Curtis Fuller The Opener
Sonny Rollins Vol. 1
f you are listening to your mono LPs with a stereo cartridge, you're missing one of the great thrills of playing records to begin with. A true mono cartridge is different from its stereo counterpart. Its lower vertical compliance gives it an inherent advantage when playing mono LPs. Tracking lateral modulations is all that matters with mono playback, so a mono cartridge can be designed to ignore up and down movement. This helps the stylus ride the groove in the way it was cut and also reduces surface noise, a welcome byproduct with vintage LPs that are in less-than-stellar condition.
There are no condition concerns with these Music Matters 45rpm mono LPs. They are gorgeous pressings, flat and very quiet. Sonny Rollins, who will turn 81 in September, has released vital music in this, his seventh decade as a performer. He has recorded on every major jazz label, a sign of his enduring importance as a creator and caretaker of the tenor sax's vocabulary. Vol.1 was his first Blue Note recording, and it collects four expansive Rollins originals along with a cover of "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?" from the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow. This seeming oddity was a calculated move, as Rollins was inventive with his choice of standards throughout his career. The set is relaxed and horn-driven, a 24-year-old Donald Byrd trading licks on trumpet with Rollins, who had gained gargantuan stature earlier in the year with the release of Tenor Madness.
The Opener was also its headliner's first Blue Note record. The trombone seems counterintuitive as a jazz instrument, its notes unhurried and drawn out. But like J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Curtis Fuller had a fluid style that kept him in demand throughout the 1950s and 1960s, mostly as a sideman. He plays here in a distinguished quintet -- Hank Mobley on sax, Bobby Timmons on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Three standards fill things out, but it's "Oscalpyso" -- an Oscar Pettiford-penned calypso number -- that steals the show. Fuller and Mobley show defining hard-bop teamwork, but Mobley's hard-driving exuberance nearly takes over the session.
Joe Harley of Music Matters coined the term "primal purity" to describe mono y mono playback, and it fits the sound of these LPs perfectly. There is an unfettered authenticity, the sense that you're going back in time and hearing every bit of the musical information the master tapes have to offer. The Opener has a thoroughly contemporary sonic balance, but Vol.1 eclipses it in every way, offering rich tone and texture to both horns and a no-apologies-needed bottom end. The Music Matters team seems to have discovered bass tracks on the master tape that no one else knew existed.
Creating the best-sounding records possible begins with the master tapes, and for many sessions Blue Note recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder ran both stereo and mono recorders. Vol.1 was early enough that only a mono tape exists, but there is a stereo tape of The Opener, albeit a Dolby copy with no center fill. This hard panning was common for early stereo recordings, and it made the choice of which tape to use for The Opener easy.
There is everything to admire about these releases, right down to the sleeves, which are gorgeously rendered -- crisp and glossy. They would look as great hung on the wall as the LPs will sound on your turntable.
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