The FIM album entitled Audiophile Reference IV contains tracks from many other FIM albums, giving you an excellent entry point for sampling the rest of their catalog. However, this album is available only in SACD format. Our favorite track on this sampler album is from FIM's Antiphone Blues album, which features a saxophone and organ recorded in a wonderful acoustic rich with ambience -- so you could just get this Antiphone Blues album (CD 003, only in HDCD format).
The famous Esther album from Germany has been cut by FIM onto XRCD format. It features Esther Ofarim's beautifully lyrical and gentle voice, accompanied mostly by a guitar. The sonic value here is in the subtle inner detail of the guitar and of Esther's voice. If you don't have the vinyl LP, this FIM album is worth getting (XRCD 01), but the original vinyl LP sounds yet better, and better than any digital transcription we have yet heard of this album.
The famous Proprius album Jazz at the Pawnshop has also been re-cut by FIM, in plural versions. The XRCD version offers the best sound in straightforward stereo. The SACD version offers a special bonus of surround sound, with synthesized surround information fed to the rear channels (the original Proprius recording did not have rear surround channels). This synthesizing of rear channel ambience has been executed well, so you feel enveloped by the nightclub ambience and the audience, and this does add an enjoyable dimension which brings the music even more to vivid life. If you enjoy the surround experience and have an SACD player, this version is worth getting.
FIM has put out several percussion albums. Percussion music is very demanding on an audio system, so it is a good test, and good for showing off your system if your system is up to handling it. In our judgment, the best of the FIM percussion albums is Percussion Fantasia, available only in HDCD format (CD 017).
FIM has recut two albums by Patricia Barber, which are often cited as audiophile showcase material. The FIM versions (Café Blue on HDCD only, CD 010, and Companion on XRCD only, XRCD 027) do sound excellent, and have some wonderful sonic moments. But be forewarned that the original master recordings also have some compromised sonics here and there, from the use of stock studio equipment that was less than optimal (for example, the vocal mike and/or echo plate in Café Blue can't handle Patricia's sibilants cleanly).
FIM will continue to issue interesting new albums, and we encourage you to visit their website at www.fim.biz to keep in touch with their latest offerings. After you try the above recommended albums, you might also want to explore the FIM catalogue further, in case you find a sonic treasure that has escaped our notice.
CD: The Agnostic
The truth is inescapable. David Chesky is a multi-faceted genius. As technical director of Chesky Records, he stays abreast of the most advanced recording technologies and formats, to bring us all some of the best sounding recordings available, of a huge diversity of music. As a composer of jazz and folk music, he has created imaginative, original fusions of jazz with folk elements from abroad. As a pianist recording this music, he perfectly highlights this music's flair, color, bounce, and aplomb, playing with a combination of alacrity, precision, and easy relaxation that only master pianists can manage. As a composer of serious classical music, he is a master of the minor key and the wealth of emotions it can evoke with its downturns - and he deserves to be ranked and appreciated up there with other recent masters of the minor key such as Britten and Bax. And that's not to even touch upon his genius in the kitchen as a master chef.
The Agnostic is Chesky's largest scale work on CD, written for large orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists. It is somber, profound, and ultimately triumphant. This work clearly owes its heritage to the rich vein of 20th century minor key large scale music for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists begun by Mahler, and mostly sustained by eminent British composers such as Elgar, Walton, Britten, et al. But, as with all of David Chesky's compositions, its musical language and its message are original.
The context of this work is the musical exploration of the doubts and sorrows of man, especially agnostics who do not have the easy assuagement that the superstition of religious faith provides. These doubts and sorrows are explored in the face of the afflictions that life brings us, and this exploration ultimately yields to the triumphant affirmation of faith in ourselves -- faith in the miracle that this creature, evolved from apes, can create for himself the human values, the caring for our fellow man, which in the end allow hope and perseverance to triumph over sorrow and doubt. Think of it, if you will, as a humanist version of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.
Sonically, this album has some spectacular passages where the massed musical forces are sonically stunning as well as emotionally overpowering (try tracks 5 and 8, plus track 11 for its soaring ascent of reaffirmation). The recording has amazing dynamic range, and is very clean and quiet. Imaging is excellent, with wonderful stage spread and framing ambience. The vocal soloists are very realistically scaled, not overblown as is usual on commercial recordings with their close up spotlight mikes. The performance, with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Stephen Somary, was presumably done under the supervision of the composer, so it must be regarded as definitive. And, since David Chesky also produced this recording, we can safely assume that the sonic balances also definitively reflect the wishes and intent of the composer. How many classical orchestra recordings can you name where the recording was executed not only by a master of recording technology, but also by the composer himself? As we said at the outset, it is obvious that David Chesky is a multifaceted genius, and this album clearly bears witness to that genius.
Other Chesky albums showing David Chesky's genius as a classical composer include the Psalms 1-3 and Psalms 4-6. Chesky albums highlighting David Chesky's genius as a jazz/folk composer include New York Chorinhos (with spectacular piano and guitar sonics), and Club de Sol (with a full jazz ensemble). These four albums, plus The Agnostic, are all must have recordings. Two other Chesky albums, entitled The Fantasies and The Tangoes and Dances, allow you to explore David's interesting compositions for solo piano (with David himself of course as the pianist handling the interpretation).
CD: The Persuasions Sing the Beatles
This Chesky recording rivals the famous Fairfield Four CDs as an exemplar for testing your audio system with a cappella male voices. Audiophiles know that the human singing voice is very revealing for probing and showing off what your system can really do. The human voice reveals system colorations, hangovers, and/or smearing very quickly. It also proves system resolution, because the human voice has many subtleties (including breathiness, sibilants, vocal cord complexities, etc.) that are revealed only by the most transparent audio systems.
But really good vocal recordings are rare. Most commercial recordings suffer from inferior microphones, excessive processing (echo plates and reverb boxes), compromised studio electronics (laden with IC chips), and intrusive orchestral or band accompaniment. First rate a cappella recordings, like this Chesky CD and the Warner Brothers Fairfield Four CDs, are in a league apart. They are an incredibly valuable audiophile resource, as well as a musical treat.
The Persuasions, originating in the doo-wop era and regenerating themselves with new members over the years, need no further introduction. And of course the Beatles' music has become a worldwide classic in well under the usually required 50 years, being covered and re-done by every conceivable artist in every conceivable style.
But this album has an interesting twist. Usually, old tunes are re-done in newer styles by song stylists. Here, however, the Beatles' tunes from the 60s are re-done in an older style, the doo-wop style from the 50s. It's a daring and unusual matchup. One is reminded of the 50s monster films, with odd pairings of every unusual combination producers could think of (Wolfman Meets Dracula, Mothra Meets Godzilla, etc.).
So, what happens when the Beatles meet doo-wop? Does it work? Is there meaningful musical substance beyond the novelty? Well, yes and no. It is a fresh and at first interesting musical sound. But, as the album progresses over 14 Beatles songs, the doo-wop arrangements become repetitious, and overly simplistic, not doing enough justice to the tremendous musical variety inherent in the Beatles' compositions themselves. There are a few special musical moments, though, which save the day. For example, the Beatles' song Yesterday is beautifully done, not in 50s doo-wop style, but rather in an even older vocal harmony style that harkens back (aptly) to the yesterday before doo-wop, the style of the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers of the 40s.
The recording's sonics are generally excellent, being very clean, transparent, and natural. All four singers were positioned around a single stereo mike, but of course are portrayed by a spaced stereo system as being spread out on a stereo stage image. Three of the singers are wonderfully imaged on stage right (your left), being nicely spread out, and with a good halo of ambience framing their voices. Unfortunately, the imaging is not quite as successful for the bass singer, positioned on stage left. He seems too localized within the right loudspeaker, and there is not enough of an ambience halo around his voice. We surmise that he was positioned closer to the recording mike. The sonic consequence is that this bass singer is thrust forward, into your lap, while the rest of the singers are nicely framed farther away, up on a realistic stage image. This drier acoustic for the bass singer, putting him more in your face, makes his bass ostinato doo-wop contributions too psychoacoustically prominent. And, since the role of a bass ostinato is by definition repetitious, the sonic prominence of this repetition further emphasizes the too simplistic repetitiousness of the doo-wop arrangements as the album progresses.
Still, this album's overall sonics make it a treat worth having, as an adjunct to the Fairfield Four CDs. If you are fan of doo-wop and the Beatles, then this album will have even further special appeal for you.
CD: David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, & Shaker
The wild popular success of the first, eponymous Chesky CD by David Johansen and the Harry Smiths led to the release of a second album, entitled Shaker. Both albums feature very good sonics, with even stage spread and excellent reproduction of the accompanying musical instruments. Both albums feature music in the same vein, artfully fleshed out instrumental arrangements of blues/folk numbers, backing Johansen's gruff, coarsened singing.
We find the first album musically preferable, and it is certainly more accessible if you are new to this music. So you should first buy the first album, and if you like it, then also try the second album, Shaker. The first album contains a wonderful variety of blues tunes and arrangements, going beyond the usual plaintive blues into meditative blues, and even sprightly blues. Also, in the first album, Johansen varies the tonal quality of his voice more widely, to suit each song. In contrast, the second album Shaker is more musically uniform, and more up tempo, with a driving energy which gets a bit relentless over the course of the whole album, especially coupled with Johansen's more monotonic, less inflected raspy vocal tone throughout this second album.
Interestingly, our review copy of Shaker exhibited a huge improvement in sonics when we cleaned the new CD thoroughly. At first, this new (visually clean) CD sounded quite brash and harsh in the upper midrange, but a good cleaning cured all this, and brought out the natural musical beauty of the accompanying instruments that Chesky captured so well. We surmise that the new CD pressing had a coating of mold release compound, which was degrading the sound (see article in this issue on Improving CD Sound, for further discussion).
CD: Three Guitars, Chesky JD 248
Great music. Great performances. Great recording.
The sound is superbly clean, pure, and rich in natural detail and texture, but without being aggressive or overly analytical. The Chesky oversampling recording chain obviously has superb resolution, and it does not intrude with artifice of its own, instead bringing you natural musical sound. Then, as great as the sound is on this recording, it is the rare stereo imaging which is the star of the show.
The stereo imaging is a stunning tour de force. Even in two channel stereo, the captured and portrayed ambience of the large recording space (St. Peter's church in NYC) is so rich that you feel immersed in surround sound (assuming your stereo playback system itself has high resolution and excellent imaging). Your listening room walls melt away, and like magic you are aurally transported to this large empty church. Indeed, the imaging is so extraordinary that you can feel yourself transported to this alternative venue even when there's no music playing. The heat in the church was going full blast on this cold winter's day, and what sounds like the gentle hiss of steam radiators emanates from plural locations in the church. The miking and resolution of this recording capture even this subtle sound so well that you can literally hear the dimensions of the large church space all around you, as defined by the gentle hiss coming from plural locations (and then echoing off the church walls).
The imaging magic gets even more special when the music begins. Badi Assad is stage center, playing either her guitar or an assortment of other instruments, and the imaging clearly portrays the depth of the ambience behind her, as well as a little depth and ambience in front of her. The two other guitarists, John Abercrombie and Larry Coryell, are on the right and left respectively, located pretty much where your two stereo speakers are.
Now, in most other recordings, soloists at the speaker locations sound as though they are trapped inside your speaker boxes, a typical consequence of close miking and pan potting, which gives you multi-mono rather than true stereo. Even somewhat better recordings, which manage to project a soloist just outside your speaker box, still give you the aural sensation that you remain trapped in the confines of your room. These recordings might bring the soloist into your room, but you are still in your room with the soloist. They are here, but you aren't there.
However, the imaging of this Three Guitars recording is on a whole higher plateau than these other recordings. Both John and Larry might chance to be located where your two stereo speakers are, but they are not inside your speaker boxes, nor are they in your room with you. Instead, you are in the large church with them. The key to this difficult imaging trick is the beautifully rich halo of ambience and reverberant air that surrounds these two soloists. And it is the large church's ambience that surrounds and frames these soloists, with reverberant echoes coming from far away walls. You can literally hear the air and space around each soloist singing to you, so that the air itself becomes a performer and a key part of the stereo imaging.
Thus, even though these two soloists might be located near your speakers, it is very clear from the rich halo of large church ambience around them that they are not inside your speakers, nor even inside your room. Instead, you experience the magic of being transported out of your room and into the large church, with these two soloists in the church with you, to the right and left, plus Baddi Assad at center stage. We credit this magic halo of church ambience to beautifully judged and executed miking (distant enough to capture rich ambience, yet close enough to capture a lot of instrumental detail), plus a very high resolution Chesky recording system.
When guitars are typically close miked, their warmth region is emphasized due to proximity effect, and the treble attacks on each pluck are likewise emphasized. But, when you hear live guitars at a typical distance, you don't hear these emphases in the warmth region and trebles, so this naturally leaves the midranges sounding more prominent, especially if you hear the live guitars in a hall with live walls that reflect (rather than absorb) reverberant energy in the midranges. This Three Guitars recording, miked at a respectful distance (to give you that superb imaging with the rich ambience halo), gives you this same natural guitar sound you would hear live, so you can expect its tonal balance to sound more midrangy than other, close miked guitar recordings you might have.
The music encompasses a broad range, from cerebral jazz and fusion, to colorful Brazilian influences, converging and conjoining as if they always were siblings of the same family. Every composition on this CD was written by one of the performers themselves, so one can imagine the creative sharing during rehearsals, as each composer in turn taught the others to play his or her piece. The music is by turns contemplative and introspective, or staggeringly adventurous (in harmony, meter, and dynamic contrasts). You can enjoy the music on this CD on different levels, and in different ways. You could simply put on the CD as relaxing mood music, or you could instead pay rapt attention to each harmonic twist and turn.
Performances are seemingly relaxed and effortless, with even the most adventurous twists of this music easily within the technical command of these artists. There's little in the way of showoff pyrotechnics, and the artists seem more interested in meaningful probing of each piece, wisely letting themselves be the servants of the music rather than vice versa (as in the Franz Liszt syndrome).
Nowadays it's become almost a cliché to bring together three musical artists, to form an ad hoc trio for a performance or a recording (e.g. the Three Tenors). Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. The wonder of this Three Guitars CD is that it succeeds on so many levels. You can enjoy the music on different planes of attentive awareness, you can revel in the unusual sounds and the sheer fidelity of the recording, or you can simply close your eyes and let the magic stereo imaging transport you to St. Peter's church. Bravo, Chesky!
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