HIGH FIDELITY
An SACD Review

Patricia Barber
Nightclub
Blue Note/Premonition
Patricia Barber grew up in a decidedly musical environment, her father being a saxophone player and her mother a blues singer. It came as no surprise therefore, that as she matured she followed in her family’s footsteps, becoming not just any old musician, but a unique and wonderfully different jazz performer. Patricia, unlike many other modern jazz artists, didn’t capitalize on the resurgence of the genre by simply playing standards from days of yester year, instead she chose the more difficult path of writing her own music, which she performs with her own band.

It wasn’t until this, Barber’s sixth album that she decided her own style, presence and following had developed to the point where an album of classic jazz compositions wouldn’t detract from her own work. The album ‘Nightclub’ is a compilation of modern, standard repertoire, but with a touch of Patricia’s special flair and style. It takes full advantage of modern recording techniques, which make not only her voice, but also the music draw you into her world of jazz.

This album first appeared on CD in the year 2000, to the delight of Barber’s fans, but now it has been re-released as an SACD and further augmented by an additional track, ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. While the disc does not benefit from having being recorded with Sony’s new DSD technology, the people at the rejuvenated Mobile Fidelity label have nevertheless used their impressive re-mastering skills to take the original recordings and convert them to the DSD format, which in turn was then used to create the hybrid, stereo SACD.

That’s right, this SACD not only contains a new SACD high-resolution layer, but also a Red-book 44.1kHz PCM layer that can be read by any standard CD player/transport. And that’s about the only thing that is standard on this new disc, as you will learn as this review progresses. Therefore to maintain objectivity, I will discuss the backwards-compatible Red-book layer before moving onwards and upwards to the high-resolution layer.

First up, 44.1kHz PCM and the opening track, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, a song that has become a standard for most jazz musicians to perform, but here it takes on a life of its own. Patricia’s voice and the music from her band are extremely lifelike and exceptionally detailed; you can close your eyes, imagine yourself in the nightclub where she is performing and clearly hear the subtle differences that set Barber apart from other modern day jazz vocalists.

It also is apparent that the Red-book version on this disc differs from the original CD release. When Mobile Fidelity re-mastered the recording for this SACD, they didn’t just use the original version of the Red-book layer, instead they used a new, superior master (and perhaps adjusted EQ curves) to enhance the album. The bass is more developed than on the original disc while the treble is sweeter and airier, both of which make the album even more involving than on the material’s first outing. The difference is so great that if you first heard the CD layer of this disc and then made a comparison to the original CD, one could quite easily believe one was comparing a high-resolution SACD version to that of a CD, the basic fidelity is that much improved.

As Mobile Fidelity’s re-mastering has such an effect on the Red-book layer, you can only imagine how the SACD layer sounds… Utilizing the power and flexibility afforded by DSD’s greater resolution, the SACD version brings to life not only Patricia’s voice, but also the accompanying instruments. From the moment you move from the CD layer to the SACD track you know there is no going back.

Track six is ‘Alfie’, a modern jazz classic. The song begins with Patricia singing unaccompanied, and if you listen closely you can hear the intimate subtleties of her voice, making her seem far more lifelike than would be possible without the increased resolution. When the band begins, you can also hear the style of her presentation alter as she begins to harmonize with her fellow musicians. Rather than being detached or distanced from the music you’re there, in the same room as the performers, such is the feeling of intimacy and immediacy.

Track eight, ‘Summer Samba’, places the band directly in front of you; the notes flow from the perfectly positioned piano as each key is struck and the drums, no longer part of an indistinct background become a smooth, never overpowering or harsh, well balanced driving force in their own right.

While it’s fairly clear that I’m going to rate this album highly, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t point out one minor flaw. By design or not, Patricia Barber is not always in the center of the soundstage, as I would imagine she should be. Instead, on some tracks she seems to drift slightly left, while not far enough to be considered a major distraction, as was the case with the Linda Rosenthal ‘Oh! That Stradivarius’ disc, it is just enough to be noticeable and it makes the transition from track one to track two, for instance, a little awkward. When track two begins, something immediately strikes you as being not quite ‘right’, but you’re not sure why. It takes a while before you realize that Patricia has moved and that she’s no longer positioned at the same location within the soundstage as she was a moment ago.

In short, while the album is not ‘perfect’ it comes as close as any I have ever heard on SACD, which is especially curios considering it did not originate from a DSD master recording. Both Patricia Barber and Mobile Fidelity have created an album worthy of any collection, regardless of what type of music you particularly like. Not only does Patricia Barber give an amazing performance, but also the people at Mobile Fidelity have set a new standard in the SACD re-mastering of non-DSD source material.

---Brett Rudolph---