June 1998

Arthur Blythe - Night Song
Clarity Records CCD-1016
Released: 1997
HDCD Encoded

by Jay Piriz

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

[Reviewed on Gold CD]Clarity Recordings (www.clarityrec.com) is an audiophile-quality record label based in San Francisco that takes pride in producing two-microphone, omni-directional recordings that are said to provide a holographic stereo image. There is one adjective that surpasses all others when describing the sound of this recording—BIG. The sound is big. The soundstage is very wide and deep. The transients are quick and numerous. Clarity Recordings states on the CD packaging that this recording was a "naturally balanced, two microphone audiophile recording." The recording venue was the First Unitarian Church in Berkeley, California. Believe me, the church ambiance is accurately captured. You can feel the volume of the church interior on the majority of the tracks. The great John Curl is given credit in the liner notes (although the reason is not clear).

Arthur Blythe is a seasoned alto saxophonist who blasted onto the contemporary jazz scene in 1969 as a member of respected Los Angeles pianist and bandleader Horace Tapscott’s recording band. Blythe has shared the stage with such luminaries as Gil Evans, Lester Bowie, Jack DeJohnette, McCoy Tyner, Phil Woods and Paquito D’Rivera to name just a few. On this release, Blythe plays with the great Chico Freeman on bass clarinet and percussion, and Bob Stewart on tuba. Stewart has been collaborating with Blythe for over 20 years, and there is a special chemistry, a yin/yang to their musical styles. Gust Tsillis contributes some percussive marimba and vibes playing. Arto Tuncboyaciyan, an Armenian with Turkish influences, provides the group with hand percussion. Josh Jones and David Frazier round out the remaining percussion.

The music on Night Song is a skillful, innovative and refreshing blend of multiple percussion instruments with a backbone of vibes, marimbas, tuba, saxophone and voice. Styles range from straight-ahead jazz to Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Cuban influences, to rhythmic sounds from Brazil, the Black Sea and Ghana. Blythe himself describes the sound of the music as a "kind of world music, rather than strictly jazz...actually, it’s world music coming from a jazz base." The sound is very different indeed. If you are not a fan of world music, don’t dismiss this recording out of hand. It has too much jazz influence to be categorized easily. One thing for sure, however, is that it’s fabulous music performed by very talented musicians.

So how does the music on this premium HDCD 24-carat gold CD sound? Frankly, it sounds very good. The HDCD process provides some extension at the frequency extremes without making the high-end too sharp or the low-end too loose. As already stated, there is good preservation of the ambient cues of the recording venue. The soundstage is wide and deep. Musicians are placed on the soundstage with pinpoint accuracy, and their positions frequently extend well beyond the outer boundaries of my speakers. Musical notes have a nice, smooth, lingering decay. All of this said, however, there appears to be an unnatural "sterile" accuracy about the recording that left me somewhat detached. Unlike other Clarity Recordings that I have heard which are totally engaging (Chico Freeman’s The Emissary [CCD-1015], for example), Night Song never grabbed me emotionally. I kept waiting for the visceral involvement, which despite (and perhaps, because of) the pristine caliber of the recording and the excellent musical performance by the musicians, just never came. Just as at the outset I described the sound of the recording as BIG, I would describe the sound of the music on the BIG recording as THIN—too thin for my tastes, but your tastes may vary.

It would be unfair and misleading to impart a sense of total dissatisfaction with this recording. Nothing could be further from the truth. Night Song is a wonderful live musical journey, led by a group of very talented musicians in an excellent recording venue that is captured well. The musical signature of the recording on my system is signed in ultra-finepoint. I simply prefer a signature in medium-point pen, which seems to catch more of my attention.

Clarity has a long-standing reputation for producing high-quality audiophile recordings. Their catalog offers many different types of music for the most discriminating audiophiles—from jazz to classical, blues to rock. Look for reviews of other Clarity selections in SoundStage! over the next few months.