Eric Dolphy Out to Lunch
Herbie Hancock Maiden Voyage
nce upon a time, it was accepted wisdom that original pressings of LPs were sonically superior to their reissued doppelgängers. In those days, reissues were shelf-fillers that provided buyers with new opportunities to buy LPs that had sold out years or even decades earlier. They were often pressed in haste, mastered from later-generation tapes, while the originals came from the actual master tapes.
The modern sense of reissuing LPs began in earnest in the late 1970s, with the first Mobile Fidelity titles. These were not mere replacements for existing titles but versions created with care from the master tapes and pressed on superior vinyl. From the beginning, they were meant to improve upon original pressings sonically, and their premium prices reflected this aim.
Fast-forward to today, when reissuing LPs has become a true craft industry, with the best examples pushing the sonic boundaries further and becoming objects of art themselves. Some titles are reissued over and over again by different labels, and those of us who write about them often engage in picking smaller and smaller nits to differentiate one from the next, as they all begin to converge and homogenize, the sound of any two proving the old adage that different does not necessarily mean better.
In this climate, what Music Matters has achieved is even more noteworthy. Ron Rambach and Joe Harley, with mastering help from Kevin Gray, have produced the definitive series of reissues from the Blue Note catalogue, which is almost universally considered the greatest collection of classic jazz extant. Music Matters released 120 titles on pairs of 45rpm LPs before deciding to release a dozen more, "the twelve apostles," as Ron Rambach called them, as single 33rpm discs. Those latter-day twelve could easily be considered Blue Note's greatest hits, each a masterpiece in its own right and not one a title Music Matters had released previously.
What was most significant about them, however, was their sound. Music Matters' 45rpm sets had rightfully received glowing reviews since their introduction, including a few that I wrote. This made reissuing 33rpm LPs seem like an odd choice, until you heard them. Through improvements in the mastering chain as well as knowledge gained from producing so many LPs, Music Matters created 33s that were at least sonically equal to the 45s, and the standard-setting glossy gatefold sleeves with unpublished session photos had remained the same. The prices dropped by 30 percent and listeners no longer had to flip or change records every ten minutes or so, thanks to the longer 33rpm playing times.
The Music Matters 33rpm LPs were an easy choice as winners of TAB's Recordings of the Year for 2014. After the release of those first twelve gems, there was some speculation over what Ron and Joe would do next, although with the entire Blue Note catalogue at their disposal, more reissued jazz LPs seemed like a good bet. Because those initial dozen 33rpm titles sold well and ticked all of the boxes in terms of sound quality, they chose to reissue another 20 Blue Note titles. Maiden Voyage and Out to Lunch are among that second series, which began shipping last month, and it's easy to make the case for reissuing both of them. Music Matters had not previously released Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, arguably his greatest Blue Note session as a leader, and Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch had been released as a 45rpm set and it was nearly sold out.
Maiden Voyage walks a very fine line between lyricism and hard bop, and it features bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, with whom Hancock worked as part of Miles Davis's second quintet, along with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist George Coleman. All of the tunes are Hancock originals, the shortest of which, "Eye of the Hurricane," is six minutes long, providing ample room for the ensemble to roam.
Ron and Joe call Out to Lunch "out," as in "outside," owing to its unconventional song structures and angular playing. It's far from free jazz, but it certainly leans that way in spirit. It features a tight ensemble -- Dolphy on flute, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Richard Davis on bass, and Tony Williams on drums -- and owes more to Dave Brubeck's masterpiece Time Out, and its odd time signatures, than any Blue Note recording of its era. Dolphy passed away two years after its release, and it became his masterpiece as well as one of Blue Note's greatest post-bop releases.
I have a half-dozen copies of Maiden Voyage of various vintages. None is an original stereo pressing, but one is a reissue that Blue Note itself released following the sale of the label to Liberty Records. It's stamped "RVG" in the dead wax, indicating that Rudy Van Gelder had a hand in its release, likely to sign off on the lacquer. The Music Matters LP creams it and all of the others, sounding more resolved, more fiery and more present all at once. A couple of the recent reissues of Maiden Voyage were cut from digital sources, and they sound like it. Listen to one of these and then the Music Matters version and you'll know exactly why using the master tapes is so critical to the quality of the finished product.
My analog frame of reference for Out to Lunch is the Music Matters 45rpm set, a very good version indeed. There is certainly a great deal right about it, and the 33 is its equal in so many ways -- and may even have a touch more naturalness. If you have the 45rpm set, you have no reason to buy this new 33rpm release, but if your only version is a well-worn original or one of the Japanese reissues, the well-delineated sound and quiet RTI pressing ensure that your money will be well spent. (One note: we rate recordings on an absolute scale that includes purist audiophile recordings, which can sound amazing but are sometimes of questionable musical value. Relative to reissues of recordings from their era, and especially other Blue Note reissues, these from Music Matters are easily 5/5 -- the best of the best.)
As this second batch of 20 titles winds down, the speculation over what Ron and Joe will do next will begin. Let's hope that reissuing more LPs, Blue Note or otherwise, is in the plans. Their contributions to the craft of reissuing LPs have been significant.
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