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The Blue Note labels, from the ’50s to the present day - a guide for the audiophile record collector
The LondonJazzCollector Cheat Sheet
The Highs and Lows in Blue Note audio quality
This varies from the loud and dazzling “musicians in the room” presence found on many original 1950′s Lexington and 47 West 63rd editions, and runs the whole gamut through to dull “musicians in the basement next door” sound of much later reissues, with some of the worst offenders the French ”Direct Metal Master” pressings of the mid-Eighties and the 1986 Capitol US reissues.
Why Oldest can be Best
Vinyl records are for playing, and there are sound reasons for seeking out earliest pressings which have nothing to do with them being valuable antiques or of sentimental historical interest, though those are all valid reasons. While some ’50s and 60′s original recordings, rock and pop particularly, sound “chronic” (that’s how they made them!) the studio engineers behind jazz recording in the mid-Fifties were among the first users of the newest valve/ vacuum tube microphone designs such as Neumann U47 and AKG C7, creating an end-to-end analogue sound chain, every step of the way from instrument to microphone to tape to mastering lathe to vinyl. By todays digital standards, original Blue Note, Prestige and Contemporary records are marvels of audiophile quality. All the more extraordinary because radiograms and portable record players of the day were entirely incapable of reproducing that quality, being designed more to damage the vinyl while playing it.
First pressings are generally considered the holy grail of audiophile quality, being the closest possible to the studio original tape recording and master acetate. The factory test pressing is considered the ultimate first pressing, as “first off the first stamper” will exhibit no sign of the progressive groove wear which follows subsequent pressing repetitions. Similarly there is the first stamper and subsequent stampers, the first mother and subsequent mothers. However somewhere among all “first pressings” are the first and the last off the stamper, so being a first pressing is itself not a guarantee of top audio quality.
British Decca reckoned to change stampers every 2,000 pressings. Other plants ran to 4,000, 6,000 even 10,0000 discs pressed before a fresh stamper was put in service. There is always an element of chance. From experience, there may be no audible difference between first and subsequent second pressings, being made from stampers derived from the same mother and master.Some pressing runs were fewer than a thousand records anyway. Pleasant surprises and unexpected disappointments are all part of collecting records .
What to look for on a Blue Note record
The challenge for the audiophile record collector is to determine from the label and engravings in the “deadwax / run-out /Trail off” whether a record is a first pressing, a later pressing though still an “original” Blue Note (pre-1966), or a reissue originating in the subsequent decades of Blue Note ownership by Liberty, United Artists, or EMI. For some very early releases, corroborating information regarding the record cover is also required.
An example of the markings required to determine a records provenance is shown below for BLP 1599 Bennie Green’s “Soul Stirring”, last of the 1500 series, released around 1959.
To sample a little of what it’s all about - 47 West 63rd St labels, Deep Groove mono, Blue Note first pressing shown below, just listen a while to the perfect audio reproduction:
For this particular record to be identified as a first pressing, all the identifiers shown below have to be present, on both sides of the record..
Fred Cohen’s excellent Guide to Blue Note First Pressings will give you all the knowledge required to determine the “first” of every release. My intention is not to repeat this, as you can just buy Fred’s book, but to delve deeper, into the audio quality of the many releases and reissues, including the silky-smooth Japanese and the dismal European, right up to the present day. The sort of things you see most often when collecting, unlike those showcased in the fascinating Jazz Collector $1,000 bin.The rarest Blue Notes routinely command up to £5,000.
One thing common to all original Blue Note pressings through to the sale of the company in 1966 is the presence of the Plastylite pressing plant cursive “P” symbol, known to collectors as “the ear”, in the run-out both sides. None are found after 1966 when pressing of Blue Note records was transferred to other plants by Blue Note’s new owners, Liberty Records.
The presence of “the ear” is the definitive mark of an original Blue Note, not its label, inner sleeve or cover, as Liberty continued to use up the old stock of labels and covers for several more years, issuing ear-less BINOs - Bluenote In Name Only. (Plastylite “ear” is also found on some early Prestige records and early United Artists)
A Chronology of Blue Note Labels
1. 767 LEXINGTON AVE (1951-57)
Referred to by less experienced sellers as 161 Lexington Avenue Blue Note catalogue numbers 1500 – 1543.
Lexingtons in excellent condition are the holy grail in terms of collectible historical artefact, prices to match. This era of Blue Note has many unique features for the very earliest pressings, such as a ” flat edge” to the heavy vinyl, covers manufactured with a kakubushi frame construction (the paper from the back sleeve folds around the cover and appears in front, under the unlaminated cover art paper, leaving a shadow-line) the absence of printing on the cover spine. In addition, the engraving in the runout feature hand-written initials of master-engineer Rudy Van Gelder (replaced in 1957 by machine-stamped initials), and some also have a hand-written marking “9M”, who’s true meaning is unknown but believed to be a pressing plant code for aligning the mother of the stamper in the 9 o’clock position. No other combination of number or letter is known to exist.
Lexingtons can be extraordinary audio quality, though the very earliest recordings made in the nineteen forties lack dynamic range due to microphone limitations, and can sound “boxed-in”. Recordings made immediately after the war also sometimes do not come up to modern audio expectations, and not a few early Blue Note titles are re-mastered by Van Gelder from recordings made by others. However, generally, Lexington label Blue Notes sound magnificent. Playing my Lexington 1st issue of Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia is like physically being there. The Messengers are not “between the hi-fi speakers”, you are in the room with them.
2. 47 WEST 63rd St NY 23 (1957-8)
These are gems, and usually priced similarly. As with the Lexingtons, the heavy vinyl ( 180-220 gm) is not only louder than other records, it is often quite resilient to surface damage from skating record arms, and they will often sound much better than they look. Even a few feelable light scratches generally can be tolerated and tend not detract from the music, especially if played on a turntable whose design provides better isolation of groove defects.
3. 47 WEST 63rd NYC without “23″, no Inc and no R (1957-59).
Beauties in the main, as above. May be second pressings of records originally issued on Lexington labels, but share the same original RVG matrix and sound for all intents and purposes identical, if not better as they have a few years less wear and tear
4. 47 West 63rd NYC with INC and R (1959-62)
Here begins both mono and stereo releases
Manufactured after 1960 when “Blue Note Records” became an incorporated company and a registered trademark , and predecessor to the New York label. The same fine sound as 47W63rds without the INC and R, being pressed with stampers originating from the same Matrix/ mothers.
Collectors get very excited about absence of the “R” as proof of authenticity of earlier recordings. By my reckoning, the variability of sound quality within a pressing (” from first to last-off a pair of stampers”) is as great as the variability between the first and a second pressing a couple of years later. There is no way of second-guessing audio quality. Play the record. If it doesn’t excite you immediately, you probably have a pressing towards the end of the run, whatever the label says. Whether it matters or not gets back to why you are a collector. Some people collect wines without drinking them, some collect records without playing them, or play them on indifferent equipment without ever really hearing them.
Recordings produced by Blue Note during this period, a combination of Van Gelder’s sound engineering and Plastylite pressing, can spoil your willingness to tolerate lesser fare. Once you hear and understand what the “Blue Note pressing” business is all about, it is difficult to go back.
5. NEW YORK USA , ORIGINAL MONO (1962-66)
Catalogue numbers 4101 – 4252 with anomalies
NY pressings are superb audio quality, which provide a rich satisfying musical experience, even when second or third pressings. They exhibit a wide dynamic range, a bright upper register, lots of punch in the midrange, underpinned by a firm natural bass. In ordinary language, they sound “just right” for the acoustic instruments of modern jazz. Second pressings can be extraordinarily good value compared with earlier “first” pressings sought by the most fastidious collectors. Mono is the collector format of choice. As a general rule, NY first pressings do not bear the deep groove pressing mark on either side, and those older dies were used more often with second and third pressings of earlier releases, though as is always the case with Blue Note, there are exceptions.
6. NEW YORK USA, ORIGINAL STEREO (1962-66)
Mono is often more rare and sought-after by collectors than stereo, which became the format of choice for later reissues. Early stereo engineering was constrained by the primitive mixing technology of the day, where instruments could be “positioned” on only the left or right channel, or in the centre. Depending on the decisions made by the engineer, the feature artist may not be “centre stage”, with a resulting “hole in the middle”, quite unlike the rich modern stereo sound stage engineered for wide-apart speakers. Some engineers, notably Roy du Nann at Contemporary, were masters of the stereo format, whilst others saw stereo as a fad or afterthought, and gave their fullest attention to the mastering of the mono release.
Ultimately, mono or stereo is a matter of personal preference and many collectors enjoy having copies of both the mono and stereo edition (which can be a very different mix). (Note: mono editions benefit from listening in mono-switched amplification)
Original Blue Notes in stereo generally carry the “RVG STEREO” stamp in the runout, indicating the masters handiwork. In recent interviews, van Gelder admitted that when he remastered for CD (Van Gelder Editions) in the Nineties he sometimes made different choices in the mixing because the original choices on the vinyl masters were limited by the the technology of the day.
Many mono pressings were sourced from stereo tapes and folded down into mono. Later, when stereo became vogue, genuine stereo pressings were easily possible from source. However among some later reissues from the Blue Note catalogue by Liberty and UA, recording originally made in mono were “electronically reprocessed” to simulate stereo, not making good stereo and making a mess of the original dynamics. Always check whether the stereo is claimed to be sourced from original stereo tapes, or electronically reprocessed to simulate stereo (and avoid the later)
7. DIVISION OF LIBERTY (1966-70)
The sale of Blue Note to the giant Liberty Records in 1966 marked the end of an era. The vital task of record pressing moved overnight from Plastylite NJ, who had pressed all Blue Notes to date, initially to Liberty’s newly acquired pressing plant All Disc Records, Roselle NJ, and later to other plants including Research Craft on the West Coast, and elsewhere.
The trademark “ear” of Plastylite disappeared immediately from the vinyl trail-off, however existing inventory stocks of Blue Note “original” labels and covers were used up first before printing more, and these early pressings for Liberty with older labels are commonly passed off as original Blue Note (note: no ear!). Blue Note Records became a Division of Liberty Records Inc, which name replaced the “New York” address on the record label. After 1968 the increasingly troubled Liberty Records was acquired by Transamerica, a diversified financial conglomerate who also owned United Artists, into which it ultimately merged Blue Note Records. The label remained officially the “Division of Liberty” until 1970, however pressing quality, studio engineering and cover art became increasingly variable in quality from here on..
Catalogue numbers 4253 – 4300 were first releases by Liberty, while earlier catalogue numbers were reissues apart from a few deferred pressings, released long after their recording date and allocation of their Blue Note catalogue number. All lack the telltale “ear”, and audio quality is variable. Early reissues from 1966 can be the match of Plastylite, but the quality soon dropped off, as they did across the industry. It is not uncommon to find pressings of this period where the dynamic range is compressed: the top-end subdued (treble rolled off, nominally to reduce tape hiss), and the bottom end muddy and confused.
8. LIBERTY/UA (WEST COAST) 1970-1
Catalogue numbers 4330-434x
The anomalous blue and black label design issued by the west coast arm of United Artists. Probably indicative of the creative tensions between LA and New York at the time, it smacks of a “we can do whatever we want here in California” attitude.The sound quality is often very good, though not consistently. Sought after by collectors-on-a-budget in the know, these pressings are much cheaper than Blue Note originals and can be very enjoyable listen until you can get an original Blue Note. However, Japanese pressings are much superior to these in my view.
9a. DIVISION OF UNITED ARTISTS (EAST COAST) 1971-3
Many of these “Division of United Artists” reissues are exceptional quality pressings which, unexpectedly, do not bear an RVG stamp in the run-out, meaning they were not pressed with metalwork pulled from an original van Gelder Master, like later United Artists reissues. The origin of these pressings remains a mystery, and they are underpriced by sellers who class them along with later reissues.There are suspicions they may have been pressed with metalwork derived from masters created for the Japanese market or remastered from the original tapes by UA house engineers. Whatever the reason, these issue are highly recommended
9b. DIVISION OF UNITED ARTISTS “(P) 1975″
In contrast to the excellent classic pressings of the first wave under Division of United Artists, above, it seems there was a later attempt to revive the classic brand, which isn’t in the same audio league. They bear the legend “(p) 1975 United Artists Music and Records Group” on the label in place of the artists listing, and one found by contributor Stefano was using an old stock Liberty cover.
Nice to see the classic label revived but manufactured after the 1973 watershed in the cost of vinyl, after the hike in the price of Oil, which triggered the long decline in the quality of vinyl pressing, particularly from the volume plants serving the big record labels.
9c United Artists Blue label Reissue Series
2-LP sets in brown/monochrome gatefolds, which feature previously unreleased recording sessions, mainly from the early to mid sixties, found by UA in the Blue Note vaults by Michael Cuscuna. UA took the initiative in 1975 to extract more value from its Blue Note asset, particularly artists who had gone on to become bigger names since these recordings were made. The Reissue Series created a new catalogue number series BN-LA nnn H2. Whatever the merits of the music and original recording engineer (Van Gelder mostly), the pressings are sometimes rather unsatisfactory transfers, not to the standard of the previous decade, with compressed dynamic range and an overall lack of presence. However the material is previously unreleased and the sets are good value at the going rate of around $20 for a double LP.
10.DIVISION OF UNITED ARTISTS INC - BLUE LABEL BLACK NOTE (1973-6)
The all-blue label, often carrying the VAN GELDER machine stamp in the run-out. Far from being an assurance of quality, it generally indicates a record pressed from overused Blue Note legacy stampers, resulting in pressings which are dull and lacking in dynamic range. More commonly available than original Blue Notes, not considered collectable, cheaply priced, not especially recommended other than as a substite for some expensive sought-after titles.
11.UNITED ARTISTS MUSIC AND RECORDS GROUP – BLUE LABEL WHITE NOTE mainly 1977-8 (some earlier)
A mainly reissue label from the twilight years of United Artists ownership. The iconic Blue Note catalogue number series, built up since 1956, was casually tossed, little pride in ownership of a piece of history. Some original material is found on a few releases, including “previously unreleased” material from 1957-69 in the LT series (LT987 - LT1103), but the audio quality can be extraordinarily poor. On one of my copies, there is such severe dynamic range compression that there is almost no top end and the percussion is entirely missing. People were making poor decisions in engineering, mastering and pressing, which failed to realise the musical potential of vinyl.
12. EMI FRANCE – PATHE MARCONI (1980-3)
Pathe Marconi became the first pressing vehicle for Blue Note’s new owner EMI, for European Blue Note reissues, and just a few first releases. Their pressings are not wonderful, average for the standard of their day, but predated the DMM disaster that was to follow under EMI France.
From 1983 EMI Pathe Marconi released Blue Note titles variously dated “re-edition 1983“, 1984 and 1985. Some of these, especially the earlier years, not DMM, are pretty reasonably pressings, remastered by French engineers, and can be a very acceptable copy of titles that are impossibly rare and expensive to find as originals.
However EMI France soon began to adopt the Teldec DMM technology, which are identified by the dreaded Direct Metal Mastering symbol. DMM was a wonderful theory about creating superior quality pressings but its implementation delivered wooden dead lifeless sound. These records are in my judgement the worst comparative audio quality imaginable, though I have had people tell me they are quite happy with them and I actually have one (Leo Parker Rollin’ with Leo) which is really good. I bought quite a few before I knew better, and traded them back for pennies.(Out of interest, the last working DMM lathe in the US was sold in 2005 to the Church of Scientology to issue the speeches of founder Ron L Hubbard )
The SACEM logo is the French copyright system for collecting royalties, which on Japanese pressings is replaced by the JASPAC logo and GEMA in Germany. It has no bearing on the music, and in any event, many of the artists were by now long dead, past benefitting from royalties.
13.1 CAPITOL EMI 1986 +
US pressings on the classic Blue & White Label “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939″ on label. Not the Finest in Audio Quality Since 1939, that’s for certain.! Poor vinyl pressing quality, irrespective if the music itself, best avoided. At this point, CD will generally offer a more satisfying musical experience
13.2 CEMA Special Markets 1993
1990′s EMI effort to enter the “budget” market. CEMA was a record label distribution branch and budget label of Capitol-EMI. The name CEMA stood for the four EMI-owned labels it originally distributed: Capitol Records, EMI Records, Manhattan Records and Angel Records . Subsequently renamed EMI Music Distribution (EMD).
Photo courtesy of Xavier
14. EMI FRANCE – CAPITOL RECORDS MODERN “BLUE NOTE” MUSIC GROUP
Modern pressing and engineering standards. The bass is sometimes over-hyped by DJ/ sound engineers who have spent too much time producing dance and club music, or thinking about the download market for iPod and iTunes and not serious vinyl listeners. Good control of bass is not easy to achieve, but essential to balanced reproduction of the upper register and the full dynamic range. What is it about some middle-aged men and dance music meant for people half their age? Whoops. I think I answered my own question.
I am not a fan of the modern and more recent roster of Blue Note artists, like the modestly talented Wynton Marsalis, super-annuated Lincoln Jazz Centre functionary, of whom the very competitive Miles Davis once said ”Wynton thinks playing music is about blowing people up on stage.” In 1986, in Vancouver, Davis famously stopped his band to eject an uninvited Marsalis from the stage. Davis said “Wynton can’t play the kind of shit we were playing”, and twice told Marsalis “Get the fuck off.” That spat continued with Marsalis describing Davis as dressed like a “buffoon”, which thinking of Miles wardrobe in those days was probably fair comment. Whatever, it’s not good jazz.
Of the latest intake, take this music industry hype:
Robert Glasper “boldly stakes out new musical territory and transcends any notion of genre, drawing from jazz, hip hop, R&B and rock,… urban music, seamlessly incorporating appearances from a jaw-dropping roll call of special guests including Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Lalah Hathaway, Shafiq Husayn (Sa-Ra), KING, Ledisi, Chrisette Michele, Musiq Soulchild, Meshell Ndegeocello, Stokley Williams (Mint Condition), and yasiin bey (Mos Def).”
Aggregating works of lesser talents does not create a greater talent. Listen to Glasper’s Black Radio - derivative urban muzak with a walk-on roster of artists with made up and mis-spelt names with edgy ethnic overtones. Modern Blue Note have, like many in the business, gone in search of the new demographic hypnotised by the influence of rap and hip hop.
The next Charlie Parker, Coltrane or Monk is not to be found here, nor much else in the way of real original talent. It takes time to master an instrument and no-one today has the time to learn to play, nor much of the audience the patience to learn to listen. Gratification is required to be instant. The Blue Note legacy remains obstinately uncommercial outside of its small niche.
14. AUDIOPHILE REISSUES
2x45rpm 180gm ANALOGUE PRODUCTIONS
Proper “audiophile” reissues including Classic Records and Analog Productions , are remastered from the original tapes, not a digital copy plonked on 180gm vinyl. My one excursion into the audiophile reissue market was an expensive disappointment (£42 for a 2x45rpm of Grant Green’s Idle Moment). Despite enthusiastic reception by collectors who swear by the “authenticity” of the sound, I have A:B play tested against the corresponding original Blue Note, and the Blue Note originals is, to my ear, streets ahead of the audiophile pressings.
It is impossible to evaluate subjective descriptions like “fantastic sound quality!” without knowing what the listener’s point of reference is. Audiophile pressings are much superior to 80′s re-issues, but in my view they just don’t come at all close to Blue Note originals. However more than a few collectors have praised Classic Records editions, such as Kind of Blue, as superior to the Columbia originals, and there are cases where the original pressing is not actually as good as what followed..
15. Mosaic Limited Edition Collections
These limited edition collections were issued under license in runs of typically 7,500 units from the mid Eighties onwards by Mosaic Records. Mosaic is headed by Michael Cuscuna, Head of Reissues and Special Projects at Blue Note Records since 1984 to the present day. All vinyl sets have been out of print for many years and are available only on the second hand market. The vinyl quality is often superlative, and remastering was from original session tapes, and remastered in some cases by Rudy Van Gelder, though more commonly by Ron McMaster of EMI
More on the Mosiac Label here
16. DIGITAL-TO-ANALOGUE CLONES – “304 Park Avenue South” address
I call these The South Parks. Scorpio Records NJ have for over a decade manufactured or licensed the manufacture of RINOs (Records In Name Only) of Blue Note and other collectible period labels including Prestige, Tempo, Limelight and others. You want a Mobley 1568 for $15? Scorpio make one.
These digital-to-vinyl transfers use the modern Blue Note address 304 Park Avenue S NYC on the classic Blue & White label. Note the absence of the “Inc” and the “R”: (it’s ironic). The jacket is photo-reproduced on modern plastic-finish card, with original liner notes but no indication of modern name of manufacturer or date of production ie all the “original” detail, but the modern printing technology is an instant giveaway. They pop up on eBay described to snare the unwary. “Recorded in 1957!! Mint!! Still sealed!!!” These records have all of the disadvantages of vinyl with none of its advantages.
Scorpios have been pressed in tens of thousands and are sold widely at around $10-15. That said, there are worse ways to spend $15 and I bought quite a few when I was starting out. For some people, a Scorpio is as close as they will ever get to owning the legendary Mobley 1568.
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