Shoot out with a twist. What was intended to be a two-way shoot out – test press vs commercial release and mono vs stereo, quickly unravelled when the stereo turned out not to be quite what it said on the cover. However there was a happy ending.
Contestant One: A Night in Tunisia Decca UK mono test pressing (320kbps mp3)
Bill Hardman (trumpet) Jackie McLean (alto saxophone) Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone) Sam Dockery (piano) Spanky DeBrest (bass) Art Blakey (drums) recorded NYC, April 8, 1957
Music: Time to dig out my cribsheet of The Jazz Messengers changing roster of musicians:
This record showcases the 1956/7 line up, which briefly offered the triple brass delight of Bill Hardman, Jackie McLean and Johnny Griffin. Everybody gets to solo and they swing at high-speed, more Red Bull Messengers compared with later more melodic-rhythmic Messengers.
Usually the power behind the Messengers, this recording for RCA finds Blakey opening Night in Tunisia with an extended drum solo, something that might in some circumstances be thought artistically risky – like the stadium rock concerts where the drummer builds a crescendo over fifteen minutes while the rest of the band heads for the bar, joined by most of the audience. Drum solos are not everyone’s cup of tea, but in this case, Blakey absolutely rocks, he held me riveted to the sofa for the ride.
I don’t think overdubbed, being 1957, everything in one take ( Sound engineers are welcome to disillusion me) The last picture of Blakey I saw suggests he has the same number of limbs as everyone else, but it sounds like more – each performing different meters, counterpoint, cowbells accents, paradiddles, whatever, Blakey hits everything in sight, in an express train ride in rhythm. Or perhaps, this is just a showcase for what was faithfully captured on the tape, which Decca transferred to fresh metal.
Vinyl: US RCA Victor Vik LAX 1115, first UK issue as RD 7555, test pressing factory sample.
My first test pressing! I have never had a vintage UK or US test pressing before – white label promo’s yes, DJ /radio station audition copy yes, one Japanese test, but not a real Decca New Malden “factory sample”. Mounted on the turntable with trepidation. I know the theory well enough: with none of the progressive groove deformation caused by thousands of pressing repetitions, a test pressing, the first off the stamper, should produce the finest sound image possible. That’s the theory, but what does it sound like in practice? How does one know this test pressing actually passed the test? Only one way to find out: play it. So, on it went.
I know the album well through my RCA “Living Stereo” copy, also a UK Decca pressing. I always thought that sounded a bit too bright, compressed and splashy, as result it was rarely played. Hearing it here for the first time in razor-sharp mono was a revelation.
You can compare the two yourself from a rip of the same track, and form your own conclusions. However my observations are based on A:B full analog system listening. Even though both rips are near-maximum 320kbps resolution MP3 taken from the big system, it is digital through usb, PC sound card and speakers. A great deal is lost in translation, in this case, a lot of the important stuff, but the alternative is… well, you get to hear nothing.
Contestant Two:: A Night in Tunisia “stereo” commercial release 320kbps mp3
Vinyl: UK RCA Victor SF 7555 Decca pressing of an RCA “Living Stereo” recording,
UK 1st issue of US rechanneled stereo reissue from 1963 of the 1958 original mono Vik LX 1115. Some of you may notice I am having difficulty in writing that sentence: it’s not easy to arrange the words right.
Now, here come da judge
Well, the cover’s in better condition…that’s something positive.
Horror of horrors! After the recent post about fake stereo, I discover my Living Stereo copy of this album isn’t true stereo. “What is Stereophonic Sound” asks the inner sleeve?
Well certainly not what is engineered here. Watching the two channels running in Audacity was a revelation. Before your very eyes you can see what the engineers have been up to (photo simulation). First off, the gain overall had been upped considerably compared with the test press, so first it had to be turned down maybe 15% to prevent clipping .
All the weight of Blakey’s drumming was loaded to the left channel, with a more quiet mirror image on the right channel, but clipped of lower frequencies. For most of twelve minutes the right channel simply mirrored the left channel with part of the frequencies missing.
Solos come and go all on the left channel, with no unique presence on the right channel that I could see, except the bass solo reveals the signal identical strength and shape equally on both channels, so it sounds in the centre.
Everything I had read about “fake stereo” in the post of a few weeks ago seems to be happening here, or worse. I can’t see visually for sure but I think the mirror image lags slightly to create an “echo”, or maybe some reverb has been added.
As a result, the individual notes in Griffin’s frighteningly fast solos are smeared and jumbled, likewise Jackie McLean’s blistering alto runs. The piano notes are robbed of attack and decay. The amazing syncopation and thunderous main propulsion of Art Blakey’s solo is effectively destroyed, a train-wreck.
It isn’t until you hear the mono test pressing that you know how good this recording started life, and instructive as what happened to it next. The Man said make it living stereo, and so they did. Problem is the music died in the process.
Decca themselves may not be guilty of this hi-fi crime, but simply contracted to master and press from the “stereo” tape supplied by US RCA Victor. Originally recorded in April 1957, what level of sophistication could be expected I don’t know. Perhaps others can offer more insight.
My thanks to Mr T and his West London record store, for permitting me to exchange a modest amount of cash for said test pressings (There is second test pressing, but that is for another day) My motive was primarily curiosity, as I already possessed copies of both records in question. And curiosity has been satisfied. Yes, it is true. In my judgement, test pressings are the finest audio copy possible. Putting to one side the fake stereo business, you can hear a significant difference between the run of the mill commercial release and the factory sample.
The bonus was to discover what a stunning record Blakey’s Tunisia for Victor was – something hidden from view by the mutilated jumbled “stereo” version. And to rediscover this stonking early line up of the Messengers with McLean and Griffin, that was a bonus bonus.
LJC approaches 750,000 page views, in just two and a half years. Don’t you guys have anything better to do with your time? (Like flirting with Mobley 1568-owner “Caroline“?)
Postscript 2: Origins of the RCA cover art – Vik LX 1115, first issue
The alto sax player on the first Vik release is credited to one “Ferris Benda” (Jackie McLean obviously under contractual difficulties. Interesting pseudonym, one used by Jackie on more than a few releases)
Ain’t Google “search by image” terrifying? Because the original cover contained 50% of the subsequent reissue artwork, Google image search was able to pinpoint the original in its search results within seconds. Extraordinary. Similarly perplexing, the thinking behind editing the image down to exclude the water-bearing women. Perhaps its oxymoronic to include a daytime scene in a “Night in Tunisia” . Personally I think its a missed opportunity to get product placement dollars from the Tunisian Tourist Board.
For reference, the Blue Note A Night in Tunisia (no relation)
From “The Jazz Mess” – not Reid Miles finest moment