Recently, when I visited the MPS Records website, I got the feeling the label might be in a transition of some sort. I’ve reviewed some of its vinyl releases, and wanted to find information about any upcoming LP releases, as well as details about the availability of reissues on reel-to-reel tape. Since those links no longer appear on the site, I can only assume that MPS is reevaluating its position about both formats. The three recent vinyl releases from MPS I discuss here make me eager to hear more from the label’s back catalog.
The great jazz pianist Bill Evans recorded extensively between 1956 and his death, in 1980. His discography comprises 50 albums as a leader, and he appeared on many other recordings as a sideman. With Wynton Kelly, he was one of two pianists on what is perhaps the biggest-selling jazz LP of all time, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. As with many jazz artists, Evans’s career is documented across several labels, often within the same time period. For example, in 1968 in Germany, he recorded a trio session for MPS that has only recently been released, on Resonance Records.
MPS did release another recording Evans did for them: Symbiosis, from 1974, which featured Evans’s trio with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums, and an orchestra arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman. Ogerman had written arrangements for two previous Evans releases, Plays the Theme from The V.I.P.s and Other Great Songs (1963), and Trio with Symphony Orchestra (1965). Symbiosis, a five-movement suite, is entirely Ogerman’s own composition, and it successfully blends jazz with orchestral music.
I have a Japanese CD of Symbiosis, mastered at 24-bit and released in 2000, and it sounds very good. The first section of 1st movement: Moderato, Various Tempi begins with woodwinds playing a theme that carries hints of George Russell and Stan Kenton. The winds sound natural and full, but on the vinyl reissue (MPS 0211547MSW) it’s a little easier to hear how Ogerman used lower-register instruments, such as the bass clarinet, to give the sound a strong foundation.
About a minute and half in, Morell and Gomez enter. On vinyl, Gomez’s bass has just a touch more snap and a more forceful low end. The bass has an impressively large presence in both formats, but on LP the low notes reached out and grabbed me. Morell’s drums are crisp and dynamic on both CD and LP, but on vinyl they sound more natural -- less bright, but with a more convincing snare sound and better sizzle on the cymbals.
When Evans enters, his piano sounds spacious, resonant, and impressively large on both formats. It has just a hint of brittleness on CD, but on LP Evans’s notes ring out more effortlessly, with longer sustain. A few minutes in, when Evans is accompanied by strings, the vinyl gives both strings and piano more room -- the result is a more convincing sense of the recording studio’s dimensions.
Evans’s trio plays without orchestral accompaniment early on, and at that point I felt the LP had an edge over the CD: The sound is less crowded and more relaxed, and each instrument has more air, but its placement in relation to the others is also more precise. As the trio ends the first section, Latin percussion leads into the second section of the movement, in which the woodwinds play the main themes, supported by the rest of the orchestra. The arrangement is exciting and complex; I felt the percussion had more room to open up on vinyl, and the orchestra sounded larger and grander.
The first movement’s wonderfully evocative and lengthy third section features Evans on Fender Rhodes piano, the orchestra developing and resolving the themes established earlier. Evans’s instrument isn’t as bright on LP, and notes rang out longer, with more of the shimmer I associate with the Rhodes. As the arrangement grows more complex, I felt the LP let me more easily keep track of all its elements.
Evans’s romantic playing opens the first section of 2nd Movement: Largo -- Andante -- Maestoso -- Largo, and I felt it was easier to hear small details on the vinyl, such as the points where Evans used the sustain pedal. Evans is soon joined by the orchestra, which sounded more impressive on vinyl, especially in the lower register, with a more natural interaction with the piano. The sections where the orchestra gives way to the trio give the musicians just a bit more room on vinyl -- for example, Morell’s brushes on snare are set off better.
As the second movement moves to its closing section, the arrangement increases in intensity and drama, and it was easier to hear the orchestra’s various sections. I could more easily place the strings and oboes on the soundstage, and as the movement became more dynamic I was able to keep track of the various elements of the orchestration. As the piece came to a quieter close, light notes from Evans hanging in the air, the music seemed to resolve more satisfyingly on vinyl.
The Japanese CD edition of Symbiosis is very good; the differences between it and this new pressing are subtle. But the music flowed more naturally on LP, and I found it easier to visualize the size of the orchestra. Ogerman’s composition holds up well after more than 40 years -- it’s dramatic and powerful in some passages, lyrical and almost contemplative in others.
Ogerman often showed great taste in his arrangements, as he did with Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, but in some cases, including the other Evans recordings mentioned, he bowed to commercial pressures. Symbiosis is a composition worth hearing again, and in this pressing it’s one that Bill Evans fans will find to be a worthwhile entry in his discography.
When Clark Terry died in 2015, at age 94, he had played on over 900 sessions, and had led 114 of them. “Of all my albums this one will always be my dearest,” Terry says in the liner notes to the 2007 German CD reissue of Clark After Dark, a 1977 session featuring Terry on flugelhorn, accompanied by an orchestra led by Peter Herbolzheimer. MPS’s new reissue (LP, MPS 02115331MSW) reprints the original liner notes but doesn’t include that quote. Perhaps Terry’s affection for the recording stemmed from the fact that he’s in great form, playing with 50 musicians consisting mostly of British jazz players and a string section.
The album, variously subtitled The Ballad Artistry of Clark Terry or The Ballad Album, was recorded in London at Olympic Sound Studio, and included eight standards and one song each by Herbolzheimer and producer Mike Hennessey. Herbolzheimer’s arrangement of Errol Garner’s “Misty” blends strings convincingly with the jazz orchestra, and his use of trombones and French horn show the influence of Stan Kenton’s often dynamic ballad arrangements.
To switch from the CD to the new MPS LP is to hear the richness of Herbolzheimer’s chart for “Misty.” The array of strings across the stage sounds wider and deeper, letting me hear each section of the orchestra -- and when the warm wash of lower-register horns enters, it’s easier to tell the French horn from the trombones. Most important, Terry’s flugelhorn is rounder toned and more expressive. On vinyl, the interaction of strings and the rest of the orchestra is easier to hear because they have more apparent room on the soundstage.
The strings dominate “Nature Boy,” and on vinyl they’re allowed to build more slowly -- when Gordon Beck’s piano enters, he’s heard more clearly, and just slightly in front of them. The horns enter and build more gradually, and when Terry begins to play, he’s out in front. The saxophone section has more space to fill in behind him, and the strings and orchestra have more room to themselves. Terry’s improvisations feel much more like a reaction to what’s going on around him. On CD, it feels as if the instruments are pressing in around him.
German pianist and arranger Horst Mühlbradt wrote the chart for Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” and his use of horn dynamics shows a strong Kenton touch. The sonorities of the brass and woodwinds come across much better on vinyl, as do the subtleties of Terry’s phrasing and the clarity of his tone. Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk” closes the LP on a warm note, and the LP gives Chris Laurence’s double bass more definition and drummer Alan Ganley’s cymbals more sparkle. Tony Coe’s sax solo sounds somewhat edgy on CD but fluid and nuanced on LP. When the orchestra rises behind Terry’s solo, it’s more gradual, and thus more effective on the new vinyl.
Clark After Dark is a lovely LP with enough swing to satisfy jazz fans, even in the passages with strings. Herbolzheimer conducts the orchestra beautifully, and the well-written charts give Terry space to play with feeling, subtlety, and wit. The recording is one to sit down and enjoy with a glass of wine, and while I don’t know that I’d call it an essential Clark Terry album, in this pressing it’s a sonic pleasure.
Dizzy Gillespie’s Reunion Big Band was so named because in 1968 Gillespie wanted to bring together musicians from his earlier bands with the younger players who were then playing with him. The group’s 20th and 30th Anniversary is a live recording of their performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 1968. Twenty years earlier, Gillespie had brought a big band to Germany, and ten years before that he’d toured Europe for the first time, with the Teddy Hill Orchestra.
I own a Verve reissue LP of 20th and 30th Anniversary, probably pressed in the early 1980s. Gillespie greets the audience in his typically humorous fashion, and it’s easier on the Verve than on the new MPS reissue (LP, MPS 0211546MSW) to hear some echo in the hall when he speaks, and the sounds of the band members arranging sheet music on their stands.
When they begin to play “Things to Come,” however, the sound improves considerably on the new pressing. Paul West’s double bass is more distinct and Candy Finch’s ride cymbal has more shimmer. Mike Longo’s piano is lost in the mix on the Verve, but on the new MPS he’s with the rest of the rhythm section, still somewhat in the background but audible. The band sounds bigger, more impressive, more dynamic.
West’s bass hangs on through even the most hectic portions of this very fast tune -- on portions of the Verve pressing, he’s in the background. Gillespie’s solo is rounder toned on the new pressing and stays firm; on the Verve LP, some notes in his faster riffs seem to lose power. Mike Longo’s solo sounds more assured on the MPS because the piano itself has more presence, and Candy Finch’s drums stay the course better.
The sections of the orchestra are easier to place in the soundstage on the MPS, which conveys a better sense of the sheer power of the 16-piece ensemble. The opening of “One Bass Hit” gives West a chance to show off, the band surrounding him and punctuating his lines. His bass is impressively large on the new pressing, and his solo has more solid lows. The band sounds fuller behind Gillespie during his trumpet call-and-response with them, and Finch’s kick-drum accents hit harder.
“Con Alma,” a Gillespie tune influenced by Afro-Cuban jazz, depends on percussion to set its tone, and Finch’s cowbell sounds bigger and sharper in the new pressing. Again, West’s bass has more low-frequency impact, and the interaction of the brass and woodwinds is more precise. The trombone section sounds warmer and more luxurious.
“The Things Are Here” moves swiftly, the horns punching in here and there at the beginning, and adding flourishes at points along the way. On the new pressing, they hit with more force. Gillespie and another trumpeter (Jimmy Owens?) duet before branching off, each for his own solo. When they play in tandem, it’s easier to hear their notes wrapping around and supporting each other, and the rhythm section stays more locked together than in the earlier pressing.
The Verve pressing of the Dizzy Gillespie Reunion Big Band’s 20th and 30th Anniversary is driving, exciting, and bright; the new MPS reissue is warmer, deeper, more nuanced. I’ve been perfectly happy with the earlier pressing, but the new one presents this strong Gillespie big band in sound that’s more impressive, more three-dimensional, more harmonically complex.
Like all MPS vinyl reissues, these come in clear reproductions of the original covers in medium-weight cardboard. Each includes an insert with new liner notes in English and German, and a photo of the box that housed the master tape. Chistoph Stickel’s remastering of these all-analog recordings is sensitive and tasteful, and the pressings, presumably by Optimal in Germany, are first rate. Let’s hope MPS continues to issue LPs from its extensive catalog.
. . . Joseph Taylor