On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

A Twitch in Time...Sounds Fine

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: January, 2020

Part III -- A River(mont) Runs Through It

Parts I and II of this series covered some history of 78 RPM issues in the late-78 to post-78 eras; this one brings us to something unexpected happening right now. For about the past decade, the tiny Rivermont Records label, headquartered in the somewhat unlikely metropolis of Lynchburg, Virginia, has been adding a trickle of newly recorded stereo 78 RPM vinyl microgroove records to its regular catalogue and release schedule of LPs and (mostly) CDs, although, reflecting the realities of commerce, all the high-speed records are "limited editions." To date, the label has issued seven records, two in a single set, all in the 10" size. The company is at pains, and rightfully so, to stress that its records are for modern turntables fitted with lightweight cartridges and cannot be played on Victrolas or other spring-driven acoustic machines.

[Brunswick, Edison lateral, and Rivermont labels]

The brainchild of pianist and musicologist Bryan Wright, Rivermont focuses on ragtime and pre-Depression-era jazz, both in modern performances and in reissues of historical recordings. It shows very pleasing awareness of vintage 78s, packaging its records in sleeves that mimic those of old and applying labels that tidily evoke those of the American Brunswick 78s from the 19-teens and twenties, among the most elegant of the era, with a nod to those of the rare Edison lateral records, with their lightning bolt motif, dating to the last three or four years before that company exited the business in 1929.

[Rivermont sleeve]

One might wonder just why a purveyor of vinyl analogue records in 2019--already a decidedly niche market, if one that has proven surprisingly resilient--would see fit to dabble in what must be a tiny recess within that niche, the venerable 78 RPM format, something not even playable on most turntables produced in the last quarter century. "Yes," I hear someone mutter, "one might wonder. Dementia, perhaps?" Well, I can't speak for the the company's motivation or for the commercial wisdom of the initiative, but the results can and do speak for themselves: leaving aside purely musical considerations, every audiophile with the least interest in analogue sound reproduction should give Rivermont's 78 RPM records an attentive ear.

I've bought every one in the series. I'd call their sound "aggressive," but I don't mean that in a bad, over-trebly or too-closely-recorded sort of way. Rather, it's big, bold, powerful--the bass, in particular, is stronger and fuller than I'm accustomed to hearing from LPs. In other words, these modern-day 78s sound like, well, 78s, but with modern, silent surfaces and recording in well-executed stereo. They have that characteristic 78 RPM sense of sheer physical energy, of a signal inherently of high amplitude rather than brought up to high amplitude electronically. That effect is most noticeable in the numbers for bands, which also benefit from good stereo placement of the various instruments, but it also registers in the solo piano records, which project a real, robust sense of a big Steinway playing in the room. All the records capture solo piano or small ensembles; instruments are well defined, vivid, and firmly fixed in a stereo image that has a real "you are there" quality to it. In short, simply in terms of being sonic artifacts, the Rivermont 78s are quite possibly the best-sounding recordings I have encountered. Any of them would make fine demonstration material for a high-quality stereo set.

As we all know, the record label landscape is littered with defunct "audiophile" labels that offered stunningly recorded, technologically cutting edge presentations of the musically mundane--or worse. So what of Rivermont? How do its records stack up (sorry!) as music? I've been wrestling with just how to convey my thoughts on that subject, and I think at last I see how to go about it.

"Uh, oh," someone murmurs, "I think he's about to launch into another of those crazy digressions." No, I am not. I am sticking to the subject like grim death. "Oh, OK--that's a relief."

Consider the oft-maligned flamingo. "I knew it! I just KNEW it! A digression. I'm outta here!" Hey, you, sit down! No nipping out for a beer just now! Ahem. Let us suppose that one balmy day you take a trip to the local zoo, and there you find a sizeable flock flamingos. In keeping with modern zoological doctrine, they reside in a generously proportioned setting painstakingly designed to mimic their natural habitat, and you spend a lovely hour watching them wade in their pond, squabble over who-knows-what, sleep standing on one leg, feed head-down in the water, and generally do what my teenaged daughter would describe as "flamingo stuff." They're great fun to watch, you enjoy your afternoon, and you go home with a feeling of time well spent.

In fact, you enjoyed the flamingos at the zoo so much that for your next Caribbean vacation you book a week on the island of Bonaire, noted for its wild flamingo sanctuary, which you observe[1] the day after your flight lands at Flamingo International Airport. If the birds at the zoo were beautiful and entertaining, the ones here in the wild are simply stunning, doing their "flamingo stuff" en masse against an immense natural backdrop, not a small, man-made approximation, free of human intervention. And your heart leaps to your throat as abruptly they take wing, hundreds at once, no longer faintly awkward waders but, suddenly, nimble and free, a graceful, brightly colored flying circus against the tropical sun. What you feel isn't enjoyment, it's exhilaration.

And that's why, when you get home, you plant a couple of plastic pink flamingos in your yard in honor of this life-altering encounter with the ineffable beauty of nature.

Anyhow, so it is, to my way of thinking, with modern performances of old popular music.[2] Sometimes they have a quality of nostalgia, of "let's have fun revisiting the good old tunes the way our grandparents heard them," and if skillfully played with sensitivity to the style, those can be good entertainment, like the flamingos at the zoo. Everybody enjoys the evening, everybody goes home happy, life is good. The performances that have a real punch, however, are the ones like the wild flamingos of Bonaire, the unfettered ones that let the music take flight and present it as something alive and vibrant and now, achieving the style of yesterday by presenting it as the music of today, just the way bands and singers and instrumentalists did when it was new. The ones played with awareness of how things were played "back then" but without a sense of looking back to the past at a distance.

Rivermont's 78 RPM issues offer us examples of both types. They are never less than good entertainment. Often, they're much more.

[Bix Beiderbecke piano suite]

Rivermont's initial release on 78s was of the four solo piano pieces published by legendary jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, billed the "Modern Piano Suite": "Candlelights," "Flashes," "In the Dark," and "In a Mist," all played by pianist and label founder Bryan Wright. Each piece is on one side of a two-record set, record nos. 590 and 591. The recordings were made in Tokyo, Japan on October 22, 2009, and Wright played a Steinway C-227 piano, one of the Hamburg instruments, about a foot and a half shorter than the Model D concert grand. It's a bright, clear instrument, more "sparkling" than "warm," well suited to the music as Wright interprets it.

Unlike the other 78 RPM Rivermont releases, this set includes liner notes, not surprisingly written by the performer. He tells us,

It may be worth pointing out that Beiderbecke's piano solos, though drawing upon many of the unusual harmonies favored by fin de siecle French composers, are not impressionistic in terms of form. In addition to pushing the limits of tonality, impressionist composers often blurred structural lines, creating pieces that rejected or cleverly masked the rigid structural forms of the classical and early romantic periods. Beiderbecke's episodic piano solos adhere to clearly delineated structures. All of them forego an introduction and begin with a sixteen-measure A-section. ...[M]ost contain clear-cut B- and C-sections of regular lengths (eight or sixteen measures), often with a repeat of the A-section sandwiched in between. All of them close by restating the A-section in its original key, followed by a brief coda.

Wright gives a good account of the music, and these disks offer up some of the most solid, vivid piano sound I can remember hearing from records. A fine demonstration of what can happen when good modern recording techniques are applied to fast-turning disks! That said, he plays up the impressionist-influenced side of the music, which he describes as "delicate and thoughtful." This approach is an interesting contrast to Beiderbecke's own in his sole piano solo recording, which happens to be of "In a Mist." In the composer's hands, the piece is altogether quicker, quirkier, jazzier, sounding more like, say, Fats Waller or Albert Ammons--anything but "delicate." To my ear, Wright's performance evokes the concert hall, Beiderbecke's a house party. Both approaches work well. There's no question Wright benefits from massively superior recording.

Next to be released is record no. 592, "Down in Gallion" and "The Swing" played by Andy Schumm and his Flatland Gang. Both are purely instrumental. I consider this one, recorded in Racine, Wisconsin on March 12, 2011, the most "zoo-like" of Rivermont's 78 RPM series. Taken on its own terms, it's lively and enjoyable, a very nice pair of outings in traditional jazz. The playing is skillful and stylish, and like all Rivermonts the recording is first rate. Nonetheless, for me the performances never really take off; they seem just a little too polite and restrained. The record certainly is worth having, but it's not where I'd suggest starting if you are coming to the 78 RPM series for the first time.

[clear vinyl Rivermont 78]

I like no. 593, "OK, Toots" and "Troublesome Trumpet," performed by Alex Mendham and His Orchestra, better. Recorded in Hampstead, London, England on 2 October 2012, this one cuts loose more, and all to its benefit. Those with a weakness for the titular instrument in the second song will not be disappointed in Angus Moncrieff's advocacy, although in his capacity as vocalist, Alex Mendham, in keeping with most heard in these records, is a bit "zooeyer" than his instrumental colleagues. Still, as bandleader he brings home a winner.

Rivermont offered the first 30 pressings of this record in clear vinyl as a fundraising initiative, and naturally I signed up at once. When the record arrived, included was a note from Bryan Wright, the moving force behind Rivermont, offering some insights into the record production process. I have a hunch some TNT-Audio readers, even those who never intend to venture outside the ambit of the LP, would find them as interesting as I did; accordingly, they appear below:

You may notice that the record contains flecks of black--this is not a defect, but it is a result of how the records are made. Ordinarily, vinyl pressing plants will not run fewer than 100 copies of a record in colored vinyl because switching to colored vinyl pellets requires emptying out a special vinyl "hopper" of the standard black pellets and replacing them with the colored vinyl pellets. Without resorting to a thorough cleaning of the hopper (a costly and time-intensive process), invariably a few black vinyl pellets or particles remain that get mixed in with the colored vinyl when dispensed to the press. Usually the first couple dozen colored vinyl records have visible black spotting as a result, but those are often discarded or set aside for other use.

In the case of this Alex Mendham record, we requested that only 30 copies be pressed in clear vinyl. The pressing plant reluctantly made a special run, but warned that some black flecks might unavoidably find their way into the pressings, thought they could not say to what extent. The black flecks should not affect playback, even if the visual appearance is not as "purely clear" as we might have liked. On the other hand, each clear vinyl copy is now absolutely unique, as no two will have the same black speckled pattern.

No. 594, "Lady of My Cigarette" and "Blue Idol" performed by Andrew Nolte and His Orchestra, strike me as better even than the Alex Mendham record, and that's high praise. No holding back here, just uninhibited good times music. The playing is spirited, stylish, and--dare I say it--exciting. Both numbers are instrumentals and real toe-tappers. Unfortunately, this record seems no longer to be listed on the Rivermont site, suggesting it may be sold out. If so, I hope a repressing can be arranged; it's a high point in the series.

No. 595, another high point in the series, is a change of pace, being ragtime/tin pan alley, which is to say of a popular musical generation earlier than the jazz numbers on this record's predecessors. The selections are an Irving Berlin classic, "That International Rag," coupled with "Knockout Drops" by Berlin's less familiar contemporary F. Henri Klickmann. Andrew Greene directs The Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra with William Edwards doing vocal honors in the Berlin tune. The recording was taken down in February 2017 in Arnold, Maryland. Once again, I find just a hint of "zoo" in the vocal, but losing it would be a shame, because the lyrics are delightful, and to the credit of Mr. Edwards, he gives us some surprise vocal effects in the return of the refrain. Instrumentally, the playing is top notch, nicely balancing fresh enthusiasm and the somewhat more restrained nature of ragtime versus jazz. The Peacherines have been around for nearly a decade, about the same length of time as the Rivermont 78 RPM series, and they've played to some mainstream press acclaim. This record shows why. According to Rivermont, these two selections have been released only on the 78, although the group has some Rivermont CDs to its credit. As with its immediate predecessor (if you can find it!), I strongly recommend this record if you intend to buy only an excerpt or two from the Rivermont 78 catalogue.

The most recent issue, new this year--catalogue no. 946, recorded March 9, 2019 and released the following month--brings back Andy Schumm, this time as part of a group billed "The Chicago Cellar Boys." The other members of the band are John Otto, Paul Asaro (who doubles as pianist and vocalist), John Donatowicz, and Dave Bock. This one is a departure from its predecessors by offering two selections per side rather than one: "Happy Feet" and "Dispossessin' Me" on side A, "Hello! Beautiful!" and "I've found a New Baby" on side B, making for around 7 minutes each side, or roughly double what an old shellac disk would run. Alas, a little of that "zoo" feel crops up again, but not throughout; it's slightly noticeable in "Happy Feet" (primarily during the singing) and "Hello! Beautiful!" but not in the slower, bluesier "Dispossessin' Me," and "I've Found a New Baby" is piping hot, proving these guys can deliver the goods when they cut loose. Perhaps not coincidentally, that last number is the sole instrumental selection. One thing is beyond question in all the numbers: this record is a feast for the audio hobbyist's ears, with huge bass, great separation of the instruments, and loads of punch. LP sound is pretty pale by comparison.

The wrap-up: Rivermont is doing something very special in releasing this old music in new bottles: taking an unlikely and commercially risky path, it's offering the music-loving public stylish resurrections of old music in a way that, for the most part, not only exhibits what music our forebears enjoyed but also makes clear why they found it exciting. In the process, it's giving audio hobbyists some great sounding material to put their equipment through its paces in a most unexpected form. If you have been debating whether to add a 78 RPM capable turntable to your system, hesitate no longer. Go for it, and snatch up some Rivermonts before they are sold out. This experiment deserves wide support.

[1] - Because flamingos are skittish birds, Bonaire does not permit tourists to risk disturbing them by entering the sanctuary proper, although it is visible from an adjacent road.

[2] - Actually, I think the same can be said for classical music, but that's more of a digression than even I am willing to make just now.

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© Copyright 2020 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com