The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXVII: Record Player Time Machines
I've been doing this record reviewing gig, both on my blog and for various high-end audio publications, for over twenty years now. The jazz aspect this exploded a few years ago when I erroneously put forth the idea that the contemporary jazz scene was keeping too low of a profile, and the younger generations weren't getting enough exposure to this music (I made the same claim about classical music in the United States in my column "Classical Gasp" back in 2007).
Why was this erroneous? Well, ever since I made that comment about the insular nature of modern jazz, my mailbox has been flooded with CD's and LP's from publicists, record labels and the even performers themselves. The contemporary jazz scene is alive and well in 2021, but it still could use some more love--and record sales, I suppose. COVID, in particular has made things impossibly tough for an industry that exists almost certainly through live performances watched by a paying audience.
The sheer number of contemporary jazz releases I've received in the last couple of years does not qualify me as a jazz critic or expert. I come at it from an audiophile's perspective and not a historian. But if I can make a general observation based on a hefty chunk of data--the piles of jazz CD's that can be found all over my home now--I'll say there are two types of contemporary jazz albums. One type is concerned with preserving traditions. The other, ever restless type is the one searching for something new in the ether, a newly discovered corner of the frontier. That, of course, is yet another way to preserve jazz traditions--breaking new ground.
I'll be honest. I can get bored with the former type, and exhausted with the latter. My interest aligns with a third group, or one that is also a hybrid between the two. That, of course, is the remastered jazz album, the one that might have been recorded sixty years ago but now sounds incredibly modern thanks to technology.
I'll stop right there. That's not really what it's all about.
The idea is not to take an old recording and do a makeover, a remix of sorts. The idea is to capture what's on the master. Yes, you want to make it sound as good as possible, clean and pristine and open. You want all those long-dead jazz legends to sound like they're still bopping around the streets on NYC, creating new sounds at the neighborhood jazz club every single night. But you also want to keep it real. You want to respect the history.
Every great jazz remaster I've truly loved doesn't make its way into my heart because it is a sonic spectacular. I fall in love for one reason: the recording is an open, unique window into a historical event. It isn't perfect. It is, instead, a time machine.
I've chosen three recent jazz remasters that illustrate this point:
Duke Ellington Masterpieces by Ellington
Here's an Analogue Productions 45rpm 200 gram reissue that perfectly defines my point. Masterpieces by Ellington is a once-in-a-lifetime recording of Ellington and his favorite crew laying down the defining versions of such jazz standards as "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "The Tattooed Bride" and "Solitude." That's right, just four tracks, but each eleven minute-plus performance is taken to the extreme and explored in depth by the likes of Johnny Hodges, Billy Strayhorn, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, vocalist Yvonne Lanauze and, of course, Ellington himself. His idea was to cut eleven-minute "uncut concert performances" of these classics, right there in Columbia's 30th Street Studio, and they are considered among his very best performances.
This album, however, was recorded in 1950. That's shortly after the invention of magnetic tape recording and the long-playing 33 1/3 record LP and just a few short years before stereo. That's right, it's in mono. You know what that means--everything is rolled into the middle, right? Everything sounds distant, the aural equivalent of a grainy, scratched Buster Keaton film. Right?
This album is mono, but it's also one of the clearest, cleanest windows into these performers I've heard. Imaging and sound-staging be damned--I hear everything I want to hear in Masterpieces, the heart and soul of a remarkable human being played out on the keyboards, the pure tonality of the instruments, that ethereal time-washed feel of found treasure. If I played this for you right now, especially the 45rpm version, you might not even notice it's mono. It's that immediate, that realistic.
Michel Legrand Legrand Jazz
This Impex remaster from 1958 is a little different than the Ellington because it's in stereo, and it sounds magnificent--even to non-audiophiles. The story behind this album is simple--French composer Michel Legrand, known mostly for his film scores, is a secret jazz enthusiast and manages to convince a multitude of jazz legends including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Phil Woods to record his arrangements of jazz standards such as "Night in Tunisia," "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "'Round Midnight."
The reason why I'm so enchanted by the sound is that, once again, it's not absolute in its sonic greatness. Instead, Legrand pours on the lush, romantic elements in these classics and makes them big and seductive and sexy as all get out. And not sexy in a 2021 way. I'm talking 1958. I'm talking about a jet-setting Frenchman who came to US to charm the pants off jazz lovers in the US and succeeded admirably.
It's so evocative of the late '50's jazz scene, it gives me chills.
Thelonious Monk Quartet Monk's Dream
Monk's 1963 masterpiece is given the red carpet treatment at Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs--it's been released as part of MoFi's exclusive "UltraDisc One-Step Pressing" series. That means Monk's Dream eliminates some of the pressing steps so you wind up with a recording much closer to the master tapes. These are limited edition (just 6,000 numbered copies) 45rpm pressings, with plenty of extras, and they sound absolutely phenomenal.
These do cost roughly $125 each. And the UltraDisc One-Steps tend to sell out quickly because they're so terrific. And if you buy a second one and keep it sealed, you can sell it down the road for a fortune. That's why some retailers limit you to one per customer.
Again, I'm talking about a landmark jazz recording that is closer to the original event than any version that has come before it. Of the three titles here, this is the one that sounds the best in absolute terms, but I never quite shake that feeling of witnessing history, of Monk trying to establish a fresh and new vision of jazz in the '60's after all the ground that was covered in the late '50's after the advent of stereo.
The list, of course, does not stop here--these are just recent additions to my LP collection that have really charmed with great sound and great music and a great perspective on how to continue with my search for great contemporary jazz. Other albums have impressed me in the past and for the very same reasons--Dean Martin's Dream with Dean is the most obvious, and so is Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue. Even Brubeck's Time Out qualifies--I never thought it was the finest-sounding classic jazz recording out there, but it does capture a specific time and place like few recordings do.
The contemporary jazz world is alive and thriving. But what makes it fascinating is that feel it used to have, its language, the reason why so many people have been threatened by its newness and its intelligence while others learn the secrets of the universe. But if you want to understand jazz, you have to hop into a time machine and listen. Just listen.
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