Impex Records recently started issuing audiophile reissues, but you shouldn’t view Impex as a new company. Abey Fonn, leader of Impex, is carrying on the legacy started at Cisco Music, and using most of the same team that issued the classic Cisco titles like Aja. Comparing a couple of my Cisco titles with these new Impex releases reveal the same attention to detail, and the same high quality, that made Cisco Music a favorite of many audiophiles.
Red Headed Stranger
By Willie Nelson
180 Gram Vinyl
33 1/3 RPM
Being from Texas, I have always had a fondness for Willie, but perhaps not the same Willie that Audiophiles know, that being the Stardust version of Willie. Stardust was an album of standards, beautifully arranged and produced by Booker T Jones (of Booker T and the MGs). The great sound and easy going music made it a regular in many an audiophile’s rotation. Stardust never would’ve happened without the smashing success of Red Headed Stranger, Willie’s first album on Columbia, the second full-blown concept album in a row, following Phases and Stages issued on Atlantic, and the first recording sessions where Nelson was given full creative control. Willie had just left Atlantic after the Erteguns shut down their country experiment, allowing Willie to leave his contract. The events hastened the departure of Jerry Wexler from Atlantic, the man who signed Willie to Atlantic and produced Phases and Stages. Willie signed with Columbia where he’d be given much more control of his work. Red Headed Stranger was his first fruits. Basically, Red Headed Stranger is the story of a preacher that shot his cheating wife and her lover, then roamed around, where he shot another girl—this Red Headed Stranger is one mean SOB!
After some descending chords on unison guitar, bass and piano, and a dramatic use of silence, “Time Of The Preacher” starts off jarringly with the lonesome high tenor of Willie. The song is almost desolate. It’s just missing the gently blowing wind. The entire album is very sparsely instrumented. There’s more open space than music in this album. Willie uses silence and the dramatic pause as an instrument. The bare boned approach carries straight through, and reaches its most basic in Bobbie Nelson’s unaccompanied piano in the instrumentals. The music is an eclectic mix of old and new, with Willie contributing “Time of the Preacher”, “Denver” and “Bandera”.
The commercial and musical high point is “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, written by Fred Rose and first recorded by Roy Acuff in 1945. It’s clean and emotionally honest, showing Willie Nelson is just as good as an interpreter as a song writer. He owns the song and it became a big hit, peaking at #21 on the “hot 100” and #1 on the country charts. It was the first time most listeners had heard Willie Nelson. The album went double platinum, and marked his arrival as a “superstar”.
The music here is a little too difficult for me to casually enjoy, almost the opposite of the finely produced sheen and sparkle of Stardust. It’s not a toe-tapper. It’s not the slickly produced product commonly heard in country music in those days. Mostly, it demands attention and rewards your close attention.
The sound of the Impex reissue literally destroyed my original, a Columbia travesty. It’s the same story with so many pop masterpieces issued by Columbia in the ‘70s: good music, horribly mastered and pressed. Had it not been for the advent of the compact disc, we might have given up on Columbia completely. Thankfully, the studio sound here is excellent, if dry and occasionally acerbic. The vinyl is very quiet, and was mastered at Sterling. There’s a liquidity that comes out, especially during piano passages, that I didn’t know existed. It’s a successful reissue and easily recommended. I also recommend the other albums recorded in this important period, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, The Sound In Your Mind and The Troublemaker. What’s interesting about all these releases is how they have a distinct personality. If you’ve only heard Stardust, then you haven’t really heard Willie Nelson.
By Duke Ellington
180 Gram Vinyl
33 1/3 RPM
I can’t hide my enthusiasm or admiration of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Besides being one of the most important American musicians of the 20th century, I believe he actually invented coolness, or the modern concept of cool. I don’t mean cool, as in the cool school of jazz playing, but the general approach to the world. The precision of the ensemble was as good as any orchestra’s, and the level of musicianship was literally without peer, being made up of some of the finest jazz musicians to ever practice the craft. The result was a large jazz orchestra capable of playing faster and louder than anyone, while also being able to play softer and slower. Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and members of the band, wrote arrangements that made use of the peculiar sound of individual players, combining those sounds for unique textures, heard nowhere else in music. The Ellington Big Band could go from one extreme to the other with ease. Like an athlete supremely confident in his abilities, they did not have to prove they could play faster and louder, but occasionally showed their dominance in a flash of pure brilliance. They could jab and play defense, counter-punching for round after round, then lay you out with one punch. They were the Jack Johnson of jazz bands.
Indigos is an interesting album in that it is unusually laid back and cool. The album is a collection of ballads, played almost casually, or maybe cool, as in the cool school of jazz. There are fine solos, some of which are absolutely brilliant. Highlights include the too-little heard fiddle of Ray Nance and the richness of Harry Carney’s baritone sax, the latter a sonic marvel.
The Impex reissue is clearly superior to every version I’ve heard, perhaps being equal with the very rare and expensive original 2-track stereo tape, although the tapes have a good bit of hiss. The clarity of the mastering and the high quality vinyl allow the listener to hear the subtle shadings and unique textures of Ellington’s orchestra. I can’t think of a better example of Ellington at his most laid back than Indigos. For some, it might be a little too subtle. There is inner beauty and luxury here that rewards repeated listening.
45 RPM, two disc set
I’ve saved the best for last, Adagio d’Albinoni, recorded in Japan in 1981, accompanied on organ by Harmon Lewis. This is a legendary performance, mastered at 45RPM by Kevin Gray, and perfectly pressed on 180gram vinyl. It was recorded at Vega Hall, Takarazuka, Japan.
Gary Karr was acclaimed as “the world’s leading solo bassist” by Time Magazine and was one of the few double bass players to give regular solo concerts. His concert career stretched from his debut with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1962, to his retirement in 2001. His principal instrument here is the famous Karr-Kousevitzky bass, and was presented to him by the widow of Serge Kousevitzky in 1962. Its tone is famous, but the instrument is considered difficult to play according to an article by bassist Jason Heath, owing to the fact that it’s extremely small for a double bass. Actually, its tone is sharper and more focused than the usual double bass, and sounds an awful lot like a fat cello at times. The smaller size moves the resonance frequencies higher.
The music on this two record set is not shallow fare meant to impress the novice listener. It’s Albinoni, Bach, Beethoven, Franck, and Handel. If you are a fan of Starker, and don’t have any double bass recordings, I think you’ll enjoy this set.
I can’t imagine a better sounding recording of a double bass. The overtones are gorgeous. Perhaps because this particular double bass is smaller than the typical double bass, the overtones are saturated in the midrange, making it an absolute delight. The deep bass is very well controlled. Pressed on very high quality vinyl, it’s an easy recommendation for good sound and good music. It’s been out for a while and the supplies are probably dwindling. Get yours before you regret it.
Judging from these three releases, Impex should be on your audiophile radar. The titles are eclectic enough to find a wide audience. The mastering, pressing and jackets are top notch. All three are recommended. Big thumbs up to Abey at Impex! First rate!
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