AOM Logo February 1999

What's Old is New Again
A survey of in-print jazz reissues on vinyl - Part 1

Andrew Chasin

For decades, audiophiles have coveted original pressings of classical LPs from the Decca, RCA Living Stereo, and Mercury Living Presence catalogues - and rightly so, as many of these recordings represent the pinnacle of the recorded art and exemplify a set of sonic values all but absent today. Unfortunately, the cost of many originals is prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of collectors. In fact, many mint-condition LPs derived from early stampers can fetch hundreds of dollars on the open market.

In response to an outcry for affordable reissues of these classic recordings, companies like Classic Records, Speakers Corner and Testament began ambitious reissue projects, thus far having released many of the titles most sought after by collectors. The results of these reissue projects have been reported on thoroughly by the audiophile press, our own Anthony Kershaw having recently embarked on an in-depth survey of the Classic Records vinyl reissues, of which two installments have been published (with several more on the way). However, to my knowledge, and considerable consternation, no one has yet to discuss, with any great consistency of purpose, the abundance of vinyl reissues documenting the great jazz performances of the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley et. al from Analogue Productions, Blue Note, DCC, Impulse!, Original Jazz Classics, Verve etc.

In the coming months I intend to survey a selection of in-print jazz LP reissues and, whenever possible, make sonic comparisons with the originals. Unlike those of the classical genre, many of the originals can often be found on the used market for reasonable sums.

My survey begins with three reissues from Original Jazz Classics…

Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet: Original Jazz Classics (Fantasy) OJC-296
Recording Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder, Producer: Bob Weinstock
Original Session Date(s): May 11 and October 26, 1956
Remastering Engineer: Phil De Lancie, Reissue Date: 1987

Workin' Cover Image

1956's Workin' was assembled from the two final, and highly prolific, sessions the quintet (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and "Philly" Joe Jones) recorded for Prestige - so prolific, in fact, that enough material remained from which three additional albums, Cookin', Steamin' and Relaxin', were culled. Released originally as Prestige PRLP-7166, Workin' was reissued by Fantasy on the Original Jazz Classics label in 1987 and by Analogue Productions in 1997.

Replete with what effectively constitutes two sets bounded by Davis' signature, Theme, and Ahmad's Blues (on which both Davis and Coltrane are tacit), Workin' could quite easily be mistaken for a recorded club date, sans audience noises and applause. Both Davis and Coltrane are in fine form, unparalleled in their ability to coax preternatural beauty from the mere twisted metal of their respective instruments. The ever-lyrical Red Garland demonstrates superb touch as he leads the rhythm section through Ahmad's Blues, and proves a most accomplished accompanist elsewhere. Workin' also provides ample opportunity for the listener to revel in the unshakable foundation that is Jones and Chambers, upon which Davis (wisely) chose to build 1958's stellar Kind of Blue.

Comparing the OJC reissue of Workin' to an original blue-label Prestige pressing, leaves me fairly confident that the former was (as many OJCs are rumored to have been) remastered digitally. The OJC compresses soundstage depth noticeably, the rhythm section and horns seemingly at the same position relative to stage front. This effect is, no doubt, exacerbated by the sound of Jones' cymbals and snare, which are unnaturally brash and tizzy and far too prominent in the mix. Coltrane's unique tone, which can sound quite aggressive on even the finest all-analogue efforts, sounds excessively so on the OJC. Listen, for example, to 'Trane's solo on Half Nelson, which, unlike the original Prestige, the OJC presents as bereft of warmth and richness. Unfortunately, neither the Prestige nor the OJC afford Chambers' bass sufficient weight, resulting in the overall presentation sounding decidedly lightweight.

Turning to the original pressing (PRLP-7166), one finds a more convincing sense of stage depth, the piano, bass and drums presented clearly behind the horns. Cymbals sound considerably more natural and resonant, as does the sound of Jones' brushed snare, which conjured up the aural image of dry, rustling leaves on the OJC. On the Prestige, the upper registers of Garland's piano have slightly less sparkle, and Chambers' upright bass is infused with more body and woody resonance. The acoustic presented is less dry and antiseptic than that of the OJC, with more of the intrinsic sound of Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, NJ studio being heard around and between the soloists.

I have yet to have the opportunity to hear the Analogue Productions reissue but, given its all-analogue pedigree, have little doubt it would better (and not by a small margin) the OJC. Alas, this reissue is only available as part of Analogue Productions' five-LP box The Great Prestige Recordings (for the princely sum of US$200.00) and no plans have been announced to make it available separately.

Workin' represents the Miles Davis Quintet at the zenith of their improvisational (and, in the case of Coltrane and Davis, compositional) powers. No serious collector of recorded jazz should be without at least one version in his collection. For those unable, or unwilling, to seek out an original pressing, the OJC (at around $10.00) represents good value. This version, while not on heavyweight vinyl, affords quiet surfaces and faithful reproduction of the original cover and liner notes. Serious audiophiles, however, should pass on the OJC and seek out the original Prestige (which can be found on the used market for as little as $20.00). While the surfaces will, no doubt, be somewhat noisier, the original boasts superior sound, and communicates more faithfully the musical mastery of what many consider the finest working jazz quintet of the 1950s.

The Bill Evans Trio: Explorations: Original Jazz Classics (Fantasy) OJC-037
Recording Engineer: Bill Stoddard, Producer: Orrin Keepnews
Original Session Date(s): February 2, 1961
Remastering Engineer: David Luke, Reissue Date: Unavailable

Explorations Cover Image

Just one year after joining the Miles Davis Quintet, a union which bore much musical fruit, Bill Evans left for the more intimate climes of his own jazz trio. Paired with the rhythm section of Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, the trio recorded some memorable sessions for the Riverside label, including The Village Vanguard Sessions, Portrait in Jazz, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and 1961's Explorations.

Although Explorations is notable for its dearth of original Evans compositions, musical delights abound. The trio splashes cold water in the face of such standards as How Deep Is the Ocean, Sweet and Lovely, and Beautiful Love, while treading on the less trodden, yet no less enchanting, compositions of Miles Davis (Nardis), John Carisi (Israel), and Earl Zindars (Elsa). Throughout, Evans displays understated brilliance, possessing the ability to say more with a simple phrase or melodic line than most. One need simply give an ear to Beautiful Love or Elsa to understand the tragedy of Scott LaFaro's untimely death just ten days after the trio's landmark Village Vanguard sessions. His innovation and boundless creativity lent strong support to the notion of jazz bassist as leader rather than sideman. Drummer Paul Motian provides a solid rhythmic canvas for Evans' melodic sketches, his fine brushwork on snare and cymbals tickling the ear with its delicacy and finesse. Motian, a consummate musician in his own right, takes several opportunities to dash off a fiery solo to the delight of the listener.

Having the good fortune of owning a mint original Riverside pressing of Explorations (RLP-9351) made listening to the OJC reissue a sour disappointment. If Riverside could capture a goodly portion of the weight and warmth of Evans' piano and LaFaro's bass (using early-60s technology, no less), why can't today's crack engineers armed with the wonders of technology follow suit? Sadly, the OJC remaster neuters the full, meaty sound of LaFaro's bass and thins the rich texture of Evans' piano. Repeatedly, Fantasy's engineers reduce Evans' exquisitely voiced progressions to mere clunks and clanks. Motian's cymbals and brushed snare endure a similar fate - all sizzle and splash with little of the air and effervescence of the real thing.

Explorations is much more than simply a superb musical achievement, it is an historical document chronicling a brief flicker of time in the lives of three of our most influential musicians. Sadly, the OJC reissue extinguishes much of the musical flame. Therefore, while original pressings are far from plentiful, a copy is well worth seeking out by the earnest jazz collector [sources have spotted mint used originals for as little as $20.00 - Ed].

Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section: Original Jazz Classics (Fantasy) OJC-338
Recording Engineer: Roy DuNann, Producer: Lester Koenig
Original Session Date(s): January 19, 1957
Remastering Engineer: Phil De Lancie, Reissue Date: 1988

...Meets The Rhythm Section Cover Image

In Bill Evans' brief essay entitled Improvisation In Jazz (in essence, the liner notes of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue), he observes that "Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result." On the recorded evidence of 1957's Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, the daunting challenges of group improvisation were overcome in brilliant fashion by this east-meets-west pairing of alto saxophonist Art Pepper, and "The Rhythm Section" comprised of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer "Philly" Joe Jones. Within five hours of beginning, the album's nine tracks had been completed, two of which (Waltz Me Blues and Red Pepper Blues) were composed during the session.

The '50s and '60s found Pepper hopelessly addicted to drugs and in and out of prison [read Pepper's own autobiography, Straight Life - 1979, with Laurie Pepper - for more about this very difficult period in his life - Ed]. It is a tribute to his personal strength and musical convictions that he refused to allow the microphone to sense his anguish. Indeed, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section is a high-spirited outing with nary a hint of the despair which engulfed the session's leader. Songs like Cole Porter's You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To and Pepper's own blistering Straight Life, lively fast-paced numbers in the finest be-bop tradition, illustrate this dichotomy delightfully.

The impromptu nature of this session is clear from the outset (it is said that Pepper wasn't even aware of the date until the morning of). The air is charged with nervous energy as the group winds its way through the opening chart, a dazzling rendition of the aforementioned Cole Porter tune. Pepper, by his own admission, is a bit rough around the edges on this date, yet his beautifully rounded tone and abundant chops are in evidence throughout. The remainder of the session finds a more relaxed, yet no less energetic, Pepper, as he quickly acclimates to the singular backing trio of Garland, Chambers and Joe Jones. Little remains to be said about this threesome that an army of jazz historians has not rendered redundant. Through the wonders of technology, their unrivaled mastery of the jazz idiom is, and forever will be, a matter of public record.

Remastered by Phil De Lancie, the OJC reissue of …Meets The Rhythm Section sounds superior to many of Fantasy's classic jazz transfers. While somewhat brighter on top and less weighty on the bottom than the Contemporary original (S-7532), its tonal balance is satisfying, if still somewhat reminiscent of a digital master. Curiously, the OJC pan instruments hard left and right, with little of the center-fill heard on the original issue. Listen, for example, to the way the Fantasy engineers condensed Joe Jones' trap set into the remaster's right channel, robbing it of the natural spread afforded by the Contemporary release. As is the case with the reissue of Bill Evans' Explorations, cymbals sound unnaturally brash, though not offensively so, and rim shots lack depth. Garland's piano, set somewhat farther back in the soundstage, misses the last bit of body and richness on the OJC, but sounds quite lovely nonetheless. The most pleasant surprise is the sound of Pepper's alto sax - round, warm, and velvet-smooth, a hair's breath from the consuming beauty of the original.

At $10.00, which buys you pristine surfaces, faithful preservation of cover art, liner notes and label, the OJC represents a reasonable alternative to both an original issue and, considering price alone, the thrice as expensive Analogue Productions release (not auditioned). Altogether, a fine effort by the reissue team, if not an unqualified success.

To be continued…

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