The compulsive collecting of records begins with a passion for
music and evolves into an obsession with the album as a total
art form. On the way, album addicts acquire specialized knowledge
that can benefit the recreational user. For example, not all labels
are created equal. Many are nothing more than the names of the
companies engaged in the commercial venture of making records.
A few record labels, however, actually stand for something. Within
each musical genre, a tiny number are magic; they have mystique;
their insignias send out subtle come-hither messages to album
What first distinguishes these
special labels is their ability to foster conditions in which
artists create at the peak of their powers. But the allure of
these labels also is based on their ability to manage the album's
collective aesthetic gestalt. The total album statement, before
you even get to the music, integrates the visual art of the cover,
the written words in the liner notes, and the art of audio engineering
in the sonic performance. The compact disc revolutionized album
collecting for the better (the sound became superior and far less
perishable), but its size tended to de-emphasize cover art and,
often, liner notes. Yet it's still possible to identify labels
whose works stand out like royalty from the rabble. This article
will talk about three. They are labels primarily involved with
jazz because jazz has been at the center of this writer's own
album addiction since he first experienced Paul Desmond's alto
saxophone on a Dave Brubeck LP in a record store in Salt Lake
City, in 1959. You don't stop to question the Pied Piper's call.
You just follow.
If you're a serious jazz collector,
you can't help but be deeply intrigued by a new jazz label whose
improbable address is Upper Marlboro, MD. It's the stuff of cults
and legends: a founder/producer/engineer/guru who once worked
for the Pentagon as a weapons analyst and who helped design the
F-16 jet fighter but who now devotes his life to recording jazz
"without compromise"; a studio in a plantation mansion at the
end of a long dirt road whose windows look out on woods and tobacco
fields a setting where musicians are inspired to reach
beyond themselves; a radically purist recording technique that
results in jazz albums with sound to die for.
It's not a fantasy. The label
is Mapleshade. The guru is Pierre Sprey. Something important
is happening in Upper Marlboro.
If the challenge of recording
jazz well is what Joe Harley has called a "juggling act" between
sonic standards and musical values, Pierre Sprey is the most fascinating
juggler now active in the field. To meet the engineering half
of this challenge, he uses "the absolute minimum feasible number
of microphones and tracks." Since he insists on minimum lengths
of connecting cables, he can't use a remote sound booth: He employs
headphones for monitoring the live mix. Sprey records analog (because
he believes that digital is "crippling") on a much-modified Sony
TC-880 two-track at 15 i.p.s. without noise reduction. He records
as hot as possible to minimize tape hiss ("you lose so much pluck
in the bass, and so much of the percussive sound of a piano hammer...when
you use noise reduction"). The musicians are placed around a V-shaped
wedge of two plexiglass panels, on each of which is mounted a
highly modified Crown PZM pressure zone microphone. Sprey goes
from the Crowns to battery powered preamps equipped only with
gain controls to the Sony. There is no mixing board, no filtering,
no compression, no equalization, no multitracking, no overdubbing.
Sprey is obsessive about the
engineering and technical fine points, but he's even more focused
on "providing an environment where musicians will want to play
as well as they have ever played." What is special about the environment
is its welcoming warmth. Musicians are "honored guests" in the
mansion during the two or three days it usually takes to make
an album. Sprey himself is the chef, serving excellent meals and
wines. He wants the musicians to feel relaxed and comfortable,
so that they "take chances and play with real fire." They are
recorded in a live space the mansion's converted front
parlor ó where they can see and hear each other. There
are no drum booths or vocal booths because "they destroy the creative
cohesion of a group."
To sit down with a small stack
of your very first Mapleshades is a revelation. Sonically, they
combine AudioQuest's gut-level impact with Chesky's accurate
rendering of space. The beginning of Eddie Gale's A
Minute with Miles, for example, startles you to attention
with the ragged raw edges of Gale's muted trumpet. But you also
can tune in to the vivid minutiae of Paul Murphy's actions
at his drum kit, tapping, rattling, feathering.
That odd little studio in
the boondocks has been the site of numerous "significant moments"
of its own. Gale, although not widely known, has recorded with
Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Sun Ra. It will shock some jazzophiles
that Gale is capable of an album as stunning as A Minute with
Miles a vast summation of trumpet culture from New Orleans to
bop to the serrated edges of the avant garde.
The Offering contains deeply felt personal statements by David
Murray and also by Mapleshade's musical director, pianist
Larry Willis. One of the most extraordinary discs from
Mapleshade is by pianist Chris Anderson, who is blind and
partially paralyzed and who rarely plays in public. He's unknown
to the world at large but is legendary among musicians as an original
harmonic thinker and as a teacher of pianists such as Herbie Hancock.
Love Locked Out consists of stark, slow, jagged imaginings
of songs like Send in the Clowns and The Folks Who Live on
the Hill, whose beauty and pain will stop you cold.
The producers at Chesky, AudioQuest,
and Mapleshade all have different recording styles and philosophies.
What's important is what they have in common: the dedication with
which they pursue the Pied Piper.
RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS by CD
Bobby Battle Quartet:
(Mapleshade 01332, 1990)
Clifford Jordan Quartet:
Live at Ethell's
(Mapleshade MHS 512629A, 1987)
Eddie Gale Quintet:
A Minute With Miles
(Mapleshade 01132, 1992)
Love Locked Out
(Mapleshade 5126921, 1987)