One of the dilemmas for those of us with tricked-out reel-to-reel tape decks, like my UHA-Phase 12 from United Home Audio, is finding outstanding pre-recorded tapes at reasonable prices. One great source is International Phonograph, Inc. (internationalphonographinc.com), a Chicago-based company that has been recording jazz with very high-quality sound since the late 1970s. After decades as a recording engineer, Jonathan Horwich began recording jazz performances to 10.5-inch analog tape in 2012 with the sole purpose of making the recordings available on one 30-minute tape reel, and for no other media. Talk about a targeted, niche market!
The good news is that audio enthusiasts and music lovers can purchase a direct tape copy from IPI right off the original master—that is, the very tape that captured the performance! The same machine that recorded the original performance plays that master back for direct copying, without intervening equipment, to another tape recorder. Direct masters cost $250, but IPI also offers second generation copies made off a direct copy of the master, called “production masters,” at $100 less.
My focus for this collection of brief reviews was limited to select IPI direct masters. All of them were superbly recorded and transferred. Horwich uses a purist’s recording approach, typically without any limiting, compression, or EQ. This makes for a more natural sound and helps preserve the artist’s vision. Jonathan uses customized Sony APR 5002/3 tape decks, or a modified 8-track, Studer/Revox C-278 for multi-track recordings. He employs vintage tube microphones, either a Neumann U-67 or Telefunken 251e, for most vocals, sax, and trumpet, and two modern custom tube stereo KMF mics for recording jazz piano and drums. All tapes are quarter-inch, two-track, 15ips, IEC (CCIR), on 10.5-inch reels, and the recording equipment used is listed on the outside of each IPI tape case.
IPI is certainly on top of the vibrant and fertile jazz scene in Chicago, a city where jazz remains a vital force, with plenty of live jazz in the clubs, new talent continually emerging, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) still making its presence felt. Also, this is a jazz scene where the spirit of innovation is very much alive. Choosing which musicians to review was no easy task. I first listened to a direct master demo tape with six artists and made my initial reel selections from there. It was a tough choice since the quality of music was consistently high.
The first direct master I auditioned was the John Wojciechowski Quartet. “Wojo” cut his jazz teeth in Detroit before becoming part of the Chicago jazz scene in 2002. He knows how to turn a phrase and his lyricism is highly accessible and engaging. If you’re looking for excellent performances of beautiful jazz standards like “Stella By Starlight” and “The Thrill is Gone,” this may be the tape for you. John’s tenor sax sounds like it’s in the room, as do Larry Hokut’s bass and George Fludas’ drums. Jeremy Kahn’s piano is very well-balanced, and it complements Wojo’s tenor sax sublimely. It’s apparent that these guys are jazz veterans who listen to one another, as they really jell together.
The next reel was Dee Alexander’s Magic, with Jeremy Kahn on piano. Dee Alexander was named NPR’s Jazz Vocalist of the Year in 2014, and her voice, recorded using a Telefunken 251e microphone, has great presence, and is palpable on this collection of jazz standards, from “Blue Skies” to “Baby I Don’t Cry Over You.” Jeremy Kahn is a gifted accompanist and his piano tastefully complements Dee’s incredible range and phrasing. (Jonathan thinks Jeremy is second to none in the world as a vocal accompanist). This recording is perhaps my favorite because Dee is among the best jazz vocalists I’ve heard.
The third tape auditioned was Jeremy Kahn’s Duets, featuring Kahn on piano and Eric Schneider on tenor sax. Duets was recorded using one custom stereo KMF tube microphone, with no compression or EQ. It’s just the music, baby! The tunes are all standard ballads from “The Shadow of Your Smile” to “Round Midnight,” and the sound is delicious—rich, mellow, and seductive. It’s the perfect antidote to a stressful day. As on Dee Alexander’s tape, Kahn showcases his considerable gifts as an accompanist and is the ideal complement to Schneider’s gorgeous saxophone playing. Their collaboration on “My Funny Valentine” had me transfixed, and I enjoyed their tuneful and highly lyrical improvisations.
The fourth and perhaps best-recorded tape was the Greg Ward Trio’s At Pro Musica with Ward on alto sax, Rob Clearfield on piano, and Joshua Abrams on bass. The recording includes the standards “April in Paris,” “Con Alma,” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Right from the first track, “Con Alma,” you’ll hear Greg Ward’s improvisational brilliance, and his alto sax is also lyrical and engaging throughout the album. It is recorded beautifully, with a wonderful harmonic richness. Clearfield’s piano is a great accompaniment to Ward’s sax, and Abrams’ bass playing is outstanding and expertly recorded, particularly on the engaging and artful final track, “Coimbre,” for solo bass. If you’ve been looking for great jazz tapes that are superbly recorded and reasonably priced, give IPI a listen.