Muddy Waters Folk Singer
Ben Webster Gentle Ben
usually pick recordings to cover together based on some musical connection -- similar performers or artistic aims, for instance. With these two titles, however, the connection is a matter of the records' manufacture. Gentle Ben and Folk Singer are the second and third titles pressed at Quality Record Pressings (QRP), Chad Kassem's recently launched record-pressing plant located in Salina, Kansas. They follow Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, which was selected to be the very first release pressed at QRP.
Gentle Ben is a keen choice for reissue. It was recorded in Barcelona in 1973, less than a year before Ben Webster's death, and released at the time only in Spain. Sharing the spotlight was Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu, who recorded throughout the 1960s and 1970s, most often on the Steeplechase label. Webster was one of the preeminent swing saxophonists, having spent more than twenty years in great demand.
There is no doubt that this was Webster's session; his fat tone and languid phrasing dominate. The playing is straightahead, whether the numbers are covers or Webster's four originals. What the music lacks in innovation it makes up for with charm, especially Montoliu, who comps with Bill Evans-like polish.
Folk Singer is a true audiophile war-horse, having been reissued many times on LP -- though never before at 45rpm -- and in digital formats. This has somewhat obscured the greatness of the music and its influence. It was unplugged before there was a name for it. Waters was a Chicago blues legend, and here he plays both with a full backing ensemble -- that included Willie Dixon on bass and Buddy Guy on acoustic guitar -- and in duo with Guy. The playing is direct and unfettered, emphasizing the emotional rawness of the blues, and the sound is spacious and reverberant, creating a sonic atmosphere that fits the music especially well.
Kassem spent in excess of a million dollars to outfit QRP, which has the highest of aims: pressing the best records in the world. Three different kinds of presses are in use, each modified in important ways to improve the records produced. Aside from being of very different music, these two reissues are also in different formats: a single 33rpm LP for Gentle Ben and a pair of 45rpm LPs for Folk Singer. Both are 200-gram pressings, the weight of vinyl that Classic Records used. Classic experienced some early issues with these thicker records, but this is not the case with QRP, whose pressings are gleaming, flat and, most important, very quiet. Kassem made sure to hunt down the actual master tapes, refusing to use safety or backup copies. Perhaps it's this or the modifications made to the presses at QRP, but the sound of these two releases is extraordinary -- gracefully detailed and supremely focused. An original pressing of Folk Singer may have greater cachet for a record collector, but this is likely the definitive version for people who value the music.
In the past, I've quibbled over the lightweight sleeves that Acoustic Sounds has used for its 45rpm LPs, but Folk Singer puts that to rest. The gatefold sleeve is gorgeously glossy and substantial -- the equal of what you'll see from Music Matters for its Blue Note reissues.
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