Sunday, June 8, 2008

Some thoughts on RTF's new 2-CD anthology and the inevitable live recording for this tour

This photo of Lenny White on the kit was taken two nights ago at Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, and was published on the website with a credit saying it is by Paid PCS. The shot caught by eye because of the hinged plexiglass (or whatever it is) baffle Lenny has set up around the drumstand. I'm not a sound engineer, so I won't pretend to speak with authority here.

But here are a few facts:

A few years ago I had a conversation with Bernie Kirsh, Chick Corea's first-choice recording engineer for over 30 years, during which I asked him if he had recorded any of that evening's proceedings -- the Elektric Band had just concluded a set of adroit, stretched-out renditions of a half dozen tunes from their recent To the Stars (Stretch Records, 2004). His response was "We record everything now." He said that with digital technology, the relative ease of setting up a live recording makes it possible to record every performance as they please. This gives them a running archive of every performance and a means of reviewing each one, technically, as well as musically. Imagine a musician not having to remember the nuances of a lick or groove from the night before, but instead being able to just play it back. Even more so, for an arranger on Corea's level who creates compositions with as much room for improvisation as he does, for his sidemen as well as for himself, these daily archives allow for quick incorporations of his players' musical ingenuity into constantly evolving arrangements. Chick probably began this practice decades ago when he played with Miles and would make his private recordings on a small portable cassette recorder, but now digital recorders make it nearly effortless. Not that a review recording is needed for this approach to composing -- after all, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were doing the same by mentally making their own "private recordings". But in the hands of an accomplished composer this is quite a tool.

The really important thing about these nightly captures is that they are done at Bernie Kirsh's level of quality. Bernie has what are referred to as "golden ears". He hears subtleties and details in a musical recording beyond what an amateur might hear, so when he records Chick and other musicians of his caliber he is able to make the musical instruments sound utterly natural when you and I listen to them on a CD. Just like a good photographer is able to produce a photograph that makes an apple look like an apple instead of a reddish-orange blob, a recording engineer like Rudy Van Gelder was able to create his famous recordings for Blue Note Records that made him the most sought-after jazz engineer of his era, and in the current era Bernie is able to really make a recorded piano sound like a piano, and a bass sound like a bass. Instead of drums sounding like thrashed and bashed tubs and cans, he makes sure you hear the tonality and timbre of a brushed cymbal or vibrating snare.

And what this means is that the recordings he is doing each night of Chick, Stanley, Al and Lenny as Return To Forever Returns are going to be incredible. When RTF last re-united 25 years ago, they did it without the advantages of this technology. They didn't issue a live recording from the tour. The fact that they were working out with a lot of new material may have played a role in the difficulties of releasing a record, but it's likely they just could not find soundboard material they considered good enough to be worth the effort of mixing and mastering.

That won't be a problem this time.

The good news doesn't stop there. Earlier today I put on headphones and listened to the 60-second samples on for all 20 of the tunes selected for the Return To Forever: The Anthology (Concord Records, 2008) 2-CD set released last week. My first observation is that these are good MP3 files, probably 256k, but whatever they are... they sound awfully damn good. In an earlier blog article I made some skeptical comments regarding the possible value remixing and remastering these tracks might have, but forget that. If these samples are any indication, we are in for a treat. For one thing, the included tracks from their masterwork Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974) are an answer to a crying need. Arguably the finest studio recording from the Chick-Stanley-Al-Lenny era of RTF, the CD issue of that recording suffers from the early-technology digital flatness and low-fi muddiness that earned early CDs their well-deserved reputation for inferiority to the original analog/vinyl recordings. Streaming samples of these anthologized tunes may not be the fairest way to assess the new recordings, but it isn't bad if you consider that any improvement you hear in this medium is going to be even more impressive on a decent CD playback system. On top of that, the promo on the anthology says it includes a fat booklet full of rare photos and notes written by Bob Belden, the man behind all those Columbia/Legacy Miles Davis box sets like the complete Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way sessions, a man who knows a couple things about jazz/rock fusion.

The next question is, do you suppose Chick, Stanley, Al and Lenny employed Grammy-winning engineer Mick Guzauski to do just the 20 tunes included on this anthology? Do you suppose Mick hauled out all those analog tapes and then stopped and started the machine as he remixed/remastered only the selections requested for the The Anthology? Not on your life. If newly done versions of every Return To Forever recording aren't already in the can, they soon will be. Look for a gloriously packaged box set of re-mixed/mastered recordings of the entire RTF catalog, at least the post-ECM issues (Manfred Eicher may not be interested in redoing Return To Forever, but it doesn't really need it, does it?) in time for Christmas.

And the last question is: Is this the end of the line for Return To Forever? Will they issue a DVD/CD package as part of a PBS fundraiser and then go back to their lives?

Stay tuned.

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