Suspicious plain package arrives by courier for LJC, driver speeds away. Bomb squad put on standby. Shortly afterwards, British Jazz Explosion follows.
Opening the package revealed a red sealed box with carefully taped edges, inside, tightly packed with eleven replica albums designed to cause maximum enjoyment to British jazz listeners, and to any innocent passers-by within earshot.
Explosive contents discovered within! Countdown eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six……
A manual on faux-aged yellow paper provides clues as to the identities of the musicians responsible, in particular, their ringleader, Edward Brian Hayes.
Under the alias “Tubby”, Hayes and his gang of fellow musicians,- recruited from as far away as Scotland, like Jimmy “hot lips” Deuchar – made up the hardcore of players. Soon, their numbers had swollen to as many as eighteen in his so-called Orchestra, carrying out big-band “spectaculars” across the land.
Notorious for his deadly use of the tenor saxophone, Hayes sent shockwaves through the jazz community for his ruthless command of speed, voice and technique. In front of a room full of witnesses, he would introduce his henchmen, then launch into tunes with quirky distain for the standard playbook, his own compositions such as “Half a Sawbuck” and “The Sausage Scraper“. What could this strange lingo mean, a sawbuck, $5, in junkie argot, and what instrument of torture is a sausage scraper I shudder to think.
Deadpan humour, technical brilliance, Britain’s premier jazz instrumentalist of international standing, the Tubster was eventually succumbed to heart disease in 1973, at the age of only 38. Recordings in the Fontana Sessions, 1961-69 , stood up to the sinister threat: “Nice music. Shame if it was never available on vinyl again“.
But now it is: the Fontana Sessions Boxset.
The British Jazz Explosion unpacked.
The Decca/Universal Fontana Tubby Hayes box set provides 11 replica titles from Tubby’s Fontana discography, which includes a contrast from intimate quintet live club recordings, to session with New York musicians, and blasting big band orchestra outings.
Tubbey Hayes Quintet, live at Ronnie Scotts
The Fontana quintet sessions, Down In The Village and Late Spot At Scotts are something of a holy grail for Tubby fans, though his Tempo albums are more rare, and sell for three to four times as much. The Ronnie Scott sessions are some how more quintessentialy “British” and carry a major nostagia buzz for anyone who saw jazz performed at Ronnie Scotts. Below are originals, the benchmark.
Tubby Hayes New York Sessions
His sessions recorded on trips to New York partner him with American jazz musicians and are musically more uneven, though Tubby positively flies in order to prove himself, which he does in spades. Tubbs in NY finds Tubby in the company of Horace Parlan and Clark Terry, very good if not quite top drawer. The Return Visit! session partners Tubby with Roland Kirk, and has some rivetting tracks. Below are the originals:
The Studio Sessions
Also included in the Fontana Sessions are Hayes most personal set of compositions, Mexican Green, and the splendidly remastered “Lost Tapes” from 1969, released last year as a precursor to this box set..
The Tubby Hayes Orchestra
But, and there is always a “but”, what else can you sit on, and it is The Orchestra. The Tubby Hayes Orchestra outings are “Death By Big Band” fire and brimstone brute force much loved by some British jazz fans at the time, provided welcome gainful employment for a lot of British jazz instrumentalists, but haven’t worn as well to my ear.
100% Proof and Tubbs Tours have been reproduced faithfully, and personally I can’t listen to them, but that is my taste, others are welcome to their own. I like musicians in the room, and I can’t fit in eighteen of them.
“Tubbs” include an instrumental menagerie of clarinet, tuba, flute and guitar, which is a less succesful platform for the Tubster. The final two other albums in the set I’ve yet to work through. I think they are of lesser merit, but will get round to them.
At less than £20 a record, I can afford a few duds, more than made up for by the presence of other fabulous recordings. In 2012, my original Fontana copy of Late Spot at Scott’s cost over six times as much as this replica copy.
But, you ask, what do they sound like?
To get to grips with the sound quality I turned to one album for which I have the original in the exact same format, in this case, mono Fontana edition of Late Spot At Scotts. Here follows a head to head shoot out, just one track, Half a Sawbuck.
“Late Spot At Scott’s” Shoot out
Fontana original 1963 vs. new Decca Reissue 2019, both mastered directly from the original tapes, what fun!. But first a closer look at the covers.
2019: sharp corners, but Decca colour fidelity slightly off – too much blush in the skin tone, but pretty close. However unlike the heavy glossy ’60s Fontana original, the reissue cover is cheap-looking matt thin card . I gue$$ the budget didn’t run to cover expense, which is forgivable, and I haven’t seen anyone able to match ’60s printing finishes and jacket manufacture. The final modern product cost is kept low in return, but I still yearn for covers that reflect the manufacturing quality of their era.
Gordon Beck, piano; Jimmy Deuchar, trumpet; Allan Ganley, drums; Tubby Hayes Soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, vibes, Freddy Logan, bass; recorded live Ronnie Scotts Club, Soho, London, England , May 17-18, 1962. original recording engineer/s unknown.
Music – Audio Quality
Quote from Decca publicity notes:
“The recordings have been lovingly remastered at Gearbox Records’ Studios, London, directly from the original tapes, using a Studer C37 ¼-inch stereo tape machine. They were then equalised through an all-valve mastering desk built bespoke for Decca studios in the late 1950s, Vintage Lang Pultec EQ, Prism Maselec EQ and Telefunken U73b valve limiters from 1959.”
That is what the manufacturers say, good to know how they have done it, something which modern reissuers are often painfully shy of explaining (because theirs is often just a digital copy).The question remains, what do the Decca reissues sound like? More important, from my point of view, how do they compare with the originals?
One of the difficulties in A:B rip comparisons with the WordPress embedded player is where one is louder than the other. Loudness can cloud judgement as to which sounds better.. Both rips are “mono” (in practice, stereo cart channels folded at phono-stage) 320kbps mp3 at the exact same gain setting, so any volume difference is intrinsic to Gearbox engineer’s mastering decisions.The histograms in Audacity look remarkably dynamic, as all good recordings should. All the early signs looked encouraging.
Fontana Original Pressing 1963: Half A Sawbuck (Hayes) – mono
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Decca Reissue 2019: Half a Sawbuck (Hayes) – mono
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You form your own opinion, best I can offer is my own verdict at the end of post. You are welcome to add yours.
Vinyl: TL 5200
UK Philips pressing, 1963 vs Decca Reissue, 2019, German pressing by Optimal Media GmbH (pictures updated January 17, 2020) Interesting that the groove pitch/ width must differ, as indicated by the shorter run-out groove on the Decca 2019 cut. It is the same music, runs the same length of time: different pitch on the lathe?
The original back cover betrays it’s over fifty year old provenance: much loved, a little grubby and worn. It is from 1963, a piece of history, they don’t make 1963 any more. Sentiment is strong with the original, articulates the difference between an original and a copy of an original. With the original cover you are holding a piece of history. With the reissue you are holding . . . just a piece of cardboard.
LJC Audio Verdict
The important baseline is that the original Fontana recordings are among the best of British jazz recording and engineering of the Sixties, and sound just beautiful on a modern vinyl playback system. It would be a fool’s errand to perfectly replicate poor quality recordings, so it is important that the start point – the original tapes – is worthy of effort. (There is quite a lot of bootleg quality recordings of Tubby out there). Thus far, I haven’t found anyone named given credit for Fontana recording or mastering, or the studio/s. Perhaps someone knows.
Based on my listening on the big system, the sound of Decca 2019 reissues are a superlative reproduction of the original Fontana recordings. To my ears, they sound effectively indistinguishable from the original 1960s vinyl, with the obvious advantage of being in mint condition.
Gearbox have produced flawless transfers from the original tapes, with wide dynamic and tonal range and no digital artefacts that I can hear, or rogue engineering decisions to appease ear-bud listeners, this is truly vinyl-lover territory. The pressings by Optimal GmbH offer perfect stability and surface condition,with negligible surface noise.
Collector sentiment, I still love my original Fontana, but for practical reasons, the Decca 2019 copy will usually be my preferred play copy. The twist is that nine of the eleven Decca reissue titles are stereo, In some cases I have the original mono up my sleeve.
I should add this is an unsolicited testimonial, I paid for my own box-set. (Remember this if and when the “lost” Tempo recordings get the same treatment, Decca!) Here is the Decca online shop for more information, should anyone want it. The Fontana Albums Box-set is also available in a much smaller box, (if you are content with the sound of Musicians-In-The-Room-Next-Door) on The compact Evil Silver Disc.