Michael Stanley Band, Stage Pass, Epic/Legacy, (1976) 2008, CD
For this month’s “What we’re listening to,” I picked a favorite album (CD) of mine since I was a Freshman in college in 1978. The Michael Stanley Band (MSB) is not a household name to most people, but they are HEROES in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Before we get to why I love this double album, a sad note: Michael Stanley passed away on March 5, 2021, after fighting lung cancer since the summer of 2020. He was one of the best stage performers I ever had the privilege to see. Michael was one of those rare performers who was genuinely grateful for his audience, and he showed it.
Stagepass opens with MSB’s anthem “Midwest Midnight.” This song is about coming of age in the ’60s and the struggles of being an aspiring rock star in the cut-throat music business. One of the greatest lines in the song is when he describes the problems with critics. The word track is “he was taken to task, by a critic who asked, do you write the words, or lyrics first.” Of course, we listeners got the idea that the critics were morons.
Stanley’s style was hard-driving rock-on songs like “One Good Reason,” which tells the tale of a woman who has used him before, only to toss him aside, but now wants another chance. He almost growls into the microphone “Give me one good reason, why … why I ought to love you.” Another classic anthem-style song that rocks for 8 minutes is “Let’s Get the Show on the Road,” which starts almost ballad-like, then moves to a crescendo of the entire band jamming full tilt.
Ballads are mixed in with the Rock. There is a terrific cover of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and bandmate Jonah Koslen’s love song “Pierette.”
The concert ends with MSB getting the entire audience on its feet with their concert-ending fan-favorite “Strike up the Band.” It’s an audience participation song and it might just get you on your feet while driving!
Stagepass was recorded at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in 1976. I got to see MSB live at the Warner Theater in Erie, Pa., in July 1979. Stanley was, for me, the most fun I ever had watching a singer connect with his audience. After performing his 1978 hit “Why Does Love Have to Be this Way,” a girl ran on stage. Instead of freaking out and having security toss her out, he let the band rest for a minute. He put arms around the girl, gave her a big kiss, walked hand in hand to his microphone, and announced “isn’t this a GREAT country?” He had her take a bow with him, then escorted her off stage.
Michael, you were the best. God bless you. You will be missed.
Jascha Heifetz, Beethoven-Brahms Concertos, RCA Red Seal, 1995, CD
You don’t have to be a classical music nerd to know the name, Jascha Heifetz. He was one of the true rock stars of the violin and enjoyed a long career as an international soloist from the time of his 1917 Carnegie Hall debut at age 16 until his death in 1987. Such was his talent that Fritz Kreisler, no small talent himself, said of him, “We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees.”
If you are a fan of old-school violin playing, there is likely no better disc than Heifetz’s recording of the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos, first committed to vinyl in 1955 and released on CD in 1995. The Beethoven is performed with the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch while the Brahms is with the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner. The monument to the talent that fills this CD is hard to describe with mere words. Suffice it to say that with names like that on the jacket, expectations are high.
And they are met more than amply. Heifetz’s playing is simply breathtaking, yet he makes it sound easy. Every note, every phrase, and every idea is presented clearly and confidently as if that is the one and only way it should be played. Though there are many recordings of these works, they are the giants, after all, I’ve never enjoyed any of them as much as this one. Modern players may have exceeded Heifetz’s technical ability, and some of them are very musical. But none command your attention in quite the same way.
As vintage recordings, fidelity is certainly not up to the standard set by modern equipment and high-res digital. But there is a warmth and character here that newer performances lack. There is something open and honest about vintage orchestra recordings, a human quality that is hard to find in today’s ensembles who manage to lay down technical perfection even in live performances. Even the regional orchestras of today have technical advantages over the greatest groups of 50 or 60 years ago, but none of the character.
If you’re a violin fan or a classical music fan, or you just want to hear what rock stars sounded like before there were rock stars, the Heifetz performances of the Beethoven and Brahms Violin Concertos are a definitive example, and should be part of any classical music collection.
Art Pepper, Essential Standards, Original Jazz Classics, 2009, Streaming.
Art Pepper is, in my opinion, one of the finest jazz saxophonists of the 20th century. Fortunately, he released a lot of albums over his career. This one is a compilation of some of his best tracks. Essential Standards, Art Pepper – Original Jazz Classics – Released January 1, 2009, on CD. Just about everywhere I looked, the CD was out of stock, so obviously, it is a hot item. I have to listen to it on streaming services. Maybe it’s available as a digital download somewhere?
Johannes Brahms, Sonatas op. 120, op. 91, op. 49, harmonia mundi, 2021,24/96.
Brahms is one of the three Big B’s, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I am not a fan of viola, but this album is so wonderful, I have added it to my favorites. Johannes Brahms, Sonatas op. 120, op. 91, op. 49 from the harmonia mundi label, released February 19, 2021 – 24/96 sampling. The piano is the accompanying instrument, and the duo is simply marvelous. Very relaxing, and with the COVID 19 disaster, I am into anything that is relaxing.
George Carlin, Complaints and Grievances, Laugh.com, 2001, CD.
To round out my recommendations for March 2021, I go back to my classic comedy albums. This one, George Carlin, Complaints and Grievances – Laugh.com – Released April 1, 2001, on CD. Not all of his comedy is really funny, at least to me, but this album is hilarious.
Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, Vocalion, 2021, Multi-Channel SACD.
The Dutton-Vocalion label out of the UK has been releasing several classic albums from the 1970s, that had Quadraphonic mixes, on multi-channel SACD. The latest one I’ve added to my collection is their recent release of BTO and BTO II, remixed and remastered and available on a single SACD.
I’ve lived with the traditional versions of these albums for the better part of my life and hearing them intentionally mixed and intended for surround reproduction is almost a revelation. It’s like sitting in the middle of the band.
“Give Me Your Money Please” just surrounded me with all the familiar elements but with an added clarity and depth. CF Turner’s voice floated above and closer to me than where my center channel speaker was. Randy Bachman’s guitar solo was mostly behind me and at the end, it did a rotational pan around all the speakers. A fun and enjoyable interpretation.
Bass impact was far superior to what is on my old Polydor BTO Anthology CD collection. The kick drum is really impactful and bass lines had more depth and detail, nowhere near as flat sounding as the CD.
“Blue Collar” is a favorite of mine. The extra dimension of the surround/Quad mixing adds to this song’s jazzy, mellow vibe. But it’s tasteful and not gimmicky or overdone. Bachman’s guitar flourishes coming out of the front-right and back-left were fun to hear along with the maracas coming in from the sides. All the various instruments were distinct and nicely layered. The bongos in the left-front channel were clearer and had more detail than in my stereo CD version. “Stayed Awake All Night” was quite immersive and even more driving and intense than the original stereo version. Overall, that general, successful sense of immersion isn’t something I was expecting from a pair of hard rock albums from the 70s but that’s what this Dutton/Vocalion release gave me. “Let it Ride” and the iconic “Takin’ Care of Business” were treats to hear in full surround. Everything seemed to work together well and had a reason to be in the mix. It definitely added to the listening experience. The panning guitar solo in “Let it Ride” was a nice touch. Reworking classic stereo albums into a surround sound release can be a bit of a gamble so I imagine working from the original quad mixes gives Dutton-Vocalion a better template of the original artistic intent. Having never heard the original quad mixes before, it’s hard to say how close this sticks to the original mix or if anything was altered or embellished to work better for a modern 5.1 (at least) listening environment. I will say though, as a die-hard BTO fan, I just love this SACD and the way DV handled the mixing, mastering, and putting two albums on one disc was absolutely choice! As I said at the beginning, I own a few of their SACD Quad releases already (Citizen Kane and other Bernard Herrmann works is beastly good) and I will certainly be exploring their catalog further.
Chet Baker, Chet: The Lyrical Trumpet of Chet Baker, (Riverside) Craft Recordings, 2021, LP.
Craft recordings have just re-released a set of Chet Baker’s classic Riverside recordings on 180gm vinyl. Said to be cut from the original analog masters, I’ve been spending some quality time with one of the respective LPs, “Chet: The Lyrical Trumpet of Chet Baker”. While Baker also was known as a vocalist along with being a top-notch trumpet player, this album is strictly an instrumental, recorded in New York in 1958-59 with a fantastic lineup of sidemen, including Herbie Mann on flute, Pepper Adams on sax, Bill Evans on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
Smooth and liquid are the operative words on this beautiful and sublime recording. I’ve sampled this album on digital as well via 24/192 FLAC files available on both Qobuz and Tidal and, while all sound good, I have found Craft’s LP pressing to have that added warmth and body that meshes with Baker and company’s performance so well. Chet Baker’s playing and phrasing are just so refined here, particularly on “If You Could See Me Now.” On “September Song” Kenny Burrell matches Baker’s refinement note for note as he plays in the right channel to Baker being hard left. “Time On My Hands” gives both Bill Evans and Paul Chambers a chance to give perfectly structured little piano and bass solos that are precisely what is required yet have an ease and looseness about them that only top-shelf musicianship can muster. As an album full of ballads, what sets Chet a cut above is the sheer quality of the talent and the tasteful way they committed these songs to the grooves. Chet is an album that requires you to savor its delicacies and Craft has done a stellar job with a noise-free and musical transfer that lets the songs get straight to the heart of the matter. Exquisite.
The Great Fantasy Adventure Album – Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Telarc, 1994, CD.
A fun stereo recording done in “surround sound” with the use of a technique (called Spatializer) that gives the sound a 3D effect from a single pair of speakers. The music here is from various sci-fi and adventure blockbusters with some pretty cool sound effects thrown in for The Hunt for Red October, Terminator, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. The 3D effects actually give the sensation of sounds going over your head and coming from behind you.
Of course, being a Telarc recording, quality, and dynamic range are superb with a warning about excessive playback levels which can damage your equipment. The music is a nice selection that helps you appreciate the work that composers put into their film music. There are more composers out there than just John Williams. Most are highly dramatic, while others are beautifully lyrical, but they all convey the mood of the genre for which they are composing. If you love these types of films, you will probably want this disc as the sound and playing are demo-worthy. Your kids will love the sound effects, though your neighbors…not so much due to the very wide dynamic range. The infrasonic frequencies extend down to 5 Hz.
Round-Up – Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Telarc, 1986, Multi-Channel SACD.
And what movies buff doesn’t like a good Western? This disc contains music from some of the best TV and movie Westerns of all time. To keep the music as authentic as possible, the recording has Frankie Laine singing his famous tune Rawhide. The theme from The Rifleman has the actual rifle used for the TV show blasting a rapid volley over your head. Sounds of the West include campfires, coyotes, and hoot-n-holler hoedown.
The Men of the May Festival Chorus sing Shenandoah, Home on the Range, and Streets of Laredo. In surround, the sound is wonderfully open and dynamic. It’s hard to pick a favorite track on this disc, but two that I often demo to friends are How the West Was Won and the themes from Silverado. It is a real shame that the whole Western genre has fallen out of favor, but if you grew up in the 1960s, these tunes will bring back some sweet memories of youth. Ti Yi Yippe Yippe Ay!