Andrew Hill: Black Fire—Blue Note Tone Poet

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For the 80th anniversary of the historic jazz label Blue Note Records, the company, headed by president Don Was, has decided to embark on a reissue series decidedly different from anything they have attempted in recent memory. Was has long been an admirer of Joe Harley’s Blue Note reissue work with famed audiophile label Music Matters, whose increasingly expensive and coveted AAA Blue Note reissues have garnered universal praise by audiophiles and jazz fans alike.

While Blue Note has certainly put out some very nice and affordable ($20) digitally sourced vinyl reissues of their classic catalog in recent years, they had yet to dip their toes into the audiophile market until now.  Inspired by the success and high quality of Joe Harley’s output with Music Matters, Was commissioned Harley to tackle a series of in-house all-analog audiophile reissues cut from original master tapes. Dubbed the Tone Poet series, the company has planned 18 reissues for 2019, with potentially more to come in 2020.

This Tone Poet release, pianist Andrew Hill’s 1964 Blue Note debut Black Fire, is a perfect example of everything this series gets astoundingly right. The catalog selection highlights an important artist who helped the label extend into the avant-garde it had so far shied away in the first few years of the decade. 

Hill, a Chicago native born to Haitian parents, brings an experimental and impressionistic flavor to the hard bop underpinnings of his seven original tunes.  Sharing the studio with blue note veteran, saxophonist Joe Henderson, he takes the group through a palate of interesting colors and changes. Half blues and half Debussy, he brilliantly displays his cosmopolitan musical upbringing while retaining his own unique voice as a composer and soloist. Perhaps the highlight of this well-paced album for me was the penultimate track McNeil Island, in which Hill demonstrates his poetic musical painting that almost reminds the listener of Thelonious Monk. Taking cues from their leader, we are then treated to a sublime duet between Henderson and bassist Richard Davis forming a kind of mellow counterpoint, with Davis utilizing a classical bow on his upright bass. This gives way immediately to the introduction of the final track Land of Nod in which drummer Roy Haynes hammers out a blisteringly lively groove.

Throughout all of this, the listener is rewarded with a rich and engaging audio experience courtesy of mastering guru Kevin Gray (whose work every audiophile should be well acquainted). The soundstage has all the hallmarks of a traditional Rudy Van Gelder recording, with many of the instruments distinctly placed in specific corners of the stage. The drums for instance are always firmly off to the right, with Hill and Davis placed neatly in the center. This is not to imply the staging yields flat left-right pans, but rather the listener gets the impression that they are very close to the stage in a small jazz club. Tone and phrasing are also rendered convincingly in this pressing, something AAA pressings tend to excel at.  The drums always have a realistic attack and decay that isn’t always captured in digital counterparts. Likewise, Joe Henderson’s phrasing carries with it a direction and breathiness that lets the listener know they are hearing a true representation of the master tape.

I own roughly 80 pressings from the Music Matters label, and I can say safely that these new Blue Note Tone Poet reissues are indistinguishable quality-wise from their more expensive (and increasingly tough to get) Music Matters counterparts. The jackets are of the same thick, high quality laminate, and feature the same sharp and clearly rendered session photos on the inside gatefold. Both series are also pressed excellently at RTI. For $35, these are an incredible deal, and audiophile jazz fans have a lot to look forward to now that a major label is tackling reissues at a quality previously only seen from small boutique operations. Let’s hope Blue Note sees the success of this series and keeps it going for as long as possible.