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Close Enough for Jazz…And Maybe Even Classical

Close Enough for Jazz…And Maybe Even Classical

The audiophile creed has its sacred objects and among the holiest is the direct-to-disc LP. Like splinters from the True Cross, there are only a finite number and they can possess a mystical energy connecting them back to a unique originating event. Potentially, a D2D recording takes the audiophile promise at its word to deliver the spirit of a live musical performance, with no chance for editing or after-the-fact dial twirling to address shortcomings of either technical execution or sonics. This is, some would maintain, as close as one can get to a real performance through the intermediary of a recording. The UK’s Chasing The Dragon label is one of the very few anywhere in the world that currently produce direct-to-disc recordings. Jeff Wilson authored a profile of CTD back in TAS 269 along with a review of Tribute to Ella, a direct-to-disc release performed by singer Clare Teal with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. TAS was offered the opportunity to attend two daylong direct-to-disc sessions in London this past July, one to record a pair of Beethoven sonatas with pianist John Lenehan and the other, a jazz quintet led by trumpet and flugelhorn player Quentin Collins. We accepted, of course. How often to you get a chance to witness the actual creation of a True Cross?

The owner and technical standard-setter at Chasing The Dragon is Mike Valentine, a charmingly voluble man with a large supply of Hawaiian shirts, an even larger repository of shtick humor, and a truly generous nature. Valentine started working as a sound engineer for the BBC at age 18, learning his craft at studios and performance venues around the country. His last job for the BEEB was managing the stage microphones for the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in 1985. Valentine then moved on to the world of feature films, not as an audio engineer but as an underwater cameraman. He’s been more than a little successful at this, working on more than 100 movies, including a couple of the Bourne films, and the last five James Bond flicks. Now in his mid-60s, Mike Valentine still dons a wet suit to get behind a camera. Expertise along these lines is highly compensated and Valentine saw a chance to return to what he loved best, hi-fi, but this time, as the guy in charge. “About six or seven years ago, I thought ‘You know, if the film business can pay for the hobby, why not start a record label?’ Orson Welles said that making a movie was like a little boy playing with a train set, the most wonderful toy. Having your own record label—choosing the music, choosing the venues, choosing the artists, working on the art work, the overall picture—it’s a wonderful way of putting an arm around a listener and saying ‘I don’t know whether I’m right or wrong, but this is what I’m hearing and want to present to you. This is what I’d like to entertain you with.’”

Receiving coproduction credit on Chasing The Dragon releases is Valentine’s wife of 37 years, Françoise. (Mike never fails to include the “of 37 years” part when introducing her, as if to indicate he’s aware that he may be just one bad joke away from jeopardizing his marital status.) Françoise is a practical and focused partner for Mike, a master of time management who takes on the jobs that a half-dozen individuals would have at a “real” record company that assure that a recording actually gets made—not to mention PR, advertising, and sales responsibilities. Mike and Françoise are always on the same page, independently gauging progress in the studio, including the psychological status of everyone involved. Both are given to walking up to the artists and engineers and quietly asking “Happy?”—and if the answer is equivocal, responding appropriately. The Valentines will periodically ask each other if they’re “Happy,” which goes a long way to keeping a recording session on track.

The sessions have been scheduled at AIR Studios in the Hampstead “suburb” of London. The legendary Beatles producer George Martin founded AIR—Associated Independent Recording—after departing EMI in 1969. In the early 1990s, Sir George relocated AIR to a new facility within the shell of an 1880s church. (Framed on the wall, just inside the front door, is the manuscript of Martin’s string quartet arrangement for “Yesterday”.) In addition to state-of-the-art rooms for mixing, editing, and mastering music recordings plus facilities for television post-production, film work, and the other sound-related projects, AIR has two substantial recording spaces. Lyndhurst Hall can accommodate a full symphony orchestra while Studio 1, which the Valentines have booked, is smaller, measuring 13 by 10 meters with a 5.5 meter ceiling height—large enough for a chamber orchestra as well as pop and jazz projects. The control rooms for both are equipped with Neve mixing desks but the one in Studio 1, Mike Valentine maintains, is special. This is an older Neve board and, while much has been updated (power supplies, transformers, etc.) the desk has unique EQ frequency modules that were actually chosen by Rupert Neve and George Martin. Deservedly or not, this bestows a certain mystique on the board and Mike has concluded that the Studio 1 Neve is “mellower, sweeter, and more relaxed” than its newer counterpart elsewhere in the building.

When I arrive at Studio 1 at 9:30 Monday morning, the piano sonata day, Mike, Françoise, and a half-dozen engineers have already been at work for quite a while. A piano technician has been and gone, having tuned the resident Bösendörfer. Four versions of the recording will be created from a stereo signal split from the Neve desk. To one side, behind Mike’s own Sony APR-5000 analog tape deck, sits Petronel Butuc, who Valentine considers “Europe’s leading tape tech”—he’s tweaked this machine himself. A few feet away is Mike’s digital engineer of choice, Matt Sartori, who is recording with both a Nagra 6 (at 24-bit/192kHz resolution) and a Tascam DA-3000 (running double DSD). Climbing several flights of stairs gets you to AIR’s analog mastering room. John Webber, one of the U.K.’s busiest mastering engineers, and his assistant Cicely Balston are tending to the care and feeding of a Neumann VMS-80 cutting lathe. Webber and Balston are kept in close communication with the engineers in the Studio 1 control room via an AV hookup.

Back downstairs, positioned at the center of the storied 72-channel Neve desk, is lead engineer John Bailey, his assistant Alex Ferguson close at hand. Ferguson, Webber, and Balston are AIR employees while Bailey, Butuc, and Sartori are freelancers that the Valentines have brought in independently. Although typical small mini-monitors are present, those in the control room listen to playback either from an array of Dynaudio and TAD speakers built into the wall over the glass dividing the room from the performing space or headphones (in Matt Sartori’s case, Sennheisers connected to his recorders with Nordost cabling).

Mike leads me out into the recording space where a forest of microphones is directed at the side of the piano with the lid raised—AKG C12s, Royer R122 ribbon microphones, a Royer SF-24V stereo mike, and the ubiquitous Neumann U-47. Some of the microphones deployed in Studio 1 are from Mike’s personal stash, others belong to AIR. Some are original while others are copies manufactured by an enterprising Slovakian company called FLEA. The strategy is to experiment with individual microphones and blends as the soloist takes his practice laps and make a judgment as to what to use by the time all are ready for the actual recording. As it turned out, a blend was used for the Beethoven and a single pair of C-12s captured the piano at the jazz session the following day. That these decisions were confidently made in such a brief timespan while plenty of other issues were being addressed is nothing short of astounding.

As Mike is wrapping up his discourse on miking pianos, John Lenehan arrives. A slightly built and unassuming man, Lenehan is certainly not your central casting concert pianist. But his demeanor notwithstanding, John Lenehan has had a wide-ranging and successful career. He’s made concerto appearances with major orchestras, played solo recitals around the world, and has a special aptitude for chamber music—he’s much in demand as an accompanist. Lenehan has a discography of over 70 recordings for numerous labels. Naxos chose him to take on the complete music of John Ireland, a project that got the player a Gramophone Award, the UK’s version of a Grammy. In February of 2019, Mike recorded Lenehan as the soloist in Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, a live performance with the Locrian Ensemble at London’s St. Martin in the Fields church. Lenehan was quite impressed with the sound of this recording and expressed an interest in working with Chasing The Dragon again. Valentine immediately proposed a direct-to-disc album of Beethoven sonatas, specifying the two best known, No. 8 (“Pathétique”) and No. 14 (“Moonlight”).

Lenehan enters the studio and pauses momentarily at the door. The pianist has worked at AIR before and is no fan of their Bösendörfer, feeling that the instrument hasn’t been optimally maintained. He very much prefers the Steinway kept in the Lyndhurst Hall space and asks if it would be possible to use the Steinway for the day.

Mike Valentine knows that the answer to that question is “no.” There’s a recording session in progress in Lyndhurst Hall and, although the piano isn’t in use, it would be extremely disruptive and time-consuming to move the Steinway to Studio 1—if it was even allowed. But Mike doesn’t say “no”—he says he’ll find out. Valentine consults with engineer Bailey who explains that, indeed, it isn’t possible and everyone agrees to proceed with the Bösendörfer. As producer, Mike has taken on the role of the artist’s advocate, rather than simply dismissing a request in an authoritative fashion or, worse, going ballistic himself. “Instead of throwing all my toys out of the pram, which doesn’t get you anywhere and makes the guy in charge look bad to the rest of crew, you move on,” Valentine explained later. “If it had been at the level where [Lenehan] said flatly ‘I can’t play this instrument,’ I would have had a simple choice: Either cancel the session, pay everyone off, and come back [on a different day] with the Steinway or record the Steinway in the other hall. It was in the back of my mind to move the whole camp to the other hall but, unfortunately, Lyndhurst was being used.”

Perhaps because of this development, Lenehan decides he wants to digitally record one movement at a time before undertaking direct-to-disc. “It’s like having a safety net,” says the pianist. Mike readily concurs. 

Lenehan begins with the “Pathètique”. There’s a major fluff in the first movement that will necessitate a re-take but I immediately conclude that I like Lenehan’s Beethoven. The soloist strikes an ideal balance between Classical restraint and Romantic impulse—it’s an interpretative approach to some overly familiar music that should wear very well. After several takes of the work’s three movements, Lenehan has versions he can live with. “He’s happy,” Mike reports to those in the control room. The artist is ready for direct-to-disc.

Instantly, the general level of disquiet goes up a couple of notches, as Lenehan settles onto the piano bench and waits for the red light on a stand near the Bösendörfer to illuminate, indicating that John and Cecily upstairs have started the lathe. The nearly 19 minutes of the complete “Pathètique” isn’t bad at all, with only a few minor finger slips and a powerful sense of affective connection, especially with the second movement Adagio cantabile. After a brief interval, the second D2D take begins and, to me, Lenehan is beginning to sound tired, the slow movement lacking the emotional focus of the earlier run-through. Two-thirds of the way through the Sonata, without explanation, the pianist simply stops playing. Valentine goes out to talk to the pianist—back in the control room, we can’t hear what they’re saying. Mike returns and informs us it’s time for lunch.  

After the break, it’s on to the “Moonlight” and, again, the performance is very appealing. There’s excellent delineation of inner voices and, with the first movement, exactly the right amount of tempo flexibility that stops short of self-conscious “expressiveness.” Still, my impression is that Lenehan’s demeanor gets tenser as the afternoon progresses to the D2D takes and the pressure mounts to give readings that are as free of technical errors as possible and still possess interpretive cogency. The pianist did have some concerns going into the sessions about the inability to edit with the direct-to-disc methodology. “I’m intrigued with the whole process because I do think that many recordings are too heavily edited, and you always lose some spontaneity from that,” Lenehan told me. “It’s a difficult conundrum, psychologically. At a concert, you’re really feeding on the audience; the audience is a part of the concert,” he said. But the pianist sees important differences between D2D and a concert recording. “With a live audience, you can be forgiven for going a little bit too far in one direction. If it doesn’t come off, it doesn’t come off. But it’s gone—unless it’s a radio broadcast, nobody’s going to hear it again.” A direct-to-disc recording, Lenehan feels, is “a combination of things—not recording, not concert, but something else.”

Returning to AIR on Tuesday morning, I find that Studio 1 has been transformed in anticipation of the arrival of the Quentin Collins All-Star Quintet. There are now isolation booths in place and, of course, far more microphones on hand than for the previous day. In his early 40s, Collins is a leading figure on the British jazz scene, comfortable with many styles but most often adopting the post-bop language of players like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Collins performs with a wide range of musicians and appears regularly at London’s most prestigious jazz venues, including Ronnie Scott’s and Club 606. The artist plays carbon fiber daCarbo instruments, said to optimize vibration so less energy is wasted in the air column within the horn. 

The band Collins brings to the sessions includes pianist Jason Rebello, who served six-year stints with both Sting and Jeff Beck before deciding to return to playing mostly jazz. He’s a remarkably versatile musician who can play like Bill Evans one moment and Dr. John the next—and always sound authentic. Rebello was classically trained and, improbably, is good friends with John Lenehan, who plays some jazz himself—the two have performed together in public. The remainder of the Quintet includes bassist Joe Sanders, Milwaukee-born but now based in Paris, drummer Gary Husband, and percussionist Miles Bould.

The two recording sessions were profoundly different, in terms of expectations and the pressure they put on the performers. Lenehan was recording classical repertoire that everyone knows; Collins had brought four new charts—three of his own and one by Jason Rebello—to complement selections by Herbie Hancock and the South African composer/pianist Bheki Mseleku. (It’s all great stuff, especially Collins’s joyous R&B-inflected “Paxos/Antipaxos,” which has Collins, on flugelhorn, channeling Hugh Masekela.)  John Lenehan had surely been playing the two Beethoven works for half a century; Collins and associates had met once at the leader’s apartment prior to the sessions. For the quintet, the direct-to-disc process is a natural one. Essentially, they rehearse each side of the planned LP, to be titled A Day in the Life, for a couple of hours and then do two direct-to-disc run-throughs. Each successive iteration is more assured and musically vital. Needless to say, it was the second of the D2D takes that’s the keeper—not just for the vinyl LP but as the source for the analog tape and digital versions as well.

Did that mean that each successive performance more closely approached technical perfection? Absolutely not. The album’s opener, Mseleku’s “Angola”, is the most challenging chart on A Day in the Life. The tune’s angular, discursive melody unfolds over an unstable, irregular meter and Collins plays the tune—the “head,” as jazz players call it—three times in the course of the piece. The melody staggers up into the upper reaches of the flugelhorn’s range and is difficult to play accurately, even for a musician of Quentin Collins’s caliber. With the first D2D take, these passages were played with precision but with the second, Collins missed a lot of notes. During playback, I sat a few feet from Collins and watched his reactions closely. The artist registered no dissatisfaction with what he was hearing. In fact, he looked pleased. As he should: the final performance of “Angola”, and the rest of Side A, had indeed reached a level of musical cogency that Collins and his colleagues could proudly let it out into the world. “Close enough for jazz?” Rather than alluding to allegedly compromised technical skills, that hoary expression should instead remind us all that we shouldn’t get lost in minutiae when judging the overall success of a musical performance.

Mike Valentine had mentioned to me before the artists arrived that Quentin and his collaborators might be ill at ease with the D2D process. “We have some nervous musicians today,” he confided. “I keep trying to tell them, ‘Guys, it’s a live recording. Either imagine you’re in a radio studio or, better, that you’re doing a gig in a jazz club.’” Later in the day, when I actually asked Quentin Collins if the requirements of direct-to-disc in any way cramped his style, he looked at me as if I’d suggested he couldn’t read or write. He described the process, casually, as “a different challenge, I guess.” Would he do it again? “Oh, yeah!” Collins replied.

As of this writing, I’ve not heard the D2D LP versions of either album. John Webber’s lacquers were whisked off to a pressing facility in Germany the morning after they were created and it would be a few weeks before Mike and Françoise received the finished product. (In fact, all versions of A Day in the Life won’t be released until late 2019, as Quentin Collins issued another new album, Road Warrior, on the Ubuntu label on September 13 and didn’t want the former to potentially cannibalize sales of the latter.) But I have heard the high-resolution digital files of both CTD albums on my own system and can attest that they are sonically stunning.

Maybe I’ve learned something about direct-to-disc endeavors, in terms of its suitability to different musical genres and subgenres. In a sense, John Lenehan’s recording was a worst-case scenario—a soloist playing extremely familiar repertoire on an instrument that wasn’t ideal. The artist figured this out early on and asked to record the sonata movements one at a time before the direct-to-disc takes. The digital files represent combinations of movements from various takes with some light editing. They are wonderful realizations of Beethoven’s masterpieces that I’ll return to with pleasure. But I wonder if, in this case, the need to make D2D LPs subverted the goal of “spontaneity”—a lot of time and energy was expended recording those complete run-throughs. On the other hand, all versions of the Quentin Collins All-Star Quintet album will derive from the second D2D take on Tuesday afternoon. For those who collect direct-to-disc recordings, I can say that A Day in the Life may be the best small-group jazz recording ever offered in the format—less clinical sounding than Bill Berry’s For Duke, more musically nourishing than Dave Grusin’s Discovered Again. The Valentines are pressing only 1000 copies of each title, so act quickly.

Depending on your point of view, Chasing The Dragon is either a vanity label or a labor of love. I definitely vote for the latter. Sure, there are some naïve aspects to the presentation of CTD’s discs, downloads, and tapes—the Valentine’s names appear prominently on the front covers of most of the albums, there’s an occasional typo in the credits, and the cover of Lenehan’s album is probably the first Beethoven recording to feature a photo of the Lunar Roving Vehicle employed for the last three Apollo missions. But there can be no question that Mike Valentine really knows what he’s doing as he pursues an “everything matters” philosophy that has consistently produced recordings that will impress the most demanding audiophiles. It’s also apparent that the Valentines’ management style in the studio is extraordinarily effective, destined to get the best from both the artists and recording professionals they work with. Listening to “Paxos/Antipaxos” once again as I write this, I ask myself the question Mike and Françoise asked countless times at the July 2019 AIR sessions. “Happy?” You bet I am.

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