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Record Label Profiles

Music Matters: The Blue Note Reissue Series

By Published: October 12, 2011
Constant recycling of that catalog keeps many titles available, but reissues often come with compromised sound quality, especially on CD. The most comprehensive CD series—released in the early years of this new century—is 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
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's Blue Trane (1957) is always in print, often in deluxe packages, while something like Gil Melle
Gil Melle
1931 - 2004
saxophone
'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
Rudy Van Gelder
Rudy Van Gelder
b.1924
producer
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 was—for the most part—completely 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.


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