it was to the left, not spread out as if the piano were 18-feet wide. Was it the thick, rich piano I love so much these days? No, it was a bit thin and ordinary, but it was PRESENT and every note could be heard distinctly where you could distinctly hear Herbie Hancock’s punctuation. The vibes were a little further stereo-spread, but 1) in the middle, so the perception of Hubbard moving left and right was accurate, and 2) it’s Bobby’s record, so his instruments should deserve a little more attention, just as if you went to a club because it was a Bobby Hutcherson date. So the combined result is accurate capture to sound the way the instruments should sound, incredible balance, audibly spontaneous improvisation interchange, and a realistic amount of clarity without being over-exaggerated phonically as so many jazz recordings are. For me, this is an example of the recording engineer’s equal and shared role in creating the art of a late 60s jazz performance - perfect in its IMperfection, because jazz has no business or intention of being perfect. The final track - “The Omen" - warrants being singled out, partly because it’s the only “free” jazz tune, but there seemed also to be a shift in engineering to support the genre shift. “Omen” is about sound color as much, if not more than, about the notes being played. All instruments seemed to have received more attention from an individual sound perspective - even the box of rocks that Hancock played in strategic places. The dynamic range of this was amazing - and yes, on vinyl, to where it blew me out of my chair at points and forced me to listen as hard as I could to hear the lightest of taps on the cymbals or piano or bass. This level of sonic perfection is revealed so well by a great sound system in a great room. Again, though, van Gelder’s work is not just to capture and mix, but to participate in the making of something complex, brilliant and esoteric, executed through the musical conventions of spontaneous melody, harmony and rhythm, into something very accessible, with heart, not just brain - which is why it was always easier for me to grasp the “avant-garde” in jazz than in other forms of music.
One final question did come to mind - would this be just as exciting in digital as on vinyl? Was the “imperfection” of surface noise and analog technology playing a role in the perfect JAZZ-y presentation? I downloaded the digital - best I could find is CD level 16/44. I half expected the mastering to be another “get it over and done with and onto CD to make a few re-issue bucks” which seems to be often the case. But no, whoever Blue Note hired to do the transfer to digital did a perfect job in my opinion. Do I have the best phono and cartridge and DAC and system and speakers and cables to make this determination? Are my ears even good enough to hear the difference? Was I “hearing things” to justify the time and expense of my audio hobby? No, no, and probably no more than any other audiophile. But I got the same amount of JAZZ from either medium, and that’s what counts for me anyway.