May 2004

Gary Karr - Super Double-Bass
Lasting Impression Music LIM XR24 007
Released: 2004

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

Autumn Yearning Fantasia
First Impression Music FIM XR24 053
Released: 2004

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

by John Crossett

There are only a handful of things in this life that we can truly count on -- death, taxes, and that some piece of our meticulously assembled high-end audio system will break down at the most inopportune time. We can now add to that short list one happy entry: the recording quality of Winston Ma's FIM (First Impressions Music) and LIM (Lasting Impression Music) labels. That any release by Ma will be a sonic marvel is about as close to a mortal lock as this imperfect world is likely to give. And his latest two, Gary Karr’s Super Double-Bass and Autumn Yearning Fantasia, certainly follow in Ma’s own illustrious tradition. Both were mastered using JVC’s new XRCD24 24-Bit Super Analog process to ensure that each disc will sound just exactly as Ma intended. And both set new standards with regard to the sonic splendors that can still be wrung from Red Book CD.

Super Double-Bass presents bassist Gary Karr on bass and Harmon Lewis on piano or organ. Karr is playing a vintage 1611 Amati double-bass that belonged to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, a present to Karr by Koussevitzky's widow after the conductor's death in 1962. Together they perform a repertoire that includes Spanish folk tunes, spirituals, Stephen Foster numbers, Scott Joplin rags, and some more traditional classical pieces. And it's the variety of this program that helps keep one's attention focused on what, under different circumstances, could be a somewhat repetitive recital. But what will capture and hold your attention, over and above its musicality, is the spectacular sound.

Over the recent years, I’ve come to develop a real love for the sound of well-recorded bass -- the more so as my appreciation of jazz has increased. Super Double-Bass owns some of the best-recorded acoustic bass sound I've ever heard. Karr's upright bass is presented front and center, and you can almost see his bow and fingers as they fly across the strings. You can hear with stunning clarity how the strings themselves vibrate, and how those vibrating strings excite the large, wooden cavity of the bass instrument itself. There's a richness of tone that is MIA from so many otherwise fine productions.

But never for one moment think that Super Double-Bass is only about Karr and his instrument. Harmon Lewis, whether playing piano or organ, receives equal treatment. I found his organ work in particular to be first-rate. And while my speakers don't plumb the depths of the lower frequencies as well as I might like, they do still reproduce the full sonic splendor of an organ as well recorded as this is. Here, the instrument is spread out before me, and I get a nearly palpable sense of the air being pumped through the organ’s pipes. Perhaps the XRCD24 process really is that much better than traditional CD recording and mastering, or possibly it's just that Winston Ma has superb ears, but whatever the reason, Super Double-Bass is a sonic marvel. It contains some fine playing and excellent musical choices recorded in wonderful sound.

Autumn Yearning Fantasia is a different kettle of fish entirely, though a no less enticing recording. With this disc, Ma continues his exploration of ancient Chinese folk music as played on traditional Chinese instruments. For those of us brought up on a strict diet of Western music, this album may come as something akin to culture shock. But it is the type of musical experience that each of us should partake of, if only to expand our musical horizons.

If I were to be allotted only one word with which to describe the music on this album, I would probably choose delicate. There's a fragility to this disc that makes one feel that even releasing one's breath during a track will shatter the mood so carefully woven by the musicians -- Wei Li on guzheng, Fei Song on erhu, and Lucas Wong on piano, together with members of the B.C. Chinese Orchestra. I found it a fascinating and illuminating listening experience, the more so because of the precision and ability demonstrated by the musicians.

Autumn Yearning Fantasia was selected as a demonstration disc for the new XRCD24 process at the 24th AES conference on "Stereo and Multichannel Audio: The New Reality," in June 2003. It will take only a few moments listening to understand why. The illusion of the instruments hanging suspended between your speakers will be unmistakable. You can hear each individual string as it's plucked or picked, and you can tell the difference. The precision and use of space that enhances each note’s full bloom, letting it float into the recording acoustic and dissipate naturally, is outstanding. Ma's production, Jim Anderson's engineering and Paul Stubblebine's mastering contribute to a true demo-quality recording of unique music that will show off your system to even the most hardened audio skeptics.

Both Super Double-Bass and Autumn Yearning Fantasia are discs that you'll want to search out and purchase, if for no other reason than their meticulously recorded sonic splendor. Ma's use of the new XRCD24 process advances the resolution of Red Book CD to it highest level ever. If you've been fretting about the lack of interesting music with the superb sonics to match your equipment’s resolving power, well, your vigil is finally at an end. Both of these discs are just what you're looking for. And you also get the opportunity to broaden your musical horizons at the same time.