I think its time for another original Blue Note, just to “stir the pot”, with a sting in the tail, all will be revealed, get with the programme.
Selection: So Sweet My Little Girl (Duke Pearson)
Johnny Coles (trumpet) Leo Wright (alto saxophone, flute) Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone) Duke Pearson (piano) Bob Cranshaw (bass) Walter Perkins (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Side 1: July 18, 1963; Side 2: same personnel save Perkins, add Pete La Roca (drums) August 9, 1963
Johnny Coles a name that probably raises two obvious questions: Who? followed by What ever became of…? Another lifelong sideman, Coles made a brief breakthrough with Little Johnny C for Blue Note, but without a follow-through, and only a handful of other titles as leader. Possessed of a clear, crisp and melancholy tone – something in common with Miles Davis, which Critic Stanley Crouch dubbed the “wounded lyricism of bebop”. Nat Hentoff described Coles as “an intensely personal, thoughtful and penetrating player … part of the select lineage of quintessentially lyrical jazz trumpet players…a line of disciplined romantics that includes Miles Davis and Freddie Webster.”
Coles musical career started in the big bands of the late ’40s and ’50s – Jimmy Heath (rubbing shoulders with Trane and Benny Golson), Tadd Dameron, James Moody, and Gill Evans. By the mid ’60s Coles had earned a Downbeat New Star award, an early pointer of talent but not a predictor of future success. Like fellow New Star Ted Curson, Coles’ star shone brightest as member of Mingus’s group, alongside Eric Dolphy. However his Mingus time included mostly touring and never made it to the recording studio, nor even to the completion of his Mingus tour:
“February to April of 1964 Coles was a member of perhaps Charles Mingus’s finest working group …never recorded in a studio, the band was heard in University concerts and a tour of Europe. Sadly, Coles collapsed on stage in Paris from a perforated stomach ulcer, was hospitalized, and the band finished the tour as a quintet, and he never rejoined Mingus”
Mingus clearly didn’t have employment law obligations. Coles resurfaced in late ’60s Herbie Hancock Sextet (trumpet heard on Blue Note’s The Prisoner) but, in return for a regular pay-check, parted company to take up a seat in the Ray Charles Orchestra, and the eclipse of his New Star standing.
The following decades saw Coles return to now-ageing big bands: Duke Ellington, ’70s Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Tadd Dameron’s Dameronia, the Mingus Dynasty repertory band, and the posthumous Count Basie Orchestra. Perhaps life on the big band bench suited him, happy in making a contribution but not motivated to lead. In the ’90s, due to ill-health, Coles returned to his home town of Philadelphia, where died in late 1997.
A capable alto and flute player, placed here to complement the hard-tone tenor of the young Joe Henderson, Wright started out on similar pathway to Johnny Coles, also collecting a Downbeat award, but disappearing to Europe in 1963 without making a name for himself in the US. He moved first to Scandinavia, settling in Berlin in 1964, and in the decades that followed, played prolifically at Jazz festivals in Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and with various groups of mostly European musicians or visiting Americans. He later settled in Vienna retiring from music for a period, but his return in the late ’80s was cut short by a fatal heart attack in 1991.
It is hard not to hear this as a Duke Pearson album, with five Pearson compositions, and Pearson’s sure touch on the arrangements, essential with a sextet with three brass players and some heavily scored tunes. Cole’s plaintive slightly melancholy trumpet is the lead voice, contrasting with the hard abrasive tone of young Henderson, sewn together by Pearson’s ever tasteful accents and rippling arpeggios.
The compositions are all inventive delights, of varied tempo and presentation along the bop spectrum, ranging from the taxi-horn and fire-tender urban brio of the album title track to the tender “How Sweet My Little Girl” – a track rendered all-the more poignant by the slightly faltering placement of the prime melody horn-notes, which grabs the throat, tonal expression matched perfectly to the mood, watchful oversight of childhood innocence.
A very complete musical LP, great performance, great tunes, one of Van Gelder’s best pieces of engineering, and spoiled for choice of six tracks to add to your playlist (…harrumph) I think any jazz fan would be short-sighted not to have this in their collection or on their wants list.
Vinyl: BST 8414 NY label, ear, Van Gelder stereo master
From the era when Van Gelder indicated the stereo Van Gelder master with a STEREO stamp placed separately from his initials.
Faithful to an original artefact, it is the real thing, the liner notes paste-up is fixed crookedly. It’s a feature of real things, faults. You wouldn’t design things to be crooked, they just turn out like that, the imperfections of physical assembly process. Only in the post-modern digital world do they create flaws to simulate false period authenticity, like DJs that add scratches, clicks and jumps to a mix in digital post-production. I believe that’s what they do to make “antique” furniture – distress it with a half-hour beating by a bicycle chain.
If you are a vinyl-preference person, this is the high-end of the auction history, top dozen auctions where the condition rules:
The top dozen auction results pitch the mostly mono edition from $150 to over $400 – not stratospheric, but not trivial. Mono is the edition of choice, my stereo is less desirable, apparently.
What’s a chap to do if an original pressing is not within their means? This wasn’t within mine either, but I try to follow my own advice, the LJC maxim in the case of “rare-thing” encounters: if you see it, buy it, because you may never see it again. It’s only money, and you can’t play money. On this occasion the advice was sound, because I never again encountered an original in the wild, (though of course they exist online)
What’s the alternative?
One alternative: Music Matters, MM33 edition
The hard-working boys at Music Matters have turned out a reissue in their 33rpm single 12″ series. Like my original copy, the MM33 has the distinction of being mastered directly from the original Blue Note tapes.
With a half-dozen Music Matters 33 titles under my belt, previously, I had only reissues in my collection for comparison. It was therefore with some trepidation I found I had nowhere to go but head to head, to pitch the MM33 against the original 1963 Blue Note. I’ve always claimed Blue Note originals are best. Will I be forced to eat my shorts? Read on.
Technical note: the MM33 is relatively more quiet than the Blue Note original. The gain on the MM33 rip was increased by around 25%, until it matched the volume of the original BN rip. What difference that makes, ultimately, I don’t know but there doesn’t seem much point in encouraging the “I prefer this one because it’s louder” school of rock critic.
On the blog we can compare only digital samples through an MP3 on a computer, before some smartass quickly points that out too, I’m not sure how much validity that has, if any, but at least you know how it compares on that level playing field, both vinyl ripped to MP3 via the same Avid Acutus Reference TT/ Dynavector TKR cart/ World Designs NOS ’60s valves/Linn solid state rig, unadjusted apart from matching volume.
I should add my critical comparisons are based on what I hear on the full system, not MP3 digital derivatives.
Vinyl: BST 84144 MM33 – Review Copy
Gatefold: immaculate black and white art-quality portraits of the boys in the darkened studio, courtesy of Francis Wolff. It’s not just that Wolff was a great portrait photographer, which he was, but he had such great subjects: as they say, jazz shows in the musician’s faces.
Liner Notes – these at least are printed in a straight line-r.
You have had the opportunity to compare the ballad “So Sweet My Little Girl”, a simple tune which showcases the rounded emotional quality of Cole’s trumpet, as Van Gelder and David Gray reproduce it. But what happens when you increase the complexity and layers of instrumentation, firing on all six cylinders? Lets find out. I’ve chosen the fabulous track “Jano”, which is a reference to something or someone or other called Jano (where is the fact-checker when you need them!)
Comparison Two, selection: Jano
- Blue Note original stereo title ( pressed 1963)
2. MM33 reissue (pressed 2015)
There are too many intervening variables here. Peversely, I prefer the computer rubbish soundcard and speakers playback of the MM33 rip to the rip of the original, but that is not how I felt in a real-world hifi audition, which was the other way around. I upload here in the interests of transparency, it is not for me to decide what you like, that’s your job.
What did the hi-fi listening panel think?
My listening panel consisted of two lifelong audiophiles, Man-in-a-Shed, an inveterate tweaker who is rarely short of an opinion, and new kid on the block, Mr Speaker!, so-called because he’s inexplicably fascinated by…umm…speakers, and seems to notice “timing” as a variable more readily than myself.
Neither are especially jazz fans, rather, they are discriminating listeners of hi fi performance and music presentation, based on several decades of listening, to all sorts of music on all sorts of equipment. In wine-tasting, it’s called a discriminating palate, you can apply it to anything, not just what you like.
Result: Call the cops! Hung Jury!
Man in a Shed preferred the Music Matters 33. He listens mostly to information-dense modern recordings and the engineering here hits all his preference buttons. Mr Speaker! on the other hand preferred the Blue Note Original, for its more assertive presentation, perhaps less polished overall, but richer in tone and texture. So there you have it, a tied jury. But what about your vote LJC?
I think it is only fair to declare an interest: my stereo original cost me not far short of $200. Confirmation bias suggests I can’t compare this objectively, because I have a dog in the fight.Put that to one side because it’s tosh, of course you can be objective – provided you arrive at the “right” answer.
I confess I preferred the Blue Note original. For me it has greater immediacy and freshness, the original master delivers a fuller richer tone on Coles trumpet, and slightly more emphatic capture of the delicate brushwork and cymbals on the right channel. Van Gelder’s stereo mastering gives the ensemble an organic “wholeness”.
In comparison, the MM33 offers widescreen stereo imaging with tight precise dynamics, something I have noticed to be a consistent feature of their productions. As often occurs with high calibre engineering, the sound stage extends well beyond the speakers, not shoe-horned in between them. The presentation is smoother and more laid back than the original, though not excessively, and the vinyl is blissfully silent, which my original isn’t. The MM gatefold offers beautiful art-quality photos
Most important perhaps, the MM3 is fairly readily available (I assume, as I haven’t looked), whereas snagging an original Blue Note requires a degree of tenacity and patience, and potentially rough pathway to acquisition: grading hazards and sometimes unpleasant surprises, which are part of the vintage collector’s burden.
Truth is, something doesn’t sound better because it is rare, or sound better because it was expensive because it is scarce: those are collector-issues, not audio issues. However, there are sonic attributes associated with original Blue Note (and other original) pressings, which defy replication. After many years of comparative listening, I’m still of the opinion original is best, but not by such a great margin as I would have judged a few years ago.
There is one big question remaining: how do you factor availability (and price) into any comparison? You can’t hear scarcity, though it multiplies the price significantly. Do you give extra weight greater affordability and availability, or do you hang your hat solely on the sonic qualities. You would give different ratings but I don’t know how to do it. Luckily, it’s not my problem.
If I didn’t already own an original Blue Note of Little Johnny C, I would be very happy with the MM33 alternative. This is one of an elite band of reissues that stand apart from the crowd, the best of which are this, the 1976-6 EMI-Toshiba pressings and the limited edition 1995 Blue Note Connoisseur series, superior to most other reissues, including those licensed by United Artists to King and Toshiba Japan.
It is almost impossible to avoid falling under its spell of this album, however you access it, I recommend you do. How, is up to you.