A tale of the pursuit of one recording, the search for the best pressing, and a few lessons learned along the way. Prepare for a deep dive, and beware of currents.
The story so far…
In the early ’60s, United Artists hired A&R producer guru Alan Douglas to convene some magical artist combinations for their new UA Jazz label, including this unique session by Bill Evans and Jim Hall, graced by one of the most iconic album cover portraits ever: fashion photographer Toni Frissell’s floating model, Weeki Wachee Spring, Florida, for Harpers Magazine (December 1947).
Undercurrent was the subject of an early LJC blog-post five years ago, in 2012, the rip made on an Ion $100 DJ portable. Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun. (I got to tell you, it also flies when you are not. Bummer). That post raised some concerns about the unsatisfactory engineering/pressing quality of United Artists Jazz original releases.
The sought-after original copy I obtained from the US – described as “near mint” – was troubled with surface noise, not visibly the result of scratches or mishandling. You would grade it as excellent by inspection, it just didn’t play that way, even after multiple RCM washes. More important, the recording didn’t sparkle in the way I had hoped, as a Van Gelder might: the presentation was wooden, lifeless, unengaging. Something wasn’t right.
Both the “Bendy Tenor” United Artists Jazz label and the black label claim (Discogs) “1962” (original) status. United Artists rarely if ever printed a date of copyright or manufacture on label or cover around this time. 1962 is documented as merely the date of recording, so, in the absence of any other information, often assumed by Discogs uploaders to be the date of issue.
The Bendy Tenor label was in use for only 1962-3-ish during Alan Douglas’s short tenure as producer for United Artists, whilst the black label was a generic United Artists label in use between 1958 and 1968, at the end of which time Transamerica bought United Artists and soon after, Liberty. The black label’s introduction pre-dates the bendy tenor, so it looks “older”, with its arcane “High Fidelity” reference. However I think the black label of Undercurrent is a later second issue, after Alan Douglas departed. As with all these things, little is for certain.
Are “originals” always best for audiophiles?
Whilst with most US recordings the first US original release is the preferred choice, sometimes the original pressing was compromised, by cost-saving shortcuts, sub-standard vinyl, low-cost manufacture. An overseas manufactured release starts out from a copy tape, albeit one generation removed, but the copy tape can be a good transfer, the local engineers can be top-notch technicians not potheads, and the vinyl is pure and not adulterated. British, European and Japanese releases can be a preferred alternative, especially labels like Esquire and Decca. US Riverside, United Artists and Prestige New Jazz are three labels where caution is required.
Undercurrent has seen many reissues over the years, tracing the corporate evolution of United Artists, and its different licensing partners. Discogs lists forty-five different entries for Undercurrent.
It also appears in a variety of covers, some faithful to the Toni Frissell original, others less so. The posterised Solid State karaoke-art version is simply … dreadful. Perhaps there was a problem with copyright payments. Some covers abandoned the floating woman theme all together, and the Alan Douglas Collection issues (bottom row second left) used many alternative covers.
Over the following few years, I kept an eye out for other potential releases of Undercurrent, two of which were eventually added to the LJC collection:
T741 World Record Club issue, UK
Alternative cover (air guitar I can understand, but underwater guitar? – chang chang wook wook), unique original liner notes well-written in good English, WRC are usually fairly acceptable, just not this one. Anyone’s guess what’s at fault – poor copy tape, mediocre transfer, budget pressing, but not good.
United Artists Jazz, made in Germany.
Omit the iconic Toni Frissell cover – floating model; flipback cover instead of gatefold; a repeat the corny pulp-fiction liner notes, perhaps they would have read better in German, and format error: mono – this recording demands stereo, that’s my belief, I’m sticking by it. Lacklustre and noisy.
The triumph of hope over experience, both fell considerably short of expectations. Each time I put it any of the three issues on the turntable, play was disappointing. Noisy, and dead, lifeless presentation – to my ear at least. That beautiful cover and beautiful playing was not being matched by beautiful sound, as a result, Undercurrent didn’t get much play.
Then, one day, a chance visit to a record-collecting friend Doctor Who? opened up a fresh perspective. By coincidence it emerged they had the same United Artists “bendy tenor” pressing of Undercurrent. A quick listen confirmed his copy had the same intrusive surface noise, and unsatisfactory audio-quality. So my copy wasn’t an outlier, I guessed they are all like that.
By chance, he was also had a Japanese stereo pressing of Undercurrent, on a very odd “Liberty” label. “Lets give it a go“, I said, opening another bottle. I was quite unprepared for what followed.
Out of the blue, Evans and Hall sprang to life. Up rose the sinuous intertwining of Bill Evans and Jim Hall serpentine figures and luminous, glistening fragments. The presentation was exactly as I knew it should be. You consume every note, you sense the cues and pickups, the telepathic interchange, the sheer artistry and musical intelligence. Engagement! Yess! Excitement! Yess! Undercurrent had finally come home.
Tasting Panel: you be the judge
Bill Evans (piano) Jim Hall (guitar) recorded at Sound Makers, NYC, April 24/ May 14, 1962 engineer Bill Schwartau
1. My Funny Valentine, UAJS 15003 “bendy tenor” release (1962):
2. My Funny Valentine, EMI-Toshiba LBJ-60051 Japan release (1985):
Here comes The Judge
This is my take, you are welcome to form your own opinion, in so far as an mp3 rip via a PC allows. In comparison (on the big system) the Japanese press revealed not only silky-smooth near-silent vinyl (just the odd click), but totally unexpectedly, significantly superior dynamic range. The original displayed a compressed top end, and general lack of life.
The Toshiba yielded up a natural, tonally-rich exciting image of Hall and Evan’s instruments in their full glory, which I had not heard in three other pressings. Long standing theories about first pressings being best as “nearest the original recording” were demolished at a stroke. Great thing about actual experience, it trumps theories every time.
The original master tape has to be as near “perfect” as it can be. Why the variation in quality of pressings, especially with the “original”? One can speculate. Perhaps the original mastering engineer tried to fix some perceived problem during mastering, and loused up. Perhaps copy tape sent at the time to Europe also suffered the same problem. Perhaps the copy tape sent to Japan in the ’80s by-passed this problem, or EMI-Toshiba re-mastering was superior to its predecessors. I don’t have an explanation, in many respects it doesn’t really matter why, one sounds better than the other, whatever the explanation.
The listening session and A:B comparison left me with only one problem. I didn’t actually have a copy of the Toshiba, and it looked difficult to source.
Collector’s Corner…some months later…
It was not until several months passed by that I chanced on a copy of the EMI-Toshiba Liberty pressing for myself, in a London store. I grabbed it in near disbelief. Yes, it was the exact same EMI-Toshiba “Liberty UA Jazz” pressing, and damn the store had priced it up due to it being “excellent” condition. Little did they know of the full story, and my bendy tenor had cost me more than twice as much.
Once home and mounted on the turntable, the EMI-Toshiba press yielded up the same marvellous experience. It was not a random result from the vagaries of manufacture, it replicated. The search for a perfect copy of Undercurrent, which had taken me down the false trail of originals in nail-biting US auctions and continual frustration, had finally been resolved.
Though Alan Douglas convened some magical artist combinations for UA Jazz, he seemingly had little inkling of what happened in manufacture and engineering, no way he could really, with the equipment in use in the early ’60s. That had to wait for the arrival of today’s modern audiophile rigs, revealing vinyl systems which expose the good and bad engineering, and show that our friends in Japan knew a thing or two about mastering and manufacture. (If any of our Japanese readers would like to take a bow, please, feel free).
A little research revealed that the 1985 EMI-Toshiba Liberty series, which I knew little or nothing of previously, included a whole swathe of Alan Douglas UA Jazz recordings, including quite a few I had found troubled in their original issue. Looks like lots of scope for happy listening here.
The other snippet I discovered was that in 1972, ten years later, it seems United Artists “purchased the masters of the Alan Douglas collection”
At the end of the ’60s (not early 60s) Transamerica Corp. owned Blue Note, Liberty and United Artists. Then in 1980, EMI swallowed the lot. Why didn’t UA own the Douglas masters already? How did Solid State come into it? What is the story behind the poor quality of original releases of Douglas’s Jazz series – Money Jungle sounds ropey, as does Three Blind Mice, and A Night at The Half Note. Too many questions, not enough answers. Enough for one post!
Thoughts on anything in today’s keyboard punishment welcome, as always. Do you have any of the Douglas UA series? What do you think of them? Am I the only one here who has an issue? Help!