I wish I could claim to have been hip to Blue Note Records from the start of my interest in jazz, but when I began collecting jazz LPs in earnest, in the mid-'70s, it was Fantasy Records that was reissuing its extensive catalog. At that time, Fantasy owned Riverside, Prestige, and Milestone Records, and it released classic jazz recordings in affordably priced, two-record sets it marketed as "two-fers." I picked up nearly all of Wes Montgomery's Riverside LPs, plus titles by Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and other jazz greats. Another memorable Fantasy Records two-fer was The Real Lenny Bruce, a terrific overview of the comedian's work that featured extensive liner notes by San Francisco-based journalist Ralph J. Gleason, who remains one of my great heroes.
Purchased by Liberty Records in 1965 and then subsumed by United Artists, the Blue Note imprint was inactive from the late '70s until 1985, so it is not surprising to me that I did not start seeing a lot of Blue Note reissues until the advent of CDs. I had picked up a few Blue Note LPs in the early '80s, but they were reissues pressed in France, digitally and direct-metal mastered. I started buying Blue Note titles with greater frequency when the label reissued them on CD, and when Mosaic Records released complete sessions by Blue Note artists.
I have been lucky enough over the last 25 years to find Blue Note vinyl at yard sales, flea markets, and thrift shops, but there has also been no shortage of new pressings of the label's recordings. Blue Note itself released titles on its Connoisseur Series in the mid-'90s, and longtime Blue Note "house producer" Rudy Van Gelder remixed dozens of recordings under the RVG Editions rubric beginning in 1999. Audiophile labels, including the now defunct Classic Records, have also done high-quality, all-analog reissues of Blue Note titles. Audiophiles give high marks to recent Blue Note pressings by Analogue Productions and Music Matters.
When current Blue Note president Don Was decided to reissue more than 100 Blue Note titles on vinyl, he said his goal was to make them affordable, and to make them sound as close to the original pressings as possible. As the source, he decided to use existing high-resolution digital files mastered by Alan Yoshida and Bernie Grundman, created for high-resolution downloads and XRCD reissues. Grundman and Chris Bellman cut the recordings for vinyl, and Blue Note chose United Record Pressing in Nashville to make the records.
The reissue program began in March 2014 and will continue until this October. I have spent a few months with some of the pressings and picked up others more recently, but I have had time to absorb all of them and evaluate whether they continue to sound good over repeated playings. In some cases, I only have the CD versions for comparison, but in others I have used other pressings as a basis for judging. The records are 120 grams, in the medium-weight covers that are the standard for most current LPs.
Jazz organist Larry Young appeared as a sideman on a few Grant Green recordings for Blue Note, played on two key sessions in 1969, Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and John McLaughlin's Devotion, and was a founding member -- with McLaughlin -- of drummer Tony Williams's influential fusion group, Lifetime. He led six sessions for Blue Note, but only Unity (1965) is still in print in the US. That album is probably his masterpiece, although any session he led or appeared on is worth having. Van Gelder remastered Unity for CD in 1999, but my copy is the 1987 Connoisseur Series remaster by Ron McMaster.
Young's early recordings for Prestige followed the soul jazz path set out for the organ by Jimmy Smith, but his work as a leader for Blue Note showed an interest in the avant-garde music of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. The sidemen for Unity helped him move in that direction. Joe Henderson played tenor sax, Elvin Jones was on drums, and Woody Shaw was the trumpet player. Shaw wrote three of the album's six tunes, including "The Moontrane," probably his best-known composition.
Shaw's "Zoltan" opens Unity, and on the CD Jones's cymbals sound splashy and bright. On the new LP, from Yoshida's digital master, the cymbals are less prominent, but they sustain more naturally. The kick drum is easier to hear on the LP, as are the bass lines Young plays the organ pedals, and having that bottom end more clearly presented gives the music a stronger foundation. Henderson and Shaw sound less edgy and the LP gives a better sense of space -- on the CD, all the instruments are pushed forward. Young's chords are more supportive of the other instruments, and his solo has more of the tone I would expect to hear live from a Leslie speaker.
Young's chording and fluid bass lines behind Henderson and Shaw are at the heart of "The Moontrane," and on the new LP it is easier to feel the impact of the bass lines on the overall arrangement. Young is placed a little more behind the horns on the CD, which gives the music more space. Shaw and Henderson are more clearly etched on the CD, but Shaw's trumpet, in particular, is rounder toned and warmer on the LP.
The CD is not an unpleasant listen, but this LP reissue sounds more natural, with more of the depth that I associate with vinyl, despite its digital source. Young's solos are warmer and more of a piece -- there is less note-by-note detail and a better sense of the notes blending together to form a cohesive whole. The LP is more musical and inviting than its digital alternative.
I do not know why I never got around to buying Horace Silver's Song for My Father (1965) on vinyl. I had McMaster's version on CD and then picked up Van Gelder's remaster. Henderson is one of the sidemen on four tracks, with Teddy Smith on bass, Carmel Jones on trumpet, and Roger Humphries on drums. Two tracks have a different lineup, with Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Junior Cook on tenor, Gene Taylor on bass, and Roy Brooks on drums.
I often wish I had kept the McMaster CD, since the Van Gelder remaster is loud and forward sounding. At first, the LP sounds reserved, but after some time, and a slight volume increase, things fall into place and the instruments take a more logical place in the soundstage. On the CD, Silver's piano chords on the title track push against Jones and Henderson instead of providing harmonic support in the way they do on the LP.
Humphries's snare drum rim taps and accents on hi-hat on "Song for My Father" are sharp sounding and scattered on the CD, while on the LP they are behind and in support of the rest of the band. Silver's piano solo is also more enjoyable on the LP, with more room to let notes ring out and more resonance from the piano itself. Henderson also benefits from the less edgy sound. It is easier to visualize the notes coming from the bell of the horn.
The CD conveys the energy of Henderson's "The Kicker," a fast-moving track, and at first the LP seemed hazy in comparison, but Jones' trumpet has better tone on the LP and his solo pulls you in. Humphries has an impressive feature on the track, and on the CD even the toms sound trebly. The drums sound more explosive on the CD, but on the LP they sustain and blend together to create more impact. I found it easier to listen to Song for My Father on the new pressing and felt less fatigued and more involved with the music than I did with the CD.
One of my favorite albums, from Blue Note or any other label, is Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue (1963). I compared an Analogue Productions pressing of the LP with a McMaster version of the CD in a piece I wrote a few months ago. I expected to find the Analogue Productions LP to be vastly better and, indeed, it was richer and had a deeper soundstage than the newer pressing. Ray Barretto's conga drums on "Chitlins Con Carne" popped more, and Stanley Turrentine's tenor sax had more body. The notes on Burrell's solos hung in the air longer and his guitar had a bigger hollow-body guitar sound.
I was surprised, however, at how musical and undigital the new pressing was. A quick comparison with the CD revealed more bass presence and attack on the LP, more space around the instruments, and a better picture of the instruments interacting. There are reasons to own the Analogue Productions LP over this new one. The audiophile pressing lets you wade deeper into the music and gives you a better vision of the dimensions of the room it was played in. Turrentine's sax has that much more realism on the Analogue Productions pressing, and Major Holley's bass hits you in the gut harder, and you get a clearer feel for the tonal characteristics of the instrument.
I was impressed, though, with how well the music on the new LP came across. You can hear the attack on the bass in a way the CD doesn't reveal, and Bill English's drums, especially the cymbals, have more resonance and subtlety. If you love Midnight Blue as much as I do, you will want to own the Analogue Productions pressing. But this Blue Note pressing is very enjoyable and closer to an audiophile pressing than I would have thought, at less than half the cost.
Of the five LPs from the 75th anniversary series that I bought (the fifth, Henderson's Mode for Joe, is consistent with the quality of the other LPs mentioned here), only Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder (1964) showed some quality-control problems. The other LPs were flat, cleanly pressed, and free of noise. I had to return the first copy of The Sidewinder because of several loud static sounds that even a good cleaning could not remove and a loud pop that seemed to be the result of something that had gotten into the press -- a hair, maybe -- that left an impression in the grooves. A replacement was better, but still had some faint noise that a cleaning did not fully remove.
I own two other copies of The Sidewinder on LP, a banged-up early pressing and a later pressing from Blue Note's years with Liberty Records. Both have "Van Gelder" stamped in the deadwax, and are lively pressings that provide a window into the recording studio. The new LP is somewhat reserved in comparison, and I suspect the earlier LPs were cut at a higher gain. Morgan's trumpet and Henderson's tenor are further out into the room on those pressings, and the other instruments are more clearly etched. Barry Harris's piano solo on the title track has more energy and electricity, and the horns punctuate it with more conviction.
Still, compared to the Van Gelder edition of the CD, the new LP is an easier listen. The horns are too bright on the CD and there is not enough separation between them. The bass lacks definition, and while the new LP does not give it the three dimensionality and woodiness of the earlier pressings, it gives you more of those qualities than the CD. When Morgan and Henderson state the theme on "Gary's Notebook" they weave it together on this pressing, but on the CD they seem to be pushing against each other.
I preferred the energy of my older LPs to this new pressing, and in many ways Van Gelder's mastering on the CDs is not vastly different from what he did on those records. But the old vinyl has more of the depth and air between instruments that makes me prefer LPs to CDs. The new pressing falls short of the older pressings, but it is smoother and has less top-end emphasis than the CD. It lets you enjoy the music.
The color and photo reproduction on the LP covers for these pressings is very good, although the photo on Song for My Father has a slight second-generation softness. The inner sleeves have color reproductions of Blue Note titles that, I presume, will be part of the reissue series. A number of these reissues, such as Out of This World, a 1962 outing by the Three Sounds, do not appear to be available in other pressings, so I will buy them in this series.
When I compared the sound of these LPs to audiophile pressings by Analogue Productions and Classic Records, the new pressings were a little less involving and lifelike. Older Blue Note pressings have a higher energy level and higher output. Yet these new pressings, even with their digital sources, have the warmth and musicality that I associate with analog and are very enjoyable at $20 or less. For the price of most audiophile pressings, I can buy two of these and have quiet, playable copies of music I like. Some of my favorite Blue Note recordings demand the best possible sound, and I will buy better copies of Unity and Song for My Father. In the meantime, these will do just fine, and I will be satisfied to have many other Blue Notes in these pressings.
. . . Joseph Taylor