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The Quintet - Jazz at Massey Hall Print E-mail
Tuesday, 13 January 2004

The Quintet

Jazz at Massey Hall
format: SACD
label: Fantasy Jazz Records
release year: 2003
performance: 9.5
sound 4.5 (archival recording)
reviewed by: Ben Shyman

Image The Quintet’s Jazz at Massey Hall has frequently been called The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever. And with a Giants-of-Jazz-type lineup, including Charlie “Chan” Parker (alto saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Max Roach (drums) and Charlie Mingus (bass), it is hard to disagree. A quintessential gathering of the most accomplished jazz band leaders, composers and masters of the bebop era, Jazz at Massey Hall is a must-own, not only for any jazz bop fan but any serious music listener. The band was organized by Mingus at the height of the bebop era for a special one-of-a-kind performance as a benefit concert for the ailing Massey Hall and includes classics “Salt Peanuts,” “Wee,” “A Night in Tunisia” and “Perdido.”

Jazz at Massey Hall is a hybrid two-channel SACD, which will play on conventional and Super Audio CD players. The recording has been remastered and is available from Debut Records. Originally recorded at Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada on May 15, 1953, the recording has its obvious limits. But thanks to modern remastering techniques of the digital age, it is hard a better preservation and delivery of a historic performance than this disc brings into our living rooms, thanks to Debut Records.

The album begins with “Perdido,” written by Juan Tizol and made famous by Ellington. Gillespie’s trumpet solo has a dynamic quality that I found surprising. I expected a 1953 recording that was said to have been done with sub-par equipment, even for the time, to have disappointing dynamics, but this is far from the case. Yes, the mono recording is totally flat at times, but the dynamics of SACD definitely breathe life into the song’s sprinted performance.

One of my favorite tunes on Jazz at Massey Hall is Gillespie’s 1942 composition, “Salt Peanuts.” It is during this track, the enthusiasm of the crowd can best be heard. The clarity of the remastering is terrific on Parker’s sax solo. Every note is clearly distinguishable and surprisingly smooth. For a recording that is over 50 years old, the tonality is excellent. Furthermore, Roach’s drums and especially his symbols come through with clarity and ease. There is some buzzing and noise in the mid-frequencies during Powell’s piano solo, which in my view could stand from a slight improvement in volume, but overall the SACD exceptionally captures the spirit of “Salt Peanuts” better than the previous releases of the album.

“Wee” is my favorite track on the album. Mingus and Roach define the rhythm section with their signature play and wail on this track more than any other. They carry the music through its furious, up-tempo pace. Powell does some of his best piano work on “Wee,” especially during his solo. Although somewhat overshadowed by Roach’s drums, which are a bit too loud, Powell’s melodies are memorable and simply amazing. However, the highlight for me was coming out of Roach’s rocking drum solo near the song’s conclusion. Listening to Parker and Gillespie carry “Wee’s” main melody in unison made me shiver. Thinking that this was probably totally unrehearsed made me wonder how amazing these player were for their or any other time.

The downsides to this SACD are few. Most notably and not surprisingly, I found listening more enjoyable with my subwoofer off. The limitations of a 1953 recording rear their ugly heads during several moments where low frequency noise caused the sub to warble and burp at inaudible frequencies, which was a clear distraction. But this disc is more about clarity in the instrumentation, the feeling of the performance and preservation of a historic moment in jazz history. I recommend it enthusiastically. Jazz at Massey Hall is a worthy addition to your SACD collection.

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