Flower By The Dry River

The classically trained Cuban-born jazz pianist Elio Villafranca and his group the Jass Syncopators recorded this album Direct-to-Disk last Winter at the "Least Significant Bit Studios", which is actually a large room in the Sound-Smith.com production facility converted into a performance space/recording studio.

The double LP set is but one of many DirectGrace D2D records produced by Sound-Smith's founder Peter Ledermann to benefit a charity dedicated to helping some 215 million exploited children around the world enduring child labor, or abandoned to the streets due to the AIDS epidemic and other public health catastrophes.

All of the money collected as a result of the sale of this double record set pressed at RTI goes to the charity. The album was produced by (which is to say funded by a generous contribution from) Robin Wyatt, a dedicated audiophile and importer of brands including the Miyajima Labs phono cartridges.

So you have two competing cartridge "interests" combining forces with the help of an exceptionally talented Afro-Cuban influenced jazz pianist and his ensemble to save the lives of children in need. How can you go wrong?

Mr. Villafranca, influenced by Duke Ellington—particularly his very first ensemble "the Colored Syncopators" formed in 1917— has written seven tunes for the album, all of which are moody, melodic and of course heavily syncopated. He's arranged the tunes for his group The Jass Syncopators, an extraordinarily talented septet heavy on percussion.

The group include Vincent Harring on alto sax (Nat Adderley, Wynton Marsalis, Art Blakey, Carla Bley, Larry Coryell etc.), JD Allen on tenor sax (Lester Bowie, Betty Carter, George Cables, Ron Carter, David Murray, etc.), Bruce Harris on trumpet (Curtis Fuller, Billy Taylor, Dave Brubeck), Gregg August on bass (Ornette Coleman, Arturo O'Farrill, James Moody, Ray Barretto), Victor Lewis on drums (Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, Duke Ellington, etc.) and Juango Gutierrez and Camilo Molina Giatan—a pair of red hot Barril players (the Barril is a barrel like drum used mainly for Puerto Rican "Bomba").

So Villafranca brought an "A" team of great musicians more than willing and able to work under nerve-wracking Direct to Disc conditions: one "clam" and the lacquer is ruined. No editing, no "gimme's".

The set begins with "The Unspeakable" an Afro-Cuban bop number dominated by the brass, with Villafranca comping behind the melodic line taken by the tenor sax. The progression is reminiscent of Coltrane's "Giant Steps". Combine a lilting melody, great solos from the brass and reeds, and Villafranca's elegant solo plus the fiery percussive backing and we're off to a great start!

The ensemble resets while the lacquer spins and returns with the moody, sensuous "Two to Tango" that magically transports you to a pre-Castro Havana nightclub.

Side two opens with "Last Train to Paris," a slow, moody, cinematic, rainy day piece featuring a gorgeous arrangement for reeds and brass behind which Villafranca lurks with a haunting four note repeated motif. A sinewy sax solo adds elegance. The hard driving "The Big Plus" has a decidedly mid-sixties New York City feel propelled by Villafranca's uncharacteristically simple two chord piano vamp ramped up at the end by a scorching solo. A nice mood changer to end the side.

All of side three is the title tune, "Flower By the Dry River" another slow burner that produces tension with open spaces. Lewis expertly sustains the mood and flow aided by the Barril players while the brass and horns fill in the spaces. Unfortunately, this ambitious, though spare piece threatens to fall apart because of the one aspect of this project that does go wrong and that is the live recording and mix.

While the live sound direct to disk is immediate, transparent, direct and dynamic, the sonic picture is often messy with indistinct and/or inappropriate imaging and instrumental accentuation. On the title tune it is particularly troublesome, with an overly large drum kit spread across the state dominating the picture. The horns get lost, sounding at times as if they are in another room. The track does come together before the end and is saved.

Side four's opener is "Caribbean Tinge," another uptempo, heavily syncopated Afro-Cuban bop number that could have been time machined in from the 1950s. The set's closer is the slow, smoky "Blues For Paula".

A great deal of modern jazz is neck up. This album is mostly neck down—intended to move your emotions and set the mood. It does that as well as adjusting the lighting and the temperature too! Musically it's 90% successful, which is saying a great deal for a direct to disc recording of a large jazz ensemble performing complex arrangements. You don't get the sense that any of these veterans held back. If there were ruined lacquers along the way, that was DirectGrace's and Robin Wyatt's loss. Our gain is this sublime, often fiery music.

I wish I could say the recording quality was commensurate with the music but it's not. Duke Markos is a talented engineer who has recorded many superb sounding records but recording and mixing complex arrangements live to disk got the better of the team here.

The drum kit often predominates to an overwhelming degree, spread across the stage. Villafranca's piano occasionally does likewise and it often abruptly changes perspective when he solos, which can be distracting. Instruments sometimes sound watery and indistinct. There's way too much mike leakage to produce distinct images and solid instrumental timbers.

Yes, the perspective and the picture are sometimes disorganized and inappropriate but not the music. Everyone worked hard for a great cause and all of the money goes to a worthwhile charity. I feel obliged to be honest about the recording quality but I hope many of you will find it in your heart to support the cause by buying this musically worthwhile album recorded Direct-to-Disk.

Jim Tavegia's picture

This would have been one of those cases that, if time and money permitting,  a digitallly recorded version at 2496 would have been in order and then listened to over the course of a couple of days and then had everyone come back for the D2D recording. 

What ever engineering compromises that were made would have been caught in 2496 auditions and mic placment corrections made. Those also could have been made during the practice run and adjustments made track by track. 

I remember the first time I showed up to record the Saxophone Ensemble for the University of West Ga (20+ talented saxophone players) during their summer classes and found out they had 75 more players show up for a total of nearly 100 saxophone players on the small stage at the Townsend Center and nearly no place for my mics and no time to deal with "proper placement", what ever that might have been.  To say I felt overwhelmed would be an understatement. At least I didn't have varoius instruments to deal with. 

There was no way to do anything but an ORTF pair and hope for the best, but that really doesn't work perfectly if you have a piano you really want to capture intimately and a drummer who can't hold back a little and play "with" the ensemble. A lot of challenges that must be auditioned first I'm afraid. 


Do you have a link to this purchase? 


Retipper's picture

Dear Micheal;

Thanks for the review - considering we had limited time and resource to record this, and due to the fact that we do not have an isolated monitor room, my feeling is that all the engineers, Duke, Craig and Rick Jacobsohn, did a stand up job. I do take issue with your comments about the title tune - It took a few listens for me to to understand it - and why the musicians did what they did - they were instructed to do so by Elio ! The music is just that - a dying flower by a dry river - totally appropriate for the cause of this record - it comes together when there is a bit of water, falls apart, comes together again, etc...I consider it one of the most trusting and courageous musical moments I have ever heard. Only one such as Elio and his musicians would have the guts to do something like this - LIVE - D to D!!!  ONE TAKE. It is important to understand the reason this song was created by Elio - what his VISION was for this album and its cause. He WANTED it to be "uncomfortable" - unpredictable - instruments coming in and out - each having it own voice.... and dying.

As for digital, yes, we recorded it in high res, and efforts were made to re-mix later at great time expense by Duke and ELio, of course for an eventual sale of CD and high res download  - it will happen, but the funds will not flow to the children from those sales. My hope is that people will buy the album, and make a CD of it if they need to play it for a group, as above.

I am deeply appreciative for Micheal's review and publicity - it was a great experience and extremely generous of Robin to pull this off in a very short time - it is a great D 2 D record set, nicely pressed, and we all hope you will continue to spread the word so we can continue to rescue children at greatest risk and in slavery.  

The album can be purchased at:


Peter Ledermann/Soundsmith/DirectGrace records      

Michael Fremer's picture

The performances were recorded by Duke Markos to high rez digital and I believe a remix will eventually become available. Link to purchase: 


Paul Boudreau's picture

...for the heads up.  I think I'll order one right now.

Here's a link:  http://directgrace.org/DG00106S.html

...and I think it's Vincent HERRING, isn't it?

Michael Fremer's picture

Peter: thanks for clarifying Elio's intentions on the title tune. I probably should have put 2 and 6 together and gotten 8 but all I got was an odd number from it. I'll listen again (and again).

mauidj's picture

Michael, just wanted your readers know that Directgrace Records now has a page on Facebook where they will be posting news and reviews of their many projects together with items dedicated to the charity work they are supporting. Please add your "like" if you wish to show your support for this unique record label and the important cause it supports. 


jesuswept's picture

Hey Mikey, have you heard of Capsule Labs in Los Angeles?  They not only do recording, mastering, and vinyl pressing all under one roof, they've also hosted a few live dates, complete with audience and full bar, that were recorded D2D and then pressed in the same room where the band played.  

I have one of the resulting records, a live Meyer Hawthorne album.  It doesn't have the greatest sound ever, but then they were doing this more as a promotion for Stone's Throw records than as an audiophile demo disk.  But if they worked out the kinks, who knows...

nicholas's picture

I don't know if this is a marketing move, but I always love to hear about such great artists fighting for the poor children's cause. We should do this more often, you don't have to be a great artist in order to make a difference. Just donate your car to charity and you still get to support some unfortunate family.