Music Matters: The Blue Note Reissue Series
With some of the Blue Note recordings now pushing 60 years old, it's wholly appropriate to release a first-rate reissue series, but to do it right requires people who are fanatics about these titles and who bleed enthusiasm for the music. It also helps to have folks with the attention to detail necessary to worry about the weight of the vinyl and the type of ink used in the jackets. It requires folks who are a little crazy about making the best possible pressings, and are willing to go to any length to make it happen. Ron Rambach (far left above), owner of Music Matters, and his friend and co-conspirator, Joe Harley (second left, with Steve Hoffman, second right, Kevin Gray, far right), have personally overseen every element of the reissue series since its inception. They're both a little nuts about classic Blue Note records, and they've channeled their madness into an exceptional collection.
Rambach and Harley are music fans first and foremost, and they approached reissuing the Blue Note catalog as an extension of their dedication to the label. Original 33rpm Blue Note albums are scarce and outrageously expensive. Many collectors have at least one original Blue Note that they just had to buy, even though the vinyl had clearly been used for target practice. The label has so much cache that some folks will pay a premium for a scratchy, damaged Blue Note record just to have it, even when a CD of the same performance may be readily available. Rambach, a long time dealer in collectible vinyl, was concerned that people would only ever hear poor quality copies, and that they'd overlook lesser known titles: "I didn't know how the next generation was going to hear this music. It's the music that needs to be discovered. It's about bringing these guys back." Both men had a deep knowledge of the label's catalog through their own collections and felt strongly that, handled properly, a reissue could offer something new to enthusiasts.
Blue Noteunder its original ownership wasn't just any jazz record label, and therefore its recording history merits the special attention. Alfred Lion cut his first tracks in 1939 with some 78rpms of pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. Those sides became the first releases of the fledgling Blue Note label, which went on to become synonymous with some of the highest quality and most innovative jazz of the 20th century. The label really hit its stride in the post-war years, first by embracing bebop and the new long-playing records, and then by continually searching out and recording fresh talent. Lion recorded many important musicians who later became legends when they were coming up in the mid 1950s and 1960s, as well as a few older artists for good measure. The label's A&R men, first Ike Quebec, and then Duke Pearson, were accomplished musicians themselves who were able to spot and attract first-rate talent to the label. Towering giants such as pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins all made records for Lions; as did lesser-known greats like saxophonist J.R. Monterose and pianists Sonny Clark and Herbie Nichols. Lion gave a voice to many innovative, often young jazz musicians, whose forward-thinking compositions, bold interpretations and extraordinary performances became instant classics. Quite simply: he recorded the best artists he could find and gave them the freedom to make their own music. In the process he built what is arguably the most important catalog of recordings in jazz.
Constant recycling of that catalog keeps many titles available, but reissues often come with compromised sound quality, especially on CD. The most comprehensive CD seriesreleased in the early years of this new centuryis a mixed bag of compression and alterations that doesn't do anything to flatter the music. There have periodically been a few great reissues of selected titles, but these have tended to stick with well-known, popular records. Saxophonist John Coltrane's Blue Trane (1957) is always in print, often in deluxe packages, while something like Gil Melle's Patterns In Jazz (1956) rarely sees the light of day. This approach to reissuing is an unfortunate economic reality of the record business. Popular titles simply sell more copies. The Blue Note catalog has not been spared from this myopic strategy, which is unfortunate because many of the lesser-known titles are every bit as musically satisfying as the big hits. This sin of omission was something that Rambach and Harley were determined to avoid. "We didn't want to focus on the war horses of the catalogue," explains Harley. "The tapes are a treasure trove of great material, and one of the goals from the beginning was to bring out great titles that were under-heard by the public."
To get the best possible sound quality for the project, Rambach and Harley sought out the recording art's equivalent of an act of God: access to the original master tapes recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack, NJ. The tapes are archived by Blue Note parent EMI, and obtaining them involved running a gauntlet of terms and conditions. Despite the obstacles, the original tapes were an absolute requirement for the project. Digital copies, or even second-generation tapes, would introduce sonic compromises that were simply not compatible with the series' goals. Using the master tapes would ensure that the new pressings were never more than two steps away from the original sessions. Anything less than the original tapes would have made the project pointless. Of course, getting those tapes is not as simple as borrowing a book from the library. Harley and Rambach began by writing letters to EMI, with little success. Eventually they tapped a friend, Michael Cuscuna, who, in addition to having a long history with the label and solid connections at EMI, is also the conservator of the great Francis Wolff photographs that often grace the covers of the Blue Note albums. With Cuscuna's intervention and support, and assurances that this would be a low-volume niche project, EMI gave the green light, and in 2007 the Music Matters reissue series was in business.
The Blue Note tapes are unique, irreplaceable documents of a high point in American music, and therefore require special precautions. EMI takes great care in preserving this material in specialized archives. Of course, every time a tape is played or even handled there is a risk of damage. Music Matters had to secure a one million dollar insurance policy for each tape before EMI would release them. Under those circumstances even the most prosaic task acquired new gravitas. Harley recalled the anxiety of picking up the masters for saxophonist Hank Mobley's Soul Station (1960) from the courier, looking at the box sitting on his front seat, and having nightmare visions of wrecking his car on the way to the studio. From a distance it seems like quite an honor to have this problem, but it's also easy to imagine the anxiety.
As an archive medium, magnetic 50 year-old reel-to-reel tapes run the risk of degradation that comes with time, handling and use. The condition of the tapes was a concern from the outset. A compromised master could prevent the Music Matters crew from getting a first-rate analog impression with which to stamp new records. As luck would have it, those fears proved to be largely unfounded. The Scotch tapes (yes, that's the brand) were in surprisingly good condition and proved to be easy to work with. The sound quality wasfor the most partcompletely intact with remarkably few anomalies. A few titles suffered from sub par sound quality, and these were not included in this collection, but by and large the material was ready to go.
Starting with the introduction of the compact disc 25 years ago, collectors and audiophiles have kept a torch burning for needles and grooves, but in the mass music market vinyl records were as dead as the DeSoto. That began to change in recent years, partially out of nostalgia and a certain hipster factor, but also because when produced properly, records just sound damn good. Digital music, whether by CD or file sharing, disassembles music into ones and zeroes for storage, and then reassembles it for listening. By comparison, true analogtape to lathe to recordis a direct impression of the sound. From the outset Rambach and Harley believed that only a true analog copy of the Blue Note tapes would yield the sound quality they wanted, so they decided to release the series on vinyl only. They made the additional decision to release each title on two 180gram 45rpm LPs instead of one 33rpm platter because, in their estimation, the higher velocity of 45rpm rotation reduces the impact of distortion as well as the loss of high frequencies as the needle moves to the center of the album. It costs more, of course, as everythingalbums, covers and sleeves has to be doubled to include all the music, but they are convinced the effort pays sonic dividends. Frankly, it's hard to argue with the results.
Vinyl mastering and pressing is a dwindling art and there aren't many people left with the proper knowledge and equipment to make a really first class record. As they laid out their plans, Rambach and Harley knew exactly where to turn. Mastering duties were entrusted to Kevin Gray, owner of Cohearent Audio. With almost 40 years in the recording business, Gray has been the technical end of a number of recent, high-quality reissue projects. The Cohearent studio has an array of very high quality vintage components to facilitate transferring the music from tape to lacquer, including a modified Studer reel-to-reel deck, custom class A amplification, and a vintage Neumann cutting lathe, all heavy duty gear with the capacity to make first rate stampers. Despite decades of experience with this kind of material, Gray was still a little star-struck by the process. "It's an amazing window into history," he says. "The boxes have all of Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion's hand written notes all over them." In some cases those notes, often from Lion to Van Gelder with production instructions, helped guide the remastering process as well.
Of course, remastering is only one step in a series of production links. Once the stampers are cut, they need to be pressed into hot plastic, and successfully managing that process takes some additional expertise. Anyone who remembers buying a record, only to find an off-centered hole, or a noisy, warped bit of wafer thin plastic, can appreciate the problems to be avoided in pressing a premium collection. Music Matters turned to the RTI pressing facility with a simple justification: according to Rambach, "RTI is the highest quality record plant in the country, period." Pointing to dead quiet vinyl and perfectly centered spindle holes he credits RTI's Rick Hashimoto and his team with really embracing the goals of the project to meet the high quality expectations. The success is easy to verify. As we'll get to in a moment, this is some of the finest vinyl you'll ever hear.
It was also important to Rambach that these albums look spectacular. Blue Note album covers had a distinct design language, and fidelity to that aesthetic was a top priority. The label's house look was defined by Reid Miles, whose bold, geometric color blockscombined with Francis Wolff's black and white photographscreated a modern and sophisticated motif. In the book Blue Note: The Album Cover Art (Chronicle Books, 1991), editor Felix Cromey offered an eloquent summation: "As Blue Note embraced the musical changes of its recording artists, so Reid Miles caught the slipstream, creating sleeves that transcended the mugshots and mysticism of other genres' sleeves." To capture all of the design elements of the original covers, Music Matters turned to printer Jack Sloughton, whose company has been making record jackets for over 50 years. Accurate reproductions required painstaking color matching, as well as touching up any fading or discoloration. All of the jackets are printed on heavyweight, acid-free board to ensure longevity. "There was a tremendous amount of effort in getting these covers as perfect as possible," says Rambach. "We're psychotic about it." Indeed, the covers, which could have been an after-thought, are beautiful, and Wolff's dramatic black and white photos in the gatefold provide an additional window into the recording sessions.
These Music Matters reissues are a premium product, and the experience of handling and listening to them is really special. The attention to detail has paid off in spades, creating as luxurious a quality as can be obtained from 360 grams of vinyl. The hefty covers are something to behold, with vivid, deep colors, crisp photographs and the liner notes reprinted in their entirety. They invite a great old ritual: reading the promo copy while listening to the music. The vinyl itself is impeccable, with dead quiet black backgrounds and tremendous dynamic range. The 180 gram weight makes solid contact with the turntable platter and the stylus just seems to glide through the groovesno pops, no ticks, no pings. It's hard to imagine any subsequent version ever bettering these pressings for their sonic and aesthetic quality.
But they are records, and they are meant to be played, leading the inevitable question: how do these Music Matters pressings sound? In a word: fantastic. But they still sound like old Blue Note records, and that requires some additional explanation.
Rudy Van Gelder
These albums all have the hallmark "Blue Note sound" that is a product of the space in which they were recorded. Van Gelder quite literally began recording jazz musicians in his parents' living room in the early 1950s, including titans like pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis. Compared to today's recording environments this was a truly improvised setup. The recordings are not perfect, nor are they "Hi-Fi" in the modern sense of the word. The pianooften deridedis better here than on previous releases but still sounds a little boxed in, and instruments on the stereo recordings are often unnaturally hard-panned to the left and right channels, leaving a hole in the middle. There are variations from recording to recording, but the overall sound is always consistent.
Herbie Nichols recording in the Van Gelder living room. Note the drapes.
Now imagine trying to record a piano in your parents' living room with Art Blakey's drums thundering just two feet away. The biggest challenge isn't to make a grandiose piano recording, but simply to ensure that the piano gets captured at all. Van Gelder went to great lengths to make sure that each player was audible on his recordings, even when doing so created some aural side effects. Even beginning in 1958, when he opened an actual studio, he continued to employ a fairly simple recording setup with very little baffling to separate the instruments. Through most of the 1960s every session was recorded live-to-two-track, and there was no overdubbing. The period sound notwithstanding, these recordings have some outstanding qualities. Horns sound rich and full of subtle tonal shadings. Percussion is often clear enough to tell whether the drummer was hitting the edge of a cymbal or the center, each with a distinct reverberation. Do these recordings have some limitations? That's an arguable point, but these recordings captured a lot of detail that engineers today do not, and in any event, these questions should never deter anyone from listening to the music
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter's first Blue Note recording, Night Dreamer, was cut in 1964. The six originals are a mixture of swinging hard bop with a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure. Shorter is clearly digging deep, challenging himself with his improvisations on his tenor. Lee Morgan's trumpet playing is more conventional, making a nice foil to Shorter's further thinking. Pianist McCoy Tyner, who can be among the most percussive pianists, exhibits an unusual filigreed subtlety, particularly on the ballads, where Shorter also shows his softer side. The record has a solid groove that could induce toe tapping in a cemetery. This is a gem of the era, featuring first-rate compositions, arrangements and performances.
Night Dreamer has never sounded better than it does here. The horns are full and clear with excellent tone nuance. Reggie Workman's bass is not as punchy as it might have been, but the notes are deep and fully articulated. The drums of Elvin Jones, on the other hand, exude presence. The soundstage, typical of these Music Matters pressings, is gigantic, seemingly unaffected by the exterior boundaries of loudspeaker placement. By direct comparison, the CD sounds thin and brittle, and reveals some studio trickery, with the placement of the horns altered within the soundstage. The vinyl is unmistakably superior.
Clifford Jordan's Cliff Craft (1957) is a vehicle for his warm, powerful tenor sax. Jordan was not the flashiest player in the Blue Note stable, but he exuded confidence with every note. It seems likely that he was aware of Sonny Rollins as a stylist, but he was also looking further back to Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. In 1957 Jordan was still working through his influences on his way to his own sound, but he had a huge presentation that must have made him an exciting player to see live. On this date, Jordan was joined by the magnificentif ill- fated Sonny Clark, who always structured his blues with unusual dexterity and originality, as well as the great Art Farmer on trumpet.
As a Van Gelder recording, Cliff Craft has one unusual feature. It was recorded in 1957, the first year stereo was widely employed. The date pushes both horns to the far left, instead of the more common split arrangement. The piano is nicely recessed into the stage, and is as fully realized as any in this catalog. The walking bass line on "Soul-Lo Blues" is forward in the mix with a terrific "thwack," and the cymbals have a widely dispersed ringing tone to them. Overall this is an excellent recording with smooth, detailed sound and terrific instrument definition.
Gil Melle's Patterns In Jazz warrants special attention on several levels. Melle himself, a bit of a renaissance man, had a relatively short tenure as a performing jazz musician during the 1950s, before moving on to film and television soundtracks. As a baritone saxophonist, he was cool and laid back, sounding more LA than NYC. The album features a quintet including the guitar of Bert Cinderella in place of the more common piano in the rhythm section. Melle shows his talent for arranging, with some unusual bass note harmonies. The record is rooted in bebop, but Melle also adds some notably advanced harmonic structures. "Weird Valley" features an awkward little melody and some ear-catching contrapuntal surprises. Even a warhorse like "Moonlight In Vermont" has been reworked into something truly original. Melle was not the most powerful saxophonist, but he played to his own strengths, focusing on mood and atmosphere over bombast. The album is utterly charming.
Patterns In Jazz also taps a long controversy between mono and stereo Blue Note records. The debate often focuses on the hard, left-right panning of the instruments on the stereo records, and whether the mono pressings just sound more natural. Rudy Van Gelder began recording in stereo in 1957, using both stereo and mono tapes in tandem for a short time before abandoning mono altogether. Doing its part to fuel the flames, the Music Matters gang discovered that beginning in mid 1957 all of the mono issues were down-mixed from stereo masters. Each box was in fact marked in Van Gelder's hand, "Mo(no) master made 50/50 from stereo."
As one of the few true mono recordings in the series, Patterns In Jazz certainly won't settle this controversy, but its sound is revelatory. Mono recordings can sometimes sound stacked, with all of the instruments arranged in a narrow vertical pile. By contrast, Patterns In Jazz might be described as "Big Mono." The image is large and unified, very much the way a combo on a small bandstand in a club might sound. The instruments are centered, but there are discernable depth and lateral cues. The bell chimes, for example, on "Nice Question," very clearly originate deep in the right side of the sound field. On the aforementioned "Moonlight In Vermont," Melle's horn stands clearly forward of the band in a way that even the best modern recordings have trouble capturing. The album delivers some serious ammunition to the one-track camp: an exceptional example of a well- engineered, high-quality mono recording. It is also one of the overall best recordings in the series: a true "must hear" pressing.
If that sounds like a favorable review, it is. But that's not to say there aren't a few downsides.
First, as 45rpm records, some of the sides have only one track on them. Expect to get up every five minutes or so to turn them over. No big deal.
Second, at $50, these are expensive records.
Third, despite a recent resurgence in vinyl, there just aren't that many listeners out there who still have turntables. A high-resolution, downloadable digital version offered along side the vinyl might have delivered most of the sonic attributes, and been accessible to more listeners. Yes, downloads would be comprised of ones and zeroes, but digital at its best is getting pretty close to analog for sound quality. Nevertheless, Harleywho is also an executive at hi-fi cable giant AudioQuestpoints out that a good turntable setup needn't cost a fortune and mentions a number of respectable all-in-one setups that include an arm and cartridge in the $200-$400 range. "People tend to be shocked that even an entry level table is plenty good enough to convey the vinyl effect." This might not be a solution that's available to everyone, for reasons of money, space or lifestyle (kids and turntables are not always a good match) but it certainly opens some options.
The Music Matters Blue Note reissue series offers an awful lot to jazz fans. But the exceptional quality of the vinyl and the exquisite covers notwithstanding, the most impressive thing about the collection may simply be how far they've dug into Blue Note's back catalog. Titles like saxophonists John Jenkins' With Kenny Burrell (1957) and Sam Rivers' important, if under-appreciated Fuscia Swing Song (1964) don't get out of the vault very often, so it's a credit to Rambach and Harley that they've taken some chances. Rambach concedes that trombonist Grachan Moncur III's Evolution (1963) doesn't move a lot of copiesit is pretty far outbut he's released it anyway. The team stayed away from popular hits in part because it saw an opportunity to expose lesser-known titles, and that's a great thing. Music Matters currently has 88 Blue Note albums either released or already re-mastered and waiting to hit the streetmore than enough titles for a listener to gain a solid understanding of the label's legacy. Rambach and Hartley are a little cagey about which additional titles they'll release in the future, but they continue to audition tapes from the EMI vault, so it's a good bet that they're not done yet.
Rambach is circumspect about his role in the effort, and readily allows that none of this would have come together without the skills and efforts of everyone involved. "I've got nothing but reverence for Rudy Van Gelder; Michael Cuscuna was paramount in getting this done; and the RTI team, and even our printer made enormous contributions." The Music Matters Blue Note Reissue Series is truly a collaborative accomplishment. In a world where music is shot around the world in seconds over the Internet, these old- fashioned vinyl records offer better sound quality than virtually any digital medium, and the format itself invites listeners to slow down and give the music some serious attention. With the music industry dominated by technology that turns music into a commodity, and sound reproduction into an appliance, these records offer something very special: a collection that is made by people who truly care about what they're doing and insist on the highest standards. It's hard not to deeply appreciate their effort.
Page 1: Courtesy of Joe Harley
Page 3: Courtesy of Ron Rambach
Page 4: Francis Wolff, courtesy of Mosaic Images