Fresh and flavorful are the words that first come to mind as I listen to Leon Parker’s album Above & Below. Fresh because his drumming is clean and focussed. It’s a trait not found much today in a world pushing-pushing towards more-more, bigger-bigger, faster-faster. Flavorful because he leans in the direction of Zen starkness, but never quite gets there. He gives us just enough tasty bits to keep our ears perked. It’s clear, too, that his musical philosophy spreads through the entire album, and even infects his guest artists. No one jumps out to steal the spotlight or change the mood. There’s also an artful blend of stylistic variation from cut to cut, from original compositions to standards that lay out a well formed path through the album, as if telling a story. Energy is tempered with delicacy, therein lies his strength and the pull of this album. It’s why I’m praising it, and why I can’t get overly excited. It’s a rare treat of mature, solid, clearly structured, well crafted music.

I can’t say the same of the recording. There’s a disconnect between the train-tunnel reverb on the soloists and the drier sound on the drums and bass. The bass is over mixed, and on “Caravan” the soprano sax sounded oddly muted, especially compared to the tenor on the same cut. Too many cuts use the musical cop-out of ending with a fade-out. It always makes me wonder, what am I missing? Usually nothing, but I can’t help feeling like something’s been chopped off, and it’s always done when the musicians are cooking. Please, let the groove find its own ending. There’s more to pick on, but at least the recording isn’t so bad as to ruin the enjoyment of the music.

(||) Rating — Music : B ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : B- ║
 Leon Parker, Above & Below, Epicure, 1994

Moving on to something to get excited about is the Sono Luminus release of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet entitled Rupa-khandha. This is contemporary percussion music that keeps you on the edge. Powerful, exquisitely performed, and dynamic. A large part of its dynamism is in the recording, a multichannel 24/192 DTS on Blu-ray. I have heard only a couple of other recordings that capture the dynamics and transients of percussion music this well. That is a huge part of the appeal. It conveys the feel of a live performance. Add to that the multichannel surround that puts you in the center of the quartet, and you’ve got a blistering experience. I’ve heard a couple of other multichannel recordings with a musician in each channel, and I hate them. It’s unrealistic. No one, ever sits in the middle with the performers surrounding them, but this time makes for a big exception. Perhaps it’s the nature of percussion music—think circle percussion. Perhaps it’s the excellent recording engineering—think experienced, knowhow in multichannel. No matter, this one works. You are there encircled by the group, Matthew Cook, Justin DeHart, Eric Guinivan, and Nick Terry, and their panoply of instruments to whack, as they take you on a shaking, rattling, clanging journey through four compositions, “Ritual Dances,” “Repoussé,” “Occasus,” and the title piece “Rupa-khandha.”

Sono Luminus Blu-ray music releases may be setting the standard for multichannel music. They also come with a regular 2-channel CD. Blu-ray music recordings could be the answer to multichannel SACD, which never quite caught on, and unfortunately, has proprietary restrictions that mean you’ve got to deal with the compatibility issues of yet another format.

(||) Rating — Music : A+ ║ Performance : A+ ║ Recording : A+ ║
 Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Rupa-khandha, Sono Luminus, 2012

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