My usual approach to reviewing vinyl is to compare a new release with an earlier copy I have on hand or can borrow, whether on LP or CD, then describe the sounds of both and make recommendations. In most cases, the vinyl comes out on top. This time around I evaluate music mastered for simultaneous release on CD and LP by MPS Records. Christoph Stickel and Dirk Sommer prepared these recordings for both formats, and Sommer produced them for reissue by Edel, in Germany.
MPS recorded many American and European jazz musicians, and its series of vinyl reissues has been wonderful -- all analog, all beautifully pressed. If you’ve been buying reissues on Blue Note or Verve, you owe it to yourself to check out these unique releases and find out how much more vintage jazz is out there waiting to be heard. The titles I listen to here are from MPS’s most recent series of jazz reissues.
Trumpet player and drummer Don Ellis was born in Los Angeles in 1934, and played professionally and in a US Army band soon after graduating from Boston University, in 1956. He played with Maynard Ferguson’s band in the late ’50s, but soon found himself drawn to the experimental jazz of Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and George Russell, with all of whom he recorded or played.
Ellis led a few small group sessions in the early ’60s, but didn’t record again until 1966, when the Don Ellis Orchestra performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He’d spent the intervening years studying the music of India and playing in various “third-stream” jazz ensembles, and now his work incorporated odd time signatures and music from other cultures. By 1967, when he began recording for Columbia Records, he was using effects usually associated with rock, such as an Echoplex.
After seven albums for Columbia, Ellis made two for MPS. On Haiku (1974) he led a small group augmented by his own arrangements for large string orchestra. His previous album for MPS, Soaring (1973), had found him in the more typical setting of his own big band, which by then included a string quartet. Leonard Feather’s liner notes to Ellis’s Live at Monterey (1966) quoted one listener who said that Ellis would be “the Stan Kenton of the 1970s.” I’m fond of Kenton’s best work, but Ellis avoided the kitsch that Kenton occasionally veered into, and even his largest bands -- the Soaring group comprised 20 players -- were always light on their feet. He also was much more comfortable with rock music than almost any other jazz big-band leader, and successfully integrated it into his work.
Although Ellis wrote only four of Soaring’s eight tracks, all were composed and arranged for his band. Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” used in the soundtrack of the recent film (2014) of that title, first appeared on Soaring. Ellis’s 12-piece horn section announces the head, but Jay Graydon’s fuzz-tone guitar and Dave McDaniel’s heavy bass guitar naturally integrate a rock feel into the piece. The strings, plucked in one interlude, add harmonic texture, and the brass and woodwind sections play with precision and finesse. Ellis’s solo is typically hot, as McDaniel plays solidly behind him and the horns punctuating as the solo develops.
MPS’s new CD and LP sound much the same -- when I switched between them during “Whiplash,” I didn’t hear the marked differences I sometimes do when comparing formats mastered by different engineers. Nonetheless, I felt the LP did a couple things better. McDaniel’s bass had fuller, more impressive impact, and I could hear the attack of each note just a bit more clearly. When the string quartet played pizzicato they had more definition, and their bowed notes sounded a little more velvety.
The string quartet in the opening of pianist Milcho Leviev’s “Sladka Pitka” sounded largely the same on CD and LP. When the rest of the band enters, the bass, again, was more impressive and tighter on vinyl and the kick drum moved more air, but overall, both formats gave a clear picture of the scope and size of the ensemble.
Small things were a little more vivid on the LP. The percussion in Ellis’s “The Devil Made Me Write This Piece” was slightly less focused on CD, while on LP the cowbell rang out more fully and the kick drum’s lows packed more punch. Graydon’s fuzz-tone guitar in Sam Falzone’s “Go Back Home” was sharper and more cutting.
Vince Denham’s alto sax introduces Ellis’s “Invincible,” the strings playing in support. Ellis then enters on trumpet, and soon brings the rest of the band with him. The arrangement grows in intensity, Denham soloing as the band surrounds him. The track closes with Denham playing in front of the strings. The arrangement is rich and involving on both formats, but the vinyl conveys the texture and fullness of the strings with a hint more clarity, and the lower register comes through more powerfully.
The strings play a central role in Ellis’s “Image of Maria,” a ballad featuring Ellis and Leviev, and Ellis’s balladic talents are further displayed in Alexej Fried’s “Sidonie,” which begins softly and builds to an intriguing, rhythmically challenging climax. Again, the music comes through with great detail on both formats, but on LP the piano has more sheen and sustain, and the accents on the kickdrum and snare are stronger. It’s also easier to pick out and place Milcho Leviev’s piano in “Nicole,” which brings this fine album to a satisfying close.
Ellis made several other recordings worth checking out. Electric Bath (Columbia, 1967) is a good indication of how he used rock, the music of India, and jazz to create something new and interesting, and the two-CD At Fillmore (Columbia, 1970) is also strong. Had Don Ellis not died in 1978, at age 44, of a heart attack, he surely would have had a greater impact on music. MPS has done a great service by bringing us Soaring in these handsome new CD and LP editions -- it’s a fine place to begin exploring Ellis’s work.
Drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke (1914-1985) was in the house band at Minton’s, a New York club, in the 1940s, and participated in the after-hours jam sessions from which bebop evolved. Clarke’s use of quarter notes on ride cymbal allowed him to use the snare and kick drum for accents, and helped create the rhythmic flexibility that bebop required. Clarke played and recorded with a number of great musicians in the ’40s and ’50s, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cannonball Adderley.
Clarke was the original drummer of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and his replacement by Connie Kay coincided with his decision to move to Paris. He’d worked with the Belgian pianist Francy Boland (1929-2005) in the US in the late ’50s, and reconnected with him in 1961. They recorded an octet album for Blue Note and, that same year, established the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band. That unit recorded extensively over the next ten years, including six albums for MPS.
All Smiles, a 1968 MPS release, was also released by Prestige but with a different title, Let’s Face the Music and Dance (1969). The 17-piece band included European jazz musicians and American players who, like Clarke, had moved to Europe. It featured two drummers, but it’s clear from the first track, an arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” that the drummers complement each other and keep the band swinging. Clarke keeps the beat steady in the left channel, accenting with the bass drum, and British drummer Kenny Clare -- the drummers’ names differ by only a single letter -- adds emphasis in the right. Idrees Sulieman states the melody on trumpet, the rest of the orchestra filling in warm harmonies behind him. Vibraphonist Dave Pike plays a fluid, fast-moving solo followed by intricate ensemble work by the brass and reed sections. The CD and LP both provide a clear view of the sections of the orchestra and the recording venue: Lindstrom Studios, in Cologne, Germany. Pike’s solo has a bit more sustain on vinyl, and Jimmy Woode’s bass punches through with a bit more authority.
Pike’s vibes take the featured role in “I’m All Smiles,” Boland’s piano filling in behind him and the two drummers providing texture. Sahib Shihab’s flute solo has a touch of reverb around it that the LP presents more clearly, and on vinyl it’s a little easier to hear that Clare is using sticks, Clarke brushes. The dynamic flow of the arrangement comes through solidly on both formats, but LP has a slightly deeper soundstage.
The section playing in “You Stepped Out of a Dream” shows the power of a large band as the players fall in to support Sulieman’s warmly developed solo. The reeds are more texturally defined on vinyl, and the trombones have a warmer, larger sound. The Gershwins’ “By Strauss” gives saxophonist Ronnie Scott an exciting feature, and on vinyl he has just a little more space as the rest of the band punctuates his solo.
Again, the differences between CD and LP are subtle, with perhaps a bit more air around the horns as they back the soloists, and a hair more punch in the lower register. Cymbals throughout cut through more clearly, and the timbres of instruments, such as the character of Tony Coe’s tenor sax in Bronislaw Kaper’s “Gloria,” come through better on LP.
As you can see from the songs mentioned, All Smiles is composed of standards, most of them well known, but each arranged in ways that, for the time, were unique and fresh. Though less innovative than Don Ellis’s Soaring, the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band’s All Smiles is exciting and very well recorded.
Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell de Aquino (1937-2000) is perhaps best known as the composer of “Samba Triste,” which Stan Getz recorded in 1962 with guitarist Charlie Byrd; that recording appeared on Getz’s Jazz Samba, which reached No.1 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart in 1963. Baden Powell, as he was professionally known, began recording as a leader in 1959, and recorded more than 40 albums over the next 19 years, including six for MPS.
Baden Powell recorded his first LP for MPS in 1966, in Rio de Janeiro. Tristeza on Guitar presents the guitarist in various contexts, from duo to sextet, that reveal his stunning versatility. He plays on a nylon-stringed guitar, and his finger style owes as much to classical guitar as to jazz, but the music shows the influence of the many strains of music that make up Brazilian jazz.
“Tristeza” is performed by a trio, and both CD and LP convincingly present the dimensions of the Rio de Janeiro recording studio. When drummer Milton Banana cross-sticks, his snare has a slightly sharper ring that echoes with a bit more force on LP. Sergio’s bass has a stronger impact that rolls from the speakers, and it’s easier to visualize the size of Baden Powell’s guitar and hear his fingerpicking technique.
Copinha is featured on flute on “Canto de Xangô,” and on LP it’s easier to hear the sound of his breath through the instrument. In addition to the guitar, drums, bass, and flute played on this track are three percussion instruments that ring out more convincingly on LP, the reverb surrounding them coming through in greater relief. The harmonic overtones of Sergio’s bass in “Round About Midnight,” a duet with Baden Powell, are more pronounced on vinyl, and the low notes have more impact, as does the lower register of the leader’s guitar.
Baden Powell plays Luiz Bonfá’s “Manha de Carneval” as a duet with Sergio, and on vinyl the bass has more impressive low-frequency heft. The guitarist plays his own “Invenção em 7 1/2” by multitracking guitars, manipulating the tape at points to create the sound of a harp -- an impressive display of skill that avoids being a mere gimmick.
Tristeza on Guitar is the second Baden Powell album recently reissued by MPS, after last year’s release of Images on Guitar (1972) on CD and LP. Each is an opportunity to hear a master at work.
The difference between the sounds of these three albums on LP and CD is not dramatic. The LPs are all analog (AAA), and the CDs have been digitally mixed and mastered from analog tapes (ADD), but the same ears did the remastering, and the sound of the music in the two formats is very similar. Nor have Christoph Stickel and Dirk Sommer compressed the sound -- it’s natural and dynamic, especially in Soaring and All Smiles, in which the size and weight of the large ensembles are vividly presented.
I’d be perfectly happy to hear this music on CD -- but the LPs flesh out the sound just a bit more. Should any of them become essential recordings for you, you’ll want to have them on vinyl (the German pressings are impeccable), but the sound on CD is really quite good. The CDs are packaged in miniature LP covers of sturdy cardboard; the LP jackets feature beautifully reproduced original artwork.
Most important, these releases return to print some very good music that should not be forgotten.
. . . Joseph Taylor