If you want to stop any discussion on a jazz board dead in its tracks or, in reverse, want to flame an ongoing discussion on any audiophile forum, you just need to either mention “Jazz at the Pawnshop” or say it’s at best a mediocre effort. Whatever you do wherever, you’re bound to illicit complete deafening silence or a flame war with loads of hissy fits. With all its reappearances in probably more formats than any other session ever recorded, it’s always fun to watch this one being hotly debated to the point of Internet insanity.
If you ask your local audiophile twerp, you’ll get a three-hour treatise on how good these recordings sound and that you simply have to run to your nearest dealer and buy one box for yourself and several for your friends. Of course, the audiophile is accused by the jazz connoisseur of not having any understanding of jazz whatsoever (“… shit from Shinola”, you know, that kind of argumentation) and the audiophile will lob an “elitist swine” right back at him or her. The “real” jazz fan will without fail compare this session (actually two sessions) to those of more well-known artists and judge it mediocre at best, not worth one’s time at worst. Usually, his or her post will be accompanied by inflammatory language and a reminder as to how many great sessions remain unreleased or only exist in crappy sound quality whereas these Swedish sessions remain in print seemingly indefinitely in great sound.
Interestingly enough, those arguments heat up instantly and are usually not very objective. The audiophile has tested just about all of his/her equipment with a high-resolution release of “Jazz at the Pawnshop” and, often enough, cites this double-LP, single CD or other release as proof that he/she likes jazz (as well). The jazz fan will look at the personnel, Arne Domnérus, Bengt Hallberg, Lars Erstrand, Georg Riedel and Egil Johansen without really recognizing anyone, throws on a tune or two and will invariably state that just about everyone has recorded this material better than these guys.
Err, yes … and no.
These sessions were not meant to be anything but a spontaneous fun recording of a session in a positively tiny club, “Stampen” (a former pawnshop, hence the title) in Stockholm, Sweden, If you have read a bit more about this session recorded on two days in December of 1976, or if you watch the rather short interview on the accompanying DVD, you have gotten or will get an idea of how surprised the musicians themselves were at the success of this mostly totally improvised session. No rehearsals to speak of, no sound check, no anything really. Just some guys who walked into a club, crammed their instruments onto the tiniest of stages, waited for the sound engineer to set up as quickly as possible, and then … swung and improvised away. No pay to write home about either (although royalty payments from these sessions started, surprisingly, pouring in over the years), just a fun session with a rather noisy but very appreciative audience that was out those evenings to have some fun. That was it.
Many people thought that there was a marimba on the stage when it was only a vibraphone covered by cloth to protect it from guests leaving their drinks on there (and which was played “blind” with the cover on during one number, making it sound like a marimba), the musicians following Arne Domnérus, who often didn’t even announce what he was about to play; in short: A session which is probably typical of a million working jazz bands around the globe trying to make a decent living on your average weekend or weekday. Still, many people want to compare it to Miles Davis and John Coltrane live recordings.
I have no idea why some fans or detractors of these recordings love to go on about the merits of this recording endlessly. It’s almost as if the “real” jazz fans have to make sure that everyone knows that there’s better stuff out there (Duh!) and that the audiophile in-group gets its communal claws out to defend one of the best-recorded sessions available.
Yes, yes and yes. But who cares? There are a ton of wonderfully recorded sessions out there and there’s tons of better material out there to be had at a fraction of the price, but is that really the issue here?
I didn’t get into this live material because some audiophile twerp recommended it or some big-headed jazz fan told me to stay away from it.I bought it because I saw it in a shop years ago, checked who was playing on it and went for it. Simple as that.
I knew what to expect.
See, I spent (“wasted away”, as some people might be apt to interject here) most of my formative years in smoky jazz clubs, listening to local outfits that were smoking the joint without even trying to better the material they were copying, emulating or expanding upon. I often liked those informal local sessions a hell of a lot better than some of the major ones (Miles Davis in Spandex pants!) I had to pay ten times the amount for to get into – if that’s enough – and I’ve always enjoyed hunting around for jam sessions, informal events or live gigs off the beaten track at which I could hear people with a mundane day job letting it loose. In summation: I went there to enjoy myself.
There’s definitely a difference between seeing Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Count Basie or whatever live and hitting a small jazz club in some town one evening to just relax and listen to some good music to go with that attempt at relaxation.
The whole discussion surrounding these two live sessions is just like seeing any escapist or merely entertaining Hollywood production in a movie theater and sitting next to some endlessly irritating guy continuously mumbling that “The Godfather” was so much better. Really? Duh. Tell me something new. The point is this: Did you go to the movie theater to see “The Godfather?” Probably not.
“Jazz at the Pawnshop” delivers.
There, I said it.
Start throwing rocks.
Yes, I love these sessions and I often throw them on Fridays or Saturdays, to get things started. I’ve cleaned, I’ve sorted mountains of papers, I’ve slept and I enjoyed either a few good glasses of wine or a decent amount of freshly-brewed German beer to these.
I also think the music is tons of fun. It swings. So much so that this is the third reincarnation of these recordings that I either downloaded or bought. “Fun”, people, neither “great” nor “essential”. Yes, the playing is mediocre at points, clumsy, shrill or not too clever at others, but the overall impression I get is that of some guys having fun, the audience appreciating it, and things being whipped up by the intimate setting (if you know your Bengt Hallberg a little, you can really tell he’s getting into things here, playing a lot looser than on other recordings, enjoying the moment).
And I like that.
If you buy into the most recent limited reissue (3000 copies), this is what you get:
a) The complete “Jazz at the Pawnshop” sessions on 3 (hybrid) SACDs (multichannel and stereo), which were previously released as three separate CDs (or any combination thereof) as “Jazz at the Pawnshop”, “Jazz at the Pawnshop 2” and “Good Vibes”.
b) A bonus DVD with a much too short (about 12 minutes) anniversary interview with Lars Erstrund and Georg Riedel (interview in Swedish and Interview in Swedish with English subtitles).
c) 20 minutes of previously unreleased material.
d) All of it stored in a fold-out digipack, accompanied by a limitation sheet (my box is 1404/3000) and a 2007 Prophone/Proprius jazz/world catalogue, housed in a somewhat flimsy but nicely designed slipcase.
The sound? Stellar, and not up for discussion. Gert Palmcrantz, who also produced sessions with, for example, Art Farmer (Art Farmer, “A Sleeping Bee”) or Clark Terry (Clark Terry and Red Mitchell, “Jive at Five”), apparently showed up at the club, set up some microphones around the stage, stuck one into the vibraphone, and hit “record” … without any other preparatory work. On the interview DVD you get the impression that he set up in a few minutes and got rolling and it is understandable that jazz connoisseurs get irritated about the excellence of the recording under such circumstances while some, for example, Miles Davis sessions sound like utter crap. Depressing, really. Here’s a quote to give you an idea:
One microphone pair spaced 20 cm apart was responsible for the main pick-up, with a couple of microphones placed to register the “live” atmosphere of the Pawnshop jazz club and a few discrete support mikes – all recorded on to a pair of two-track Nagra tape recorders by Gert Palmcratz in the restaurant kitchen!
Depending on your take, anywhere between 0 and 5 stars.
I’d give it a solid four, but that’s me.
**** (music) / ***** (sound)
01. Limehouse Blues
02. I’m Confessin’
03. High Life
04. Jeep’s Blues
05. Lady Be Good
06. Take Five
07. Everything Happens To Me
01. Over the Rainbow
02. Gubben Och Källingen
03. In a Mellow Tone
04. Nancy (With the Laughing Face)
05. High Life [Take 2]
06. Poor Butterfly
07. Exactly Like You
08. Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
09. It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
01. Now’s the Time
02. Out of Nowhere
03. In a Mellow Tone
04. Take the “A” Train
05. Jeepers Creepers
06. Struttin’ With Some Barbecue
Disc 04 (Bonus-DVD):
01. Interview 2006
Personnel: Arne Domnérus (alto saxophone & clarinet); Bengt Hallberg (piano); Lars Erstrand (vibes); Georg Riedel (bass); Egil Johansen (drums).
Recording Date: December 6th and 7th, 1976
Venue: Stampen” in Stockholm, Sweden
Release Year (anniversary box):: (February) 2007
Recording Engineer: Gert Palmcrantz
Recording Supervisor: Jacob Boëthius
Digital Mastering: Andrew Lang
Replication: Sonopress, Germany
Graphic Design Esa Tanttu
Cover Painting: Jonas Englund
Executive Producers (anniversary box): Jan-Erik Lindqvist & Tryggve Palmqvist