Donald Byrd The Cat Walk
Johnny Coles Little Johnny C.
Lee Morgan Tom Cat
very audiophile in music-accumulation mode knows all too well about the two contrasting trends competing for his or her dollars: digital downloading, the no-media medium, where a computer has greater pride of ownership of the recording than the person who did the buying; and vinyl, the most substantial and physical of all recorded formats.
In the middle of this pair of opposites lies JVC's XRCD, which isn't a discrete medium or format but rather a refined way of approaching digital sound. In the latest iteration of this super CD, the XRCD24, the analog master tape is converted to 24-bit digital and then regenerated with a suite of JVC's finest electronics. From master tape to analog-to-digital conversion, from storage on magneto-optical disk to the cutting of the glass master from which the stamper is created, the XRCD24 process relies on extreme care -- in mastering and manufacturing -- to produce a noticeably better sonic outcome, one that transcends digital's usual limitations. The sound of XRCD24s competes with that of higher-resolution digital formats, including SACD, but the discs are CDs and thus playable with the widest range of hardware. You can even rip them to hard drive, although, believe it or not, they lose some of their sonic magic if you do.
None of these three XRCD24s has lost any of its musical magic in the half-century or thereabouts since its release. Audio Wave's series of Blue Note recordings expanded to include a trio of titles featuring notables who played trumpet. Lee Morgan and Donald Byrd were go-to leaders of over two dozen Blue Note sessions each from the late 1950s into the 1970s, and they accompanied on scores more. Tom Cat was recorded in 1964, but it went unreleased until 1980, years after Morgan's death by gunshot at the hands of his common-law wife. The Cat Walk is a collaboration between Byrd, arguably the hardest-driving trumpeter of his era, and Pepper Adams, his equal on baritone sax. The odd man out is Johnny Coles, who recorded only Little Johnny C., a perennial favorite for Blue Note because of its tasty rhythms, and a handful of other titles under his own name.
If you're looking for sonic comparables to these discs, forget CD, where the earliest Blue Note releases have better spectral balance than the thin-sounding RVG reissues but still fall miles short of the naturalness, detail and balance of these XRCD24s. The sound approaches the free-and-easy resolution of analog -- exceptional analog, like that of the Music Matters 45rpm LPs of these same titles. This is not surprising, given that Joe Harley is involved in both series, and Bob Bantz, the executive producer of the XRCD24s, is no stranger to great analog sound. His first business is music-and-equipment retail outlet Elusive Disc. Credit also goes to XRCD co-creator and mastering engineer Alan Yoshida. As Bob Bantz put it, "If Alan had mastered every CD ever made, there would be no DVD-A or SACD!"
While twelve Blue Note XRCD24s are available now and another baker's dozen are in the works, there has been a lull in the release schedule. "This project has been a tough one," Bantz confided. "If it were only about the money, we would have given up long ago." Pairs of new releases will begin to reappear this month, however, and down the road are titles from Stanley Turrentine and Herbie Hancock that aren't available on 45rpm LP, giving them legitimate claim to being "the best there is."
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