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Various Artists - An Introduction to SACD Print E-mail
Tuesday, 27 February 2001
An Introduction to SACD,
Chesky Records, 2001
| Performance 9 | Sound 9 |

ImageGrammy Award-winning Chesky Records was founded in 1978 by composer/musician David Chesky and his brother and business partner Norman, in New York. Norman recalls: "We wanted to please both musical connoisseurs and the high-end audiophiles by signing some of the best musicians in the world, and then capturing their live performances with the latest and best technology." Adds David, "I would walk into a recording studio and see fifty microphones set up. When I realized that people don't hear music that way, and that musicians play differently when they are recorded like that, I decided that if we ever started a company, it was going to have a different and unique recording philosophy."

From the beginning, the brothers have been dedicated to creating "the illusion of live musicians in a real three-dimensional space", as the blurb on their web site puts it. They achieve this goal with a combination of careful microphone placement, a recording team that pays real attention to detail, and the latest audio technology.

This latter being the case, it comes as no surprise that Chesky Records has released albums in both DVD-Audio and the competing Super Audio CD formats. And in the course of their nearly 25 years of existence, they have built up an interesting roster of artists. This album, as its title indicates, is available only on SACD, and in stereo (though Chesky is releasing multichannel recordings now: they wanted to get stereo right first, so to speak), and showcases many of those artists, from several different genres – from classical to Latin, from singer-songwriters to jazz and from standards to modern classical (from David Chesky himself).

The album is a hybrid disc, which means that in addition to the high-density layer (which carries only stereo in this case), there is a Red Book CD-player-compatible layer, so you can play the same disc in the car as on your SACD player at home.

David Chesky has not so far expressed publicly, to my knowledge, any views on the relative benefits of the competing high quality audio disc formats. Very likely, most if not all, of the recordings on this disc are recorded either analog or PCM digital. And it may be that whatever final release medium the Cheskys chose to release this 70 minute compilation, it would sound excellent – because here we have both exceptional playing and exceptional recording. It also, of course, serves to promotes the albums from which these tracks are taken.

The album leads off with a nice jazz vocal number from Christy Baron, "Will It Go Round In Circles". Her clear voice, with a pleasant touch of reverb, is complemented from soon after its solo entry by string bass, percussion, drums (with some interesting high-speed snare effects) and piano. The stereo is excellent, with wonderful imaging and crystal-clear transients. Everything (except perhaps the snare) is wonderfully understated and laid-back, especially the memorable piano solo. You can hear everything and really fall into the music. It’s followed by a quite different approach from David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, in what I suppose you might call a "driving blues", "Well, I’ve been to Memphis" with acoustic guitars, brushes on drums, acoustic bass and a marvelously "roomy" lead vocal both sung and spoken. Again, everything is nicely understated. All these recordings are extremely sensitively handled, without the crassness suffered by many modern recordings.

To some, the third track will be the only "name" on this album: it’s a love song from Livingston Taylor "First time love". It features two very open-sounding acoustic guitars, ultimately joined by string bass, and a distinctive vocal that can perhaps only be confused with one other person. You can hear it was recorded in a real place with great harmony vocals too.

You’ll have noticed that this is a very acoustic album so far, and that’s certainly the case. "Dear Miss Lucy" from Dave’s True Story is a nice little jazz vocal number with electric bass this time, a brass section, and drums with brushes – both of which have a real feel of the room about them, while the vocal is dryer and more up-front. Again, nicely laid back, nicely understated, and beautifully played and recorded.

It’s the same story for the whole album. Perhaps you can sometimes criticize the "roominess" of these recordings, but what you’re hearing is natural – occasionally a bit too natural, where some instruments are perhaps a bit too quiet. But you can always hear everything. In Paquito D’Rivera’s "Sustancia" , for example, I would have liked a little more piano, but that’s being picky. The McCoy Tyner Quartet offers a neat little instrumental jazz number with sax lead.

Perhaps the most ear-catching recording on this album is Carla Lother’s "The Lake". A distant solo piano starts the track, and immediately gave me goosebumps. Her voice enters similarly distantly, and it’s stunning, joined almost at once by intricate harmonies and then by string bass. The sound of this track is quite different from all the others. All the tracks in this collection sound real, and recorded in real acoustic environments, but this track is special, and from a sound point of view it is really something else. I tried a Dolby Pro Logic decoder (the only 2-channel matrix decoder I had available at the time) on it and all manner of surround information sprung to life. It’s obviously NOT a Dolby-encoded recording (I wish I had been able to run it through a UHJ decoder), but it is certainly only one step away from surround. I would like to know more about how this number was recorded.

Every track on this album, however, has something to commend it, and there is something for almost anyone (as long as you don’t want rock music). Jon Faddis’ "Riverside Park" opens with sweet brass harmonies and settles into a languid, gentle groove. The Conga Kings play bass and, well, congas. Virtuoso congas. Somehow it’s utterly complete. The bass entry on Rebecca Pidgeon’s rendering of the Phil Spector classic, "Spanish Harlem" is exquisite, matched only by Rebecca’s distinctive, sometimes almost childlike voice. There’s piano, acoustic guitar and percussion too, and an engagingly sparse and natural string arrangement. It’s nicely counterbalanced by Clark Terry’s piece, "Just for a thrill", written for piano and trumpet.

The longest and last piece on the record is by David Chesky himself. It’s a 14-minute piece for choir and orchestra called "Resurrection" from his work "The Agnostic". It’s a dark and smooth piece, initially somewhat reminiscent of Gorecki at times, but less averse to passing discords and occasionally becoming more angular as it moves from time to time into increasingly anguished territory and then settles back to float like nighttime mist on a dark river. The entry of the choir takes the piece into deep, moving and exquisite musical spaces, with impressive light and shade, gradually building and then falling back like the ocean towards an impressive, rhythmic climax after which it slips gently away again only to build to an impressive though restrained end chord. The man is evidently an accomplished composer. It’s a great way to end this compilation.

This album is not only a good introduction to SACD: it’s a good intro to Chesky’s catalog (the Red Book layer on its own is pretty good), and an excellent catalog it is. I would be pleased to own many of these discs on either of the high-density format.

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