Music Matters: The Blue Note Reissue Series
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.