As nice as they were, the now decade-old RVG CD editions of the Blue Note catalog have been blown out of the water. Two companies dedicated to reissuing great music in state-of-the-art vinyl have, for the last few years, been dribbling out some of the best recorded jazz of all time in what have proven to be exemplary versions—truly what any reissue should be, and how any real music lover would want their favorites dished up.
First to tackle the Blue Notes was Music Matters (musicmattersjazz.com) back in 2007. This firm consists of a couple of long-time record industry jazz experts—a producer and a prodigious collector—who teamed up to release several dozen classic Blue Note sessions in definitive 2-disc 180-gram 45 rpm LP limited editions. “We’ve found some real gems combing through the catalog,” says producer Joe Harley. So don’t expect the expected from these guys, but look for many overlooked titles in this series. Each gatefold package contains two LPs—they need double the vinyl real estate at 45 rpm—and are lavishly and generously decorated with dramatic Francis Woolf photos from the sessions, many acquired with the assistance of producer Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records.
“No one’s ever heard these records like this before,” swears Harley. “We’ve brought in Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray to do the mastering and we are working with the original stereo mixes. By the way, these are the masters that were used to mix down one generation to make the mono versions, so the lauded and collectable Blue Note monos were actually made from a copy of the original tape, something no one else was aware of until we got these boxes out of the vaults.” Markings on the boxes gave away these important clues which have since debunked the mythology that the BN monos were closer to the original tapes than the stereo versions.
Knowing that all the figures involved in this project are incapable of performing at less than 1000 percent, these Blue Notes, with titles by Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson and Horace Parlan, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter and many others provide new insight into the way this music was originally intended to be heard. It’s as though the Holy Grail of jazz has finally been presented in high definition Technicolor.
Examples I’ve heard live up to the hype: the sound is jaw-droppingly dynamic, alive and holographic with none of the high-frequency tilt many have complained about in regards to the RVG remastered CDs, but rather, a satisfying balance from top to bottom, and an unbelievable soundstage, such that I could swear the musicians were playing several feet past the limits of the two speakers themselves. These allow you to actually hear INTO the music, as well as be enveloped by it. The music is convincing, airy, quick, loaded with snap—but no crackles and pops—so believable, it makes the hairs on the back of my goosebumps stand up. After hearing your first of these, you’ll develop the Lay’s Potato Chip Syndrome—you won’t be able to stop at just one.
Second to take up the Blue Note challenge, beginning in 2008, was Chad Kassem and his gang at Acoustic Sounds (acousticsounds.com), legendary for their Fantasy reissues on LP. Their parallel series of Blue Note 45rpm LPs features a totally different selection of titles, so, luckily, there is no duplication with the Music Matters titles. We music lovers come out the winners…now there will be more than 100 of these absolute gems when these two sources complete their respective release schedules. Early releases in the Acoustic Sounds series included Dexter Calling by Dexter Gordon and Capuchin Swing by Jackie McLean which are the sides Chad sent me for review. Titles by John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Lou Donaldson, Paul Chambers among others have been shipping in small batches over the past few years, an each one delivers the same “ultimate” level of reproduction achieved by Music Matters, and Acoustic Sounds own Fantasies.
But there is no need to dwell on the level of performance of the music itself. Each title is a certifiable treasure of American jazz, hand picked from the Blue Note vaults.
And they did that literally. Remastering geniuses, Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman were handed the actual two-track original masters to this amazing material, complete with Rudy Van Gelder’s hand-written notes on each tape box. This is the real deal, folks. Gray and Hoffman did minimal manipulation of the tape and have managed to capture a sound that they insist is practically indistinguishable from the original tape masters. And upon listening to these LPs, I’d say those masters are pretty friggin’ fantastic, sonically speaking—the music, well, sings for itself. No compression, little if any EQ and a clean transfer, have allowed the music to burst forth as never before. Certainly NO CD issue of this material even comes close, though Kassem and company have issued SACDs of these titles.
I’ll stick with the vinyl, thank you! I’d still put my money on these LPs—as good as SACDs can be, they still don’t equal the sensation of excellent vinyl—and it just doesn’t get any better than this.
My one complaint with the Acoustic Sound series is the packaging: at 45rpm it requires two discs to contain all the material of a standard 33 1/3 LP and it seems that a gatefold package would be in order for these discs instead of the single pocket jacket offered here. This is the one area where the Music Matters issues really excel; their packages are gatefolds with some beautiful Francis Wolff photos adorning the interiors.
How do they sound?
Well, as already mentioned, they are unquestionably, as are the Music Matters releases, the finest sounding issues of this material yet. They possess unequaled liquidity, smoothness, are full, rich and effortless. The music becomes palpable and I don’t see how they can ever be improved after this version. The sound is simply galvanizing. It is open, totally uncongested—some LPs of this era were quite the opposite, as were most later LP and CD issues. They are dynamic with tons of drive, such that you can feel the energy and musical tension of the studio. These and the Music Matters Blue Notes make buying a turntable something to consider with some seriousness—after all is said and done, more than 100 Blue Note titles will be available in this format and that is just the beginning of today’s new vinyl riches. Chad has also embarked on an Impulse reissue program which has sweetened the analog pot even further. I guarantee you’ve never heard this level of musical realism: detail and definition are second to none, and the soundstaging and imaging are jaw-droppingly holographic.
Listening to these becomes a certifiable “beam me up” moment and best of all, the sonics are so “grabbiing” they make you pay attention to the music again, they are totally compelling as only well-made LPs can be. Good luck finding a CD that can sound this good. Fire up the browser and order these and the Music Matters LPs right now before they disappear forever—many titles are already sold out. Your ears will never be the same.