Review – City of the Sun – to the sun and all the cities in between & Alexis Cole – Dazzling Blue – The Music of Paul Simon - Chesky Binaural+

With all the discussion of high-resolution audio, especially as it pertains to reissues of older recordings it's easy to forget that a true high-resolution title starts as a high-resolution recording, reminding us of just how amazing and musical an audiophile recording can be. Couple that with a first-rate set of musicians, careful engineering using a binaural microphone system, and the result is City of the Sun - to the sun and all the cities in between, a tour-de-force of acoustic guitars recently released by Chesky Records. The same recording technique is used onAlexis Cole's Dazzling Blue, Cole’s tribute to some of the less known music of Paul Simon.

Chesky Records, known to many enthusiasts as one of the premier jazz labels, renowned for a rare combination of musical excellence and superb recording techniques has branched out musically, and a look at their release lists reveals a label pushing is own boundaries. David Chesky, one of the founders of the label is himself an example of that eclectic range as a musician and composer. When I first dove into his music, what I found was a range of compositions, structure, and genres that defied categorization. So, it was a pleasure to take the wraps off a few of Chesky Records recent binaural releases. That same sprit seems to be at work in the labels other releases. I'm not sure how you unwrap a digital file compared to taking the shrink-wrap off an LP, but I suppose that completing the download is probably the digital equivalent.

I loaded City of the Sun – to the sun and all the cities in between onto our Seagate NAS, to be played through the excellent Oppo BDP-105 through its network mode, but aside from the genre, I had no idea what to expect. I purposely didn't dwell too long on the beautifully crafted press release, or peruse the liner notes in advance, opting to be surprised. A trio consisting of John Pita and Avi Snow on guitars, and Zach Para on percussion, the all instrumental album begins with interweaving tones, washing over the room in waves of harmonics and melody mixing to an unmistakable musical signature. I'm not quite sure how to describe the music, since at times I felt like I was in the midst of a group of hipster folk revivalists with a touch of flamenco, while other tracks embraced a more jazz like structure, but all of them made me feel like I was sitting around with some great musicians, playing together for the joy of playing, not quite a jam session, with elements of spontaneity and invention, yet at times it seemed that the musicians in competition playing off each other. But, unlike some performances, it never felt that one player was the primary, instead this felt truly collaborative in nature. With two guitars and a percussionist, City of the Sun shows a variety of roots in different genres, folk, trance, Indian, jazz, and even a bit of an alt rock vibe.

You might imagine that as a Binaural recording that it was designed to be heard through headphones or earphones, and I reviewed the titles using a pair of Oppo PM-3 Planar Magnetic headphones, Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7, and Etymotic ER•4 MicroPro earphones driven by the superb Oppo HA-1 Headphone Amp/DAC, with either Amarra or Decibel handing the files, so equipment wise, this was a set of components that could reveal even the gentlest nuances. With both the City of the Sun and Alexis Cole titles,the audio was open, airy, and full of a gentle, relaxed ambience. In other words, these are wonderful recordings should you want to put your gear to the test. But music isn't about gear, it's about music, and I wondered how they would sound over loudspeakers, since many binaural recordings don’t make the transition to speakers successfully.

Not so with this new series, which Chesky has dubbed "Binaural+" designed to allow the recording to sound great on headphones as well as loudspeakers, and after comparing the experience I have to agree, the recordings sounded wonderful on loudspeakers as well as headphones. The credit for the Binaural Plus process is due to Professor Edgar Choueiri of the 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics (3D3A) Lab of Princeton University, who lent his technical assistance on the 3D audio aspects for these Binaural+ recordings. In fact, I preferred the City of the Sun album over loudspeakers, the music transcended the room like viscous honey. You can imagine the musicians in the room with you, filling the room with music, flowing around the house, seemed like just the right vibe. The songs are both similar and dissimilar, there is a consistency to the excellence in playing, where I found the songs harmonic texture serving as the emotional connection. When instruments act together, notes, at least individual notes matter less than the mix that results. Over speakers, the music wafted around the house, like I was hanging with my friends.

Paul Simon is one of my favorite musicians and songwriters. Like many of musicians some of his strongest work aren't the well-known hits, but his quieter, more harmonic pieces. Alexis Cole's Dazzling Blue – The Music of Paul Simon tackles some of those songs, and in a steady, clear, voice soars through the songbook. Some of my favorites are included, St. Judy’s Comet, Jonah, Something So Right, Song About the Moon, among others. Of course there were titles I'd have loved to hear such as Slip, Sliding, Away, a song that actually never appeared on a studio title, and this selection spans albums from There Goes Ryhmin’ Simon, You’re the One, to the soundtrack to One Trick Pony. The title cut “Dazzling Blue” is from So Beautiful or So What. This is a quiet album, smooth, and represents a respectful, insightful set of covers of unexpected selections. Cole has assembled a sterling cast of supporting musicians, Gus Courtsunis and Jeff Haynes on percussion, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Mark Peterson on bass, Julie Harris on flute, and Maria Quintanilla and Evan Sundquist for the background vocals. The warmth of the bass on the opening track, St. Judy’s Comet, is almost palpable, a wonderful start to the song and a testament to the excellence of the recording. Throughout the songs, the bottom end has just enough punch, but is clearly defined, a totally realistic ensemble feel.

Paul Simon’s catalog has been covered by an enormous number of musicians, with punk, surf, jazz, rock, classical, and even the version of Frank Sinatra’s take on Mrs. Robinson. Cole’s task is to make those songs her own, which she does, with silken resolve. The backing musicians are a perfect match, supporting but not overwhelming her vocals, and her interpretations make this a singularly successful and enjoyable effort. Simon is a storyteller, his music and lyrics lead you down a path that is both intellectual, musical, and harmonic. There is also a tension to them, even some of the sweetest songs, so I was curious to see if Dazzling Blue maintained that tension, which it did, still warm, sweet, and gracious, but not without an essential edge. 

The recording as you might expect is similar to other Binaural+ recordings from Chesky, which is to stay, open, airy, and convincingly musical. One of the nicest attributes of this process is that the placement of singers, instruments, and the room Itself is critical, since you really can't do much in post compared to a modern multi-track recording, so the end result is a very natural, unforced production approach. I found Dazzling Blue especially suited to headphones, a carefully defined soundscape with instruments placed with precision and depth. Cole’s vocals float and weave throughout the space, providing Simon’s poetic verse with a sincere grounding.

Both Alexis Cole Dazzling Blue and City of the Sun impress, sonically they are meticulously recorded and arranged, musically they both feel like sipping an old aged cognac, smooth, delicious, but with a bite. Highly recommended.

Harris Fogel, posted 2/25/2016

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