I was visiting a friend who subscribes to several streaming services, including, Beats, Googleplay, Gruvshark, and Rdio, all of which have bit rates of 320. He played a CD he recently downloaded, titled ‘Sounds’, featuring Shelly Manne on percussion and Jack Marshall on guitar. Even though the data rate of the download is considerably inferior to Redbook, the sound on all the tracks was so impressive, I bought the CD on Amazon. It was originally released as an LP, during the 60s, and later reissued in 2010 as a CD, in Japan, on the Capitol/EMI label, Capitol ST 2610.
Auditioning this CD brought to mind the futile and contentious discussions among audiophiles and in audiophile publications, regarding the superiority of analogue over digital. There are quality recordings digitally based, especially the CD under review, as well as excellent sounding LPs. Both media have virtues and flaws and one medium is different, not better, than the other.
Shelly Manne was a west coast-based Jazz drummer, who recorded mainly on the Contemporary label. He recorded several LPs with Ray Brown and Barney Kessel, and was also featured on other recordings with other west-coat based musicians. On this CD, he plays other percussion instruments in addition to a standard drum set. Jack Marshall was a producer for Capitol records, during the late ’50s and early ’60s. He composed the theme music for “The Munsters”, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for his efforts. During the ’60s, he released three LPs, with Shelly Manne, namely, Sounds!, Sounds Unheard and Soundsville. He also played the music of Stravinsky and Webern and released several guitar duets with Barney Kessel.
During the ’60s, a number of band leaders, such as Martin Denny, Esquivel, Dick Shorry, Les Baxter, Ferrante and Teicher and Sauter-Finnegan, issued LPs which were called “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music”. This genre of music was characterized by dramatic dynamic contrasts, instrumental and vocal effects. Such studio recordings of acoustic and/or electronic instruments were often augmented with tape manipulation, multi-tracking, reverb, controlled distortion and tape editing. The music was created to test the capabilities of early stereo systems. The goal was to create a (superficially) spectacular sound.
Sounds! could be considered an acoustic version of “Space Age” music, and suitable to test the mettle of stereo systems as the recording is often characterized by dazzling and spectacular sound effects.
The tracks on the CD include:
Theme from “Lawrence of Arabia”
“Sweet Sue, Just You”
“All the Things You Are”
“Am I Blue?”
“The Rain In Spain”
“Spanish Dance Number 5”
“The Girls of Sao Paulo”
“A Day in Brazil—Medley”
Track 1, the theme from “Lawrence of Arabia”, begins with Jack Marshall presenting the melodic line, followed by the sound of several percussion instruments, alternating with brushes on a snare drum, with the bottom wires loosened. The combination of Jack Marshall’s subtle improvisation, following his statement of the melody, with aptly selected percussion instruments by Shelly Manne, was effective in creating an exotic Middle Eastern ethnic feel to the song. At times, the sequence of percussion instruments sounded bombastic and unexpected.
This track was similar to all others in one respect, namely the sounds of the percussion instruments were riveting and spectacular. The instruments included drums of all sizes, bells, cymbals, etc. .
On track 2, “Sweet Sue, Just You”, Jack Marshall has a brief solo, providing the melodic line. Thereafter, Shelly Manne plays a variety of percussion instruments, which were not featured on the first track. He then plays brushes on a suitcase—a bit kitschy, perhaps ? The meter is uptempo and the feeling communicated by the musicians is joyful.
“All the Things You Are”, would probably be considered a song characterized by a romantic theme. I noticed that the song was divided into three sections. In the first, the guitarist maintained a slow tempo, playing the melody, with little improvisation, maintaining the intent of the song, while Shelly Manne provided percussion accompaniment. In the middle section, the mood changed, as the guitarist accelerated the tempo, and Shelly Manne’s playing and selection of percussion instruments became the central focus, all of which was incongruent with what one would expect, listening to a “love song”. In the last section, the guitarist decelerated the tempo, Shelly Manne had a few percussion flourishes and then the song ended abruptly. The arrangement was quite odd, given the context of the song.
Track 4, “Choros”, is one of two classical pieces on this CD. The other is track 7, “Spanish Dance Number 5”, by Granados. On track 4, the guitarist essentially adheres to the score and Manne selects percussion instruments which maintain the ethnic flavor of the composition, without calling attention to any “sound” effects. In this case, the percussion acts as a rhythmic accompaniment, rather than a solo instrument.
On “Am I Blue?”, Jack Marshall whistles, while playing a smaller ukulele-like guitar. It is the only track in which he does not use a standard guitar. Manne provides the rhythmic accompaniment, with brushes striking an instrument, other than a snare drum, creating a mood atypical for this song.
“The Rain in Spain” has Marshall carrying the melody, while Manne alters the meter, creating a march tempo, and introduces a selection of percussion instruments, especially castanets, to maintain the march tempo.
I had intended to continue discussing the details of the remaining tracks on this disc. However, after reading my notes, I believe I discovered a pattern, common to tracks 1 through 6. After I listened to tracks 7 through 11, I was confident that there were characteristics of the performance, common to all tracks. Therefore I have decided to present what I consider a synopsis of the common attributes of the CD. I apologize to the reader, if I have committed the “sins” of tedium or redundancy, by including the specifics of tracks 1 through 6, after you read the synopsis, below.
While the CD is a partnership between percussion and guitar, it is an unequal one, as one may notice that the percussion dominates the guitar in terms of a simple metric, i.e., the number of minutes percussion instruments are played, compared to the number of minutes the guitar is played.
It would seem the reason for the emphasis upon percussion instruments could be to show off the technique and creativity of Shelly Manne, in a role he is not accustomed, as well as create a sonic “blockbuster”. I will discuss the sound shortly. The application of percussion instruments exhibited a wide range of frequencies from the bass, mainly drums, to the treble, mainly bells, cymbals, and triangle. The sound of the leading and trailing edge of transients was very clear, realistic and never truncated.
The music was generally up tempo, creating a feeling of exhilaration, which was exciting and cerebral. The variation and pacing of percussion instruments generated an element of surprise and unpredictability, never boring.
On each track, the combination of percussion and guitar generated harmonic complexity, the result of the simultaneous presence of harmonic envelopes created by the fundamentals of both instruments.
What does this all mean ?
The blending of two disparate instruments created unusual and unconventional arrangements of familiar melodies, which were sonically captivating, even if the listener would not consider the music suitable to his or her taste. I cannot imagine anyone disliking this CD, even if one questions its musical value, because the cleverness of the arrangements and sonic kaleidoscope should maintain one’s attention at all times.
The sound quality of Sounds! probably would exceed the expectations of most owners of Redbook CDs. I would be surprised to discover a CD exceeding the level of clarity present on Sounds!, without an etch, without an unbalanced frequency response, or without an analytical presentation, that one experiences listening to this recording.
This CD sounds closer to a live performance, than any other I have heard.
While the goal of the producer probably was the maximization of sound quality, it may have led to an unintended consequence, namely the subservience of the music to the sound. While the cause may have been percussion “pyrotechnics”, I found the novel and unusual arrangements of familiar melodies interesting, and not indicative of a devaluation of the musical content.
After listening to this CD, I don’t miss analogue.
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