In the middle of Saturday afternoon at AXPONA 2016 in Chicago, I witnessed what is surely the most demanding test of an audio system there can be—an A/B showdown with The Real Thing. A crowd of around 50 gathered in front of a pricey system in the Legacy loudspeaker room—several systems, actually—to listen to the playback of recordings featuring a sultry-voiced alto singing popular songs from the mid-20th century, supported on disc by elegantly idiomatic small group jazz arrangements. What made the demonstration unusual was that the artist in question, Lyn Stanley, was standing between the speakers, occasionally singing along with her recorded self. Talk about “the absolute sound” as a benchmark: You can run but you can’t hide.
Stanley has become a fixture at audio shows, in the U.S. and abroad, and has done this kind of demonstration many times. Always a striking presence—she’s a professional ballroom dancer as well as a chanteuse and looks the part, which tends to make her stand out in a crowd of sartorially-challenged audiophiles—Stanley cogently explains to her rapt audience what they should be listening for, musically and sonically. Over the past several years, Stanley has recorded and released three exceptional albums, Lost in Romance (2013), Potions [from the 50’s] (2014), and Interludes (2015). All three are available as hybrid stereo SACDs, on vinyl, and most recently as high-resolution downloads from Stanley’s new website, simplythebestdownloads.com. The next two planned projects are a collection of ballads that will honor tenor saxophone great Stanley Turrentine and a big band album that focuses on dance music associated with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly.
Just as notable as the musical and sonic merits of Stanley’s work is her take-charge approach to the creative process that eventuates in a recording. She takes responsibility for every aspect of that process, including hiring the best collaborating musicians and recording professionals—people like recording/mixing engineer Al Schmitt and mastering guru Bernie Grundman. With Interludes, Stanley has also taken on the role of producer, and it’s no mere honorific in this instance.
In person, Lyn Stanley is affable and articulate. To allow the singer to fully expand on her ideas regarding recorded performance and sound, I submitted to her some written queries that she addressed over several weeks; her responses are excerpted here.
You have a large fan base among audiophiles here and overseas, and get to a lot of audio shows. Is it very different interacting with this constituency, as opposed to more typical jazz hounds?
Oh, yes, I find them very different. Some “jazzbos” do not view my music as jazz. This may be the reason why jazz sales represent only 1% of Billboard reported sales for music. Gatekeeping like this decreases sales and new artist recognition. Jazz should be the most relaxed and open of all the genres, but it’s not always the case. My work reflects a type of old-school jazz that brings wonderful chord treatments to arrangements built around my voice, rhythms, and delivery. I use the best possible musicians from New York City and Los Angeles—known as jazz players—that I can afford and are available when I record.
For the most part, the audiophile community is very open to all kinds of music. They appreciate music in general. That’s a point of differentiation between jazz and audio fanatics. There are some who are stuck on classical, rock, or another genre and will not deviate from that love but, in my experience, audiophiles have a wide range of music in their collections.
You call Bernie Grundman your “audiophile mentor.” In fact, he’s the dedicatee of your latest album.
I met Bernie for the first time when I was mastering my debut album, Lost In Romance. My recording engineer for the album, Tommy Vacari, recommended him to me when I asked who was the best in Los Angeles. I also asked Al Schmitt, who was the mixing engineer, and he too said Bernie was one of the best mastering engineers available.
So, off I went to the mastering session with my producer, and Bernie put the album on to hear it for the first time. Bernie loves jazz and really liked the album—and said so as he listened. He then asked me if I might want it to be put into the vinyl format and not just released as a CD. I had no idea about vinyl’s resurrection because it was not the “go-to” format that is happening today. Bernie said to me, “If they like Diana Krall, they will like you too.” Then he took me back to his lathing room where the lacquers are created so I could see the set-up and take a look at a Krall LP and how her licensor packaged it. I was all ears.
I told Bernie, “If you take over this and check everything and tell me what to do, I will try to find the money to create vinyl for this album.” He agreed. And, from that point on, he took an interest in my work and guided me every step of the way from what weight to use for the vinyl (he likes 180g) to the 45rpm format I use exclusively. He also suggested I press the Lost In Romance vinyl at Pallas in Germany. He agreed to check the test pressings and, to this day, he still does that for me. I think he likes that I take an interest in the technical things involved with my products. Today, whenever I have a session with him, or pick up finished materials, he takes time (when he can) to teach me. We’ve become great friends, and I cannot tell you how much his friendship means to me.