Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Harry James and His Big Band: The Harry James Sessions, 1976 & 1979

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Harry James and His Big Band: The Harry James Sessions, 1976 & 1979

Article excerpt

Harry James and His Big Band: The Harry James Sessions, 1976 & 1979. Sheffield Lab Recordings SL10090A-B (2 CDs).

Jazz trumpet player and band leader Harry James made his last recordings in similar fashion to his first recordings: he and his band-mates gathered in front of microphones, played together as an ensemble, and were cut directly to grooved disk. There were no overdubs, no partial takes, and no room for errors.

This M.O. is of course well known and documented for the pre-tape era (pre-1948 in the U.S.). But what was James doing flying without an overdub and tape-editing net in the 1970s? He was one of a few aging jazzmen who participated in the short-lived "direct-to-disc" fad. This return to tape-less disk mastering occurred late in the analog era, and most of its products are forgettable. Notable exceptions are in the jazz genre, including D2D outings in Japan by Herbie Hancock and U.S. recordings by Les Brown and Buddy Rich. Also notable for their music and sound quality are these recordings by Harry James.

Sheffield Lab was run by mastering engineer Doug Sax and musician/producer Lincoln Mayorga. They used a highly customized recording chain, and Sax believed in a minimal-mic approach (often using a single coincident pair of microphones, on these recordings an AKG C-24). The company recorded Harry James and his band of mostly youthful players in June 1976 and March 1979, both times at the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood. The 1976 sessions were actually a second attempt to capture James direct to lacquer; a March 1976 session netted technically unsatisfactory results. Sax's liner notes describe the trials of getting a proper sound, which finally happened late in the July 1976 sessions. Apparently, good setup notes were kept, because the 1979 sessions sound very similar in tonal quality to 1976.

The original LPs were: "The King James Version" (recorded 1976); "Comin' From A Good Place" (recorded 1976) and "Still Harry After All These Years" (recorded 1979). They seem to be readily available via eBay and other used-vinyl retail channels.

Musically, James stuck to old favorites that he was playing on tour. His band was clearly well-rehearsed and comfortable with the material. There might have been wild Fusion and Free Jazz happenings in the mid-70s, but they were of no concern to Harry James and his band. Rather, recorded by Sheffield were old gems such as Count Basie's "Corner Pocket," Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and "Satin Doll," Benny Goodman's "Don't Be That Way," Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction," and similar fare. While these tunes were already well-worn 40 years ago, James and his band managed to make them sound fresh and exciting. There is a heavier, 70s style beat to things, but James and the band retained the swing-era lilting and diving horn lines. James' solos are tight, focused and controlled. He was still able to climb the upper registers, blast out well-timed quick runs, and at the same time keep a tight hand on his band. While none of this material rivals James' peak performances with Benny Goodman and by himself in the pre-tape era, this is well-rendered, enjoyable large-ensemble jazz music.

For the modern age, there is but one way to master a direct-to-disk recording for CD: play it back on a record-player and make a digital transfer. Sheffield Labs hired engineer (and ARSC member) Seth Winner to remaster these three. Winner says he worked with new-old-stock LPs, still sealed when he received them. He cleaned them on his Keith Monks machine and set to work. His playback chain was "a Shure V15Vx cartridge with the supplied Microridge stylus assembly SME 3012-11 arm, and a Technics SP-15 turntable, re-centering each side manually to eliminate and wow or speed instability during playback." For phono preamplification, he used "a pair of refurbished Marantz Consolettes (Model One)" set for RIAA curve playback. Digital transfers were made at 96/24 through a Lucid converter. …

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