Janine Elliot takes a listen to the latest release on the Chasing The Dragon imprint, Quentin Collins’ All Star Quintet “A Day in the Life”, presented here on reel to reel.

I love the offer of listening to music from Chasing the Dragon. Not only is the audio production excellent, but the music is equally engaging. “A Day in the Life” is no exception. I have now reviewed a number of recordings from Mike and Francoise Valentine, and have attended numerous more recording sessions at Air Studios, London. Mike is an energetic and flamboyant gentleman with an equally large collection of Hawaiian shirts all as colourful as his personality.

Mike’s background is, like me, as a sound engineer at the BBC. Joining at the age of 18 his last job was managing stage microphones for the 1985 Live Aid Concert. He became a boom operator 1976 working for outside broadcasts where all the fun was, inspiring him later to record bands and orchestras under his own label. He started diving as a hobby and resigned from the Beeb and moved on to feature films not involved in sound but as an underwater cameraman working on over 100 movies, something he still carries on when he can. It was during this time that he set up Chasing the Dragon, having now produced 15 labels at the last count with several more planned over the next few years. ‘A Day in the Life’ is the latest production, featuring the ‘All Star Quintet’, led by Quentin Collins on trumpet and flugelhorn, Joe Sanders on bass, Jason Rebello on piano, Gary Husband on drums and Miles Bould on percussion. Gary Husband has performed with Chick Corea, and Rebello has performed with Sting and Jeff Beck. He studied at the Guildhall School of Music and is very much influenced by Herbie Hancock. As for Quentin, he had an interest in jazz from a young age, seeing many of the greats in concert, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck. Learning the trumpet, he turned to the profession and has played and recorded with a number of top artists including Omar, Alicia Keys, Gregory Porter and many more. This All Star Quintet really was full of stars.

The recording was made at Air Studios in leafy Hampstead, London, made famous by Beatles’ producer George Martin, recording in Studio 1 on the special 72 channel analogue Neve desk (one of only three made, and Mike’s favourite). As is common with Chasing the Dragon the recording is produced in four formats; Direct-to-disc vinyl using a Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe, DSD using a Tascam DA3000, 24/192 using a Nagra VI, and reel to reel – which is the format I am reviewing – via the lovely ½” Sony APR5000. At the helm of this great machine was Petronel Butuc, a revered tape operator and engineer. It was at Air Studios that Mike first heard about Quentin Collins, who lives just a stone’s throw from the studio. When Quentin was charged with setting up a jazz band, he chose musicians he had worked with independently in the past, though this was the first time they would have played together as a quintet. What would be even more demanding is that they would only get a few hours to rehearse before an attempt at performing “as live” onto the vinyl and tape masters. No time for mistakes then, and hopefully no stumbles. But, as is common from Mike, he always chooses musicians that he knows will work brilliantly under pressure and I have witnessed this many times in the past as a viewing reviewer to the studios. For a start he must ensure that every “as live” performance can fit onto a 20-minute LP “side”. One also mustn’t forget his wife Francoise who works ceaselessly behind the scenes to ensure the booking, whether an individual or a full orchestra, takes place faultlessly  What made Quentin’s task very stressful is that the other musicians would not have known three of the tracks (3,5,6) as they were from his own pen, with Jason Rabello having also composed track 2. The other tracks on the album were from Herbie Hancock (track 4) and Bheki Mseleku (track 1). Rehearsing and recording would take place all in one day, which includes two sets of performances. There are several reasons for two recordings; Firstly, it gave Mike and the musicians the ability to choose the better of two performances. Also, in the case of the direct-to-disc vinyl that not only meant they could also ensure they have a top recording (it is possible for the swarf from the cutting of the disc to get stuck on the vinyl and ruin the recording or the needle itself to not track correctly)  but also ensuring that if the discs got lost or damaged in transit to the pressing company in Germany, there was still a backup available. In my experience the first “run through” is the more accurate but the second is more relaxed and livelier. In the case of the All Star Quintet, it was decided to use the second take of both sides.

Setting up the recording Mike used his customary AKG C12 microphones on the piano and percussion, with Neumann U47’s on double bass and trumpet. For the drums he had two C12’s over the top with a U47FET on the bass drum. Note that the C12 and U47 are valve microphones, the C12 using a 6072 dual-triode vacuum tube and the U47 a VF14 pentode. The U47FET is a solid state microphone, ideally suited to mic’ing of loud guitar amplifiers, bass amplifiers and kick drums, and equally good. The aged C12, first released in 1953 has a notable warmth and musical presence, a microphone loved by many still to this day.

Quentin’s trumpet was a carbon fibre instrument, chosen because it optimises vibrations so that energy isn’t wasted. His sound was notably precise in pitch and tone, and a great choice. The percussionist chose his instruments that fit well with the music and also to provide the quintet with an interesting and varied soundscape. The pianist used the resident Bosendorfer in Studio 1. During rehearsals there was, as one would expect, a lot of spill of sound between the different instruments picked up by other microphones so it was decided to place a cloth over the raised piano lid to form a tent with microphones inside the “tent”. That idea being unsuccessful it was removed for the recording, but screens were placed either side of the central trumpet and between piano and double bass, plus the drum kit placed in its own screened area at the back of Studio 1. This minimised as much spill of sound as possible but still allowed musicians to see each other.

This is an aptly named album; “A Day in the Life”. This really was a day in the life of this quintet, the first day they had played together and also to play these specific pieces. It, therefore, made the recording highly spontaneous and intoxicating. I must say at the outset of playing I not only very much enjoyed the performance but also the instrumentation; it’s not common to have a quintet with two sets of percussionists. In terms of rehearsing then playing together it reminded me of the album ‘Freedom Jazz Dance; the Bootleg Series vol 5’ from Miles Davis Quintet, incidentally, featuring Herbie Hancock on keys. That extensive (3CD and HD) album has the musicians rehearsing pieces they were not conversed to playing together, with the definitive performance only after stopping and starting rehearsal many times. It also has mic’ing of the instruments considerably different to Mike’s final take on Quentin Martin’s album; piano hard left, drums hard right with trumpet central. For ‘A Day in the Life’ Mike has chosen to keep piano and trumpet central with the drum kit spread across between the speakers. Only the percussionist gets pushed to the centre-right. This gave a controlled and realistic sound.  Playing via my Ferrograph Logic 7 (built to take on the Studer’s in the 70’s) which has a great bass-end and honest treble the sound was addictive and easy to listen to. Only turning to my Sony TD-766 did the ride cymbals take off a little more as I wished they would, though at the expense of the bass. The Ferrograph was, however, the more accurate purveyor of sound and what Mike has produced is a very realistic and listenable recording, which is what he aims to do every time. I was not to be disappointed.

The drums open up the proceedings, with the percussionist adding more followed by the double bass line on this Mseleku number. The excellent trumpet and piano mic’ing made for a highly engaging start to the album, with the expansive main theme heard three times. Bheki Mseleku is someone I had not heard of; a pianist, saxophonist, guitarist, and composer from South Africa. Indeed, this track is full of irregular and exciting rhythmic lines from this part of the world. The second track (Jason Rabello) in E minor starts with the piano, taking the lead with some beautiful melodic lines. Similarly, the trumpet solos get me really into enjoying the music. It also features Joe Sanders on the bass getting his first solo. The percussionist adds much the music, especially with wind chimes. This is a slow number, again with the piano beginning proceedings. This leads though, into a samba actually reminding me of a 1970’s tv theme tune.  Again, I couldn’t fault the music or the engineering, though the amount of ride cymbal playing was for me just slightly too generous. The double bass begins the next track, my favourite, a great Herbie Hancock number with repeating 4-note theme. Track 5 (Quentin Collins) similarly starts with the bass and includes a short riff played thrice in the track. There is a link between the tracks in terms of short riffs, whether descending or ascending pairs making for a well-rounded album, with nothing sounding out of place. In track 5 it is also nice to hear a double bass solo, albeit in the higher registers. Finally, track 6 is another Collins number with a repeating 4-note riff. Here the percussionist is notably more audible, a great track to end this superb album. Even the voices of satisfaction follow the end of this track – the All Stars laughing and commenting over the fun they have just had. Unsurprisingly I had just as much fun listening as they had playing. This was one of the best jazz albums I have listened to over my long life. Period. Not only is the music bright and engaging, but it is superbly mixed, each instrument, nay, each note carefully tailored to give the listener musical nourishment. Coming in a beautiful ATR Magnetics MDS-36 red spool at £360, each reel is recorded in real-time and this is a recording you will be so glad you bought.

Janine Elliot

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