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Still Clinging To The Wreckage 07/22

The CD - for size, sound and durability - remains the best audio format, and the Cambridge AXC35 has drawn new depth and clarity from it

The compact disc was first made available to us in 1982, half a lifetime ago. LPs persisted alongside the new medium until the majority of people had managed to buy CD players. Everything about the CD was brilliant – its size, sound quality and resistance to damage made it seem to be the ultimate sound form. To me those qualities remain important, and I value the CD above all other forms.

But now the CD is being replaced with – nothing.

The nebulous download system is intangible. It gives you nothing to put onto your shelves, and it seems that most people listen to their downloads (the verb was quickly established as a noun) on their computers, often bypassing all the hi-fi gear that they’ve lovingly built up during the years.

Confirming my dinosaur status, I’ve dug my primordial teeth into a new piece of old technology and it’s made a big difference to my life. This week I bought a new CD player. It’s not easy to do, since there’s not a lot of incentive for manufacturers to make them available any more. A careful reading of reviews led me, for the first time in my experience, to the Cambridge company, who make top-ranking amplifiers and CD players. The CD player that I bought, the AXC35 is, at £279, at the bottom of the range (the next one up is £399). But the reviews for the AXC35 were overwhelmingly good, with several people saying that the AXC35 had changed their lives.

Listening to mine I can see what they mean. One’s oldest CDs suddenly jump to a new life and the Miles Davis, Coltrane and Adderley sessions have a beautiful depth and clarity that I’ve never heard before. The result, as several people suggest, is like having a completely new CD collection. The AXC35 is basic but then playing CDs is basic too, and Cambridge have used their excellent fine tuning to produce a unit that is, as far as I can ascertain, far and away the best machine at its price. It has an exceptionally good digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) which I suspect is the root of the machine’s success. Supposedly stripped to its basics to meet the lower price, the unit does not include a headphone socket, something that I would regard as both basic and essential. I’ve found a way around the deficiency. I tried to phone Cambridge, but like so many manufacturers these days for their own convenience they don’t allow customers to speak to them.

As a reviewer one needs more than one CD player and over the years I’d acquired a Kenwood, once regarded as outstanding, a very reliable Sony, and a very old Marantz.

I make a lot of my own CDs and there are many commercial players that won’t play home-made CDs or are at best erratic. The Kenwood was one such. The Cambridge plays everything without demur. It picks up all available information from CDs that other machines are not capable of handling and presents it in the best possible sound.

Over the last couple of years I also bought a very good Marantz CD player and a Marantz amp (6007 series). These are expensive, capable and very reliable and, like virtually all of Marantz’s products, make use of an identical big casing. I have the Cambridge teamed with the Marantz amp, a pairing that magnificently lifts the new sounds from my CDs. I ruefully realise what I have been missing all these years.

Coincidentally the much-treasured boxes sold by Mosaic Records, like the CD, first became available in 1982. The label’s first issues were on LP, but all except the earliest ones were soon in Mosaic’s catalogue with innovative CD versions.

A collection of Monk’s Blue Notes came first on Mosaic MR4-101, an LP set whose booklet generously included a complete Monk discography from his first recording in 1944 up to the Giants Of Jazz concerts (Gillespie, Winding, Stitt, Monk, McKibbon, Blakey) of 1971-2. 

The thought for this piece came as I began transferring The Complete Edmond Hall/James P Johnson/Sidney De Paris/Vic Dickenson Blue Note Sessions (Mosaic MR6-109) from LP to CD. This was the ninth issue. Mosaic gave much attention to Blue Note in the early days. The Hall box has 66 tracks from the label and the equally beautiful set of all Bechet’s Blue Notes has 74. Mosaic have remained diligent in pursuing the best sound quality and, particularly in the case of the early Blue Notes which were not best recorded, have achieved satisfying audio elevations.

Hall was one of the best clarinettists for spontaneous improvisation and beauty of tone. He seemed to break out into greatness around 1940, but his records over here remained rare, with the best being four Brunswicks, two each under the names of Red Allen and Zutty Singleton. Ed had by then joined the loose group of great jazz musicians headed by Allen and Higginbotham and played so consistently well that he was in the house band at Café Society for years, and received recognition if not his due acclaim for being a stalwart of Teddy Wilson’s fine band. Hall rose swiftly to work regularly among the ranks of the best. As a baritone player himself he didn’t hesitate when employing Harry Carney on his first Blue Note session. This was the first decent exposure that Harry got and he and trombonist Benny Morton jumped at the chance that Ed provided. Quite quickly during the 40s Ed became a leader as well as a sideman, and his good taste never faltered. He graced the Condon Club for a few years, forming a great partnership with Wild Bill Davison.

Barney Bigard’s playing had begun to decline soon after he left the Ellington band in June 1942. By the time he left Louis’s All Stars (he was there from 1947 to 1955) he was barely a shadow of his earlier self. He had, perhaps understandably with all the hard touring, lost interest in the music. When Ed replaced him the band jumped up with a jolt, and Ed became the star figure after Louis, at last gaining the world-wide acclaim that was his due.

The first five Mosaic boxes encapsulated the company’s determination to stick to top quality. They were, in addition to the Monk from Blue Note, by the Mulligan-Baker quartet, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, Clifford Brown and Art Pepper. That quality has been maintained over almost 200 subsequent issues, including 30 or so three-CD sets and several boxes of LPs in high-quality material, placing Mosaic at the head of any record label in providing the jazz fan with comprehensive satisfaction.

At the moment I look forward to reviewing Mosaic’s impending 11-CD set from the Black & White label of the 40s, which includes Bechet, Clayton, Gillespie, Hodes, Garner, Tatum, Bechet, Rod Cless, Pepper, Bigard, Higginbotham, Kessel, Teddy Bunn, James P., Wettling, Lesberg and many others.

Postscript: Last week I bought a Cambridge tuner-amp (or “receiver” as some people call it). I expected similar performance to that of the Cambridge CD player, but I found the sound bland and lifeless and returned the unit for credit.

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