Audiophile Alternatives: USA and Tokyo go head-to-head Record Test: BLP 4059 Kenny Drew title “Undercurrent” (1960)
Contestants: Music Matters 33 edition vs late 1970’s vintage King Records, Japan. NEW! a third contestant, Classic Records added at the last minute, rip courtesy of LJC reader Aaron.
Original Blue Note are increasingly difficult to find and expensive items, frustrating in a world of immediate consumer satisfaction and unlimited supply through digital media. As my audio system improves the superiority of analog vinyl over digital grows ever larger. For much-loved music, original is sometimes unrealistic. It is time to make decisions about which edition is on the shelf – original at a price, or best available alternative. I suspect I am not alone at this juncture.
Kenny Drew’s Undercurrent: I have wanted the original for many years but each time it has slipped through through my fingers. Hank Mobley and Freddie Hubbard in absolutely on top form, from the golden age of Blue Note, the turn of the decade. It’s the familiar problem: insufficient funds, please contact your bank for further information. Popsike tells the story:
Original Undercurrent nudges into the $1,000 bracket, in its most desirable condition, of course mono. Not quite up in the stratosphere with rarest Blue Notes but a hefty price tag for The Black Vinyl Disc. Popsike’s lowest auction values bar in the price distribution is composed almost entirely of Toshiba, King, the odd Classic Records and not a few Music Matters 2×45 editions. In the face of expensive originals, alternatives have made it onto the Ebay auction radar.
The Evil Silver Disc™ is an always a possibility, though a last resort for one with a hearing condition, digital-intolerance. I am not generally a fan of modern vinyl either, but I read somewhere people singing the praises of the new 33rpm Music Matters releases. Perhaps it was the Music Matters guys themselves. The MM33s come with the same beautiful gatefold covers as the 2x45s but a more affordable price tag. Significantly, not dissimilar to the going rate for vintage King pressings. What’s a collector to do?
Generally I find King as the best of the Japanese vintage pressings. Manufactured at the end of the ’70s and early 80’s by engineers fastidious about quality, with little digital contamination and in near-mint condition, King are in many cases a good alternative (Mobley 1568 being a case in point). However some lack punch, and a few spins of the turntable of my King pressing of Undercurrent left me quite dissatisfied with the transfer. I know the sound of original Blue Note 4000 series and West 63rd well enough, and I know it should sound better than this.
Music Matters have a strong and vocal following, I know, a full postpag tells me. An LJC previous head-to-head between original Blue Note ( BLP 1541 Sonny Rollins Vol 1) and MM 2×45, put the original out in front to my taste (I appreciate, not everyone’s, but that’s my take). With an original Undercurrent not in prospect any time soon, my quest was for a satisfying alternative, and King wasn’t doing it for me. Could the recent claimed improvements at MM offer a better alternative? If you don’t compare, you don’t know. I need to know. Time to put it to the test.
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone) Kenny Drew (piano) Sam Jones (bass) Louis Hayes (drums) recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 11, 1960 . A month after this recording, shortly after Christmas, Kenny Drew returned to Englewood Cliffs studio to record on Jackie McClean’s Bluesnik, and shortly after that, Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop. Such were the diaries, those were the days!
Bop at the transition between decades: bluesy minor themes, strong headline statements, tight rhythm-section, Kenny Drew, driving in front and behind, and power soloists Mobley and Hubbard. You couldn’t ask for a better pairing, Hubbard’s trumpet burnished gold, Mobley’s mocha tenor. Praline jazz, “must have” music.
1960, Van Gelder was beginning to get the hang of stereo but it is still largely “two-channel mono”, hard panning, instruments at the extreme edge of the field, a few blank spaces at times, not the way he would record just a few years later. A challenge for the Blue Note enthusiast, both editions here are stereo.
Music Matters 1×33 rpm, 205 gm vinyl. I had to check the scales twice. Yes, 205 . Very heavy vinyl has an unexpected hazard – the spindle clamp runs out of thread! Gatefold cover: Beautiful Francis Wolff portraiture, immaculately reproduced tonal range in black and white: no burned out highlights, detail retained in the shadows, a perfect visual metaphor for the audio aspiration. Candidate no. 2: King Records, Tokyo
New Contestant: Classic Records
Reader Aaron throws a musical spanner in the works with another affordable contender, Classic Records edition of Undercurrent, ripped, he tells me, on a Clearaudio Champion turntable w/Ortofon Cadenza Red cartridge, at our standard 320 kbps mp3 . Whether you are listening to differences in pressing or hi-fi, heaven only knows. but I thought I would give it a go, and at the end, I have added a Poll:
Which do you prefer, LJC’s Hi Fi or Aarons? No teacher’s pet, you can only vote for the affordable alternative of your preference – Music Matters MM33, King Records, or Classic Records on the merits of their presentation here, as it is. I’ve got an open mind, some would say empty, but we will check the wisdom of crowds.
Here comes da judge. LJC is impartial (if “opinionated”), has no inducements from any commercial organisation or any conflict of interest. Opinions here are based on my own listening history (150 original BNs + many re’s) played on a fairly highly-tuned rig, not the mp3 included here simply for illustration. Remember: no-one really knows what others hear. I recommend to experiment for yourself, your mileage may vary. Headphones recommended.
Overall LJC Verdict between MM and King:
I haven’t made up my mind about the Classic records so Ill restrict my comments to the original pairing.
To my ear, the MM33 has an overall freshness which is closer to the sound of original Blue Note than the King. The MM33 delivers a wider sound stage, and more information than the King. As a result, it captures the timbre of the two brass voices, and its superior channel separation and tonal balance renders passages of brass in unison on this recording quite thrilling. Thumbs up, MM. A thoroughly enjoyable and better than expected romp.
33 1/3 Format
The 2×45 format has its fan base, but I feel more at home with 1×33. It saves shoe leather, and offers a more natural listening time of 20 minutes on the sofa rather than 10. I have never felt 45 rpm sound in practice lives up to its theoretical promise. To my ear this 33 sounds easily as good as my 45s, possibly better. I am in no position to compare sound quality like with like for the same title, but if anyone out there has experience to share, the comment floor is open.
Faithful to the Van Gelder Stereo Master, the stereo has fairly hard panning characteristic of RVG circa 1960. The thought did cross my mind, wouldn’t a 2×33 package be nice – a mono and a stereo within the gatefold? (Cue lengthy arguments about fold downs, true mono, and forthcoming jazz blockbuster books What Rudy Did and What Rudy Did Next…)
King in perspective
The King Undercurrent, in contrast to the MM, offers a slightly more congested and muddy presentation. The midband is more prominent, and the bass more forward and less controlled, eating up a bigger share of resources at the expense of the top end, which as a result comes across more ragged and woolly. The overall result of the mix and instrument placement is that the soundstage is more centrally focussed and closer, oddly, to mono presentation. It is not unpleasant, but at the end of the day doesn’t have the authority of the Music Matters 33 edition, though some may prefer it.
At a similar price-point, with its luxurious packaging, this MM33 offers a superior alternative to the vintage Japanese alternative, and very acceptable listening experience to this lover of Blue Note originals.
For titles where original Blue Note is an affordable option (“Affordable” = Desire x Ability to Pay), I would always pay the premium for original Blue Note.
For those titles where scarcity puts the price out of reach (see league table bottom of post) , the new MM33s are, on this outing, a very satisfactory alternative, and I have no hesitation in praising them. For a much-loved title where you have a lesser pressing, and little prospect of an original, I think you will enjoy the upgrade. I know I have.
Vote for your preferred affordable alternative between the samples presented here
Hopefully Polldaddy will be working, its been a bit flaky since WordPress “improved” its editing screen. One vote, poll open for one week, choice between three samples posted here, and one extra for the MM45 diehards, who always insist they are the best, I’ll let that voice be heard too. You can nominate any other under “other”, but… say no to The Evil Silver Disc ™. This is an all analogue poll.
“Don’t be dumb, be a smarty, come and join the Vinyl Party”
Come back frequently check out your preference against the wisdom of crowds
Analysis: Blue Note Top 10 premium auction titles
Popsike’s Ebay auction results can be cut many different ways, which brings out my inner analyst. Here’s one cut, the league table of auction values restricted to Blue Notes which have a presence in auction results over $1,500 – the “premium auctions” which are about 1% of all Blue Note auctions.It is not the same as the highest value, or the mean of all auctions which includes the crud and the reissues. It is the “average price of the cream”.
|PREMIUM LEAGUE POSITION||BLP||ARTIST TITLE||AVERAGE PREMIUM PRICE (USD)||COUNT OF PREMIUM AUCTIONS ($1500+)|
|1||1568||Hank Mobley Hank Mobley||3,097||51|
|2||1588||Sonny Clark Cool Struttin’||2,751||24|
|3||1530||Jutta Hipp With Zoot Sims||2,519||24|
|4||1533||Johnny Griffin Introducing Johnny Griffin||2,355||13|
|5||1538||Lee Morgan Lee Morgan Indeed!||2,197||12|
|6||1550||Hank Mobley With Farmer, Silver, Watkins, Blakey||2,149||14|
|7||1557||Lee Morgan Volume 3||2,145||10|
|8||4041||Tina Brooks True Blue||2,135||28|
|9||1590||Lee Morgan Candy||2,078||24|
|10||1574||Hank Mobley Peckin’ Time||1,872||14|
Commentary: some things I notice:
Mobley 1568 is not only the most valuable Blue Note on record, it is the most frequently sold (58 premium auctions) Investor trading?
Though Sonny Clark Cool Struttin‘ is the second most valuable Blue Note, the second most frequently auctioned in the Top 10 league is actually Tina Brooks True Blue (28 premium auctions).
Lee Morgan just pips Hank Mobley as the most frequently mentioned leader in the cream Blue Note Top 10 most valued.
Now, where was that list of Affordable Alternatives?