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Blue Note On Blu-Ray

Mark Werlin By

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Just as exposure to new music casts older, familiar works in a different light, newer formats can expand a listener's perspective on the strengths and limitations of the original recordings. —Mark Werlin
Jazz music is best appreciated with "big ears" and an open mind. Just as exposure to new music casts older, familiar works in a different light, newer formats can expand a listener's perspective on the strengths and limitations of the original recordings.

SACDs, Blu-Ray discs and hi-res downloads accurately represent the affective details of jazz performance: the swish of brushes on a snare; the subtle inflections of a trumpet player's phrasing; the timbre that distinguishes one bassist's instrument—and touch—from another; the reverberant room ambience of large soundstages, halls and churches; the slow decay into silence at the release of a sustained piano chord.

Since the first appearance of SACDs in 1999, jazz in hi-res has been produced and released by reissue specialists (Analogue Productions, Mobile Fidelity, Audio Fidelity), smaller labels recording with state-of-the-art technology (Songlines, Chesky, Telarc, Linn, Challenge, Fonè), and corporate giants Sony, Warner and Universal Music Enterprises.

Universal, the rights-holder of the Blue Note Records catalog, assigned veteran remastering engineers Alan Yoshida and Bernie Grundman the task of transferring original analogue tapes recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs studios to high-resolution audio files, for the purposes of archiving and reissue.

Three of those recordings—all well-known jazz classics—are the subject of this column. Listening to them in hi- res is like visiting an old friend after a long absence; an opportunity to gain new insights.

John Coltrane: Blue Train

Every Sunday in San Francisco's Fillmore district, Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church proclaims the musical liturgy of its patron saint, John Coltrane. The saxophonist's steadfast will to overcome alcohol and drug addiction, which he characterized as a spiritual awakening, shines through his gold-leaf painted iconic likenesses.

In the decades since Coltrane's untimely death in 1967, his recordings have been repackaged, remastered and reissued, culminating in this High Fidelity Pure Audio (HFPA) Blu-Ray disc from Universal Music Enterprises, which was mastered in 2015 from the original master tapes. For all the artistic merit and historical significance ascribed to Coltrane's music, it would be naïve not to recognize the degree to which his recordings are valued as a commodity. Original LP pressings of Blue Train command four figure prices at auction, and each time jazz collectors acquire new reissues of his recordings, we tip the balance of valuation further towards the monetary side of the art/commerce scale.

Acknowledging the sacrifices made by John Coltrane on the road that led to Blue Train can help rebalance that scale on the side of art.

Practice

The only child of hard-working, economically aspiring parents, John Coltrane was raised in the African American community of High Point, North Carolina. During his twelfth year, in the span of a few months John suffered the catastrophic loss of his father, his maternal grandfather and grandmother. The family descended from middle-class status to straitened financial circumstances. As his mother struggled to keep him out of poverty, John withdrew into a lifelong and habitually solitary obsession with music.

He practiced constantly, first the clarinet and later the alto saxophone. Driven north in search of better-paid work, the Coltrane family relocated to Philadelphia, where John completed high school and was exposed to the musical revolution of bebop. A year's service in the Navy brought Coltrane into practice sessions with a group of like-minded musicians. An amateur 78 recording of that group playing Charlie Parker and Nat Cole tunes found its way to New York City apartment of the trumpet player in Charlie Parker's quintet, Miles Davis. Miles heard something distinctive in Coltrane's sound, even at that very early stage in the saxophonist's development.

On his return to Philadelphia, Coltrane resumed a disciplined regimen of practice and study. He attended classes in music theory and saxophone technique at the Granoff Conservatory; connected with the burgeoning Philly jazz scene; and pursued his own studies of harmony. In Coltrane's musical conception, there were no hard boundaries between classical, jazz, and popular vocal music; he endlessly discussed, analyzed, practiced and wrote sketches based on themes from contemporary classical composers, especially Bartok and Shostakovich, jazz tunes and pop ballads. He practiced from tattered copies of classical piano method books that he borrowed from friends. The horn was never out of his hands.

Brief stints with Dizzy Gillespie and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in 1948-49 should have brought Coltrane to the attention of his peers and steady employment, but his professional trajectory was slowed by heroin and alcohol abuse which often made him unreliable. He labored on for the next six years, playing shorter or longer engagements with various jazz and rhythm and blues groups. It was one of the slowest developments in the career of any jazz musician of similar stature. Shy and introvert by temperament, solitary by habit, Coltrane used substances to focus his attention on the mysterious language of musical harmony to the exclusion of practical considerations, including professional advancement. But by 1955 Coltrane was no longer just another devotee of Lester Young or a copier of Dexter Gordon or Wardell Gray, as he had been since his teens.

In the shadow of the jazz world, he was beginning to express his own unique sound. The hand that pulled John Coltrane out of obscurity was extended by a musician who needed to hear that sound as badly as Coltrane needed to create it.

Arrival

Miles Davis, clean after years of heroin abuse and eager to regain his prominence in the scene, was assembling a new working quintet for engagements and recordings. His chosen pianist and drummer, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, were from Philadelphia; they urged Miles to hire Coltrane. Miles had some justified reluctance. Coltrane's heroin use (like Philly Joe's and Garland's) and his relative lack of progress after so many years spoke against him. But that sound! Miles made the call. Coltrane moved to New York and immediately fell under the spotlight that followed Miles everywhere. The path to his major work lay straight ahead, though not without pitfalls and obstacles.

Two years of performing and recording with the Miles Davis Quintet brought Coltrane critical attention, some supportive, but much of it pejorative: he didn't swing like Sonny Rollins; his solos sounded like he was still practicing. While Coltrane was beginning to acquire an audience who came to Miles' gigs especially to hear him, Miles was growing dissatisfied with his continuing heroin use. At the end of a Café Bohemia engagement in April 1957, Miles fired Coltrane and Philly Joe.

Coltrane credited his transformation from the hesitancy shown in the October 1956 Prestige session Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet to the confidence of the Blue Train date, to a personal religious awakening that prompted his recovery from heroin addiction and alcohol abuse. His wife Naima gave him the emotional and spiritual support that had been missing all the years he'd spent struggling to survive. He kicked heroin without medical treatment and foreswore alcohol use in May 1957. Coltrane (Prestige, 1957) documents the immediate and noticeable improvements in Coltrane's playing after he stopped using heroin.

Committed to advancing his harmonic language, Coltrane spent the next nine months working intensively with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. Coltrane's obsessive commitment to harmony study resonated with Monk, as did their shared North Carolina origins. They sat together at Monk's piano nearly every morning, and played music night after night at the Five Spot Café, spinning theory into tapestries of sound. Fellow musicians, writers and artists who flocked to the Five Spot during that summer described the music as revelatory. A studio session recorded on August 13 for Riverside, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Riverside, 1957), offers a glimpse into that phenomenon.

Session

When Blue Note Records chief Alfred Lion offered Coltrane an opportunity to record his own compositions, choose his preferred musicians, and rehearse at Blue Note's expense, Coltrane selected two players on Blue Note's roster, the rising young trumpet player (and fellow Philadelphian) Lee Morgan and pianist Kenny Drew, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and the rhythm section of the Miles Davis Quintet, Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers.

Blue Train was recorded in a single session at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio on September 15, 1957. Throughout the session, Coltrane improvises fluent melodic lines across the full range of his instrument in a seemingly effortless display of virtuosity. Following the opening bars of the title track, with its stately proclamation of the blues, Coltrane launches into a solo that breaks out from the conventions of bebop vocabulary. The synthesis of blues and advanced harmonic structure—stacked fourth intervals, rapid variations on short motives—and the broken rhythms and unexpected off-beat rests inspired by Monk place Coltrane's soloing outside the mainstream of contemporary jazz. His original compositions, including "Lazy Bird" and "Moment's Notice," established Coltrane's credentials as a creator of new music, not merely an interpreter.

19 year-old trumpet player Lee Morgan, who had just recorded City Lights (Blue Note, 1957), has an assured, brassy tone with roots in the big band era. He's clearly listening to what Coltrane is doing: in his solo on "Moment's Notice" in the second chorus, Morgan employs rhythmic patterns and motivic variations characteristic of Coltrane woven into a well-conceived bebop framework. Morgan is the opening voice on the ballad "I'm Old-Fashioned," where he plays with restraint and subtle lyricism. Trombonist Fuller adds darker brass hues to the ensemble passages and contributes thoughtful, if less adventurous, solos.

The underappreciated pianist-composer Kenny Drew, whose failure to connect with a wide audience in the US led him to join the expatriate exodus to Europe, supports Coltrane with vigorous comping. Drew settled in Copenhagen, where he performed regularly and recorded for the Steeplechase and Storyville labels.

Sound

The tracks on the HFPA Blu-Ray disc were transferred to 24/192 from the original master tape by Alan Yoshida. Bonus tracks were remastered by Robert Vosgien. At the time of the Blue Train date, Van Gelder was recording all Blue Note sessions on a two-channel tape recorder. Once the master takes were selected, Van Gelder removed those sections of tape with a razor blade and spliced them together in LP sequence onto a master reel that he used to cut the stereo and monaural LPs. The master was the actual physical tape used in the recording session, not a first-generation copy. The qualities of Van Gelder's master tapes, the fidelity to instrument sound and room ambience, the realistic balance of piano, bass and drums, are clearly audible in the transfers contained on this Blu-Ray.

Alan Yoshida, mastering engineer on the JVC XRCD and Audio Wave XRCD releases, is a member of the UMe/Blue Note team for the Blue Note 75 series of remasters. Yoshida has deep sympathy with the "Van Gelder sound." On the Blu-Ray, Philly Joe's drum kit is set well back from the horns and Paul Chambers' bowed bass has clarity and weight. Van Gelder put a close mic on Kenny Drew and gets a somewhat better piano sound than on other recording dates from the same period. The nearly 60 year-old tape reveals details that earlier transfers had veiled: when Van Gelder fiddles with the plate reverb signal at the beginning of Curtis Fuller's trombone solo in "Moment's Notice," the level adjustment is startling—and amusing.

In a direct comparison, the UMe Blu-Ray and the Analogue Productions SACD of Blue Train both present the music with detail, warmth and clarity. The Blu-Ray projects more low bass and clearer channel separation, typical of Alan Yoshida's remasters. Listening is a subjective process and listeners may have preferences between the two versions, but both are admirable. The Blu-Ray disc has two additional bonus alternate takes. The liner notes include Francis Woolf's black and white photos, very well printed.

Blue Train was a landmark recording, but far from John Coltrane's ultimate musical destination: Giant Steps, Live at the Village Vanguard, A Love Supreme and Ascension lay ahead. But the 1957 album firmly established his credentials as a composer, arranger and session leader, and justified the high estimation of his musical abilities that Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk had long held.

References

Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music; University of Michigan Press, 1998; print Owens, Thomas. Bebop: The Music and the Players; Oxford University Press, 1995; print

Miles Davis: Take Off: The Complete Blue Note Sessions

Between 1952 and 1954, a low point in Miles Davis' personal and professional life, Blue Note Records label chief Alfred Lion organized a series of recording sessions that demonstrated his continuing faith in the ailing trumpet player's artistic promise.

Sextet sessions engineered by Doug Hawkins at WOR Studios on May 9, 1952 and April 20, 1953, and a March 6, 1954 quartet session recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio were compiled and reissued in 2001 on two RVG Edition CDs, in the CD box set Take Off: The Complete Blue Note Albums (Universal Music/Blue Note, 2014), and in 2015 on the present High Fidelity Pure Audio (HFPA) Blu-Ray disc.

Information about the provenance of tape sources used in newly remastered titles is not always easy to obtain. Liner notes and press releases may or may not identify those sources in detail. In response to a query about whether the original analogue tapes or Rudy Van Gelder's 2001 digital masters were used in the preparation of this Blu-Ray release, a label representative generously shared the following information:

"Bernie [Grundman] did the original transfer work from analog masters. He "created" new high resolution masters at 192/24 that Don Was approved for all of the Blue Note 75th anniversary projects.

Bernie's task originally was to recreate the masters for BLP 1501 and 1502 -the 12" albums from Miles's BN catalog. When the idea for a complete Blue Note Takes came up, the albums needed re-sequencing and there were additional takes that needed to be added.

That's where Kevin and Bob came in. They both did A-D transfers for the missing songs and in the process, additional, unreleased takes were discovered. Kevin did the sequencing for the CD version of this release but the BD master is different and was compiled by Arvato in Munich."

The explanation is illuminating, because the differences between the 2001 RVG CDs and the new Blu-Ray disc are not subtle. Compared to the CDs, the Blu-Ray displays extended highs (within the limits of early 1950's technology) and flat, unexaggerated bass response. Gil Coggins' piano and J.J. Johnson's trombone sound much more natural and detailed. Kenny Clarke's snare drum has snap, and the cymbals are much more forward in the room. Miles Davis' open trumpet has clarity and sharp focus.

All of this sonic improvement would be of little service if these recordings were of lesser value to jazz collectors than Miles' better-known recordings from later in the 1950s. In fact, the '52 and '53 WOR sessions are worthwhile not only for the inventiveness of Miles' solos and the quality of J.J. Johnson's compositions and arrangements, but for a rare opportunity to hear the elegant keyboard style of pianist Gil Coggins.

Gil Coggins had a brief musical career; he was Miles' first choice for the 1952 and 1953 Blue Note sessions, and appeared on The Ray Draper Quintet featuring John Coltrane (Prestige, 1958), but he quit live performing and did not return to public activity until the 1990s. In his autobiography Miles praised Coggins: "He was a hell of a pianist... If he had stayed at it I think he would have been one of the best piano players around."

The 30 tracks on the Blu-Ray—including four additional takes discovered since the 2014 CD set was released— visit a transitional period in modern jazz when the initial wave of bebop was flowing into a stream of musical tributaries. The trombonist-composer J.J. Johnson, who had played a major part in the Birth of the Cool sessions, lends his distinctive sound and arrangements to the sextet sessions. The May 1952 session opens with the lugubrious "Dear Old Stockholm," which Miles later re-recorded for Columbia Records. Other tunes such as "Woody 'N You," "Chance It" and "Ray's Idea" were identified with Dizzy Gillespie, and though Miles was laboring against the physical drag of heroin, he set up a challenge of distinguishing himself from Gillespie and the kind of bravura technical playing that Gillespie, and the rising young player Clifford Brown represented. Miles solos economically, with a strong rhythmic pulse, against the expert drumming of Kenny Clarke on the 1952 tracks, and Art Blakey on the 1953 and '54 sessions.

From a distance of six decades, it is easy to overlook the short-lived careers of musicians like Gil Coggins who left few traces of their work for posterity. Coggins' decision to trade music for the real estate business because the income for jazz musicians was unpredictable and the lifestyle often self-destructive, could have served to bolster Miles' determination to take business matters more seriously and practice his profession with greater discipline.

By 1954 Miles had successfully kicked a 5-year heroin habit and had begun searching for a suitable framework of sidemen to reestablish his place in the top echelon of jazz trumpeters.

Discographic Note: The first six tracks on the Blu-Ray do not follow the order indicated in the liner notes and back cover. The actual track order that appears on the Blu-Ray menu:

1. Dear Old Stockholm; 2. Woody 'N You; 3. Yesterdays; 4. Chance It; 5. Donna; 6. How Deep is the Ocean.

Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage

The third domestic HFPA Blu-Ray release of 1950s-1960s recordings from UMe's extensive Blue Note Records tape archive was compiled from Herbie Hancock's Blue Note sessions Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage. The Blu-Ray disc includes multiple alternate unreleased takes of three of the four compositions from Empyrean Isles. Empyrean Isles was remastered by Bernie Grundman, Maiden Voyage by Alan Yoshida, and the alternate takes by Robert Vosgien.

Herbie Hancock has enjoyed a long and productive musical career: as a pianist-composer leading his own sessions on Blue Note Records; as a member of the second Miles Davis quintet; as an innovator in jazz-rock fusion and jazz-hip-hop; and as a noted composer of film scores. A child prodigy, he began performing in his hometown of Chicago where he studied for a short time with the under-recognized virtuoso pianist Chris Anderson.

In an article posted on the blog jazz.com, jazz historian Ted Gioia offered a succinct description of what he calls the "Chicago school" of modern jazz piano:

"The essence of this music is a judicious balance between the linear momentum of bebop and the vertical conception of [Art] Tatum and [Earl] Hines. These Chicago keyboardists were two-handed players, with an ear for lush, resonant harmonies, and a knack for balancing the cerebral and emotional components in their music. When most players were emulating the spare left-hand work of Bud Powell, the Chicagoans had a more orchestral approach in mind."

By the time Herbie Hancock arrived in New York in 1960, he had mastered the sound of the Chicago school. After hearing him play with Donald Byrd's group, Alfred Lion signed Hancock to Blue Note Records, and by 1962 the 22 year- old pianist was leading sessions of his own compositions. Within a year, Miles Davis' teenage drum protégé Tony Williams encouraged Davis to hire Hancock in the critical dual role of pianist-composer.

The two Blue Note recordings that are collected on this disc have not been out of print since their initial release, due, in no small part, to the wide exposure Hancock received as a working member of the Miles Davis group. Hancock actively supported Davis' New Directions electric music, and had considerable success with his own jazz-funk LP Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) and the mega-hit song and landmark MTV video "Rockit." There are very few pianists of Hancock's generation as adept at balancing the demands of the muse against the realities of the record business. It is a curious coincidence that his immediate successors in the Miles Davis group, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, have also been very successful at negotiating the contradictory pulls of art and commerce.

Empyrean Isles

Recorded at Van Gelder studios on June 17, 1964, Empyrean Isles, performed by a quartet of trumpet, piano, bass and drums, was the fourth session in two years under Hancock's leadership. Hancock has said that the absence of a saxophone necessitated reducing the head arrangements to very brief melodic statements. The personnel, Hancock's rhythm section partners from the Miles Davis Quintet, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, and trumpet player Freddie Hubbard, were well-equipped to proceed directly from the terse opening ensemble parts into extended solos.

The fast-tempo opener "One Finger Snap" starts off with a rapidly shifting melodic turn then launches straight into an aggressive Hubbard solo over modal changes. "Oliloqui Valley" follows, a more introspective composition that allows space for Hancock to explore the light-touch balladic style he would develop further during his tenure in the Davis group. Hubbard plays long melodic lines with controlled vibrato and a clean, brassy tone.

In the early years of his performing career, Freddie Hubbard managed to avoid the catastrophic car accidents, health issues and substance abuse problems that prematurely took the lives of fellow players Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan. Hubbard was the most accomplished (surviving) young trumpet player in the period 1961 to 1967. His clarity of tone, harmonic inventiveness and technical facility allowed him to keep one foot in the stream of post-bop as exemplified by the Herbie Hancock sessions, and the other in the New Thing currents of Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse, 1965), Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964) and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1961).

"Cantaloupe Island" conforms to the well-tested template of "Watermelon Man" and "Blind Man, Blind Man" from Hancock's earlier Blue Note sessions. The two-handed piano approach lends rhythmic drive to a very simple, funky hard-bop composition. Hancock's proficiency at writing popular tunes would become a hallmark of his electric bands, but even at this early date it must have been a relief to Blue Note that his fourth LP for the label contained at least one track that would get radio and jukebox play.

The last and longest piece (14 minutes) does not appear among the alternate tracks because it was a spontaneous, unrehearsed take. "The Egg" opens with a rhythmically insistent (fast 6/4) piano riff based on a single chord that gradually transitions into substitutions on the original chord. Tony Williams churns a marching drum roll on his snare while Hubbard runs up and down the trumpet—scales, angular riffs, bebop lines, arpeggios, anything that comes to mind— trying vainly to find something interesting to contribute. At the five-minute point, Hancock must have indicated to the band that the first segment was over. Hubbard abruptly drops out, Williams switches to free-time hand percussion accents, and Carter picks up his bow and plays a two-minute arco solo veiled under a layer of studio reverb. Hancock's rejoinder, an orchestral passage of chromatic lyricism, shows the influence of Debussy and Gershwin; he is moving in a direction that would be explored further by many pianists in the coming decades. By the eight-minute point, Williams and Carter begin keeping straight time and Hancock sketches out a fairly conventional improvisation, but ultimately, the music is too fragmentary to cohere. "The Egg" is described in the liner notes as unplanned, and while it may have felt liberating to the musicians at the time of the recording, spontaneous composition was not this band's métier—they were not free improv players.

The multiple alternate takes of the three shorter tracks are all interesting performances and a good use of the extra-long capacity of the Blu-Ray platform. Moreover, the physical tape on which those takes were recorded was probably untouched for 50 years, so the alternates sound better (from a purely aural perspective) than the master takes.

Maiden Voyage

On March 11, 1965, Hancock returned to Van Gelder Studios with a quintet that included Hubbard, Carter, Williams and the recent ex-tenor saxophonist of the Miles Davis Quintet, George Coleman. The original compositions recorded that day have become jazz instrumental standards, testifiying to Herbie Hancock's growing proficiency as a composer, especially his ability to synthesize traditional and modernist elements in his writing.

The record is so well-known that it doesn't bear extensive descriptive notes; the pieces are played constantly on jazz radio stations and streamed on popular online services. Anyone likely to acquire this HFPA disc already has familiarity with the music.

What may be less well-known is the breadth of George Coleman's contributions to the continuity of jazz music. The Memphis native was a friend and frequent collaborator with the tragically short-lived trumpet player-composer Booker Little; preferred sideman in Max Roach's post-Clifford Brown bands; transitional tenor player in Miles Davis' group from 1962- 63; collaborator with pianists Harold Mabern and Mal Waldron, and with drummer Elvin Jones following his departure from John Coltrane's group. As Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse dropped out of production, at a time when Hancock was making hit records and writing commercial film scores, George Coleman was following the path of greater resistance but lesser compromise. He recorded for the artist-owned Strata-East label and participated in the final, large-ensemble sessions of Charles Mingus. Recording work grew scarce in the 1980s but through persistence, Coleman reestablished himself in the early 1990s and has performed and recorded regularly since then. He can be heard on the CD A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions Records, 2016).

Coleman's playing on the Maiden Voyage session displays the confident artistry that distinguished his work alongside Miles Davis in the live recordings of the transitional Quintet ca. 1962 and 1963. Sounding unlike tenor players Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson or Sonny Rollins, Coleman leans closer to John Coltrane's tightly-focused tone, but improvises from a more mainstream hard bop vocabulary. His solo on the title track is a compact, arch-shaped structure that begins with a quiet, slow legato introduction, moves into double-time arpeggio runs, and descends gracefully into a lyrical closing, all in 32 bars.

The album is a storehouse of musical pleasures. Listen to Freddie Hubbard's unexpected, growling multiphonics towards the end of his solo on "The Eye of the Hurricane," and Tony Williams' fleet brushwork on the ride cymbals throughout the session. The well-preserved tape sounds as good as Alan Yoshida's other transfers of Blue Note titles from the same 1964- 65 period. The recorded piano sound on Maiden Voyage has more timbral detail than on Empyrean Isles; discerning collectors should find it far more listenable than previous digital releases of this title.

Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, like Blue Train and the Take Off sessions, are bona fide jazz classics deserving of high-resolution transfer and deluxe presentation. It is to be hoped that all seventy-five of the Blue Note 75 Series will become available as high-res audio downloads.

Note: These reviews originally appeared in a different form on HRAudio.net, and are reprinted with permission of the site owner.

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