Joe Henderson Our Thing
Blue Mitchell The Thing To Do
Horace Silver The Stylings of Silver
ne of the most remarkable things about Blue Note Records is its staying power. A great number of the label's recordings has been reissued -- on LP, CD, SACD and soon in the form of high-resolution downloads -- numerous times over the past forty years. The first reissuer of the catalog was Blue Note itself. After the label was sold to Liberty Records in 1966, Blue Note reissued its most popular titles for more than a decade, culminating in a large program in the mid-1970s, when the iconic blue-on-white label changed to a drab black-on-blue design, which immediately marked a record as a reissue (unless it happened to be initially released during this time).
In the 1980s, others got into the act. Manhattan Records/Capitol Records relied on Direct Metal Mastering, whereby the standard lacquer-coated aluminum disc into which the musical signal is cut is replaced by one that's all copper, to reproduce a huge number of titles, each pressed in Germany. King Records and Toshiba/EMI released many of the same titles, each remastered from analog tapes and created by traditional methods in Japan. In the late 1990s and well into the 2000s, Classic Records released dozens of titles on 200-gram LPs, most in mono. This is by no means a comprehensive list; the best-known titles exist in over a dozen different versions.
Fast-forward to today, when the art of re-releasing Blue Note LPs is at its apex. Acoustic Sounds has reissued 50 Blue Note titles as pairs of 45rpm LPs, including many of the label's most familiar titles. Music Matters, run by Blue Note cognoscenti Joe Harley and Ron Rambach, has taken a slightly different route. Music Matters is approaching 90 titles, also pressed as dual-45rpm sets, but each comes in a heavyweight glossy gatefold sleeve that features unpublished session photos in the center. Most important for audiophiles, each has been remastered with utmost care -- from the selection of the best source tape, to the cutting at 45rpm, to the perfectionist pressing on 180-gram virgin vinyl.
But each of these 45rpm sets costs $50, making the earlier reissues, which are plentiful used, more affordable, and their remastered pedigree gives them some sonic promise as well. I recently bought a large assortment of jazz LPs, and it yielded a variety of Blue Note reissues -- from the label itself and others. This seemed like a preordained opportunity for sonic comparisons between the older reissues and those that are rolling out today.
I chose three Music Matters titles -- Joe Henderson's Our Thing, Horace Silver's The Stylings of Silver and Blue Mitchell's The Thing To Do -- because I now also have Toshiba/EMI, Manhattan/Capitol or Liberty equivalents in excellent condition. Musically, each of these is well worth your attention, though for different reasons. The Stylings of Silver is a quintet date featuring two of Blue Note's most prominent players early in their careers at the label: Silver on piano and Hank Mobley on sax. Our Thing features a 26-year-old Henderson on sax along with probing pianist/composer Andrew Hill. The cover of Blue Mitchell's The Thing To Do shows his instrument awash in blue tones. It is Mitchell's best set for Blue Note and includes a young Chick Corea on piano. There's not a wasted musical moment here; the playing is exuberant, adventurous and vital. Each of these titles represents another well-informed choice for reissue from the Music Matters brain-trust.
What most of the older reissues have right is pressing on virgin vinyl. If they were taken care of, they can sound as quiet as the best LPs pressed today. What most of them, save for the Liberty, Toshiba, King and Classic Records reissues, have wrong is sound that's rife with sins of commission. Variously, they are too bright, too grainy, too thin or too ill-defined, especially when compared to the best of today's pressings. The DMM version of The Thing to Do comes dangerously close to the sound of the RVG CD reissues, possessing an overabundance of high-frequency energy and a somewhat chalky tonality. This is endemic of all the LPs I've heard that relied on the DMM process for their creation. The Toshiba/EMI reissue of Our Thing is far better balanced top to bottom, although it lacks some vibrancy in the treble and midrange and some punch in bass. Finally, the Liberty version of The Stylings of Silver is the best-sounding of the bunch, possessing a close-up perspective and the most natural tonality of the group.
Putting aside the fact that the Music Matters LPs begin with some technical advantages, chief among them playback at 45rpm, what they achieve unfailingly is a contemporary spectral balance -- a realistic sense of tonal proportion from the highest highs to the lowest lows -- and soundscapes that vividly spread out left to right and front to back. All of this improves upon even original pressings, which to my ears often sound somewhat -- or very -- thin in the mids and brittle in the treble in comparison. Music Matters' The Stylings of Silver is in mono. When played with a mono cartridge, this leads to unmatched insight into the recording's sonic core, which has the earmarks of being a handshake away from the master tape.
You will certainly save money with the lesser reissues you can find, but at the cost of much of what vinyl does so well -- and which the Music Matters releases maximize. They are definitive in every way, the likes of which we will probably never see -- or hear -- again.
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