Jazz at the Pawnshop (UltraHD CD review)

The Fifth and Ultimate Version. Arne Domnerus and friends. LIM UHD 071 (3-CD set + DVD).

Here’s the thing: If you who are reading this consider yourself an audiophile but you don’t own some version of Jazz at the Pawnshop, trust me, you’re not really an audiophile. It’s been around now in various formats for some four decades, so you’ve had plenty of chance to hear and obtain it. The recording has developed something of a cult following among those in the know, and for good reason. Now the folks at LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a subsidiary of FIM, First Impression Music) have remastered it for the fifth and probably not last time in a rendering they understandably claim is the best ever. It’s hard to argue with them; the performances are first-rate and, more important, the sound is terrific.

But why so many versions? LIM’s owner and producer Winston Ma explains it in a booklet note: After Proprius Music released the album in the late Seventies, it became almost an instant hit on LP, followed by a two-disc CD set in 1984. Proprius (and American AudioSource) continued to rerelease the set on CD for the next few years, and then in 1997 Winston stepped in. Sensing a good thing, his company remastered the recording in an HDCD 24k gold format. Subsequently, he decided to remaster it in every new and improved disc format that came along, including XRCD and SACD, even obtaining the original tapes for the second disc that folks for many years thought lost. Then, in 2007 he did it all over again in K2 HD, convinced that K2 was a superior Redbook CD format over all others. Sure enough, there was a sonic improvement. This most current iteration of the product, the “Fifth and Ultimate Version,” is in UltraHD, the format Winston believes as far advanced as conventional compact discs can go. What’s more, the new set contains a third disc of tunes that recording engineer Gert Palmcrantz discovered in his archives in 1990, later released as Jazz at the Pawnshop 2, plus a DVD of interviews. In terms of sound and substance, Winston’s latest UltraHD set is, indeed, the best yet issued. Unless you want to argue the superiority of vinyl over silver disc, which is another story entirely.

So, what’s the fuss all about? Jazz at the Pawnshop is some pretty good jazz in some pretty astounding sound. The album’s producer and engineer visited one of Sweden’s most-celebrated jazz venues, the Stampen (or The Pawnshop because of a pawnshop that used to be there), and found its acoustics ideal for recording. Then they set up their equipment to record live several of Sweden’s most-celebrated jazz musicians, a quintet that included Arne Dominerus, alto sax and clarinet; Bengt Hallberg, piano; Larss Erstrand, vibes; Georg Riedel, bass; and Egil Johansen, drums. After two evenings of recording, they came out with tapes of some of the best and most realistic-sounding jazz that anyone had ever heard. The subsequent LP and CD releases took off among audiophiles eager to demonstrate just how accurate their stereo equipment was when playing back music that live would have been largely unamplified.

The three discs in the LIM set contain six music tracks each and a couple of introductions. The numbers run high to jazz standards, starting with Philip Braham’s “Limehouse Blues.” The quintet play well together, with Dominerus’s sax tending to dominate the ensemble but with plenty of room for the other members to shine and solo as well. Because it’s live, in the background we hear quite a lot of room noise, the clinking of glasses, shuffling of feet, occasional applause, audience comments, and conversation. One goes into Jazz at the Pawnshop for the music, certainly, but also for the vivid sound, which involves experiencing the ambience of the small club itself.

And so it goes throughout the eighteen selections, like the traditional “High Life,” Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” Johnny Hodges’s “Jeep’s Blues,” George Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good,” Charlie Parker’s “Barbados,” Morgan Lewis’s “How High the Moon,” Matt Dennis’s “Everything Happens to Me,” Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Mood,” Bill Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and Harry Warren’s “Jeepers Creepers,” among others.

The package concludes with a DVD containing brief interviews with two of the music’s participants:  Lars Estrand and Georg Riedel, the interviews playable with or without subtitles.

In keeping with the importance of such an undertaking, LIM have packaged the four-disc set rather elaborately. The glossy, hard-cardboard case opens up in four sections, an inner sleeve fastened to each segment, within which lie the discs, each in its own static-free liner, the whole affair further housed in a handsome slipcover. The only trouble with this arrangement is that it leaves no place for the thirty-page booklet insert except loose inside. Open up the package, and you’re likely to have the booklet fall in your lap. Apart from that minor oversight, it’s a nifty layout.

Producer Jacob Boethius and recording engineer Gert Palmcrantz made the album on location at the Stampen (Pawnshop) Jazz Club in Stockholm, Sweden in December of 1976. The club’s excellent acoustics and the simplicity of the miking probably led to the results that have been pleasing audiophiles all these years: Neumann U47, KM56, and M49 microphones, two Dolby A361 noise-reductions units, two Nagra IV recorders, a Studer mixing board, and two old Ampex loudspeakers with built-in amplifiers. Remarkable, given that sonically this antique array puts most of today’s state-of-the-art digital equipment to shame.

I had on hand the original Proprius set from AudioSource, CDP 7778/9, for comparison, putting one Proprius disc and one LIM disc into separate CD players (Sony and Yamaha), adjusting for output and switching them out occasionally to be sure I was listening to the sound of the discs and not the machines.

The first thing I noticed was that both the Proprius and LIM exhibit an outstanding dimensionality, space, and air. You can hear in and around the instruments in a most convincingly lifelike manner. Both display exemplary transient quickness, too, and strong dynamic impact. Where the new LIM scores over its rival is in its overall greater smoothness, marginally superior, more-truthful warmth, more-extended high-end response, and tauter, crisper bass. These characteristics lend the LIM product an upper hand in listenability as well as naturalness. Then, after a while I could sense that the LIM rendered a more potent force on drums and displayed slightly wider dynamics. The more I listened, the less of a contest it became, with the LIM sounding better to me in almost every sonic category. Given the already high quality of the Proprius discs, that's quite a compliment to the LIM. Of course, we should not expect less, given the extremely high cost of the new LIM set, but maybe that's yet another story. 

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa