Selection: April In Paris (Duke-Harburg, a 1930’s showtune)
Thad Jones (trumpet) Billy Mitchell (tenor sax) Barry Harris (piano) Percy Heath (bass) Max Roach (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, July 14, 1956
Artists of Note:
Billy Mitchell – tenor. A fellow Detroiter, Mitchell joins Jones here and on his other Blue Note, Detroit Junction. Though Mitchell had a few titles of his own as leader, most of his long playing career was spent in big bands, initially with Dizzy Gillespie, a decade with Count Basie, and time with Francy Boland Kenny Clarke. His tenor borrows from Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. ‘There’s 12 notes, and you just shuffle them around,” he was apparently fond of saying.
Barry Harris – piano, also from Detroit, he who performed the pivotal piano vamp in Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. Harris had nearly twenty titles as leader, many for Prestige, Riverside, and later, Xanadu. Harris’s adaptability made him sideman of choice on many great titles through the Fifties and Sixties, found with Dexter Gordon (Gettin’ Around), Sonny Red (The Mode) , Sonny Stitt (Burnin’), Yusef Lateef (Eastern Sounds) and countless others. Among has claims to fame he spent time in the Seventies with Monk in residence at the home of jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Few can match that c.v.
A review in the NYT describes Harris’s playing: “In his hands, be-bop becomes gentle. He plays it slowly, with consideration; he lets each phrase linger, exposing a lyricism that with other artists is just a blur. He plays the music kindly.” Jimmy Heath called him “The keeper of the flame of Bebop”
1956, the list of names coming through Blue Note’s door, this was a time of giants, Miles, Monk, Powell, Nichols, Burrell, Silver, Blakey, Donaldson, Dorham, Mobley, Morgan, Rollins. Amidst this galaxy, Thad Jones recorded two titles for the label, at Van Gelder’s Hackensack home.
Thad’s trumpet, remember, it’s just a pipe and some valves, has a purity of tone and expressiveness that draws you to listen. A few jokey quotes,” ‘alf a pound of tu’penny rice… pop goes the weasel ” but the voice is steadfast and controlled, each burnished note perfect, this is trumpet-porn for consenting listeners.
Billy Mitchell’s tenor is firm, polished, his phrasing bluesy, not unlike Lou Donaldson’s alto but in the lower tenor register. On April in Paris he slips between the sheets, full-on boudoir sax. Here and on other tracks he weaves skilfully through the charts.
Max Roach’s timekeeping is captured and rendered beautifully, the strike and resonance on cymbals and brushwork slap. Too many albums seemed to lose the highest frequencies, casualties in the war against tape-hiss, then clipped on CD by the iron logic of the 20,000khz false ceiling. (A glance at the histograms in the Audacity rip show the fullest use of the musical envelope)
Barry Harris notes ripples in and out, comping accents behind the beat, while Percy Heath’s bass is tuneful like a firm well-sprung mattress supporting the ensemble, resonant and proportionate, avoiding the bottox boom that some engineers think bass is about, how low can it go, how to make it sound better on a phone. This is vinyl for grown-ups.
Musically, this record is a product of its time, without the dark corners or self-expressive angst emerging a few years later, not in any way far out, or very far from the mainstream. I recommend you take a break from the noise and misery of the modern day. Settling down on the sofa for concentrated listening to The Magnificent Thad Jones is such a good thing, calming, sending out positive waves, it should be available on prescription.
Vinyl: review copy, Music Matters MM33 release, 2016.
The Magnificent Thad Jones is a mono album, an unusual format from our friends at Music Matters, where stereo generally rules the roost. Perhaps Hackensack mono is a rich future seam? This sounds just right, fresh, room-filling big mono with huge dynamic and tonal range.
The iconic cover picture is a time machine to the mid ’50s, Thad drawing on a cigarette, surrounded by pigeons, I assume something somethingth street, New Yorkers will know, do tell. Black and white rendering captures the time and place, Jones with great dignity. The reproduction is immaculate, though I still go weak at the knees in the face of Blue Note original laminated covers no-one can reproduce.
Unlike some modern reissue labels, MM delivers music on near-silent vinyl, super-clean manufacture, almost no surface noise. I emphasise this because surface noise is one of the dividing lines between digital and vinyl, and vintage records with history of poor handling – “near-mint” is part of the search for the holy grail. It is depressing to find modern pressings troubled by poor manufacture, something that seems to have compromised the Blue Note 75 editions. No such problem here.
The recording quality Van Gelder achieved basically in his parents front parlour is astonishing, arguably better than at the more technology-enriched Englewood Cliffs. I have rarely heard such depth and intimacy on vinyl This is a stunning recording. It has a power and freshness that belies its age, among Van Gelder’s finest work. The transfer is exquisite, with deep sonority and fresh highlights, a lifelike presence in the room which holds your attention, great rhythm and timing fitted as standard.
Back to vinyl, the comparative run-outs shows the discrepancy in track lengths between side one and two. I’m sure they could fit a bonus track in there:
Another selection of artist portraits by Francis Wolff , the Van Gelder of the camera, I assume at taken at Hackensack, beautiful. What is even more interesting since Neville Roberts gave us the tutorial on tube microphones, what the hell are these monsters poking into the corner of several of the pictures? Are those Neumanns held in a cradle, or something else? Someone knows: share the knowledge. I rather suspect they are largely responsible for the gorgeous sound on these Hackensack recordings.
I took this review copy around to a friend for some critical listening. To my surprise a visiting neighbour chimed in the second she heard the first track. “I know that song from my childhood! My dad, who was a jazz fan, played it endlessly”.
Beats me. My Dad didn’t do music. The only music in my childhood was mum’s Mario Lanza operatic schtick on crackly 78’s, and big sister’s Rogers and Hammerstein movie soundtracks. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Surrey with the Fringe on Top anyone? I know all the words, and desperately wish I could forget them. A music deficient upbringing meant I had to strike out on my own, many blind alleys, wrong turns, lost decades, but I got there in the end. April in Paris.
April in Paris is from the 1932 Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster, adopted for a 1952 musical film starring Doris Day, the song subsequently recorded by everybody including Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella, Sarah, Louis, I knew nothing of this.
What’s the record collector alternative?
An “original” Lexington, not to deny it isn’t a beauty, with its top ten auctions circling $1000-$2,000 in near mint condition. It must be the pigeon-fanciers driving the price up. I am not persuaded to fight for an original at that price.
UPDATE December 3, 2016
A friend has loaned me their “knackered” Lexington:, so we can put online the actual original. Underneath the crackle, you can hear an extraordinary and fine recording. Below an original un-laminated frame cover, turn back the clock. 1956.
As you can see, it will cost you a lot not to have the crackle.
Reissues of The Magnificent Thad Jones are also available from vintage Division of United Artists and Japanese King and Toshiba. I’ve listened only to the Division of United Artists reissue (classic blue/white label, prior to the all blue) and it is also very good. The brilliance of RVGs recording shines through, as is often the case. As Cuscuna reflected, “With Van Gelder engineering, you just have to keep your hands in your pockets and not f*** it up.” However I think the MM33 actually extract more information from the original tape than United Artists were able to with their technology of the day, and add 40 years wear and tear. The choice is always yours, whatever you can find.
One of the things that improved my listening experience here, just before the critical listening session, was the use of an Aesthetix moving coil cartridge demagenetiser to my Dynavector TKR cartridge.
More on this at a future date. You need to know this.