Nothing pleases me more than when an audiophile label reissues titles that deserve careful treatment. Analogue Productions has long produced new versions of records that deserve to be heard at their best, such as its reissues of classic albums from RCA Living Stereo, Prestige, and Blue Note, but sometimes AP goes off in less predictable directions. These three albums were long overdue for the careful remastering and pressing that make Analogue Productions such a great label.
Jeff Beck released Blow by Blow in 1975, when fusion was ascendant and guitar heroes like John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola seemed poised to take over dominance of the instrument from established rock players. If anyone could reassert the qualifications of rock guitarists, it was Beck. His knowledge of the fingerboard gave him a deep understanding of the instrument’s harmonic possibilities that put him ahead of most rock players.
Beck brought in George Martin to produce Blow by Blow, and the result was not only Beck’s best album, but Martin’s most significant post-Beatles production. Martin wrote the string arrangements for two tracks, “Scatterbrain” and “Diamond Dust,” and sequenced the album so that its flow seems inevitable -- as it did the very first time I heard it, the day it was released.
I’d expected the kind of heavy fireworks McLaughlin engaged in with his band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but Beck was up to something different. Blow by Blow was funkier and more blues-based than most fusion. It was sophisticated, but it rocked. I have Epic’s 2001 CD edition for convenience, but until now, it was always that label’s original LP that I turned to when I wanted to hear Blow by Blow. Now AP has reissued the album on two 45rpm LPs (Analogue Productions AAPP 078-45).
First, I played my original LP. I was still impressed with the sound of Beck’s opening chords in “You Know What I Mean,” and Phil Chen’s hard-hitting bass. But in the AP pressing, Beck’s chords are more harmonically detailed, and Chen’s bass sounds cleaner and snappier. Now when I play the Epic LP, Chen’s bass sounds a bit hazier at the edges.
Also in this track, Max Middleton’s keyboards in the left and right channel -- a Fender Rhodes and a Clavinet -- are clearly audible throughout the AP pressing, but fade in the busier sections of the Epic. Beck’s guitar lines are far better focused on the new LP, and it’s easier to pick out the individual guitars when he occasionally double-tracks lines. A little more than halfway through, Beck solos in the left channel over a sustained note from a previous line he’d played in the right; now, as that note begins to feed back, it remains strong instead of fading slightly, as on the Epic LP.
Beck’s stunning version of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” shines on the AP pressing. Middleton’s Fender Rhodes shimmers in the air, and Richard Bailey’s drums ring out with real clarity and bounce. Each note Beck plays is cleanly articulated, and how he uses his fingers and a plectrum to control the solo’s dynamics and create tonal effects can be clearly heard. When he uses a talkbox to vocalize the chorus, his natural voice is audible behind the effect.
Beck and Middleton’s “Scatterbrain” closed out side 1 of the original LP; here, it concludes side 2 of disc 1. Bailey’s drums, which begin “Scatterbrain” as it segues from “Air Blower,” are more prominent and ring out with strength and authority. As the track builds and Martin’s string arrangement weaves around Beck’s quick melodies and Middleton’s keyboards, each element of the mix is easier to follow than on the Epic edition, including Beck’s use of harmonics and effects.
No doubt many guitarists have worn out the grooves of “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” a Stevie Wonder tune that Beck played as a tribute to guitar great Roy Buchanan. His use of volume swells and vibrato are in higher resolution on the AP pressing, and the reverberations of the notes in the studio are more pronounced. Middleton’s lines, especially on Fender Rhodes, float in the air, and Bailey’s drum accents are more fully integrated into the music’s overall flow. Chen’s bass lines have more zing and greater definition. Beck takes his guitar through a range of emotions, from sadness to frustration, and each note he plays registers with far more conviction and power on the AP pressing.
It’s always been obvious that Chen, Bailey, and Middleton played key roles in the triumph of Beck’s Blow by Blow, but the mastering for the new pressing sets each of them off so well that it’s even more clear how beautifully they functioned as a unit. Bradley comes off especially well -- his drumming is consistently nuanced, musical, and dynamic. Chen’s bass has more edge and presence than on the earlier LP, and the complexity of the tones of Middleton’s keyboards is easier to hear. It’s hard to imagine a better-sounding version of Blow by Blow than these new discs from Analogue Productions.
According to the detailed session notes for The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68, Herbie Hancock first played the Fender Rhodes electric piano in Miles Davis’s recording session of May 17, 1968. Hancock was soon using a variety of electronic keyboards, and in 1972, when he recorded Sextant, his debut solo album for Columbia Records, he was using two ARP synths, a Moog, and a Clavinet, in addition to the Rhodes and acoustic piano. Sextant was a challenging record, influenced in part by Davis’s work on In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). Hancock had played on the former LP, and some of the freer passages on Sextant were at least as formidable as what Miles was doing at the time.
But Sextant’s sales were as disappointing as those for Hancock’s three records for Warner Bros. that had preceded it. Hancock was listening to and enjoying funk, especially Sly and the Family Stone, so when he entered the fusion game with Head Hunters (1973), he made a record that could get you dancing as well as listening. Jazz purists cried “Sellout!” when it was released, but it was smart and well played, and it has aged well.
I’ve enjoyed Mark Wilder’s 1997 CD remastering of Head Hunters for Columbia/Legacy, but every time I played it, I thought I should pick it up on LP. Listening to the new Analogue Productions edition (AAPJ 084) confirmed that suspicion. Hancock’s opening synth lines in “Chameleon” thump soundly in both formats, but have cleaner edges from the new vinyl. More important, as the other instruments join in, each has more room to breathe. Harvey Mason’s kick drum is too forward on the CD and crowds the music; on AP’s LP, it’s audible but in support.
Reverb is now audible in the notes of Bennie Maupin’s sax, and Paul Jackson’s bass, still the funk backbone of the album, isn’t as overbearing as it now sometimes sounds to me on the CD. AP’s 33.3rpm mastering gives each instrument space, and by deepening the soundstage it humanizes Hancock’s electronic keyboards and burnishes some of the high-treble edge they have on the CD.
Mason arranged a new version of Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” for Head Hunters, but the distinctive sound in the odd melody that begins the track is percussionist Bill Summers blowing across the neck of a beer bottle. As with “Chameleon,” the big improvement in AP’s vinyl over the CD is the greater sense of space as other instruments join in. Maupin’s alto flute sounds too far forward on the CD, as does Jackson’s bass, which here sounds deeper and less trebly.
The signature chord sequence in the chorus of “Watermelon Man” is more nuanced on LP, Hancock’s Clavinet lines throughout have more space to roam, and the reverb around them rings out more. Maupin’s sax lines now sound flattened in the soundstage on CD, while on this pressing they emerge from the rest of the band. Mason’s drums, especially the kick drum, are more majestic and funky, and when Summers reprises the beer-bottle melody near the end it sounds more realistic -- you can hear him blowing air across the bottle’s open neck.
“Sly” is Hancock’s tribute to the primary inspiration for the direction his music was taking, at least for Head Hunters. The track doesn’t remind me of any of Sly Stone’s hits, but his funkiness had found its way into Hancock’s music, and a lengthy improvisational section gives ample proof that Hancock hadn’t left jazz behind. Maupin’s solo veers off into free sections, Hancock’s Fender Rhodes solo swings hard and is filled with exciting ideas, and the band keeps the music flowing and centered.
In fact, it’s in “Sly” that the improvements wrought by the new vinyl remastering are most striking. There’s a lot going on in the improvised sections, with Mason and Summers creating complex rhythms, Hancock running chords in the right channel, and he or Maupin soloing furiously. The instruments sound constricted on CD in the busiest sections, but the new LP makes it easy to hear and place them in the recording space. All elements of the recording now have enough room to register, and the electronic instruments, which can easily sound flat and uninvolving, are now more expansive and three-dimensional.
Hancock went on to make more fusion records in the ’70s, such as Thrust (1974) and Man-Child (1975), that stood out because they leaned more toward funk than to rock. Head Hunters has been sampled by many artists, ranging from Tupac to Madonna, but more than 40 years after its release it still sounds startlingly fresh. This new pressing lets you hear how carefully Hancock constructed the music, and how well he and the other musicians worked together to bring it to life.
Netflix recently produced and released What Happened, Miss Simone?, director Liz Garbus’s documentary film about the great singer, pianist, and songwriter Nina Simone, who was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon. It’s a deeply moving look at a charismatic, uncompromising performer who often used her great gifts to highlight her expression of the pain of being an African-American woman. Simone became increasingly vocal in her support of civil rights, and in 1964 wrote and recorded “Mississippi Goddam,” in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.
Simone is the subject of another documentary, to be released later this year, and a biographical film currently in production. She died in 2003, almost 45 years after the release of her first album, Little Girl Blue. Her label, Bethlehem Records, released the LP in stereo in 1959, several months after its mono release. When I reviewed a vinyl reissue by Naxos/Versa in October 2013, I noted that while John Sigman’s remastering of Little Girl Blue was probably from a digital source, I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Like the other LPs under consideration here, Analogue Productions’ reissue of Little Girl Blue (AAPJ 083) is an all-analog remastering, by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound. I was well satisfied with the earlier vinyl, but when I compared Simone’s cover of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” on both pressings, the AP’s superiority jumped out of the speakers. Albert “Tootie” Heath’s brushes on snare behind Simone’s piano are more palpable and there in front of me, and Jimmy Bond’s double bass is bigger, more urgent -- I can feel the attack of each note more powerfully.
Simone then sings “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” accompanying herself on piano. On the earlier pressing, the piano notes sound out clearly, but on the AP I can hear them resonating inside the instrument -- the effect is larger, more involving. Simone’s voice is also more defined, more present, more exciting. She’s just much more in the room with me.
Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” from this album became a hit in the UK in 1987, after it appeared in a perfume ad. It shows off her formidable piano skills -- classically trained, Simone originally contemplated a career as a concert pianist -- and the exquisite balance of emotion and control that informed her singing. On the Naxos pressing, this track now sounds somewhat flat. Heath’s brushstrokes on snare are in much sharper focus on the AP pressing, Bond’s bass is fuller, with more bounce, and Simone’s use of dynamics on piano has much more impact. When she strikes the keys for emphasis, it hits harder.
Listening to the AP pressing of Little Girl Blue is like being a few tables closer to the stage. At one point in “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” the band stops and you can hear Simone tapping her foot in time. It’s there in both pressings, but it has more impact -- and becomes a greater part of the experience -- on the AP.
Analogue Productions has done everything right to ensure that these reissues are first class. Pressed by Quality Record Pressings on 200gm vinyl, each disc is flat, beautifully finished, and utterly quiet, and is packaged in a heavy cardboard jacket with well-reproduced artwork. The Nina Simone and Jeff Beck LPs are in gatefold jackets with additional photos.
The packaging is terrific, but it’s the sound of these LPs that will bring you back again and again. Ryan Smith has done an exemplary job of remastering, which in my case meant letting me hear new things in albums I’ve played many times before. I look forward to more excellent reissues from Analogue Productions.
. . . Joseph Taylor