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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - August, 2014

Kenny Burrell "Midnight Blue" Music Matters/Blue Note

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - August, 2014 - Kenny Burrell

A while back, we took a look at Blue Train as done by Music Matters as part of Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary celebration. Twelve titles are being released in 2014 as part of the observance, and the world gets a little brighter with every new issue. Based on the strength of the Coltrane record, I decided to scoop up all of the currently available titles before getting too far behind. I’m hard pressed to remember any other records in my collection with the levels of clarity and detail to rival the Blue Train record and I wanted to see if Music Matters could carry the project through to completion or if Blue Train was some sort of glorious fluke. I knew it would not be. Really, I just needed all of these titles in my collection, and this “project” was a fun excuse to make it happen. Plus, the remaining titles are being released in stereo as opposed to the mono format that is more often revered by Blue Note collectors. And me. So there was some intrigue added to the mix too. Let's start with one of the titles that I was least excited about and work our way up from there, shall we? Let’s take a look at Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue.

I’ve known Burrell’s name for a long while now, but never jumped over the Midnight broom because I’m historically not too excited by Jazz guitar. It’s just not the instrument that I think of when I’m in a Jazzing mood. I probably should have known better and I kinda did, but I needed a nudge to push me into the ring to face this one. I shouldn’t have ducked Kenny for as long as I did. I’m going to get tons of mileage out of Midnight Blue. It’s really the perfect Jazz record for when you’re not quite in the mood for Jazz. Stanley Turrentine’s sax offerings are pretty scarce throughout and that fact alone sort of dictates the timbre of this recording in my mind. Because the sax and its cousins are, in fact, the family of instruments I feel most at home with on Jazz holidays. And there’s a surprisingly familiar old friend around for the fete as well. Because it seems that Van Morrison kidnapped the title track, dressed it up in a spiffy new suit, and renamed it “Moondance.” Same intro, same mood, and very similar chorus. This is no coincidence, and a quick online surf session will tell you the same thing. If you didn’t know already. I’m famously late. Ol’ Van is no fool; he was pulling water from the coolest well. Midnight Blue is the closest thing to a straight Blues record that I’m aware of in the Blue Note canon, but I still have lots of exploring in front of me. Until otherwise informed, I’ll take Burrell’s celebrated opus as the Jazz Blues Gospel.

I’m thrilled to report that the clarity and detail exhibited so brilliantly on the Coltrane record is alive and well throughout this reissue series. But here’s this: I discovered, while lying on my living room floor for reasons we shan't discuss here, that Burrell’s notes have “shadows” that precede their bodies. I mean, you can hear him play before he actually starts playing. Somehow, it’s all in good time, but I thought it was a little curious. It certainly doesn’t detract from the experience for me, and I consider this a rousing start to an amazing musical journey. I’m excited.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Grant Green "Idle Moments" Music Matters/Blue Note

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - August, 2014 - Grant Green

So, two of the twelve Music Matters Blue Note titles slated for 2014 release are tied up in Jazz guitar strings. And I’ve never been a fan. A younger me would have looked at this as a tragedy, but I’m learning to trust, gang. Knowing what I know about the way things work out for Music Matters, I decided to sit back, relax, and hopefully learn something. And that, by gum, is exactly how it all happened. I learned that Van Morrison ripped off Kenny Burrell like he was ringing a bell. Then, I learned that Grant Green must have fathered the Soul Jazz movement or at least made the bed that the sub-genre would be fathered in. Idle Moments is unlike any other Jazz record in my collection. I like it a lot, and it had to earn its respect against incalculable odds. Not really. I’m just being dramatic. I came into this listen less than excited, but wide open to suggestion. This 75th Anniversary celebration does not seem like a light undertaking for the Music Matters folks. If they chose Idle Moments as one of the twelve worthy titles, I had to assume that they knew what they were doing. Sometimes it's safe to assume. I don’t care about that old saying suggesting that assumptions are for donkeys. I’ve never been more proud to be an ass.

But the odds were a bit stacked against Idle Moments, for real this time. Mostly because of the instruments in play. We’ve already covered my lack of enthusiasm for Jazz guitar, but I’m also wary of the vibes. Things can fly so far south so quickly when vibes get involved. They are to Jazz what steel drums are to Rock and Roll. I head for the hills at the first threat of either. Maybe it’s because I’m turning forty in a few days. Maybe I’m mellowing like a fine shot of… vibes? You’ve gotta be kidding. But here I am, facing my speakers with a blank mind and open ears, and Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes are actually furthering my enjoyment of the record as opposed to only being an acceptable distraction which is actually what I was expecting. They seem to compliment Duke Pearson’s piano playing especially well by adding a more percussive component to Pearson’s melodies. The tunes keep busy enough to minimize the effects of the stereo format which gets a little awkward for me in the quieter sections. Green’s guitar is hard in the right channel while Pearson hangs out hard left. The vibes feel like they’re all over the place with the bass right in the middle. The Music Matters site shows that their folks were surprised to find that the stereo tapes used for this series were more lifelike and more detailed than the mono tapes. They’d assumed that they’d go with mono, but changed horses midstream when the discovery was made. Alright, but I was really concerned about the potential for distracting (or worse, novel) ’60’s stereo mixes. But I’m learning to trust. And I get so caught up in the realism and detail in these grooves that I forget that I’m listening in stereo. I forget everything. Happily.

Grant Green was a punchy player. Lots of single (tasteful) notes without all of those overly dramatic chord phrasings that so many Jazz guitarists rely on. The instrumentation on Idle Moments foreshadows what was to come by those that Green would influence, but I’ve never heard it done as well. Then again, I’ve never been as open to the idea as I am now. I can thank Green for that.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Tina Brooks "True Blue" Music Matters/Blue Note

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - August, 2014 - Tina Brooks

While I’m in the business of trusting Music Matters for all of my Jazz vinyl needs, I thought I’d check out True Blue by Tina Brooks. I’d never heard of Brooks, but he surrounded himself with people named “Freddie Hubbard,” and “Sam Jones” amongst others when it came time to record this one so I took the plunge. Plus, I wasn’t going to settle for an incomplete Music Matters 33rpm series in celebration of Blue Note’s birthday. Not now. I’m in too deep. And, of course, Music Matters’ high standing in the vinyl community is still undisputed. This is just one more in a not-long-enough line of fine work that the company has produced in recent months. And it’s much more in line with what I think of when I think of Blue Note Jazz. Not a guitar in sight. Not that that would have changed anything at this point. I’ve realized the error of my ways with regards to all of that. Still, I love the classic Blue Note horn saturated sound, and having what amounts to me as a brand new recording to explore is a treat that may not come around too often from this point forward. I’m getting in while the getting is good. And it is really good right now.

A quick online search showed that True Blue was the only record released with Tina Brooks as a band leader during his lifetime. Like Grant Green and a hundred others besides, Tina Brooks went and got himself hooked on The Junk. He died young, and he had some solo titles released posthumously, but this was it during his lifetime. And it probably would have been enough on its own. Duke Jordan’s piano occupies the middle space on True Blue while Art Taylor’s drums are hard right along with Brooks’ sax. Hubbard’s trumpet is hard left next to Jones’ bass which creeps a little closer to center at times too. Usually, the guys get to cooking with enough heat to render this level of attention to spacing moot. Because, once they get going, everything seems to bleed together in the noblest ways. Brooks’ playing is so fluid that he can lull you into a comfort zone that Hubbard will shock you out of when you least expect it. But I don’t want to create the idea that the players are in conflict or that they don’t complement each other effectively. The opposite is true. The players can leverage their talents in ways that create a sonic playing field that seems sprinkled with surprises - enough to keep the listener engaged and slightly off balance throughout. The whole thing kind of wobbles, but never falls apart. The danger of that possibility gives the impression that the sounds contained in these grooves are precious and fleeting. The listener digs in and engages on a level that maybe he or she hasn’t before in an attempt to savor every nuance, every improvisation, and every resolution. Music you can meditate on, not to. The whole thing ends before you can really get settled, then you’re faced with the choice of starting the disc anew or moving on to the next title in the series. Listening to much else is not really an option at this point. This stuff is too good.

So, I’m three records in to a month long five record exploration, and I haven’t worked with a familiar band leader yet. That all changes when Hank Mobley shows up…

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Hank Mobley "Soul Station" Music Matters/Blue Note

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - August, 2014 - Hank Mobley

Not only am I familiar with some of Hank Mobley’s work, but I have a Classic Records version of his Soul Station to compare to the Music Matters version. The differences start to pile up before you even get the record out of its sleeve. If you’re into packaging, Music Matters has got that game in a choke hold. My Classic copy’s cover is like looking at an old black and white TV that has a 10-inch screen and weighs 200 pounds compared to the Music Matters version which is in high definition and would be mounted on my wall if I had the room. The Music Matters records are all packaged in gatefold sleeves to accommodate additional session photos within whereas the Classic titles were reproduced according to the original artwork down to the last detail. I appreciate a well thought out reproduction, but no one is really going to be fooled anyway. Given the choice, I’ll take the clearer covers and the additional photos. But that’s just me. What about the sound?

The most obvious difference between the two Soul Station takes is that the Classic record is of the mono variety, and the Music Matters version is not. Again, the stereo edition has the story’s protagonist on an island, hard left in the mix. Drums mostly to the right with bass and keys more central. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ll admit that I prefer the mono mix. But here’s the deal: the Music Matters record sounds better overall than the Classic version. It’s more airy with much more detail. If you could have that level of clarity and liveliness in the mono mix, you could retire happy. So, which do I prefer? The mono mix or the stereo sonics? I’m going with the latter. All the way. I’ve just not had access to this level of quality over the course of a long run of releases like this Blue Note project. Even Mobile Fidelity lays an egg every once in a while, usually because they’ve done their jobs too well and cleaned up a Rocker to the point of sterility. Doesn’t happen often, but I can think of at least one example. These Jazz records are simply some of the most impressive I’ve heard. I have to force myself to listen to much else right now. The lack of listeners’ fatigue is more than apparent. Listening to these discs is like a massage for your hearing. Addictive, even. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Hank Mobley, you have tons to look forward to. I was really excited to see that he made the cut for this series. I’d not heard of him before I started buying up Classic Records titles a few years back, and I’ll put his playing up against anyone’s. He’s a little more muscular than Coltrane, less flighty. Probably less experimental too, but plenty fluid and never dull. Soul Station finds him surrounded by the likes of Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly, and Art Blakey. Speaking of “muscular.” Goodness. It’s a brief, Roman candle of an explosive work which functions much better as a single 33rpm record than it would have as a double 45, in my opinion. The latter would require too much record cleaning and record flipping which might detract from the luxury of the experience. Too much work, basically. And the work has been done. Soul Station earned its spot in this lineup honestly. I recommend it highly.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Dexter Gordon "Go" Music Matters/Blue Note

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - August, 2014 - Dexter Gordon

I’m kinda sad to see this month end. It’s not often that I get to inundate my senses with some of the most pristine recordings that I have found on vinyl. I believe that two more titles have been released as part of this collection since I ordered the five that we’ve looked at in August. If you frequent this site, you will be reading about them soon. But not in September. I have other plans for September. Any old way, I saved Dexter Gordon’s Go for the finale. I’d had my eye on another company’s version a while back, but I’m so glad I waited. The two players on Go that I’m most familiar with are Gordon himself and Sonny Clark on piano. (Clark’s Cool Struttin’ will be released as part of this series later in 2014. Music Matters already released a 45 rpm version of that title which makes me wonder if they came up with something so brilliant for the single disc version that they felt like it needed to be re-released specifically for the format. That will always be the dream…) To my ears Go is absolutely as representative of the “Blue Note sound” as any recording I’m aware of. And that’s a mighty fine sound. The quality of my Jazz collection improved exponentially after purchasing the first six available titles (including Blue Train) in this run. I’m giggly.

If Mobley’s playing is more muscular than Coltrane’s, then Gordon’s feels more fluid than both. Go has a cosmopolitan feel to it that I’m having a hard time finding words for. It’s not flashy, per se, but it feels a bit more sophisticated somehow. (That’s certainly not to suggest that Coltrane’s playing was anything short of sophisticated, but I think of his playing as more “complex” or “innovative” than anything else. Whatever.) Billy Higgins brings some interesting percussive flourishes to “Love For Sale,” for instance, which add to the effect. It sounds a little like he’s using some hand percussion instruments, but he’s more likely just playing rim shots on his kit. Regardless, you get a bit of a “worldly” feel during the intro that evaporates into a more traditional progression wants the game gets going. According to Ira Gitler’s liner notes (as reprinted on the rear cover), the Go sessions went so well that Blue Note booked the quartet for more recordings. Two days later. Those sessions resulted in A Swingin’ Affair which was released later in 1962. I’m not acquainted with that one yet, but I will be one day with Go as its reference.

I’ve been consistently blown away by the depth of emotion and artistry that these Blue Note artists were conjuring during the label’s heyday. I’ve always known it was there, but I’ve never heard it so clearly, so plainly. The Burrell record has a little more hiss than the others, probably from his amplifier. (I didn’t notice it as much on the Grant Green title.) Even so, the notes and the warmth of feeling come through on every title. Just hearing the bandleaders lead and innovate would be enough, but hearing their chosen backers’ responses to what was happening really puts these records into the stratosphere. All of these titles are limited editions. “2500” is printed on a sticker that accompanies each record’s outer protective sleeve. If that’s the number of pressings, then time is of the essence. Get out and get these while you can. This is easily one of the most impressive series that I’ve encountered on vinyl ever. I just don’t know how much better it could get.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)