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Oscar Peterson
Exclusively For My Friends

Review By Leonard Norwitz


  With the purchase of the legendary jazz label MPS, Edel Germany GmbH strengthens its jazz catalog. For the first time the entire Jazz Portfolio of MPS will be digitalized and simultaneously made available on a wide range of selected CD and Vinyl releases. The team hopes to enter into the digital world, spreading additional values and features centered around the cult status of the label on the web. At the same time, a special MPS promotion team working with the label "Edel: Content" plans selected MPS titles for their audiophile vinyl-series "AAA." The reissue of 180g vinyl and artwork is done with strict attention to the original releases. The sound of the original master-tapes is carefully optimized in a "pure analog mastering process to free them from their traces of aging" in an effort to meet the highest audiophile standard found today.

As a starting point, the Oscar Peterson-Box Exclusively for My Friends combines all six original LPs from the series with a booklet that includes scans of the tape boxes and liner notes of the audiophile re-mastering-process of AAA-producer Dirk Sommer. Exclusively for My Friends is widely seen as the centerpiece of any Oscar Peterson collection. Peterson himself went into raptures about the MPS recordings, stating that, thanks to the intimate recording atmosphere in Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's living room and his pursuit of perfection as a sound engineer and producer, they were among his best recordings. The private sessions were made between 1963 and 1968 and are the result of the long-standing friendship between the exceptional Canadian pianist and the MPS label owner from the Black Forest. They serve to document Peterson's exquisite playing style in high profile trios as well as Brunner-Schwer's determination to capture the best sound possible.


Oscar Peterson And MPS
Oscar Peterson entertained the world with his mastery over the piano for over 60 years. Duke Ellington called him the "Maharaja of the keyboard." Peterson made over 200 recordings and won 8 Grammy Awards. MPS was a Mecca for Oscar Peterson and a host of talented young European discoveries. Situated in Villingen, in Germany's Black Forest region, MPS Records and studios wrote pioneering jazz history for 25 years through its high-level recording technique and unmistakable aesthetic.

The label was born in 1968. As co-owner of the electronics manufacturer SABA, industrialist Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer (HGBS) was not only an ardent audio engineer, he was also an amateur pianist. In 1958 he built a recording studio above the living room in his villa that housed some of the most sophisticated audio equipment available. When Oscar Peterson came to Zurich to perform a concert in 1961, Brunner-Schwer lured Peterson to his home, and the first house concert in the Black Forest took place. The Canadian pianist was so impressed by HGBS's recording of the concert ("I never heard myself like this before...") that he decided to come back every year for another living room session. Verve's contract with Peterson prevented him from making studio recordings with other producers, but private party sessions were deemed OK as long as they were not released commercially while under contract. Once Peterson's contract with Verve was up HGBS was able to release his recordings of Peterson on his own label.

Meanwhile, starting in 1963, HGBS began to produce records under the label "SABA." The recordings included pianists Wolfgang Dauner and Horst Jankowski. George Duke appeared as guest for the first time in 1966. The Brazilian guitarist, Baden Powell, was also a featured artist. When Brunner-Schwer left SABA in 1968, he founded MPS Records (Musik Produktion Schwarzwald / Music Production Black Forest). The Peterson recordings were the first release under the new name. It was the beginning of an illustrious catalogue which contained some 500 releases by 1982. Eventually MPS expanded beyond Villingen to New York and the Berlin Jazz Festival with such masterful sound engineers as Willi Fruth, Rolph Donner and Joachim-Ernst Berendt.


"A/A/A''- Now that should make your eyebrows curl! Up to now, such a trio of letters is found pretty much only on CDs, always with a "D" or two or three. The first letter, as we all know, indicates the original source, the second, remastering (a term loosely applied at this juncture) if any, and the last letter is always "D" and designates digital mastering to digital media. So if the last letter on the new MPS set is "A," that means the final mastering and media are analog, as is the case with all "Audiophile" reissues – though I don't know anyone has thought to label those as "A/A" or "A/A/A."

So what does that second "A" imply in this case? As an aside, we might ask: Under what circumstances is the original mastering to two tracks remastered at all - not counting, of course, simple copies of the original to save wear and tear on that valuable source and from which many a disc master is cut?  So, what is MPS/Edel magician, Dirk Sommer, up to here? Is he aiming for the closest master to the original tape? Or is he re-mastering the original tape in order to look forward to a better master disc?

Sommer makes it clear that he eschews all digital scrubbing and EQ. He speaks of "removing of all traces of aging from the original MPS tapes" and "meticulous analog optimizing of the tapes." So why am I concerned? The answer is that the solutions I imagine all involve destructive interventions as well as the addition of noise. So is this just hype, or is there something to all this. On the enclosed liner notes Sommer is mum. In the absence of published details, therefore, we have only the records - the new and the old - to speak for themselves. And perhaps that's as it should be.

What we do know is that the new LPs, just as with the early Mobile Fidelity reissues, do not come off as exact replicas of the original pressings. MFSL touted "half-speed mastering" which turned out to be a mixed bag, and generally quieter vinyl. Presumably the master discs were cut directly from the original master tapes. Not so here... I think.


In General
The sturdy, understated box is open at the side so we can see the spines of the albums, snugly fit, for easy access, one or more at a time. The cover art is the same as the originals except for they're being a shade lighter and having a color shift to the red. However, the liner notes are not as readable – they are often not as black and at times do not lay on the page evenly – grayer here, blacker there. Where there are B&W photo reproductions on the inside of the gatefold, there isn't much a grayscale to speak of. All the discs are centered, which is not the case more often these days than we'd like. Surfaces are quiet, but not as quiet as my records from decades ago, which is kind of astonishing. I found only one instance of a succession of clicks (three of them on Girl Talk that were easily removed.)

The box set "comes with an exclusive booklet that includes scans of the tape boxes and liner notes of the audiophile remastering process and AAA production by Dirk Sommer." I have to say "the new booklet" scarcely qualifies as swag. it's the same size as the album covers, on thick glossy paper stock and amounts to only eight pages - the cover page, which is a reproduction of the master tape box; the back cover, which amounts to two long paragraphs of carefully worded hype in German and English by Dirk Sommer (these are the so-called "liner notes of the audiophile remastering process and AAA production"); and the remaining six pages, replicas of the master tape box data. They name the tracks and the personnel, yet doesn't tell us what the recording dates are. In fact, the only date is the same for each page: 1968. Somehow, I expected more and better, but it's the records which really count, so let's get on with it.


Audio Absolute And Compared
What are the up and downsides to Mr. Sommer's remastering, however it was done, both as compared to the original issues and on its own terms?

After listening to all LPs in the new set and comparing selectively against my original label pressings, I came to a surprising conclusion: I believe recording producer/engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer knows what he's doing, but I am not all that much in accord with his intentions, methods or results. It seems that HGBS is something of a tinkerer and has balanced each track on every LP (save the solo album) differently to achieve a more or less unique effect. Over here on In a Mellow Tone from Mellow Mood he wants a clear decisive, fulsome line from the double bass, but over there the first two tracks of Action he prefers fat, tuneless woof, as if the instrument were stuffed with a large, very fluffy bath towel. Sometimes the drums are more forward, other times not. Over here on Love is Here to Stay from The Way I Really Play he wants a big piano sound, but there on Satin Doll again he wants a comparatively smallish, constrained instrument. Here, more reverb - even on piano! – there, less. There is some consistency to the drum kit sound, thankfully, while the piano at times, e.g. on Nica's Dream from Mellow Mood, suffers from "two-piano syndrome," whereby the two hands seem to be playing entirely different instruments: the left, thick and wooly, the right snappy and jingly, with an occasional tendency to ring on some of Oscar's whacking treble attacks in the earlier two volumes, less in evidence on the reissues. The two-piano syndrome is not attributable to the wide range of the instrument itself or the venue.

The new set, while retaining the basic characteristics of the originals, relieves us of a few of their ills, but at the expense of some openness. Despite this, articulation is always clean no matter how fast Oscar plays, even when he makes with those mercurial runs with both hands in octaves. Just as it was on the original issues, the drums are clear, though never felt with the kind of energy we'd expect sitting in a living room, no matter how large. Volumes II, III, V and VI come off best in this regard, as it does with Sam Jones' bass, though there are, as noted, inconsistencies from track to track.

In his interview found in the liner notes on Action, recording producer/engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer reveals something that may strike us nowadays as heresy (or, what record producers are all about, depending on your point of view): "...it is at the changeovers that artistry is really called for at the studio controls, because it is then that you have to find the precise setting for the tone controls, the correct balance between the instruments and, in particular, the right piano sound." I can see why and how he does it that way considering the placement of the mikes as shown in the photos for that album. But "tone controls" for the studio mix! Even if by that he means "equalization" this is an anti-fidelity way of going about it. (There is a telling photo on My Favorite Instrument of HGBS and Oscar at a large suite of sliders, apparently a mixing board, which probably tells the tale.)

HGBS places a single mike close to the bass and another close to the drums and positioning those two players – at Oscar's insistence, by the way, so that he can hear properly and interact spontaneously with his colleagues - behind and to one side of the piano. In this way he can manipulate the balance in the studio so that the bass and drums sound decidedly on the left and the piano on the right. Whether he captures the piano with an additional one or two microphones, he is still going to have staging and timing difficulties, though nothing like the impossibility of trying to mix recordings made at different times and places while expecting a live result. [I am confident that a more honest, more dynamic, and better staged and less problematic recording could have captured with two well-placed mikes (yes, even in a living room) and all the garbage a mixing console brings with it would have been avoided, but then, he wouldn't have been able to effectively manipulate balances to taste.]

The solo piano record, Volume IV My Favorite Instrument, conveys a surprisingly convincing sound that offers hints of a proper piano, but is oddly recorded so that the bass side of the instrument is on the left and treble on the right. I suppose this is more or less the way the pianist hears it, but the audience doesn't. It is doubtless revealing that in the aforementioned interview HGBS says "I record the piano as if I were sitting immediately by it, as if I were playing myself." Indeed, this recording sounds as if he simply removed the lid and placed two microphones above the instrument. The original disc mastering results in unrealistic separation between the left and right channels, with the bass strings sounding on the left and the treble strings on the right. This effect is more pronounced on the I Concentrate on You/Moon River medley on Girl Talk. The new mastering "corrects" this to an extent. The recovery of the middle space is one of three areas consistently improved (to my thinking) in the new set.  By the way, on the new records, the tape still slips for a few moments at the start of the first side of The Way I Really Play, as if the musicians began playing before the tape machine stabilized, and it never quite settles down completely until the second track. How's that for authenticity!

Another overall, if subtle, improvement is the sense that disc speed is more consistent throughout, that the record turns truer. It's like having upgraded your turntable for the time being. The third improvement is easily grasped and appreciated: the rediscovery of the middle - not just the stage, but frequency response. From track to track we feel more like we are in the presence of the same piano than we were with the originals. This comes with a small but noticeable loss of air and spark. The music swings better on the originals, but the sound is meatier on the reissues.

I should note that the above seems to fly in the face of my Comparison by Contrast method for critiquing differences between components. What that method suggests is that the solution which reveals more differences is less colored and therefore more accurate. However, the key here is that we are dealing with two different sources, and it is quite possible that the new source has been deliberately calculated to minimize those very differences that HGBS wanted and/or achieved. The question may come down to a preference about balance versus extension. You pays your money and makes your choices. Or, you can have both, but not at the same time with the same record.

It is my feeling that HGBS has some peculiarly primitive ideas about the purpose of stereo reproduction with his adherence to isolation of instruments and bass/treble effects. He believes strongly in the concept of selective balancing of tracks, and he is not beyond tinkering to get what he wants. Note the added bossa nova reverb to the drum kit at the start of Quiet Nights on Travelin' On. Clearly, Brunner-Schwer is not after truth, he is after his own idea of what he wants this music to sound like, and in the original issues, he gets it. In the new set, not as much.


Components And Method
I have original label pressings in excellent condition from the early 1970s for Volumes II, III, V & VI, and MPS black label reissues for Volumes I and IV. I was able to make evaluations with two systems that relied heavily on Audio Note pre-amps M3 and M9, their amplifiers Ongaku and Gaku-On, silver cables and speakers. An Audio Note turntable and arm with Io-Gold MC cartridge and a TransRotor, similar to (and much better, presumably) than the one Edel used to demonstrate this new box set at last month's press conference, were also employed. The two systems verified each other's "reports." In addition, I had on hand two different extra pairs of ears for each venue. And just to state the obvious, the better your playback gear, the better chance you will have of achieving dynamic, tuneful results. Midway through my listening, I substituted a better interconnect from moving coil step-up to preamp with pleasing results. (Let that be a lesson to you, Leonard!)

As for the Black Label records, these strike me as re-equalized in order to allow the melody from the piano to cut through. The records in the new set are much more like the originals than the Black Labels, though, by comparison, they seem more like closed-lid recordings. In fact, when listening, my eyes naturally fall several feet to a line between the middle of my speakers instead of some distance above them. As previously mentioned, in the new set as compared to the originals, there is a more complete sense of stage, left-to-right, and a more evenly balanced center-fill of the frequency response. However, our listening panels felt a relative absence of overtones. Was this the result of the process of "age-removal" or copy to a second generation master, or just a natural loss over time of magnetic detail, I can't say. On the other hand, since some of this was evident in the originals as well, we can safely attribute much of this effect to HGBS's mixing console and draconian efforts to balance bass and drums to the piano. What is reassuring, and frankly a little amazing, is that, despite Brunner-Schwer's need to exercise his personal engineering facility, the feel of a live performance remains more or less intact.


I assume you wouldn't be reading this comment if you weren't already persuaded by the artistry of Oscar Peterson. So I shall do the unthinkable and say next to nothing about these performances except to confess my love of the man's music - in this case, a collection of classical jazz standards, played in a congenial night club style that smartly varies up-tempo swing and bop with exquisite lyrical meditations. I might add that Oscar represents the greatest proportion of single LPs in my limited and admittedly conservative jazz collection, and that after a few comparative samplings of the new LPs to the originals, I listened to all of them front to back in one go.

As Dirk Sommer is quick to point out, these recordings are more valuable for their musical merit than as examples of the recording art, and I think a frank critique of the original issues at the time would have so stated, despite MPS liner notes that declare HGBS as the greatest thing to happen to jazz recording since the avocado pit. That said, these new reissues are eminently listenable and engaging recordings and, despite their relative lack of airy energy, they feel alive and spontaneous. In any case, they have power and muscle to spare, and there is little if any evidence of tape damage or distortion in the grittier sense. Once we give up our unrealistic expectations for engineering magic, our foot taps and our hearts soar like a hawk (with thanks to Old Lodge Skins), and the spirit and artistry of Oscar Peterson comes through vividly – like he's right there in your living room... sort of.

It may seem that I don't much care for these records, new or old, since my notion of what recordings should be about differs so much with this producer. Not true. Not at all. I don't really expect accuracy from recordings however much I crave it. The issue here is: despite the described discrepancy as I see it, do I find pleasure? Am I engaged? The answer is a resounding "Yes.!" So if you have clean copies of the originals, I think you shouldn't replace them on any account, and oughtn't feel any rush to pick up the Edel/MPS set unless you simply can't resist these sorts of things. On the other hand, if you have these recordings in any other media or your originals aren't up to snuff, I urge you to gobble up this new LP set without delay. You can find outlets on-line in the States and overseas for $30-40 per volume, plus shipping, so shop wisely.


MPS/Edel Box Set
Mastered in A/A/A by Dirk Sommer from the original master tapes and pressed by Optimal Media in Germany. The box set comes with an exclusive booklet that includes scans of the tape boxes and liner notes of the audiophile remastering process and AAA production by Dirk Sommer.

Deluxe Box Set with 6 individual LP's
180 grams Virgin Vinyl
Audiophile pressing at Optimal Media in Germany
Pure all Analog Mastering Process
Removal of all traces of aging from original MPS tapes
Meticulous analog optimizing of the tapes
Faithfulness to the original recording
Analog lacquer cutting from the remastered tapes
Records in first edition style of MPS
Adaptation of the original gatefolds
Including all additional pages and accompanying texts
New booklet exclusive to this edition
Vinyl labels modeled from the originals
Gatefold covers with glossy varnish finish

Vol. I Action
Recorded 1964
Oscar Peterson, piano
Ray Brown, bass
Ed Thigpen, drums

1. At Long Last Love
2. Easy Walker
3. Tin Tin Deo
4. I've Got a Crush On You
5. Foggy Day
6. Like Someone In Love

Vol. II - Girl Talk

Recorded 1965/66/67/68
Oscar Peterson, piano
Ray Brown / Sam Jones, bass
Bobby Durham / Louis Hayes, drums

1. On a Clear Day
2. I'm In the Mood For Love
3. Girl Talk
4. Medley: I Concentrate On You/Moon River
5. Robbins Nest

Vol. III - The Way I Really Play
Recorded April, 1968
Oscar Peterson, piano
Sam Jones, bass
Bobby Durham, drums

1. Waltzing Is Hip
2. Satin Doll
3. Love Is Here To Stay
4. Sandy's Blues
5. Alice In Wonderland
6. Noreen's Nocturne

Vol. IV - My Favorite Instrument
Recorded April, 1968
Oscar Peterson, piano

1. Someone To Watch Over Me
2. Perdido
3. Body and Soul
4. Who Can I Turn To
5. Bye, Bye Blackbird
6. I Should Care
7. Lulu's Back In Town
8. Little Girl Blue
9. Take the "A" Train

Vol. V - Mellow Mood
Recorded April 1968
Oscar Peterson, piano
Sam Jones, bass
Bobby Durham, drums

1. In A Mellotone
2. Nica's Dream
3. Green Dolphin Street
4. Summertime
5. Sometimes I'm Happy
6. Who Can I Turn To

Vol. VI - Travelin' On
Recorded April, 1968
Oscar Peterson, piano
Sam Jones, bass
Bobby Durham, drums

1. Travelin' On
2. Emily
3. Quiet Nights
4. Sax No End
5. When Lights Are Low




Recording Quality: 













































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