Rhino High Fidelity: A Vinyl Series to be Reckoned With

Rhino High Fidelity: A Vinyl Series to be Reckoned With

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Prices listed in US$.

This article first appeared in PS Audio’s Copper Magazine.

In 2023, record label Rhino launched its Rhino High Fidelity series, dedicated to releasing high-quality vinyl reissues of classic Warner Music album titles. As Rhino notes, all the album lacquers are AAA (completely analog throughout) cut directly from the stereo master tapes by noted mastering engineer Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio. The 180-gram pressings are done by Germany’s Optimal Media.

The packaging certainly deserves to be called deluxe, with heavyweight tip-on glossy fold-out jackets, and booklets that feature photos of the master tape boxes and lacquer-cutting notes on the outside, and interviews and photos on the inside. I received review copies of four titles from Jaco Pastorius, the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, and Herbie Hancock, and the vinyl quality on all of them is immaculate. Each album release retails for $39.98 exclusively at rhino.com and is produced in a limited edition of 5,000.

Jaco Pastorius – Word of Mouth

Although, like everyone else, I was astounded by bassist extraordinaire Jaco Pastorius’ 1975 self-titled solo album debut and his subsequent work with Weather Report, I somehow missed hearing his 1981 solo follow-up, Word of Mouth. I expected to hear more of the virtuosic, bass-in-your-face style of his debut, and though there’s plenty of that – his playing on the opener “Crisis” is nearly superhuman – it’s a surprisingly nuanced, musically sophisticated and varied record.

A look at the inside cover tells why – more than 40 musicians are credited, and they’re a who’s who of jazz/fusion, including Don Alias, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Jim Pugh, Snooky Young, Toots Thielmans, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Michael Brecker, and a whole lot of other A-listers. The music ranges from the frenetic “Crisis” to the more contemplative “Three Views of a Secret,” an unmistakably “Jaco” take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and a lot in between. “Three Views of a Secret” and “John and Mary” almost sound like they could be Gil Evans charts, with gorgeous orchestration. The ensemble playing on “Liberty City,” featuring Herbie Hancock, is tight.

The sound quality is excellent – super-clean, dynamic, with extended frequency range and a defined soundstage. The various instruments – and oh boy, are there a lot of them, from Jaco’s fretless electric bass to horns, electric pianos, many varieties of percussion, harmonica, vocals and much more – all have their distinctive timbral colors. Jaco’s bass is not exaggerated or overly prominent, although on the title track, he gets to absolutely rip, using effects like fuzz and some kind of chorus or modulation effect to go crazy wild. The percussion is crisp, yet warm. For me, the mid-to-late 1970s was the Golden Age of Analog Multitrack Recording, and on Word of Mouth you can hear why. Has digital caught up with or surpassed analog? Listening to this album, I wonder.

Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir

I admit – Van Morrison was always one of those artists I respected more than listened to, like U2 or Bruce Springsteen or Ornette Coleman. This is somewhat unfair and perhaps a result of the fact that, as a gigging musician, I got tired of hearing people requesting “Brown Eyed Girl” and playing “Moondance” a long time ago. Neither of which are on 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir, which starts off with the decidedly not-overplayed and irresistibly cool “Domino.”

Jeez, I realized I’d never heard the song on a good system, and what a revelation this reissue is. The opening riff to “Domino” leaps out of the left channel, the horns have jump and snap, and the overall sound of the record is warm and smooth. Other instruments include acoustic guitar (I didn’t know Morrison was such a good acoustic guitarist until hearing “I’ll Be Your Lover Too”), harmonica, percussion, organ, mandolin, and piano.

The band is tight, and I especially dig the bass player, John Klingberg, who plays with the perfect combination of groove and taste, and locks in with the drummer old-school style. The band and the sound of the album are organic, with an Americana/R&B/blues feel that reminds me a little of the Band. While not an “audiophile” recording, the instruments have good presence, like the acoustic guitars and mandolin on “Virgo Clowns” and the organ playing throughout. The almost-hit “Blue Money” is as catchy and classic as “Domino.”

Listening to His Band and the Street Choir gives me new respect for Van Morrison, because, good lord, what an incredible, emotionally powerful singer he is, something that you can very clearly comes through on this LP. I looked at the liner notes and what do you know: the album was recorded by Elliott Scheiner (with assistance from Dixon Van Winkle, Ed Anderson, Mark Harman, and Richard Lubash). In the notes, Cory Frye interviews Scheiner, who sums it up better and more authoritatively than I ever could: “All the vocals we did were primarily live vocals. They were so good, so brilliant. What would come out of his mouth showed such presence.”

“The best Black singer I ever worked with was Ray Charles. The best white singer was Van Morrison.”

The Doobie Brothers – The Captain and Me

One very nice thing about reissues is that they can remind you of albums you haven’t heard in a while, maybe decades, and maybe you’ve never heard them on a high-fidelity audio system. Such is the case with The Doobie Brothers’ 1973 release The Captain and Me. The last time I heard the LP was in college, or maybe on my parents’ very-lo-fi Masterwork stereo system. So, spinning the Rhino reissue was like revisiting an old friend. The album has the massive hits, “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove,” and a solid if not always scintillating selection of other songs including “Clear as the Driven Snow,” ”Without You,” and the title track, which will bring back a flood of fond memories.

Well, I sure never heard The Captain and Me like this before. Once again, the remastering is excellent. No one would claim this as audio demo quality or the last word in dynamics, but the sound is clean and has width, depth and solidity. There are some sonic standout moments, like Tiran Porter’s picked bass on “Long Train Runnin’” and the acoustic-based “Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners,” where you really get the sense of fingers plucking the strings. The multiple electric guitars are well-recorded and there are all kinds of flavors of overdriven guitars for fretboard freaks like me to salivate over. The guitars on “China Grove,” for example, are rawer and raspier than you remember hearing them on the radio, and it makes the track sound more “real,” the sound of amps being pounded to beyond their limit. Tom Johnston’s lead guitar on “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” (my all-time Doobies favorite) is sublime. I’m guessing it’s a Gibson hollow body into a dimed Fender black face or silver face amp. And that’s Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on pedal steel, and Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil guesting on synthesizers!

It’s fun to hang with old friends.

Herbie Hancock – Crossings

I’m completely, utterly blown away by this 1971 album, which I hadn’t heard before, both by its music and sound quality. It’s a heady mix of fusion, free jazz, world music, percussion grooves and…well, by the time you get to side two it becomes simply impossible to categorize. I’m going to be a contrarian here, but for me, this is the album Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew could have been. I’ve always thought the latter was an indulgent half-effort of musicians screwing around in the studio, to be assembled into something resembling an album later, or maybe Miles putting one over on the critics, or all of the above, though of course it has its moments.

Herbie Hancock, Crossings, album cover.

Crossings is dazzling in its navigation of musical moods, tempos, and textures, from slow and spartan to deeply complex. The album features Mwandishi Herbie Hancock on electric and acoustic piano, mellotron and percussion (at the time of the album, the band members had all taken Swahili names), along with band members Swahile Eddie Henderson (trumpet, fluegelhorn, percussion), Mwile Benny Maupin (soprano saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet, piccolo, percussion), Jabali Billy Hart (drums, percussion), Pepo Mtoto Julian Priester (bass, tenor and alto trombone, percussion) and Mchejazi Buster Williams (electric and acoustic bass, percussion). They’re joined by Patrick Gleeson on Moog synthesizer, Victor Pontoja on congas, and vocalists Candy Love, Sandra Stevens, Della Horne, Victoria Domagalski and Scott Beach, who act more like other instruments – there’s no conventional “singing” on this album.

The music admittedly might not be for everyone. This ain’t no Waltz for Debby or any other kind of traditional jazz. It gets pretty far out there, though never sounding as caterwauling or abrasive or downright noisy as some free jazz can get. There’s always a harmonic underpinning, a groove, a sense of structure, and above all, a remarkable feeling of the musicians listening to, communicating with, and playing off of each other. There are just three tracks. “Sleeping Giant” (which takes up all of side one), “Quasar,” which really does sound like a missive from a distant galaxy with its sci-fi synths and echo-delayed horn – but where the aliens dig jazz – and “Water Torture,” which is musically exactly the opposite of what its title seems to imply, unless you just don’t like this kind of exploratory musical thing. Which is cool. I, however, find it spellbinding.

The sound is superb. The instruments have a richness and harmonic rightness that is a joy to listen to. The soundstage is vast at times. The tonal balance is excellent, and there’s plenty of musical detail, from the articulation of the acoustic bass and various percussion to the subtle, at times almost subliminal synth sounds. Hancock’s Fender Rhodes electric piano sounds lush and deep, one of the best recordings of a Rhodes I’ve ever heard. The mix is really well done, with instruments and vocals well-placed throughout the musical space.

Just fantastic.

For more articles like this, visit Copper Magazine.

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.


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