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Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage

Greg Simmons By

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Over the past forty-nine years there's been no shortage of ink spilled extolling the musical virtues of Herbie Hancock's 1965 recording, Maiden Voyage. Featuring the great trumpet of Freddie Hubbard and the bracing tenor of George Coleman, the record is as good as any effort turned in by Hancock during that period. It's a record every jazz fan should know.

Unfortunately, Maiden Voyage also has a long-standing reputation for mediocre sound quality. In another review of an expensive vinyl re-release of this record I wrote, "There is nothing to be gained by a first-class analogue pressing of a record that, sadly, was not recorded with the attention to sound quality that it deserved." In my record collection, the smeared quality of every instrument is prominent on a recent CD issue and the aforementioned double 45RPM LP, and an original 1965 vinyl copy—while less smeared—sounds flat and dull. I acquired each of these disks successively in a quest to find a truly good sounding copy of this date, and was disappointed each time. With that many different versions revealing similar deficiencies it's easy to conclude that this record just wasn't very well recorded in the first place.

All Rudy Van Gelder recordings from the 1950s and 60s have a certain period quality to them. Hard-panning instruments to the left and right channels creates an unnatural soundstage environment. Horns—brass and woodwinds—generally fare the best, with full-sized scale, realism, and even air surrounding the players (in some cases they're quite extraordinary). Drums and bass are also pretty good. The piano, however, has long been criticized for often sounding small, muffled and indistinct. That piano alone makes almost any Van Gelder recording instantly recognizable as such.

For whatever the reason, other copies of Maiden Voyage seemed to suffer the additional indignity of an even more deeply truncated piano, blurring of the other instruments, and a collapsed soundstage that sounds as though it had been recorded in a closet. It's never sounded as good as it should have for the quality of its music, making it a frustrating record to love.

So when Ron Rambach of Music Matters announced that he was shipping his 33rpm version of Maiden Voyage the first thing that sprung to mind was, "Why bother? It's been done to death and it never gets any better." I stuck it on a shelf without even opening it until Rambach followed up with several emails insisting that I listen to it. Finally relenting, I tossed it on the turntable with absolutely no expectation of being impressed. What else could I possibly hear in this fourth copy that I hadn't already heard in the first three?

Boy, was I wrong.

It is said that the original master tape for this date has deteriorated significantly over the years, making a truly great 1st generation analog copy supposedly impossible. Yet here it is. Rambach is pretty relentless about getting great sound out of his Blue-Note re-releases, but given its history the sound quality on this pressing is truly surprising. The smearing is gone, the instruments are distinct, the soundstage has actual depth that doesn't exist even on my original copy, and most impressively, the piano sounds like an actual piano: large(er. It's still a Van Gelder, after all.), weighty, and dynamic. The horns sound life-like and detailed, Ron Carter's bass has woody pluck, and Tony Williams' drums have resonance while the cymbals shimmer in space. Perhaps the only thing missing in comparison to the best Van Gelder Blue Notes is the scale of the instruments, which on certain recordings can be almost bigger than life. Here, they lack any vertical height, leaving them to sound a little small in a very wide soundstage, a minor quibble on an overall excellent mastering job from a troublesome tape. As usual with the Music Matters releases, the vinyl is dead quiet, which helps more detail emerge from the recording.

Whatever hi-fi mojo Rambach and mastering Engineer Kevin Gray used to get this sound off that tape and onto new vinyl, it should be bottled and shipped to every recording engineer in the world.

Maiden Voyage has always been musically first-rate, but I'd written off this recording as sonically dead years ago. It's been brought back to life in the most dramatic way. It's still a Van Gelder recording of course, and it sounds like one, with all of the period sonic hallmarks that entails, but now it sounds like a solidly good Van Gelder recording instead a botched job.

I've often wondered, "What if Maiden Voyage had actually been recorded properly?" This Music Matters 33rpm pressing is the answer writ large. With sincere apologies to Rudy Van Gelder, this turns out to have been a pretty darned good recording after all.

Track Listing: Maiden Voyage; The Eye of the Hurricane; Little One; Survival of the Fittest; Dolphin Dance.

Personnel: Herbie Hancock: piano; Freddie Hubbard: trumpet; George Coleman: tenor saxophone; Ron Carter: bass; Tony Williams: drums.

Title: Maiden Voyage | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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