Certainly one of my all-time favorite Fusion groups is Return to Forever, a quintessential jazz-rock band from the 70’s. It was albums like Where Have I Known You Before and Romantic Warrior that depict the band's chemistry and found many fans like myself following them. But those beloved albums were never given a surround treatment during the hayday of quad, instead it was RTF’s 1977 swan song Musicmagic that was given this treatment. The album marked the departure of founding member drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al DiMeola, plus ironically became the final quadraphonic pop music release ever by Columbia Records. Paradoxically it has been one of the best but briefest print runs of any Columbia quad release, subsequently becoming a highly sought-after album.
In August 2017 Vocalion released the quad mix of Musicmagic, making it available for the first time in the digital domain. Michael J. Dutton remastered this quad release directly from the original master tapes maintaining their original tonality and dynamic range. There is a wonderful analog warmth that fills the low end and comfortably blends the mid-range while providing an extremely smooth top to the overall mix. The back right corner is occupied by drummer Gerry Brown with bassist Stanley dropping his funky playing from the back left channel. Keyboardist Chick Corea who is supported by keyboardist and vocalist Gayle Moran have been placed across the front channels, and the four-piece horn section led by CTI sax man Joe Farrell spreads across the entire sound stage.
Breaking from the ripping solos and rock driven energy heard on their previous three albums, Musicmagic is highly arranged and rhythmically intricate aligning closer to the progressive rock genre while finding deeper roots toward the jazz world. The addition of Moran’s vocals could be considered a hope of mainstream success, but instead are more of a textural part. Listeners may find rotating their chair by 180 degrees to be more satisfying, especially for those who desire hearing bass and drums upfront. Personally, I found the overall balance and creative placement that paints the aural scape of Musicmagic to be very enjoyable.
The digital transfer is excellent and while I am sure readers are keenly aware of the limitations of analog tape, I found the noise floor to be very low and dynamic range to have good punch. There are limitations heard on the mix which harken back to the original quad mixing sessions, such as the overall drum sound, but horn hits and keyboard parts really shine with plenty of zing.
Over the years Vocalion has released a few dozen multi-channel SACD’s from both the RCA and Columbia quad vaults, covering a wide range of musical styles. These Hybrid SACD’s play in three ways: a high-resolution multichannel layer, a high-resolution stereo layer, and a standard 16-bit / 44.1kHz stereo CD layer. Switching between the two different mixes on Musicmagic yielded a vastly different characteristic, exemplified by a much brighter tonal balance heard on the stereo layer. This yielded a crisper drum sound and even greater brilliance to the upper range of the keyboard and horn parts. I tended to like the upper range of the stereo layer, but also recognized that it sacrificed some of the warmth and richness that is so pleasant on the quad layer.
Although Musicmagic lacks the shredding impact and swagger of the group's best work, I still wouldn’t pass this one up, as it surpasses much of the other fusion artist’s recordings over the years. I strongly recommend this for RTF fans and all fusion-jazz lovers. Vocalion prints these SACD’s in limited runs, and this surely will become a collector’s item in the future.
Multi-channel Hybrid SACD with Quad and Stereo layers. Note: The Audio Fidelity SACD is a different release, and does not contain the multi-channel layer.