Joni Mitchell: "Woman of Heart & Mind / Painting with Words and Music"

March 2014

Woman Of Heart & MindJoni Mitchell Blu-ray Double Feature from Eagle Rock

Eagle Rock EVSBD30991
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
**1/2

Extras
**

Eagle Rock has just put out two double features that make sense to me. There's this one, featuring Joni Mitchell, and another concentrating on Lou Reed. Each presents documentary material about the artist balanced with a live performance. The Mitchell documentary is Woman of Heart & Mind, from 2003, and it traces her career from her childhood days in Canada to her lush late-career version of "Both Sides, Now." The concert was filmed in California at the Warner Brothers Studio in 1998. Previously released on DVD, both have gone through video and audio digital remastering.

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"Diabolo -- Classical References"

July 2013

DiabloA Perfect Sampler with Test Tones

MDG 906 1757
Format: Blu-ray, Hybrid Multichannel SACD

Musical Performance
*****

Sound Quality
*****

Overall Enjoyment
*****

Based in Detmold, Germany, MDG (Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm) is the creation of producers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm. The label now boasts a very large catalog of recordings offered as hybrid multichannel SACDs (hybrid meaning that they will also play in a regular CD player, but only in stereo with Red Book CD specs). On an SACD player -- any Oppo player, for instance -- they will play through all six channels. MDG's six channels are unique, and they're called 2+2+2: left front, right front, left surround, right surround, left-front top (height), and right-front top. Amazingly enough, these channels are said to be compatible with the typical 5.1 setup: left front, center, right front, left surround, right surround, and LFE (subwoofer).

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Terry Trotter: "I Play the Piano"

December 2012

Terry TrotterRuminative Solo Piano Jazz Impeccably Recorded

AIX 85059
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
*****

Extras
***

Terry Trotter might be referred to as a studio musician, but that would conjure up the wrong picture. Though I'm sure he's very valuable as a studio musician, his art goes way beyond that label. He's played for some of the greats, including Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. He's also been Natalie Cole's pianist for a dozen years. You can often find his name in the fine print on an album jacket, but Trotter has recorded some discs where he's the main focus, most notably a series of jazz interpretations of music from Stephen Sondheim's Broadway shows.

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BNO: "Here & There Volume II"

October 2012

BNOSuperlative Blu-ray Bluegrass

AIX 85058
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****1/2

Extras
****

AIX Records has always done well by Nashville's country and bluegrass music. One of the company's first (and best) releases was Nitty Gritty Surround (AIX DVD-Audio 80008) with John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson. AIX and the McEuens have kept in touch. As Mark Waldrep, chief CEO and engineer at AIX, puts it, "Like the previous release, Jonathan McEuen (John McEuen's son) and Phil Salazar gathered up some of their very talented friends, brought them to LA, and recorded a very diverse collection of songs." BNO stands for Brand New Opry.

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Mark Chesnutt: "Your Room"

September 2012

Mark ChesnuttCountry Nuance, Artistry, and Honest Sound

AIX Records 86061
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
****

When sound engineer / CEO Mark Waldrep makes a recording for his AIX Records company, it's without many video trappings. There's usually a carpet in the center, perhaps a vase of something, and in this case two strings of lights. The musicians are grouped in a semicircular fashion around the carpet. It's strictly barebones staging without any crowd. The sound recording follows suit, with no audio-mix distractions, sweetening, or knob twiddling. This is what the singer and musicians really sound like; it's like walking a tightrope without a net. Mercury did this with Living Presence -- set the microphones, set the levels, and let the musicians do the rest.

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Albert Lee: "Tearing It Up"

July 2012

Tearing It UpRockabilly As an Art Form

AIX 85054
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
*****

Extras
****

Mark Waldrep, the CEO, head engineer, and founder of AIX Records, has always been among the best ears for recording rock and country bands. He's also been able to consistently release his efforts on Blu-ray Disc in high-definition audio and video. This disc features Albert Lee, not only as a legendary guitarist but also as a singer fronting a virtuoso band.

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The AIX All Star Band: "Pachelbel Canon Acoustica"

August 2010

201008_acousticaAIX Records Mixes Pachelbel, Jazz, and Cutting-Edge HD Audio/Video into an Appealing Entertainment Experience

AIX 85051
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Extras
****emptystar

When I reviewed the AIX Records Audio Calibration Disc / HD Music Sampler earlier this year, I mentioned that the innovative company would soon have full-length Blu-ray Discs to satisfy our eyes and ears, and that promise has now come to pass. Pachelbel Canon Acoustica is one of two new Blu-ray releases from AIX, the other being Chamber Music Palisades -- Shostakovich / Debussy / Brockman. For Pachelbel Canon Acoustica, the virtuoso AIX All Star Band played a 45-minute improvised set of variations on the chord changes established in the famous Canon by the baroque composer Pachelbel. The main idea was to use elements and styles from electronic composition but to record the instruments acoustically. Though the program notes claim the performance was a single take without rehearsal, everything is so tight and precise that you’d never know it. The virtuoso musicians involved include Laurence Juber, acoustic guitar; Carl Verheyen, electric guitar; Jim Cox, piano; Cliff Hugo, acoustic bass; Alberto Lopez, percussion; and John Ferraro, drums.

Though the piece rises to great heights once or twice, it’s basically very quiet. In fact, it’s so quiet at times that I found myself doubting it could be done without digital equipment. Producer Mark Waldrep, who was also the audio and mixing engineer, as well as the video editor on several other titles, has become a master at recording acoustic music, and I can’t fault any part of the recording -- it has thoroughly satisfying presence, clarity, and definition, and it has perfect balance among instruments. Waldrep, unlike most engineers these days, has chosen to use Dolby TrueHD 5.1 rather than the more popular DTS. I’ve heard little difference between the two systems when they’ve been offered side by side, and Dolby works just fine here. Waldrep has provided both audience and stage mixes in Dolby TrueHD, as well as a PCM two-channel mix. All of the sound mixes are 24-bit/96kHz, and they all sound wonderful, though I preferred the Dolby TrueHD stage mix because it seemed to transform my entire listening area into a small auditorium. The HD video makes for a clean, crisp picture that gives you a privileged and intimate look at just how the players make their wonderful sounds.

A sampler disc that came with Pachelbel Canon Acoustica has HD cuts from 21 different albums, including such artists as John Gorka, Albert Lee, and Steve March Tormé, all of which prove that the time has finally arrived when we can experience both state-of-the-art video and audio at once. Other music producers please take note.

Be sure to listen to: The second section, Gaia, has droning chords from the keyboard and bass while guitars improvise filigree over them, all of which is gently peppered by percussion and drums. Though it’s all very quiet, there’s a lot going on, and the transparency and resolution on the audio tracks is almost uncanny.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

Trondheimsolistene: "In Folk Style"

June 2010

201006_infolkstyleNorway's 2L Releases One of the Best Recordings Ever!

2L Records 68
Formats: Blu-ray, Hybrid Multichannel SACD

Musical Performance
*****
Sound Quality
*****
Overall Enjoyment
*****

Morten Lindberg is the CEO and head engineer of 2L Records. He has made magnificent recordings in many different locations with many different artists, but he seems to have a special affinity for the Trondheim Soloists and Selbu Church, the recording location for this release. Their first collaboration, Divertimenti (2L 50), won many accolades including some right here at the SoundStage! Network. Hard as it is to believe, this second two-disc Blu-ray/SACD combo is even better. It is that rare find, a perfect disc, five stars across the board, with plenty to like and no detractions.

The music is by Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer, and two 29-year-old musicians associated with the Trondheim Soloists: Emilia Amper and Gjermund Larsen. Grieg is represented by his zippy From Holberg’s Time (Holberg Suite), the lyrical "In Folk Style," and the rollicking "Cow Call and Peasant Dance." Amper’s piece is a suite of folk tunes called Arbégé, written for nyckelharpa and strings. Amper is the soloist on the seldom-heard instrument, which is a type of fiddle with a chromatic keyboard. Larsen wrote Diploma, a suite for fiddle and strings, as his competition piece for a Performance Diploma at the Norwegian Academy of Music. The title might sound scholarly, but the music was inspired by the composer’s native village, and the "Trondheim Soloists local pub, Krambua!" Larsen is the soloist for this work.

The 17 Trondheim musicians have played together for many years. They breathe as one and continuously bring some small but telling nuance to the playing that makes you want to exclaim "that is so right." The boisterous bounce of the Holberg Suite’s opening, the melancholy of the same suite’s "Sarabande," and the good humor of the "Peasant Dance" are all within their endless range of emotions. Lindberg’s recording will perk up your ears right from the beginning, with sharp, pointed attacks that are entirely musical and a string sound so natural and lovely that it sounds just like being there. Regular readers will know that I am a bug on presence. This recording had so much that the very air of my listening room seemed charged with it. Lindberg’s use of surround sound is unique, and it works to make the listener part of the performance experience. The stereo mixes sound very good, but the surround ones are better. The Blu-ray offers the program in 5.1 24/192kHz DTS-HD Master Audio, 7.1 24/96kHz DTS-HD Master Audio, and 2.0 24/192kHz. The SACD presents the concert in multichannel and stereo high definition and stereo Redbook CD. If you have a Blu-ray drive connected to your computer, you can also download files so you can carry this wonderful music with you on your favorite portable digital device. It’s also available on the 2L website and presumably will hit the iTrax and HDtracks sites soon. By offering so many choices, Lindberg has made it possible for anyone to hear this wonderful recording, which is something everyone should do as soon as possible.

Be sure to listen to: The last movement of the Holberg Suite, taken at a breathless tempo, mixes dazzling bowed and pizzicato playing. The recording is so clean that you can listen for the melody the first time around then take a second listen to concentrate on the accompanying lines.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

Jienat: “Mira”

April 2010

201004_br_mira_280wMesmerizing Tribal Drumming Shows Off the Best in a Quality Audio System

Jienat JNCD002
Formats: Blu-ray, Hybrid Multichannel SACD

Musical Performance
****1/2
Sound Quality
****1/2
Overall Enjoyment
****1/2

Jienat is the nom de plume of Andreas Fliflet, a Norwegian musician and teacher who serves as composer and recording engineer for this disc set. Though he recorded in various locations, from cobblestone streets in Brazil to medieval churches, the majority was done in Fliflet’s hometown studio in the municipality of Hammerfest, which comprises three islands in far northern Norway, 150 miles from the Arctic Ocean. Fliflet’s music sounds much like African drumming, but he uses folk elements from his native country, even though some of them are admittedly influenced by other cultures. It’s what most people generally call World Music, and this is the first Blu-ray release of that genre. Fliflet performs most of the commanding, chant-like singing, and he even uses canine utterances for the title song, which he wrote to honor a favorite dog. He also plays a few common and exotic instruments, including the 26" cross-cut saw.

Mira comes as a set of two audio-only discs. The first is a Blu-ray that contains DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM stereo tracks. You change these by using the color buttons on your Blu-ray player remote: red for DTS 5.1, yellow for PCM. The other disc is a familiar hybrid multichannel SACD, offering high-definition 2.0 and 5.1 tracks as well as a CD-quality 2.0 track that will play on any disc player. The sound quality is awesome. The SACD was mixed and authored by 2L’s Morten Lindberg, while the Blu-ray was authored by Martin Seer of MSM Studios in Munich. Regardless of your taste in music, all audiophiles can unite in admiring the sound. You can hear every stroke on every percussion instrument as if it was in the room, and the vocal tracks have remarkable presence. Mira is one of the few non-classical titles recorded in 5.1 sound rather than mixed to it; the use of surround seems very natural and comfortably engaging, and the separate LFE channel gives the deep bass superb focus and energy. Either the Blu-ray or SACD is an ultimate test for the transient response of your system, as well as a comprehensive subwoofer challenge. The stereo mix is excellent, but Mira was conceived in surround so it naturally sounds best in 5.1.

Be sure to listen to: Track 9, "Tudeer," with its gentle percussion spread around the listener while the ghostly, perfectly in-tune saw moans from the center channel. Listen in the dark or by candlelight and be transported to another world.

… Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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