A sweltering summer night in the Netherlands, 1975: renowned jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan gives a magnificent concert at the Laren Jazz Festival.
The recording of the festival was lost, though. For four decades, two tapes sat hidden in the archives of the Dutch institute for sound and vision.
A freezing winter evening in Victoria, 2017: that same concert, brought back to life after 40 years, is replayed at the Melbourne Recital Centre in a ephemeral, intimate performance.
The Lost Recording
Devialet is an audiophile start-up founded in France in 2007 with the mission of building the perfect high fidelity amplifier. It has achieved that, by many different metrics, in the Expert Pro, but the company also has another mission. Its Lost Recordings division finds forgotten jazz performances and brings them back to life, remastering them with sound archaeologists Fondamenta, and releasing them on vinyl in a limited production run.
Devialet also produced an even more select few pressings of these performances as lacquers, incredibly high resolution discs that are the ultimate in analog audio fidelity. There is no higher detail format that a recording can be captured in, short of being at the performance and listening with your own ears. Lacquers are created from the mastered recording, and then themselves used to create the metal discs used to stamp regular vinyl. Just 10 were made of the Sarah Vaughan recording from Laren; if you can find one, purchasing a lacquer will cost you more than $10,000.
Listening to a lacquer on a turntable, too, is almost a one-time thing. The stylus of a turntable cartridge cuts grooves into the soft acetate of the lacquer, destroying it as it picks up its microscopic bumps and indentations. It's like a Penfolds Grange, an incredibly fine wine that only lasts for one amazing session. Each re-use cuts the grooves further, revealing less and less of the fine detail evident on first listening. After a few repeated rotations, the vinyl is effectively useless, its unbeatable audio quality gone and its usefulness destroyed. The ultimate in fidelity, for one time only.
Last Friday, Devialet's Australian distributor Interdyn held a one-off listening session at the Melbourne Recital Centre, in a dedicated performance room set up to give the hand-picked audio system the setup it needed to shine. Devialet's Expert Pro 1000 amplifier was joined by a Pro-Ject Audio Signature 12 turntable on an Ortofon Xpression cartridge and PMC MB2-SE loudspeakers — a cool $150,000 worth of audiophile hi-fi equipment, the highest of the high end. And a vinyl lacquer of Sarah Vaughan, live at Laren.
The atmosphere in the room as the record was brought out of its protective wooden case and placed onto the turntable, by a bearded and ponytailed man wearing all black and soft white gloves, was something between interested and tense. Someone's phone went off, the default Apple ringtone ridiculously loud in a nearly quiet room. Someone else dropped their phone and it clattered far too loudly. It was a packed room, standing room only, of Devialet customers and hi-fi enthusiasts and employees gathered for a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime performance of a recording in its utmost quality. People wanted to be there, but there was a weird, eccentric vibe.
As the record played and Devialet turned the volume up to fill the room with sound, the mood changed. For me, the performance itself was world-class; I love jazz, and I love Sarah Vaughan, and her voice and singing at Laren is a portfolio of her very best work. But it was the moments in between the setlist that made the experience worth it. The moment in the Laren recording where Vaughan passes her notes to an audience member to fan herself in the sweltering August night in North Holland, and is joking and laughing and cracking wise... I know this is a hackneyed phrase when it comes to high-end audio, but it was like she was in the room.
The quality of the recording was transcendental. Amazing equipment, amazing source material and an amazing performance to back it up, in an amazing performance space. Every moment of it felt equally weird, but weird in a unique and special way. Everyone in the room was party to an event that can never be repeated, and I'm sure some had an entirely different experience to others. I was standing, off-axis to the speakers, so I didn't even have the theoretically perfect position to hear the performance. And it was over all too soon, as well; barely a few minutes and a few songs in, the lights came up and the show was over. I couldn't tell you how long it went for.
At the end, the previously solemn record carrier lifted the turntable's tonearm from the lacquer, as gently as it was initially placed down. Job done for the night, he gently took his gloves off — and threw them over his shoulder with a flourish. A ripple of laughter rolled through the room. Everybody relaxed. It took a few moments — of sitting, thinking, reflecting, of quiet consideration — for everyone to stand up, to get another glass of champagne, to go and mingle and talk about music and jazz and to inspect the record and the amazing audio setup that had brought Sarah Vaughan's own laughter and jokes and amazing voice to life again, for the barest few minutes.
If you're interested in hearing Sarah Vaughan's Laren recording, albeit without the quality of the lacquer and the quality of Interdyn's amazing Devialet and partners' audiophile sound system and the quality of the Recital Centre's listening room — and the unique ephemerality of that intimate shared experience on a frigid Melbourne night — you can. It's on Spotify, and you can buy the vinyl from Devialet for $189. But it's not going to be the same.
I'll still listen again, but it's not going to be the same. [Devialet]