The Jazz.com Blog
January 06, 2008 · 1 comment
I often encounter young jazz fans (and even critics) who are knowledgeable about the music’s history going back to the 1950s and 1960s, but when you push back further to the 1930s and 1940s, they are outside their comfort zone. They seem far less familiar with the great music from this earlier era.
Why this big divide at the mid-century mark? My answer is a simple one: audio fidelity.
Recording technology improved dramatically during the 1950s, and fans today can listen to Miles Ahead or Kind of Blue without needing to adjust their ears to compensate for the poor sound quality. But the jazz recordings of the 1940s require a (sometimes difficult) recalibration of our expectations. The fan who wants to approach the great masterpieces of this decade – for example, bebop classics such as Dizzy Gillespie’s world-beating solo on the 1945 recording of “Salt Peanuts,” or Charlie Parker’s famous alto break on his Dial recording of “A Night in Tunisia” -- has a much harder time of it. The music itself doesn’t sound old-fashioned; but the audio quality is from a different era.
The advances of the 1950s closed the great divide between recorded music and live performance. Finally – seventy five years after Thomas Edison patented his cylinder phonograph -- jazz lovers could enjoy, in the privacy of their homes, music that approximated the visceral experience of hearing it in person.
But not all of the record labels advanced at the same pace. Jazz fans are fortunate that Columbia signed so many major artists during the 1950s and 1960s – if only because the sound quality of its releases was so uniformly high. (Ah, if only the current owners of that catalog were as praiseworthy in their efforts to reissue these recordings!) In contrast, I find that releases on the Atlantic and Motown labels, even into the 1960s, leave me dis-satisfied with their murky, one-dimensional sound. At the opposite extreme, Rudy Van Gelder’s work for Blue Note (and other labels) has been justifiably praised. What a blessing for jazz fans, who rate the wizard of Englewood Cliffs (where Van Gelder still resides) over the more famous "wizard of Menlo Park." I listen to releases such as Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil or Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island or Horace Silver’s Song for My Father with lasting gratitude for the vividness and immediacy of the music as captured by this magician of the studio.
But Blue Note was not the only small independent with major league audio quality. The Contemporary label on the West Coast also stood out for the aural opulence of its 1950s and 1960s releases. This achievement was all the more striking when one considers the humble surroundings. Contemporary’s main “recording studio” was actually its backroom warehouse. The company preferred to record late at night simply because it was the quietest time on the premises. Contemporary also lacked the capital budget with which the major labels stocked their studios with the latest toys. Yet “[Sonny Rollins’] Way Out West was sublime.” Thomas Conrad has written. And Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section made Conrad “laugh out loud. No recording from January of 1957 had any right to hit me in the face like that—Pepper's alto fiercely alive and dancing on air, Paul Chambers' bass hitting deep and hard.”
Unlike other jazz fans, who were simply content to relax and enjoy this legacy from the past, Conrad was determined to unlock the secret of Contemporary’s great sound. He began hunting for the recording engineer, Roy DuNann, who had been responsible for these classic releases from a half-century ago. The current owners of the Contemporary catalog could not help, and Conrad started looking for DuNanns in the phone book. Finally a lead from mastering engineer Bernie Grundman pointed in the direction of Seattle. Here, Conrad finally found a Roy DuNann in the telephone directory.
He called and when a voice answered, Conrad asked: "Is this Roy DuNann, the audio engineer?"
After a pause, came this response: "I used to be."
The full account can be found here.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia