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Blue Note On Blu-Ray

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.

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