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Just Listen

05-05-2024 | By Robert Pincus | Issue 133

Just Listen (Columbia Special Products CSS 1337) is an LP that I discovered in 1986. It was released by Columbia Special Products in 1970, as a promotional item for Magnavox. Like most of the CBS Special Products LPs, it's a stereophonic various-artists compilation. The musical selections are by Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, Dave Brubeck, Andre Kostelanetz, Barbra Streisand, Flatt & Scruggs, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, and Peter Nero, and O.C. Smith.

You must really be wondering why would I bother to write about a freebie record that was given away with cheap stereos? Here's the answer: It gave me one of my earliest encounters with the great Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), and his irresistible creation, the "Unsquare Dance." The LP also arrived at a pivotal time in my life as an audiophile. Hearing Just Listen, or better said, hearing "Unsquare Dance'' from Just Listen, provided me with the most amazing experience I had with my wonderful (and long deceased) Infinity ES-1 electrostatic headphones. At the age of 26 I'd already been through a lot of high end headphones, and I owned a lot of good sounding records, which included some direct-to-discs. However, nothing prepared me for the "Unsquare Dance." The ES-1 headphones, an even better pair of electrostatic transducers than my Koss ESP 9s, had only been in the house for a week when I placed the made-for-Magnavox on my turntable. On that day I did what I always do with a stack of newly purchased used LPs: I skipped around. When I dropped my Grado F1+ cartridge onto the Brubeck cut, I was forced to play the whole thing. Holy you-are-there-sound, Batman, those handclaps were thrilling! And so was Eugne Wright's bigger-than-life string bass. I was mesmerized. And then came Brubeck's piano, and then Joe Morello's crazy drum sticks! I had never heard anything remotely like it. It was at this moment that Just Listen became the best sounding LP in my collection. I can't tell you just how long it held the-best-sound-in-my-record-collection status, but it still sounds remarkably good.

Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance" is one of the finest demo works ever recorded. It's hard not to wonder if Brubeck composed it specifically for audiophiles. I own it on three different LP titles, and on one CD. The worst sounding transfer is on Sony's Legacy CD of Time Further Out, which is otherwise a very good sounding CD. What's wrong with it? Dreadful de-nosing is what's wrong with it. The extreme top end lacks air, so the hand claps and drum sticks sound thick and airless. In other words, unneeded digital manipulation ruined another great analog recording. All three of my LP sources sound great. The best of the three is the Impex 180 LP (IMP 6002) that I chose for release. It was cut from the original 2-track mixdown tape by George Marino (1947-2012). It has incredible weight on the bottom, a rich midrange, and an effortless top end. The transfer on Just Listen is very close. It's just a little rounded on the edges, and it has a wee bit less bass. One might call the midrange "tubey." It does, in fact, sound so close to the Impex that with a different cartridge I might even prefer it. "Unsquare Dance" is also found on Dave Brubeck's Greatest Hits (CS 9284), but it only sounds good on early copies. It's absolutely crazy that this cut sounds as good as it does on three different LP titles, but it really does.

As expected, some of the other cuts sound like dubs, because, of course, they are. However, Leonard Bernstein's masterful interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, and Ray Coniff's ultra groovy interpretation of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" sound as if master tapes were spliced right onto the cutting master for this record! Barbra Streisand sings "My Melancholy Baby" very well, and the transfer sounds like it came from a master tape. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with vintage Streisand, her magnificent voice is dripping with slimy reverb.

Nobody really needs this LP, but it's well worth grabbing if you happen to bump into it. If I saw it for the first time today, I'd still grab it. Over the decades Just Listen has gone from an LP with one great sounding cut to an album with three great sounding cuts. Such is the nature of records when you upgrade your stereo. Just Listen has a very low distortion sound that makes other good records sound inferior. It's the kind of sound that forces one to listen more carefully. It's also the kind of sound that lovers of vintage analog sound enjoy. I wish I heard this kind of sound a little more often at high end audio shows.