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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
The Ray Brown Trio - Soular Energy
There have been various incarnations of the Ray Brown Trio over the years, but in my opinion, the best ones always featured pianist Gene Harris. Ray Brown and Gene Harris seem to energize one another, resulting in rarefied heights of creativity. One of the most famous recordings featuring these two artists is Soular Energy. They went into the studio with drummer Gerryck King with no rehearsal, working out the tunes until they felt right. The result was spontaneity, creativity, and a recording that just feels good to listen to. This album consists mostly of standards, and was recorded for Concord Records in 1984 and released the following year. It has now been re-released in stunning sound on the Pure Audiophile label.
This album just sounds downright live. It has the snap, immediacy, and coherence of live music. Gene Harris' piano is recorded with astounding transient attack quality and harmonic integrity. Ray Brown's bass is reproduced with the sound of the wooden body, the string resonances, and his walking rhythms right there in front of you. Gerryck King's drum kit is convincingly arrayed in space across the soundstage. When played back at realistic levels, it's not very hard to suspend disbelief and imagine that you are sitting front-row center at a small jazz club, listening to one of the very best combos that you've heard in your life, while they're having an absolute ball doing what they do best. And I know whereof I speak. I've seen Ray Brown play with a piano and drum trio several times in a great small club in Los Angeles. Ray was the only artist I always made sure I was in town for. And now that he's gone, I'm glad I did. Those evenings were truly memorable.
The music on this release always swings and often jumps. There is a healthy mix of up-tempo and slower selections. My favorite track is the one that was written by Ray Brown, the "Mistreated But Undefeated Blues," in which Red Holloway blows up a storm on the tenor sax, and Emily Remler lends some tasty guitar licks, temporarily turning this trio into a red-hot quintet. Many of the cuts are propelled along by Gene Harris' signature rolling riffs on the piano, especially in evidence on the first cut, "Exactly Like You."
What makes this reissue sound so great? First, it was half-speed mastered from 30 ips analog tape by none other than Stan Ricker, the most highly revered LP mastering engineer in the audiophile firmament. He really sweated this one. Stan spread the original two-sided album over three record sides, to really give Ray's bass grooves some room to bloom, and he didn't limit or roll off the bass response in any way. A sticker on the record jacket cautions that "Dynamic recording of bass may cause difficulties at low tracking forces." Stan also reversed the absolute polarity of the entire disc, so a playback system that maintains proper polarity will reproduce this record with more realism. (A recording that is played back with the wrong polarity will sound relatively muffled ... ask Clark Johnsen if you don't believe me.) Stan furthermore reduced the cutterhead feedback on his mastering lathe from 9 to 6 dB, which produces a more free and open sound. Lastly, Stan cut every side with a fresh stylus, which he has never done before. He cut several versions of each side and agonized over the selection of the best. (Side four of this two-record set contains alternate takes, as well as a bonus track from another album.)
The final element is the blue vinyl. It's not a gimmick. The blue vinyl is stiffer, and reproduces the high frequencies better. Black vinyl contains lamp black, which softens the vinyl, which in turn softens the highs. The difference is not subtle. Dennis Cassidy of Pure Audiophile kindly provided me with a black vinyl pressing for comparison. The black vinyl sounded relatively muted, rolled off, and more like a good recording and less like live music. I first did this comparison on Pure Audiophile's first release, Karrin Allyson's Ballads. There it was surprisingly instructive, but on the Ray Brown the difference kind of hit me in the face. It made me wish that my whole record collection was pressed on blue vinyl (or some other color not containing lamp black). But the blue vinyl is translucent, which makes quality control (visual inspection) very difficult, while with an opaque black disc it is relatively easy. Whoever did the quality control on this pressing at RTI did a commendable job ... these pressings are dead quiet.
So there you have it, folks. Get right to your favorite method of negotiating commercial transactions and buy this release. The production run is very limited. If you miss it, you'll be quite sorry later if you ever happen to hear a copy played on a good system.
Pure Audiophile is a new label that is doing things right. Dennis Cassidy has plans to release more Ray Brown in the future. And that is sweet music to these ears. Bravo.
Sound: 10 Performance: 10 Music: 10