Friday, May 29, 2009

The good, the bad and the monotone

Recently, I listened to two new independent releases, one which really struck me as being a quality musical project. The other, not so much.
In fairness, it's clear Recording X, as we'll call the weaker of the two, was made on a lower budget, by jazz musicians really just starting out, whereas Recording A was made by an experienced, if relatively unknown player.
When I realized I can't listen to Recording X without getting droopy, I began to try and pin down what was missing. The combo features a piano and saxophone, both of whom are clearly competent performers -- they know their changes; they have good timing; and, for the sax player, good intonation.
What's wrong?
It really didn't hit me until I went back to Recording A -- at first I thought, sure the recording is sharper and clearer, but is that part of the problem? Two things stood out -- and it seems listeners and musicians should pay more attention to these two things than many do: Recording X was very compressed in the recording process, and the musicians weren't paying attention to their phrasing as much as they should have.
The first problem may have crept in in post-production, but the lead instrument was always too much louder than the others. When the sax soloed, the piano was buried in the mix, killing the dynamics of the music.
Without the dynamics, the recording feels lifeless and causes drowsiness ... not to be listened to while operating heavy equipment.
Furthermore, the solos on Recording X tended to have long, scalar runs ... continuously. It got exhausting -- causing further drowsiness.
Recording A is a debut recording from a long-time professional. He certainly has had opportunities to record before, I'm sure, but waited until he knew what he wanted to do.
When he soloed, he played with terrific dynamics -- articulating individual notes in a run or arpeggio; he employed slides, honks and other "gimmicks" comfortably and without drawing too much attention to them.
This made the recording more enjoyable and easy to listen to -- and frankly, a much, much better jazz CD, even without the higher-quality recording.
I won't mention who made Recording X -- I hope the group can listen to their work and continue to develop their skills -- but Recording A is Scotty Barnhart's "Say It Plain." Go to to hear a sample from the release -- "a brilliant reworking of "Giant Steps." It's traditional but innovative, features terrific soloing, and is representative of why this release is likely to be one of the year's top jazz recordings.

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