Review: ‘A Day In The Life’ by the Quentin Collins All Star Quintet – the latest release from Chasing the Dragon

AIR Studios

Between them, Dave Denyer and Neville Roberts have clocked up quite a few visits to London’s AIR Studios in the past year or so. And why wouldn’t you, given the opportunity! In this case the opportunities have been offered by Mike Valentine of audiophile record label Chasing the Dragon, whose live studio recording sessions are always as much of an education as they are a joy.

In summer 2019, Mike recorded the jazz album ‘A Day In The Life’ performed by the outstanding Quentin Collins All Star Quintet. Both Dave and Neville went along – and you can read Dave’s report and see photos from the day here. Fast forward to spring 2020 and now Dave and Neville are sitting in their respective homes with the resulting master tape copies in hand. How will the ‘finished product’ compare with the live performance on the day? To help jog their memory, the pair chat about their experiences of the day, and Neville digs out his tech notes to remind them of how it was all done.

Dave – introducing the band 

So here I am with the tape in hand. It’s yet another grey rainy day here in the UK at the end of what seems like an interminable winter, and so it’s hard to imagine that summer’s day back in July when the mercury was climbing and we were all being constantly plied with water in the hot studio! But as I load up the brand new tape and prepare to press ‘play’ on some seriously funky jazz, I can almost remember what it’s like to feel warm again!

So here I am back with the incredible group of musicians that is the Quentin Collins All Star Quintet – the ‘all star’ being for good reason. Collins himself (right, in the photo) is regarded as one of the UK’s top trumpeters with several successful solo and group projects under his belt. On double bass is Milwaukee-born, Paris-based, Joe Sanders (second from left) who has been an integral part of the thriving NYC jazz scene, has played with a roll-call of luminaries from Dave Brubeck to Herbie Hancock and tours more than 100,000 miles a year. Renowned pianist Jason Rebello (centre) has equally played with jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter, as well as with classical symphony orchestras including the Hallé. Drummer Gary Husband (second from right) plays in jazz fusion luminary John McLaughlin’s The Fourth Dimension, among many other things, and percussionist Miles Bould (on the left) has worked with a dazzling array of musical artists spanning both jazz and pop – from Sting to Morcheeba.

So the ‘all-star’ can be taken quite literally, and as such this promises to be something very special indeed.

The Quentin Collins All Star Quintet

Neville – thinking back to the recording session

What I remember most is that unique sense of anticipation, excitement and slight nervousness you get when attending a direct-cut vinyl recording session, which this was, as well as recording the album for release on copy master tape, CD and DSD download.

This means that the recording of each side of the album has to be made in a single take, since it’s being direct-cut to vinyl, in this case on a Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe situated two flights of stairs up from the recording studio itself. Additionally, a Sony APR 5003 master tape recorder fitted with half-inch tape running at 15ips was used to produce the quarter-inch 15ips copy master tapes. The sessions were also recorded on a Nagra VI for PCM and on a Tascam DSD recorder for the digital downloads.

Dave – the opening tracks

Gary Husband on drums

The first track’s called ‘Angola’, composed by the late and much lamented Bheki Mseleku. As the tracks opens, kicking off into an almost jazz-funky groove. what’s immediately apparent to me is the utter naturalness of Gary Husband’s drums and cymbals. There’s a light in the sound that betrays Husband’s mastery, but also more than hints at the fact that this is a live recording. I’m not sure if this is wishful thinking on my part, but its almost as if you can hear the sunshine streaming through the windows into the studio!

Neville – recording side A

Yes, the opening percussion of ‘Angola’ is crystal-clear with a fantastically sharp attack with the punchy drums. I’m instantly drawn into the performance as it combines intimacy with superb clarity and a real foot-tapping tempo.

I remember the first time we heard it, in the studio. After no more than an hour or two of rehearsals on the morning of the recording, the musicians, who hadn’t played together before, were ready to make the first take of Side 1 of the album. Since the recordings were being directly cut to a master lacquer as well as being recorded on analogue tape and digitally, the requirements of cutting the LP effectively drove the recording session. Upstairs in the mastering suite, the AIR Studios mastering engineer John Webber was perched over the Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe so that he could peer through the microscope to meticulously study the groove being cut on a test lacquer. When everyone was ready, Webber started the VMS 80 to cut the lead-in part of the record groove while Mike Valentine cued the analogue engineer to set the ½ inch analogue master tape rolling at 15ips on the Sony APR 5003, and the digital engineer hit the record buttons on the Nagra VI and Tascam recorders. Then the red light in the studio was activated and the musicians started playing ‘Angola’ – followed by all of the tracks on side 1.

Sony APR 5003 master tape recorder

At the end of the session, the lead-out groove on the lacquer was completed and the tape rewound so that the musicians could join us in the mixing suite to listen back to their performance. It was a great success, but everyone felt it would be good to do a second take. A second take was therefore recorded onto a new pristine lacquer and fresh tape. The final result was generally considered to be an even better recording. It was Valentine’s view that because the performers felt more confident, they were a little less anxious the second time around and therefore played with even greater panache.

Dave – a change of pace

Next up on the album we have a delicious change of pace with ‘Left Unsaid’, composed by pianist Jason Rebello. Collins’ flugelhorn, Rebello’s piano and Sanders’ double bass, along with the most shimmery of cymbals from Husband, stake out this slow and very cool jazz tune. The bass and some very subtle drums build the foundations, before the hauntingly beautiful horn cries ethereally, sounding almost distant, yet at the same time very present indeed. The piano sits in the fore of this song and its voice brings a note of optimism and hope to the composition, contrasting with the horn which is achingly pensive. As the tune progresses, the bass and drums lift the pace before diving like a peregrine back down to a very mellow relaxation. The interplay between mellow, brooding cool and brighter optimism works incredibly well, making this a very emotive piece.

Neville – on microphonics

Agreed. ‘Left Unsaid’ is gentle, reflective and soulful. It is, however, equally involving and the sheer quality of the recording, especially the sophisticated brightness of Collins’ daCarbo carbon fibre flugelhorn successfully combines elegance with up-front detail.

Being present at the recording session really allows you to see how the choice and placement of microphones enables the individual character of each of the instruments to be fully captured and expressed, in order to achieve such clarity, dynamic detail and contrast.

In the live area of Studio 1, Mike Valentine chose to use two AKG/Flea C12 valve microphones, both of which were set up for the piano, plus another two for the tom-tom and bongo drums. A Neumann U47 valve mic was dangled in front of the double bass: this is a microphone that’s particularly suited for stringed instruments and the human voice – in fact, it was Frank Sinatra’s favourite mic! A Royer 122 ribbon microphone was positioned in front of the flugelhorn, which was also a superb choice as this microphone can capture all the brightness and clarity of the instrument without edging towards harshness.

I’d even go as far as to say that a microphone can be considered as a musical instrument in its own right, because it contributes its own character to the sound being recorded. So, choosing the right mic for the right instrument is truly crucial.

Dave – “I’m packing my bags right now…”

Antipaxos (from Dave’s holiday snaps!)

The third track, composed by Collins, is called ‘Paxos / AntiPaxos’ and, having been to both of these gorgeous little Greek Islands, I’m raring to go! Gradually the drums and piano build the backing as the melody is introduced, then the flugelhorn takes the lead and the main refrain leaps in with the catchy enthusiasm of a popular TV theme tune (which I mean in an engaging way, not a cheesy one).  The tone and the air surrounding the horn are liberating. The sound perfectly conjures up the freshness and clarity, the light and the light-heartedness that you feel through your whole being when you visit these staggeringly beautiful islands. The whole track really grabs my attention. The expressive percussion is beautifully captured by the recording. It’s absolutely on fire and a total joy!

Next up, ‘Oliliqui Valley’ (A Herbie Hancock composition) starts with a bass intro from Sanders, then Husband’s drums join in followed by Rebello on piano – the latter playing more of a percussive role than a melody-maker. The first half of the song leaves just the trumpet noodling away in the foreground as the bass picks up the tempo into a pacey riff. Then the piano joins in the upfront role, trading places with the horn, and in front of some cymbal work that’s so exquisitely recorded, it leaves you in no doubt that this is a master tape you’re listening to.

‘Modus Operandi’, another Collins composition, has one heck of a catchy rhythm, with quite a strong funk feel to it. It brings the sun right out from behind the actual and metaphorical clouds. The drums never let up as they propel the song along a-pace, while Miles Bould’s dynamic percussive fills add further relish.

Wrapping up the album, ‘Cashed-Up Bogan’ (Collins again) feels like a conversation between the instruments. The drums lead into a funky bass and piano foundation, then the piano starts taking over the backing while the trumpet sings over the piano theme and shuffling drums, in a searching or questioning kind of manner. This inquisitive, reflective tone then gives way to absolute joy as the trumpet returns – and the sound is just oh so live. Husband’s cymbals shimmer and breathe as the bass, percussion and drums seem to bounce ideas off each other to form the underlying groove before rising into a percussive solo. The trumpet returns and shepherds the drums back into the groove, Rebello’s piano adds a final question or two, and then the trumpet wraps it all up.

“Nice!” You hear exclaimed as the musicians down instruments and head out to the control room to listen to what they’ve just done. Agreed. Very nice indeed.

Neville – “a perfect balance”

When Side B was recorded, as with Side A everyone agreed this was a great take but they wanted to give it another go to see how much more quality they could squeeze out of themselves and the vinyl surface before the recording session was over. The second take somehow seemed even more dynamic, and Valentine said: “It’s like there’s a control knob marked ‘smile’ that we’ve just turned up.”

In every track there seems to be a perfect balance between all the instruments, which are presented with a wide and open sound stage with great width and depth. This is certainly a ‘must-have’ album for any jazz enthusiast.

Dave – “like live jazz should sound”

I’m with you there. The quality of the writing, performances, arranging, the band’s togetherness and musicianship all shine here, as well as the exceptional production quality. This is already becoming one of my most-played tapes. It just sounds so, so live – like live jazz should. No audiophile ‘make it sound live’ tricks – no explicit stereo sound staging, no uber-high fidelity this or that, just a balanced, musically-on-fire snapshot of ‘A Day In The Life’ of a sensationally talented group of jazz musicians.

Here’s the good news: this slice of music wonderment can be yours for as little as £25 for the CD, £30 for hi-res downloads in the form of 24/192, DSD 64 and DSD 128. Or you can join the analogue party for £50 with the direct cut LP, or go the whole hog with analogue tape, choosing from a 7” reel at 7.5ips for £215 or the highest quality 15ips master copy for £360.

For me, it’s more a recording of an event, a moment in space and time, than a studio construct. In fact I’d argue that it isn’t really a studio album at all, since by nature of it being direct cut to vinyl there’s no post-performance mixing, equalisation, or anything. It’s a fabulous recording of a live performance. It’s also music I want to play regularly, almost daily.