April 2001

Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, Volume 1
Red Rose Music RRM 01
Released: 2001

by Srajan Ebaen

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

[Reviewed on CD]You all know the audiophile secret handshake. "How’s your new sonic master blaster?" "It makes everything I had before sound broken." "How much you getting for your old stuff?" "At best 50 cents to the dollar, man." Envision revolted visage.

This new hybrid layer SACD recording from Mark Levinson was recorded live in his 750-square-foot Red Rose Music store, inside the Whitney Museum on 943 Madison Avenue. It’s a ritual not unlike the handshake, albeit with even more liberating consequences: no bitter aftertaste of having to sell other stuff - - more likely you’ll simply give it all away. There it goes out the window in total revulsion, cluttering straight into the alley below like the remnants of a lovers' quarrel. Of course I’m kidding. But the recording quality, even via the disc’s standard Red Book layer, is so outstanding that many of your most cherished albums will sound broken by comparison. By all means hold on to them -- it’s the music that matters, right? But, if you've ever felt the need to own a truly remarkable reference recording with which to check the capabilities of your system, impress audiophile buddies and be reminded about what a solo piano, guitar, violin or blues singer really sounds like, this is one album you ought to own.

Levinson used a simple recording chain of dual Brüel & Kjaer mics into an unmodified Red Rose Model 3 Silver Signature preamplifier straight into a quasi-prototype Sony DSD recording system that doesn’t allow edits. This results in an unplugged feel of artistic spontaneity, as well as a breathtakingly real "appearance" of the musicians in your own living room.

Regarding that spontaneity, let me tell you about Simon Mulligan’s rendition of Errol Garner’s "Misty" on solo piano. The unsuspecting musician was briefly taken hostage on a visit to the store -- a "closed for 15 minutes" sign on the front door did the trick. Levinson’s personal August Förster nine-foot concert grand, a permanent fixture of the store, completed the proverbial offer you can’t refuse. It has apparently become de rigeur in the store to play back this and other such ransom tracks to the artists immediately after their impromptu sessions. The comments of disbelief, at hearing themselves just so, are the only compensation necessary to make it all worthwhile. This habit of using the actual musicians as judges, commenting on the captured sonics of their own instruments, must be considered the real proof of the pudding -- the album’s most important aural endorsement.

Get out your spoon -- or better yet, your treasured chopsticks -- to enjoy this fine 12-course meal. Just like the reed-textured liner notes with their inked calligraphy, the actual fare is decidedly Zen and minimalist in flavor: think superb sushi bar. Because of the store’s limited space, all tracks feature at most two musicians. You’ll taste sax/piano samplers, hand rolls of solo violin, tidbits of vocals with guitar, bites of guitar with vocals, poetry recital with double bass, and solo piano specials-of-the-house. For a bit of palate-cleansing Wasabi, try Bill Sims’ "Big Legged Woman," a steel-string blues number with the kind of lyrics that make starchy-white Catholics blush. A rousing rendition of Fats Waller’s "Alligator Crawl" by ragtime virtuoso Peter Muir rounds out these delightful tunes with a firework of rumbling bass lines and sharply syncopated right-hand work.

Afterwards, you may want to reflect on the multitudes of timbres that the different pianists manage to elicit from the same instrument. Or you might just want to hit the repeat button. Or you might mull over the dynamic range of unamplified solo instruments, when captured on the prowl, uncompressed. Cursing the poor recording quality of your favorite albums is still another possible reaction. In short, Volume 1 prompts the kind of responses a true audiophile reference recording should provoke. Except for one. The music is mightily enjoyable. Now that’s somewhat of a novelty for this genre. Put this recording on your list and discover how good your treasured audio system really is.