Track selection: Tenor Conclave (Mobley)
Al Cohn, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims (ts) Red Garland (p) Paul Chambers (b) Art Taylor (d) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, September 7, 1956
A conclave is a secret meeting – nothing secret here. Billed on the original Prestige as “The Prestige All Stars”, and you can see why – Coltrane, Cohn, Mobley AND Sims. Why stop there? What no Rollins? If there’s an alternative title struggling to get out it’s “The Four Tenners”.
I will let Allmusic do the heavy lifting: “The Mobley-penned title track commences the effort with the quartet of tenors showing off their stuff in high-flying style. It takes a couple of passes and somewhat of a trained ear to be able to link the players with their contributions, but as is often the case, the whole tends to be greater than the sum of the parts. After a brief introduction with all four rapidly reeling off short riffs, Mobley charges ahead into truly inspired territory”
Vinyl: Esquire 32-059 UK (1957) release of US Prestige 7074, also released in 1962 as PRLP 7249 “John Coltrane – Tenor Conclave“.
PRLP 7074: The original cover (right) illustrates the problem of having four megastars. Who gets top billing? And probably more importantly, who is under contract to who. Mobley is listed first, out of alphabetical sequence, probably status due to being credited composer of two of the four tracks, the others being standards.
The original label settled for the rather pedestrian “Four Tenor Saxes” with no artist listing.
PRLP 7429: By the time Prestige reissued it in1962, perhaps Coltrane was the name to conjure with, hence the record mutated into “John Coltrane – Tenor Conclave“. Coltrane is mentioned last in list on the 1957 Esquire label here below. The rhythm section, of course, have to drive in the car behind.
UK Esquire 32 – 059 Tenor Conclave
US original stamper – hand-etched RVG
More astute readers may recognise this as a second bite of the cherry, being posted previously in the shape of a later Prestige Blue/Silver trident US third pressing. When an Esquire turned up on eBay, I was unable to resist going head to head between the Esquire, pressed from the original stampers of PRLP 7074, and the US “third pressing” ten years later.
The humble USB turntable used to rip the MP3 for streaming is unlikely to do justice to the differences, but on a top-notch turntable, err, like possibly my own Avid, the Esquire/7074 pressing sounds markedly superior to the Blue/trident pressing (which was no slouch), proving yet again that the closest to the source is best.
It is also a reminder of the fragility of our judgements. Without any reference point for comparison, something may sound great, and you might be tempted to just leave it at that. However you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to experience something better. The more you s t r e t c h, the higher the bar, the higher you jump. Pressings that a few years ago I used to consider the bees knees now just sound unremarkable, plain ordinary.
This thought was prompted by a recent power block upgrade, which for the moment has made things worse. Why not just leave well enough alone? Because ultimately the impulse for improvement is on the whole beneficial to life, even if it does cause a certain amount of upset along the way. Not all planned improvements work out that way. But then you can’t make an omlette without breaking eggs. And add to that, sometimes, breaking plates. But when you reach higher ground, the view is so much improved.
Metaphors mixed, while you wait
I also enjoy any opportunity to compare different pressings of the same recording (although I haven’t yet had the chance to check out an Esquire. I remain convinced that Esquire releases were pressed at the Decca plant from Prestige mothers). The results can often quite surprising.
Many collectors seem to focus on early vs. late labels and ‘deep grooves’ which in my mind are salient, but not necessarily instrumental to an educated guess regarding the sound quality of a given pressing (which is, finally, what most of us are really interested in). A lot of the concepts and vocabulary used by collectors seems to be borrowed from the world of book collecting, which does not always have analogous concerns.
The way I see it there are three major factors which will reliably predict the sound quality of any given pressing (outside of any condition issues):
1. Who cut the master and when was it cut?
Is the LP pressed from the original master? Was the original tape machine used to playback the master tape? Was a tube amplifier used to drive the lathe in the cutting process? Later remasters tend to be cut by staff engineers and starting in the 60s are likely to have been cut using ‘upgraded’ (that is solid-state) equipment. This results almost always a noticeable (though in my opinion, not universally negative) change in sound characteristics.
2. Where was the record pressed?
What quality of vinyl was used? What kind of quality control was in place at the pressing plant? Few things are more frustrating than a great master pressed on terrible vinyl or a rare record marred by a serious pressing defect.
Last week I came across a great find: an original Sun pressing of “Jonny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar”. My excitement turned to disappointment when I put on side one, only to watch the tonearm begin to oscillate wildly from side to side. The record was pressed far off center and the resulting wow and flutter makes for a very unpleasant listening experience.
3. What was the state of the metal parts used to create the record?
This, I think, cuts the closest to your conclusion ‘closest to the source is best’. Creating new mothers relies on cleaning and re-plating the matrix. Sonic degradation is an unavoidable byproduct of this process and usually takes the form of noise created by subsequent imperfections in the grooves and uneven plating.
You can see the results of this breakdown in many late 70s Blue Note represses, especially the pressings with the solid blue label and the black ‘b’. Even on a mint pressing there can be a fair amount of noise, ticks and even the occasional pop. Looking at the surface of the record under bright light, you may see that the lands are flattened in certain areas as well as faint wavy horizontal lines built up from multiple re-plates.
Avoiding this kind of degradation is relatively straightforward: Earlier labels, earlier jackets, ‘deep grooves’ or earlier stampers listed in the runout all but ensure that you are getting an earlier pressing which should be mostly free from these kinds of pressing issues.
There is, however, a much more critical and difficult to discern dimension to the problem: stamper wear.
As a stamper is used to press records, the surface becomes more and more dull in a fashion not entirely unlike the wear process seen on coins as they circulate over the years. With each record stamped, the grooves become less and less well-defined resulting in a gradual loss of high end definition. In my opinion, this is one of the most important determining factors in overall sound quality of any record.
Each stamper is used to press a thousand or more records, depending on the quality standards of the pressing plant. When the stamper is deemed to be too worn, it is thrown out and a new stamper is swapped into the press. Decca, IIRC, pressed only 1500 records per stamper which is one of the major reasons for the high quality of their pressings.
Regardless of which label or jacket the record features or even which pressing plant it came from, you may have acquired the first record fresh off a brand new stamper, or you may end up with the last copy pressed before a worn stamper was tossed.
The way I see it, the dirty little secret of record collecting and chasing down ‘first issues’ is that there is no real way to determine this crucial quality factor.
My personal theory is that stamper wear can be somewhat gauged by observing whether or not the etchings and stamps in the deadwax of a record have begun to take on a ‘filled in’ appearance and are becoming difficult to make out. In my experience, there is a strong correlation between this phenomena and overall dull sound quality. Likewise, I believe that good, sharp marks correspond to a fresher stamper. To again use Decca as a positive example: every Decca pressing I have features sharp, clear matrix numbers regardless of when in the matrix/mother/stamper sequence it was pressed.
For me the bottom line is this: I would rather have a later pressing (e.g.: a NYC Blue Note) from a fresh stamper than an ‘original’ pressing made from a stamper near the end of its lifespan. Unfortunately, stamper wear is usually an ‘X factor’ in any LP purchase. In the end you will only truly know what you have purchased after the needle hits the runout groove.
Profound, Felix, thank you. You are stirring the final cauldron where the things that matter most are beginning to take shape. Interesting.
Good post. And then you also have folks who “steam-clean” and perform other such barbarities on their vinyl, completely ruining it in the process. It may look clean, but it sounds awful!
Congrats. Top copy! Great cover too.
Thanks, I seem to remember you had an eye on it? Initially I wasn’t interested, but my blue/silver trident has been nagging me. It’s dog-eat-dog out there, sorry.
Dont feel bad – I seem to have made a habit of being outdone on eBay lately…