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Bopin’ To Yoshi’s

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It was Father’s day seven years ago; Becky, my then 17 year old son Michael, and myself had just moved from Georgia to the San Francisco Bay Area. We hadn’t found a house yet, but I knew one of the first things I wanted do. I wanted to go to Yoshi’s. To make it even better, Ray Brown was performing at Yoshi’s.

I had heard that it was a great place for Jazz and I couldn’t believe we would get to hear Ray Brown live and in person. We were not disappointed. Yoshi’s was the best place to hear Jazz I had ever experienced then or now, and Ray was just unbelievable. If you ask my son to this day what is his favorite memory from a live concert, he will tell you it was hearing Ray Brown improvise “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (a request from a six year-old) on that unbelievable stand-up bass.

According to their web site, Yoshi’s began in 1973 in North Berkeley as a 25-seat, student owned sushi bar. In 1977, it then moved to a larger space on Claremont Avenue in Oakland and began introducing live music in their restaurant. 20 years later, Yoshi’s relocated to the new Jack London Square area of Oakland. There, they built a 330-seat jazz club with truly state-of-the-art acoustics. If you are so inclined, you can go to their web site and click on “ABOUT US” and then “TECHNICAL INFO” and find out more about the system and instruments than I would ever want to know.

Since then Yoshi’s has become one of the world’s most respected jazz clubs, and if you live in the bay area, one of the true treasures for anyone who likes jazz. It has been my privilege in the seven years I’ve been here to hear some of the Greats: Ray Brown, Jon Hendricks, Shirley Horn, Jane Monheit, Patrica Barber, Marian McPartland, several of the Marsalis brothers, McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Dr. John, and many others.

Kenny Burrell was quoted as saying “Yoshi’s is one of the best jazz clubs in the world. They have the best sound system, the best equipment, and they take extra effort to present the music to the public in the best possible way.” I guess he really feels this way because he had his 75th birthday concert there. I think what I love most about Yoshi’s is the intimacy. I have heard several performances at both Yoshi’s and Davies Hall. In every case, I enjoyed it so much more at Yoshi’s. For example, I thought Patrica Barber seemed lost in the huge Davies Hall and she was just great at Yoshi’s.

The most important thing about Yoshi’s is the music, just as it should be the most important thing about our systems. So, I want to tell you this summer and fall you could go and hear Moose Allison, Ravi Coletrane, Christian McBride, Lee Ritenour, Hiroshima, Chick Corea, and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, just to name a few. Oh, one other thing: Admission is almost always less than $30 per person (two exceptions I remember, Oscar Peterson, $100 and Diana Krall, $75) and seating is first-come-first-serve; but there are no bad seats. Another thing worth mentioning is that for the eight o’clock show, after you pick out your seats, you have about an hour and forty-five minutes for dinner and there is good Cajun, Chicken and Waffles, Pub food, Steaks, and Seafood, all in walking distance.

Well, I know it’s supposed to be all about the music, but I’ve never met an audiophile who didn’t think a little about his or her system while they were listening to live music. I mean who hasn’t closed their eyes and thought about the soundstage, or maybe wondered why the highs were rolled-off, or most of all, why the bass was so prevalent. I want you to know this only last a few seconds for me unless the performances are emotionally uninvolving. Yet, there are lessons I have learned from going to Yoshi’s, and by the way, I try to go a couple of times a month.

Lesson #1: Soundstaging and detail is not nearly as important at a live music.

There were many years when I was really into soundstaging.

I still remember the first time I heard a pair of speakers that played music outside the limits of their cabinets, not just between them. It was at a dealer in north Dallas and I was amazed. It wasn’t long before depth and width were the two things I wanted most in my system. I would sit around and say things like, “listen to those horns, they sound like they are out in the yard.” Now, the most important thing to me about a soundstage is that it doesn’t distract me from the music.

The fact is, at Yoshi’s, whether you sit so close you are hearing mostly unamplified sound or back far enough to hear a lot of sound reinforcement, either way the soundstage is more like a great mono recording than most high-end stereo recordings I hear on most high-end gear. This is especially true of systems based on stand mounted mini-monitors set up way out in the room.

The same is true of detail. Most of the detail and soundstage I perceive at Yoshi’s comes from my eyes not my ears. I never hear an overly etched sound. I don’t hear notes floating out of a black velvet background. No, I hear layers on top of layers of sound that is organic and full of life. I don’t even think about detail, I do think about how great the bass player plays, or “man, did you hear that sax”.

Application #1: You can find plenty of high-end equipment that approaches sound from this point of view. A few companies I’m aware of are into this kind of sound; companies like Shindo, Wavac, Audio Note, Harmonix Reimyo, Ikonoklast, deHavilland, and a lot of analogue companies.

Lesson #2: The tightness and speed of bass varies a lot from one performance to another.

When Dr. John was at Yoshi’s, the bass drum was huge (both physically and sonically) and sounded like terms that audiophiles use, such as “loose” and “boomie”. The electric bass seemed way too big even though you had to hunt to even find it hidden behind the drums. When Karrin Allyson was there with Jon Hendricks, the bass drum was as tight and focused as a pair of Wilson speakers, driven by VTL amps. The acoustic bass was quick, tight and not at all warm.

The application is simple. You need a system that can do both if you want to hear it like it sounded, and you shouldn’t get too worried when on certain albums your speakers sound overly warm and boomie. I think what you should really do is decide which bass sound you like better and be happy with your system.

Lesson #3: Good live music is incredibly emotionally-involving.

This is the most significant lesson to me. I knew this well when I was in high school and college. I knew this when I had stacked ‘Large Advents’, stacked Quads, but then I got more and more into audiophile stuff and about the same time moved into a time of my life when I had less opportunities to hear live music.

Living in the San Francisco Bay area for the last seven years has given me more opportunities to hear great live music than I had ever dreamed. A large percentage of this has been at Yoshi’s. With very few exceptions, the one thing almost all live music has in common is emotional involvement. Oh, there are surely exceptions, like Patrica Barber in a huge hall, or a singer who is more irritating than entertaining.

Yet, on the whole live music is full of emotion.

This leads me to application # 3 that I’ll talk more about in lesson five; but I don’t see much reason for owning a stereo, no matter how good it sounds in audiophile terms, that isn’t emotionally involving.

Lesson #4: While trumpets do have bite and cymbals have shimmer, most live music has less top-end than most high-end systems.

This may be the lesson that comes as the biggest surprise to most audiophiles who seldom go to live music. The truth is that Yoshi’s had much more high frequency energy than either Davies Hall or the War Memorial Opera House. Still, even at Yoshi’s, there is far less high frequency sound than you hear in the average high-end system. I would go on to say that for the most part, the more expensive the system the more difference there is.

It’s not that live music doesn’t have high frequency information, I am always amazed that you can hear a triangle over very loud music. Still even having said that, live music at Yoshi’s seldom, if ever, shimmers, or sounds airy, or seems to go on up into the heavens. In fact, compared to most high-fi’s, I still find Yoshi’s sounds less extended in treble information.

Application #4: Systems that are often called musical or “a music lover’s choice”, may actually be more accurate.

Lesson #5: This one everyone knows; live music blows away any system I have ever heard.

This includes performances of musicals I used to attend at the Fox Theater in Atlanta that almost always sounded bright and had an edge to the sound. It’s not the sound is always better at a live event. No, it is like college football. There is no doubt you can see a football game better on the tube, but even with a bunch of fans to watch it with, it’s still not like being at Jordan-Hare stadium to watch Auburn beat Alabama, or in the Swamp to watch Florida play Florida State. It doesn’t matter if you have the worse seats in the stadium, it is still so much more exciting, so much more emotional, just so much better to be there. For me, the same is true of live music. Goodness, I have been to Gospel concerts at the Springer in Columbus, Georgia where the audience was more important than the performance on stage.

The application here is twofold. First, don’t stress yourself until you can’t enjoy the music, trying to obtain an unattainable goal. I mean, can you imagine not enjoy watching Auburn beat Florida because the color of the field seemed a little too green. What I’m saying, is be sure your system is about having fun listening to music. Second, for me this means I want a system with plenty of Pace, Rhythm and Timing; a system that is very emotionally involving; a system that is tonally correct, and can be transparent enough to occasionally amaze me by how real voices sound. By the way, I find that vinyl is much more capable of doing this than digital, but that doesn’t mean I can’t really enjoy good music on digital, I do almost everyday.


Well, as I reread all this, I thought, “what a bunch of you-know-what”. So, my real advice is get ye to Yoshi’s or some other great place to hear great live music, and don’t dare think about your system.

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