JAZZ AT THE PAWNSHOP - AN AUDIOPHILE CLASSIC
When recording engineer Gert Palmcrantz was loading his car with equipment outside Europa Film Studios on December 6th, 1976, it was only to make one of many recordings. No one knew then that it was to become a cult recording among audiophiles and one of the most appreciated jazz recordings ever made.
Palmcrantz put the equipment in the car and drove off to Stampen, the jazz club in Old Town of Stockholm. It was far from the first time he recorded at Stampen. The club, named after a pawn-brokers' shop which used to be in that block, opened in 1968. That same year, Gert was there to make a recording of, amongst others, the clarinettist Ove Lind, the vibraphonist Lars Erstrand and the drummer Egil Johansen. He was subsequently to meet the latter two again at Stampen's small stage, together with saxophonist Arne Domnérus, pianist Bengt Hallberg and bass-player Georg Riedel. Palmcrantz knew them well from before.
It wasn't particularly cold and there was no snow, despite it being the beginning of December. Palmcrantz arrived in good time in order to get everything ready before the band started to play at around nine that evening.
All those who have visited Stampen know that the ceiling is about four metres high and that the venue houses around 80 people. The stage was placed in the right-hand corner seen from the entrance, and so small that it only just carries a grand piano and a small band. Palmcrantz rigged the main microphone pair facing the stage, about two metres above the floor. These microphones were Neumann U47 cardioids, spaced 15-20 cm and inclined at an angle of 110-135 degrees.
This ORTF stereo technique - named after the French radio which introduced this simplified dummy head technique at the beginning of the sixties - was, according to Palmcrantz, the best method for optimal stereo effect and spatiality.
- Real stereo effect can only be achieved by placing the microphones in a similar way to the disposition of the ears.
Such a pair stood in front of the stage at Stampen and another pair was placed to the right of the stage, facing the audience in order to recreate the right "live" feeling. Some auxiliary supporting microphones were also necessary. One microphone was placed next to the grand piano standing on the right-hand side of the platform with its lid open, and Palmcrantz hung two cardioid Neumann KM56s over the drums on the left side of the stage. The bass, standing in the middle, and connected to a little combo amplifier on a chair, was supported by a Neumann M49, also in omnidirectional mode. The microphone was placed in such a way that it caught sound both from the instrument and from the amplifier's loudspeaker. The electric amplification of the acoustic bass is particularly noticeable in the song In a Mellow Tone, where there is a slight distortion.
Once the microphones were set out, all that was needed was to connect them all up. In those days there were no multi-cables, so Gert Palmcrantz had to lead all the eight cables from the stage, past the bar and through the kitchen to a little nook between a refrigerator and a pile of beer-crates where he had built his makeshift studio: a Studer mixer, two Dolby A 361 noise reduction units and two Nagra IV recorders which he used alternately since the seven-inch reels only lasted for 15 minutes at 38 cm/second. He rose the U47 microphones slightly in the treble. The audition was made through two old Ampex monitor loudspeakers with built-in amplifiers.
Gert Palmcrantz has described how it sounded when he later listened through the first test reel:
"Following a few test tones there is a trial run of an almost empty room. The clattering of chairs and tables and clinking glass emerge in almost three dimensional stereo. I have just rigged my faithful U47s above the stage and put a test reel on the tape recorder. I mutter something about a broken wire to the piano mike on the right, swearing as my finger is caught in the mike stand by the drums, and I order a beer in advance.
Then there is a commotion at the other end and I recognize Egil Johansen's contagious laughter as he and Arne Domnérus come bursting in, kidding each other amiably as they approach the stage. Various ceremonies take place and Arne quips at me. "Well, here we go again. So, nothing escapes you - thank God! Ha-ha-ha!" A hubbub ensues. The audience has arrived in high spirits. On stage you can hear Bengt Hallberg running his fingers over the keys, Egil Johansen tightening the skins and Georg Riedel plucking the bass. The smell of smoked sausage and foaming beer, blending with that of the more familiar scent of sour wine corks and detergent, lingers over the sound image. "Dompan" (Arne Domnérus) kicks off Over the Rainbow and the audience simmers down to an approving murmur."
No soundcheck or balance test were actually made. Once the quartet had started playing, Palmcrantz quickly had to set the levels as precisely as possible. After two tunes he had managed to achieve the right balance.
Gert Palmcrantz taped one song after the other, alternating recorders towards the end of each quarter of an hour so that he could join the tunes that were played in-between tapes. It is interesting to note how accomplished the musicians are, since everything could be recorded in one go without any cuts. There is one exception, however: at the end of one of his drum solos, Egil Johansen happened to miss a beat and messed up his entry slightly. Gert Palmcrantz cut that bar out and those who want to can amuse themselves by trying to find this almost imperceptible cut.
Otherwise, Gert Palmcrantz let the music flow freely and hardly touched the dials at all - no gain riding, simply small adjustments were made for solos or when the applause from the audience became too loud. The result was about two and a half hours worth of taped music every night.
The second night, the band was joined by vibraphonist Lars Erstrand.
- He arrived earlier than the others to have time to set up his instrument, remembers Palmcrantz.
Lars Erstrand was testing his vibraphone only to find that one of the fans was squeaking. Palmcrantz had to go and find a bottle of cooking oil in the kitchen for Erstrand to lubricate the spindle.
Then the rest of the band arrived and the recording could begin, practically with the same arrangement of microphones as the previous evening. The difference was that the stage was a little more crowded this time, as can be heard in comparison. Lars Erstrand popped in to the control room to check the sound of the vibraphone.
After the recording, the original tapes were edited to a double LP by Gert Palmcrantz in collaboration with the musicians and the producer Jacob Boëthius. The sound quality of this record soon won the reputation of being remarkably fine, much to the surprise of Palmcrantz and the musicians who thought their earlier recordings were just as good. Something, however, must have been just right these evenings, and one mustn't forget that skilful, imaginative, sensitive and inspirated musicians are absolute requirements for a recording to rise from "good" to "excellent". Palmcrantz' microphone technique transmits Bengt Hallberg's subtle touch, Arne Domnérus' characteristic tone and Egil Johansen's distinctive drumming - and all instrumentalists are presented in a sound image that is both intimate and airy.
On really good equipment you can hear people eating, the clinking of cutlery against the plates or conversations round the small circular tables. Here and there, among the chink of glasses and the rattling of the till, you can clearly hear the musicians talking, difficult to understand for listeners who don't speak Swedish. "What's the tempo?" someone asks before Limehouse Blues, followed by the comment "The first tempo; normal tempo", demonstrated by foot-tapping. After I'm confessin', a jolly man in the audience exclaims "Hey! That was a good old song!". Sometimes you can hear other music in the background - that of another jazz band playing in the basement below, the so called Gamlingen (Oldie). There are undoubtedly many details to be discovered here!