[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
Back Issue Article
May 2000

Groove Note LP plus 45 Vinyl

by Todd Warnke

My first favorite record store, The Licorice Pizza, was a nice-sized place just off the main square of Lethbridge, Alberta. Located below the second-best Chinese restaurant in town -- and for a prairie town of 35,000, Lethbridge had a good many Chinese restaurants, so being second best is a high compliment -- it was a literal underground joint. It was there that I was introduced to many of my perennial faves: The Beatles, Hendrix and Neil Young, as well some short-lived annuals like Bread and The Hues Corporation. But the selection didn’t stop at pop. I also bought my first Bill Evans and Tchaikovsky at the Pizza (my parents wouldn’t let me listen to rock on Sundays, and the "1812 Overture" is as close to rock as I could find). It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve been back to Lethbridge, and I doubt that The Licorice Pizza even exists today, but my memories of it remain fresh. There’s nothing like browsing through stacks of new 12" album jackets, walls covered in posters, a $10 bill in your pocket and a world of new experiences in front of you to make you feel alive.

I reminisce because opening these Groove Note releases and hefting the thick, black slabs of vinyl reminded me of the old record stores’ title. No wimpy, floppy disks here. These are pressings worthy of being called a Licorice Pizza, Chicago style even. Better still, with surfaces as silent as the LA Clippers' wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame, they are shining examples of the re-birth of vinyl as the music on each rises from true black backgrounds rather than the artificial and digitally dead darkness that passes for quiet today. And very best of all, each of these sets include a separate 12" 45 RPM that reprise tracks from the LP (both the McShann and Jacintha releases also include an additional tune on the 45).

Starting with the Jacquet set, Birthday Party was recorded in 1972, at 2 in the morning while on tour in Japan. The supporting cast, Art Farmer, Kenny Burrell, Roy Haynes, James Moody, Jimmy Smith (on piano), Jack Six, Gerry Mulligan and Joe Newman, is as top drawer a pick-up band as ever existed. Best of all, with the exception of Mulligan on "On the Beach," each plays with a superb blues feel. The best track on the album, "Birthday Party Blues," is a ten-minute late-night burner that gives everyone room to solo, ending with an extended run by the leader. And, after listening to it at 33 1/3, pop on the 45 version and get even more joy. A lot of recent talk in audio has been about the difference between CD and SACD and how SACD is a serious step forward for digital, one that puts it in LP territory. True as that may be, there is almost as much difference between this LP and the 45 as there is between CD and SACD. This, folks, is music. And of such naturalness that even SACD has a ways to go yet.

And on CD...

For those of us who don't worship vinyl (don't tell Todd there are such people), Groove Note has released these three recordings on gold CD, and the sound is as glorious as Todd describes for the vinyl. Birthday Party is a reissue and doesn't quite live up to the standards of What a Wonderful World and Autumn Leaves, which are sonic knockouts, but it holds its own, providing some quirky and tuneful music that I've enjoyed through many playings. I find a lot to admire in Birthday Party because of its jam-session feel, perhaps due to it being recorded in the middle of the night.

While the musical selections on Autumn Leaves are not equal to those on Jacintha's first Groove Note collection, Here's to Ben, I find the mood no less relaxing. Jacintha doesn't let the high production values or reputation of the composer of the tunes she sings carry -- or dominate -- her interpretations. She is more than an audiophile pinup girl, although she won't please everyone and will draw comparisons to great jazz singers alive and dead -- some of these to denigrate her talent. Such is the professional life of a singer whose work is so stunningly recorded.

Finally, Jay McShann's What a Wonderful World is the second Groove Note blues release, and while I don't find it to measure up musically to our pick for audiophile disc of 1999, Roy Gaines' I Got the T-Bone Walker Blues, it's still a good listen. McShann belies his age in his piano playing and singing, and the work of Michael Ross and Joe Harley on the sound side make this another statement-level recording, which is the norm for Groove Note.

...Marc Mickelson

The Jay McShann set is a well-deserved dip into the classic past. McShann, now in his mid-80s, found popularity in Kansas City during the late ‘30s. His first band included Walter Brown on vocals and a teenage alto by the name of Charlie Parker. A trip to Dallas in 1941 resulted in the hit "Confessin’ The Blues." Later that same year the band hit New York and the big time, at least until Uncle Sam and WWII came calling. After the war, his band gone, McShann found himself in California, and one night without a singer. A young man in the audience asked if they needed a voice and so Jimmy Witherspoon joined the band. Bringing this background to bear on the tunes, McShann plays with true-blue authority and sings with soulful conviction. Songs like "Piney Brown Blues," "Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You," "Blue Monday" and "What a Wonderful World" are all rendered with directness and depth of feeling. The band, Gerald Spait on bass, Todd Strait on drums, Ahmad Alaadeen on tenor and Sonny Kenner on guitar, are eloquent and tasteful. In short, this a superb and swinging blues, distilled to its essence, and an essential recording.

Lastly, the Jacintha recording, a selection of Johnny Mercer tunes, is the most lovely. Let me first state that I am not a fan of the "beautiful woman sings beautiful songs, recorded in full audiophile sound" genre, and, fortunately, this album misses that category. Sure, Singapore-born Jacintha fits the beautiful tag, as does her voice. And the numbers certainly were and remain state-of-the-art in popular song. But Jacintha brings the soul of a jazz singer and the skill of a true interpreter to the proceedings. As famous as "Moon River," "Here’s To Life," "One For My Baby" and "Autumn Leaves" are, she sings them as freshly as the day they were written. Her fellow musicians, Teddy Edwards on tenor, Kei Akagi on piano, Darek Oles on bass, Larance Marable and Joe LaBarbera on drums, Anthony Wilson on guitar, Will Miller on trumpet and Artie Butler on Hammond, all offer sensitive and inspired accompaniment, especially Edwards. And, of course, Joe Harley does his usual excellent and tasteful job of producing (he also produced the McShann album). The result is an album that steps lightly and swings with grace, but also has depth and body. Recommended then, and not just as an audiophile toy, but solely because of the music. The fact that it is a true demo album is an added, if not insignificant, bonus.

...Todd Warnke

Illinois Jacquet – Birthday Party [GRV1003-1]
Jay McShann – What a Wonderful World [GRV1005-1]
Jacintha – Autumn Leaves, The Songs of Johnny Mercer [GRV1006-1]

Groove Note Records
6095 Selma Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90028
Phone: (323) 467-1333

E-mail: groovenation@earthlink.net
Website: www.groovenote.com


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