Selection: Funk-cosity (Drew)
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) Hank Mobley (tenor sax) Kenny Drew (piano) Sam Jones (bass) Louis Hayes (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 11, 1960
One of Blue Note’s greatest sessions, Undercurrent stands tall, head and shoulders above many other titles. There’s good, there’s very good, and there’s Undercurrent. With Kenny Drew nominally as leader, it’s Mobley and Hubbard in absolutely peak form. Heads in unison, harmonies, stretching solos, perfect. Mobley in particular is wonderful, better than on many of his own albums. The rhythm section is tight, flowing, complete precision. Sam Jones walks with giants, Hayes is crisp. Drew’s comping provides splendid support and great solos, he is seriously under-rated. All the compositions are top-notch, minor-tinged themes, swingers, bop-a-licious, and the sonics are among Van Gelder’s finest. This is a got to have album.
I’ve reviewed Undercurrent previously in stereo form, in a shoot out between MM33, King Records and Classic Records, and my high opinion of the music remains undiminished, no need to repeat myself. (The track Funk-cosity kept the same, to facilitate comparison) The bugbear of all the audiophile reissues is the stereo – transferred from the original tapes, they replicate the fairly hard panning characteristic of RVG 1960. The mono mix is big, room-filling, exciting, it never occurs to you that it’s mono. It just “is”.
Vinyl: BLP 4059, RVG stamp and Ears, 9M, 47W63rd labels, correct inner sleeve, correct cover, no deep groove, 175 gram vinyl.
I have Japanese stereo pressings of 4059, modern audiophile stereo reissues, 45×2, everything under the sun, but a Blue Note “original” mono is something I have wanted for as long as I can remember. It sounds vibrant, natural, everything Rudy stood for, the definitive sound of Blue Note. Here, in vinyl. Hi Rudy, how are things up there? Swinging, great! We miss you.
It has the P, 47W63rd labels, RVGs, 9M both sides, a healthy 175gm vinyl weight, but the lack of deep groove is troubling, contrary to Fred Cohen’s classification (see update at foot of post) . So, we need to talk pressing matters. Take a deep breath, we are going for a deep dive, into the murky waters of the deep groove.
To groove, or not two groove, that is the question. An extended enquiry, for obsessives, serious Blue Note collectors only. Sound engineers, at ease, take the rest of the day off. The rest of you, pay attention. And try to stay awake.
Quick flyover: to make a record, a vinyl biscuit is pressed between two grooved metal stampers, which are held in the vinyl press by centre-clamps, or ” pressing dies” . The design of pressing dies in use at Plastylite during the ’50s was based on the 78rpm shellac die. This die left behind a circular deep trench in the label area, referred to as “deep groove”.
Despite the heat and pressure in the press, the pressing dies had a long but not indefinite life counted in years, unlike the stampers whose grooves became deformed after many pressing iterations – longevity estimates vary – perhaps a week in continuous use, and needed to be replaced by fresh stampers.
Dies which left a deep groove were in use up to mid 1961. A newer slimmer design pressing die, which left behind merely a narrow step, was then introduced. The new and old dies functioned interchangeably in the presses, and the older dies remained use for around four to five years, until eventually the last ageing DG die was finally discarded, and only new dies remained.
The record collecting community seized on the presence of deep groove, being characteristic of older pressings before 1961, as evidence of “original” first pressing status, and a certain amount of collector lore grew up around deep groove during the transitional years, which may have little basis of fact. Fred Cohen himself states
“It can never be truly known whether similar pressings of the same record, whose only difference is the presence or absence of deep groove on one, both or neither label, is actually the original first pressing. But since collectors have a natural bias for any detail that suggests an early or original issue, the presence of deep groove has been treated as an indication of an original, but only an indication.
I’ll go further. In the early ’60s, the first pressing run of a new Blue Note title is thought to be around 4,000 copies, possibly some more or less, enough to launch to title, supply radio station promos, and the dealers, and test the water for further demand. Stampers became worn and needed changing as quality fell off, I have read 2,500 to 3,000 pressing iterations, though possibly the 4,000 first run quantity is linked to useful life of one stamper. It is also possible that some “first pressings” of greater quantity may have involved a change of stampers, meaning potentially (but not necessarily) a change in the pressing die combination.
The first Blue Note pressing using the new dies without a deep groove (it is claimed on one side only) was this 4059, released May 1961, with 4058 the last continuous run of deep groove on both sides, released June 1961. In the months to the end of 1961, around thirty new Blue Note titles were released. By my reading of Cohen, around 10 were DG both sides, 12 had no DG either side, and 8 were mixed DG s1 or s2 only, all in no particular sequence. During these months the label remained 47W63rd, which ended with 4080, Mobley’s Workout, released April 62. (All numbers and dates are my rough calculations based on Cohen, approximate, e&oe, it’s not a Presidential candidate tax return).
Pressing die combinations on records manufactured in the later part of 1961 appear entirely random choices on a job, decision made by the press operator, using whatever dies came to hand. They were of absolutely no importance in manufacturing.
Pressing Plant Mayhem
The last DG both sides is 4207, and the last seen DG on one side is 4214, a Blue Mitchell session recorded in July 1965. The pattern of die use is random, the chaos of physical manufacture, not intelligent design. The old dies continued in use until 1965, at a declining rate of frequency until all the old dies were finally worn out and retired and only the new design remained in use, end of deep groove.
Blue Note collector Allan Songer famously wrote in his 12 tips for collecting Blue Note:
“Starting with Blue Note 4059, Plastylite BOUGHT NEW EQUIPMENT that did NOT press in the deep grooves!
4059 (Kenny Drew, “Undercurrent”) is an anomaly because EVERY KNOWN COPY has the deep groove on one side only–that means Plastylite used the newer equipment for one side only! This (4059) is also a VERY rare title that most likely went through only ONE pressing! Starting with 4060 ALL “first” pressings have NO deep groove! If you find a copy of any number AFTER 4059 that has a deep groove in one or both sides, it’s a SECOND pressing–the new equipment was ALWAYS used for the first run! This has NO EFFECT on value however.
If you find a title EARLIER than 4059 with only one or NO deep groove, but still has the “ear,” this is a later pressing!”
Songer believed the new non-DG dies were used exclusively in the first pressing of new titles and old dies for repressings: “intelligent design”. It is not clear whether his idea of “new equipment” was new presses, new dies, either or both. Exclusive use of dies for new pressings is not what Fred Cohen found. He painstakingly lists the different permutations of DG, no DG, and mixed DG one side on every title through to the year 1965. 4059 Undercurrent is listed as DG-s2 only (indicative).
Not waving, drowning. Popsike to the rescue?
It is usually instructive to see what high-value Ebay auctions turn up: the wisdom of collectors parting with big money, more likely to do their homework. For 4059, an overall majority do claim DG on one side a la Cohen, but almost an equal number make no mention of DG at all, a notable omission, given its apparent importance in first pressing status. Why would so many sellers “overlook” mentioning DG status? Collective amnesia? My rule of thumb with Ebay is that if something is not mentioned, it is usually because it is not there, and because that affects auction value. Could it be that Cohen’s (indicative) Guide is so influential that sellers kept quiet about the absence of DG by not mentioning it at all, concentrating instead on the ear, RVG , and the original 47W63rd label address? Are half 4059 first pressings non-DG? Who knows. Remember – opinion on the internet is often just an echo-chamber, not an objective truth.
There are a few auctions who state explicitly there is no DG, with a question about whether it is also a first press. One auction notes DG both sides, apparently without ear – mission impossible. There’s always one.
Allan Songer’s claim “every known copy (of 4059) has DG on one side only” now looks pretty shaky and the “likely having only one pressing” unproven, though it is rare enough. One seller even claims Fred Cohen asserts that DG one side and no DG are both first pressings – perhaps they had a private conversation, the book says DG-s2. Songer is right about groovless issues of pre-4059 titles, whose original was always DG, because everything in those days was DG. Whether his claim that after 4059, old DG dies were used exclusively for repressings is like the converse, probably incorrect, but for another day.
The 9M – chance encounter
I looked only at high value auctions, and only one seller notes the presence of the 9M etching, no-one else mentions it at all. Originally I didn’t see a 9M, I wasn’t expecting to, but a closer second look confounded me:
Pictured, the 4059 non-DG groove, and a faint but undisputable 9M etching, on both sides. I wasn’t expecting to see it, so I didn’t look for it, so I didn’t see it, but it is there. There is a lesson in observation here.
Inquisition: Are you now or have you ever been a First Pressing Fundamentalist?
Let’s get down to fundamentals. No, I am an FPS, First Pressing Sceptic: sceptical about the importance of a record being the absolute “first pressing”, and sceptical whether the expression “original or first pressing” is capable of meaningful definition.
The interval between first and subsequent pressing runs may be a matter of days, weeks or years. When the first pressing of 4157 The Sidewinder sold out within days, and Plastylite rapidly pressed tens of thousands of more copies. What price a “first pressing”? Cohen lists it as DG, most of the highest value auctions make no mention of DG or say it is non DG. “1964 original mono in near mint condition” is what sells.
The first pressing is thought to be one nearest in quality of the source tape, one but not the only reason for it being desirable. However I’ve yet to meet anyone with a collection of 1st pressings who plays them on equipment of really high quality so they can hear the difference, though there must be some. Is it really about audio quality? Some don’t play them at all, kept as an investment copy, preferably still sealed. I think it is more about sentiment.
1st pressings often come from the era of heavy tonearms, up to 20gm tracking weight. and have a few more years greater damage potential. A later pressing can sound just as good with less historical damage.
No-one can say with any certainty that all the “first pressing” run copies had only one stamper combination throughout. A large initial release calls for two stamper-pairs, with a change of pressing dies mid way. What if Plastylite ran two presses simultaneously to complete the first pressing requirement, one with a different die combination from the other? Which is “first”? What if a press broke down and the job was finished on another machine? There are lots of reasons why the first pressing might include different die permutations.
Too many imponderables. I say, Live and Let Die.
The printed inner sleeve
The printed inner sleeve is a very useful forensic. The previous owner claimed he bought this copy new, in New York in 1962. The printed inner sleeve is the correct first 1962 design (BLP 4050- 4078) unique cover Duke Jordan Flight to Jordan (front-facing inner bag, col 1, row 2)
From 1961/2, every Blue Note coming out the Plastylite factory was bagged in the then current printed sleeve. There were nine printed sleeve changes between 1962 and 1966, a change about every six months. That narrows down the date of manufacture more accurately than labels and covers, which were often drawn from stock inventory over many years.
The presence of the correct original printed inner sleeve implies this copy was manufactured at least within the first six months of its official release date. That would make it an early pressing, or a first pressing, if there is any difference between the two.
Back cover: NR stamp!
NR is a potential red flag for an “first pressing”. NR meant “non-returnable”, usually applied to cut-outs/drill holed and surplus stock records sold at cut prices, hence lesser sales tax and royalties paid, hence not returnable to stores or distributors at the commercial release price. This puts it in the same ballpark as promos, which were sent free to radio stations and stamped “Not for Sale” for the same reasons.
Hard to believe this copy was remaindered, as it counts as very rare and valuable, anything is possible, but there could be other explanations, though I can’t think what they are. That doesn’t change what is inside the jacket: a very early pressing, whatever the circumstances of this copies final sale.
When I walked into one of my regular London record stores earlier this month, in the corner of my eye, I glimpsed framed record on the wall next to the counter. It looked familiar, Kenny Drew, Undercurrent. Another audiophile reissue, I remember thinking, as I approached the counter just to say hi. As I got closer, my eye fixed on an eye-watering price sticker on the front of the frame and my heart skipped a beat. Holy mother of god, an original. What the hell is this doing here? I demanded.
Can I… umm… have a look? desperately hoping there would be something wrong. Like there always is. I could sense the credit cards in my wallet clinging to each other for comfort, in fear.
The guy behind the counter just smiled. Sure.
Sharp corners on the cover. Out came the vinyl: clean labels, with hardly any spindle marks. Pivoting the vinyl in the light, a near mint glossy surface, no scratches or marks. Ears, RVG stamp, 47 West 63rd label, I felt the weight in my hands. I’ve got so used to record weights I can usually guess them correct within 10 grams. Heavy vinyl, near 180g. I gave no thought to the DG at the time, because it was a beautiful copy. Mono Undercurrent, holy grail, in my hands.
It’s worth a lot more than we are asking, if it went to auction – the guy behind the counter added, helpfully.
I know, I know. I recalled bidding on this many times, always seeing it snatched away as the price spiralled upward, out of reach. The pain of Ebay on high value items flashed through my mind. US post and tracking charges, customs duty on top, the disappointment of finding over-grading by the seller after waiting in weeks for postie to call. All could be avoided, if, if…
Inner voices: it’s only money. You can’t play money, it never sounds any good. You turn money into a record. You play and enjoy the record, show it off to all your friends as a bonus. You can always turn it back into money if you have to, the value is still there. The ticket price is deceptive, long run it is zero, free.
One of the few records I would break my house limit for, and not an opportunity I would likely have again. There wasn’t really any need to think about it. The credit card emerged from my wallet looking dejected. it knew it was about to be hit, and hit hard. It whispered Be quick, let’s get this over with. Just do it.
The guy at the counter looked pleased, not just for the obvious sale reason. Glad its going to a good home.
After all my research, I still don’t know for sure whether this is the first pressing. More important, I don’t care. It belongs to me, and it is in good company. At night, when I’m sleeping, I’m sure all my Blue Notes climb down from the shelves, get together, sit around talk about the good old days, the Sixties, Miles, Coltrane, Mobley. What do I know? They’ll know.
UPDATE: October 2, 2016
LJC’s resident First Pressing Fundamentalist, DottorJazz , has sent me Fred Cohen’s addendum on the first pressing of 4059, written after publishing his book.
Cohen addenda :
“For the benefit of Blue Note collectors and/or readers of the pressing guide, I would like to bring to their attention to the recent eBay sale of Kenny Drew “Undercurrent” on Blue Note 4059. The vinyl was in virtually new condition; the jacket showed minor wear. What made this copy interesting is the lack of the deep groove on Side 2 and the “Review Copy” stamp on both the Side 2 label and the back slick. This is the first time I have seen a label-stamped review copy of Undercurrent and it raises the issue once again as to the definition of an “original” pressing: is it a record, regardless of any other consideration, that includes all the details – such as a deep groove – that collectors look for, or is it the first issue of that record?
It is my impression that the presence of the “Review Copy” stamp on the label is a very strong indication that the “original” Undercurrent pressing had no deep groove.
Blue Note frequently stamped “Review Copy or “Audition Copy” on the jacket only, making it possible to substitute another copy of the same record. But the presence of the “Review Copy” stamp on the label would suggest that it was the first pressing – sent to magazines and writers prior to its official release. The only exception to this might be in an instance where a record did not sell well and a second group of review copies was distributed. The fact that Kenny Drew never recorded another session as a leader for Blue Note as well as the general scarcity of “original” pressings of Undercurrent leads me to believe that the record’s poor reception in stores might possibly have encouraged Blue Note to try a second distribution of review copies.
But that is speculation.
Historically, the presence of a “Review Copy” stamp on the label or cover has usually depressed the value of a Blue Note in the eyes of collectors. What is interesting in this latest sale is that the final bid of $1202.77 for a “Review Copy” was the second highest price ($1311) that Popsike shows for the June 2010 sale of a standard “original” pressing.
My point is that once the deep groove no longer appears consistently on both sides of Blue Note pressings, deciding what is and is not an “original” is difficult, if not impossible.
Cordially, Fred” (March, 01 2011)
ProfessorJazz says: If I read that right, the review copy found without DG on side 2 trumps the previous first pressing status of DG side 2, for which no review copy has been confirmed. The original first pressing could be the no-DG copy, though a second promo round can’t be ruled out. How about that? It is almost as though there was someone above looking out for you. Rudy, are you there?
That second promo round is a possibility. But if a record was not selling well, would you tool up a second pressing run to add to the glut of unsold copies from the previous pressing? It’s a stretch. It’s my theory that the die variations are both from the “first pressing”. Imagine, the first pressing job was run on two different presses, or interrupted briefly for some technical reason and restarted/completed on another press, involving remounting the first stamper – hence a change of dies. Thus the “first pressing” run of say 4,000 copies contained two stamper die variations, couple of thousand each. The review copies were selected by chance from the first batch.
The paucity of copies coming to auction suggests a single pressing. There was no NY label reissue. The alternative is to believe that Blue Note commissioned a second pressing run, within months of the first, for a poor-selling record. You have to explain not which was the first, but why there was ever a second.
Anyone any ideas why the NR (non-returnable) stamp on the back cover? Did it sell so badly the unsold stock was remaindered at a discounted price somewhere down the line? I really can’t figure this one, I don’t even have a plausible theory..
Post-postscript (October 6)
You have to be very smart to outsmart Google page-rank. Text search depends on metadata and tags. What if the content you are searching for hasn’t been tagged effectively, or is in a pictographic language? Buried deep down I found through the “search by image” function / “view more”, via another Plastylite test pressing picture, this copy of a test pressing of 4059. This is not review copy, this is a picture of one of the original test pressings of 4059.
Unsurprisingly, it is on a Japanese website, in this case one which has some mouthwatering jazz records, Mam’selle. It is poor quality photography, which is unhelpful, pictures only side one, but it tells us enough, that the TP of 4059 was pressed with at least DG on Side 1, whether on side 2 remains unknown. This contradicts the notion of the original 4059 as DG only side two, and no DG either side. Since these two are the only forms found in commercial release, it also tells us the test pressing is not a reliable guide to the form of the first pressing, what they call “negative knowledge” – where not to look, which is valuable in its own right.
The back cover is stamped N R: non returnable.
UPDATE: October 23, 2016 – Best pressing of Undercurrent?
I have four different pressings of Undercurrent, and undertook one comparative listening session with my hi-fi buddy, Man in a Shed. We concurred on the following heirarchy, 1. best to 4. least good:
- Blue Note mono original first pressing
- Toshiba LNJ series late ’60s /early 70s (pre-King) “Division of Liberty” stereo
- Music Matters MM33 stereo modern audiophile
- King Records Japan late 70s/early’80s vintage, stereo
The distance between first and last was quite significant, but all offer a good listening experience on their own. It was only when they were pitted one against the other that shortcomings become evident. If you had just one, you would probably say it “sounds great to me“, a phrase which you see again and again, and why a sample of one is not a meaningful test of quality.
Because of the potential variation that exists within a pressing (first to last off stamper) this heirarchy may not replicate with other copies of the same edition.