Lee Morgan: Cornbread (1965) Blue Note (Tone Poet 2019)

Selection: Most Like Lee (TP, stereo)

.  .  .

Original Liberty 1967 monaural : Most Like Lee

.  .  .

Artists:

Lee Morgan, trumpet; Jackie McLean, alto sax;  Hank Mobley, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Larry Ridley, bass; Billy Higgins, drums; recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, September 18, 1965, first released by Liberty in January 1967.

Having got the seasonal novelties out the way, Liberty kicked off 1967 with a tranche of serious Blue Note new titles. And of course The Three Sounds. I have all of them as Liberty originals,  except one.

Music : Tone Poet

Recorded in 1965, this Lee Morgan album waited for release until Liberty. It has the customary spread of styles, from Cornbread, a boogaloo follow-on to Sidewinder, to sweet ballad Ceora, a swinging bossa, bluesy boppy, Most Like Lee. All provide a stage for soaring solos, but only so much groove space to go around. A worthy addition to anyone’s collection, and an excellent addition to the Tone Poet Series last year. (What I really want is Byrd In Flight!)

Morgan compositions, bar one standard.  A muscular sextet with a generous sprinkling of Herbie Hancock, our man Higgins behind the drums.  Finely mixed stereo set  by Van Gelder, beautifully restored by Kevin Grey. This is how modern vinyl should sound, which self-proclaimed audiophile editions often don’t. TP’s are mastered from the original Van Gelder tapes, which is what matters. However it does have one contender –  in my case, the original “monaural” 1967 Liberty edition. Reviewed back in 2017 here.

When I played them side by side for the rip, I find theTone Poet is sonically precise, very wide sound-stage, manicured, information-rich, lovely stereo presentation. But the 1967 monaural has fire in its belly, and punch in the face, dials running hot. Mobley out of the trap got me exited toot toot toot cascading blistering runs, his nasal wail, fabulous. It may be more coarse-grained sonically, less information-rich, the surface isn’t perfect, but it is pure bottled excitement.

I really like the presentation of the Tone Poet, but I like the excitement of the Liberty mono more. Not because it is mono, it is the visceral directness, and feels more 1965, . You may feel differently, and there is always the cost and difficulty of finding the original mono. Either is preferable to the alternative, save money and have nothing to listen to. I don’t recommend Nothing, it is by far the worst choice.

Vinyl:

180 gram, very quiet surface like others in the series. Wide vinyl land to minimise distortion, as the tonearm approaches the centre label (did I get that right this time?)

 

Gatefold:

More lively studio shots from Francis Wolff, though the sight of Lee’s cheeks blowing out, a la Dizzy, is umm… painful. The session photos bring the set to life, as it is on the vinyl. Apart from Hancock and Ridley, everyone here is gone, Jackie, Hank, Lee, and our man Higgins. But on the vinyl they live. This is art, and art never dies. Art is immortal.

Collector’s Corner

I couldn’t resist one more Tone Poet, to complement my mono original Cornbread. An indulgence, but the three-M triumvirate :Morgan, Mobley, and McLean in my living room socially spaced between the speakers, for under £30, free delivery within two days courtesy of Amazon. It beats waiting in for groceries.

As usual, I like to have a look at the consumer reviews of a record, to see if I can get some insight into other listener’s point of view. Straight away there is the problem with consumer reviews.

“I have the Blue Note 2019 re-issue of the album on vinyl and it sounds simply amazing”
I am sure they are absolutely sincere, though some people are easily amazed. I have to agree, it is pretty damn good compared to a lot of “modern reissues”. But  “amazing”  – compared to what? In comparison with originals, very often what I initially thought was very good reissue, fails to pass that stringent test. Many times I have had an edition that sounds pretty damn good to me. Then a friend brings the original they just acquired for an eye-watering sum, we sit and A:B.   You realise how wide the gap can be, in freshness, clarity, authority, and immediacy. Even when the condition has a few issues, the underlying strength shines through.
More about masters
On the importance of mastering from the original tapes, I copied this commentary on the aftermath of the Universal Lot Fire, from the lengthy NYT expose of “corporate negligence”. I don’t necessarily agree with the high-resolution digital stuff , and I am not convinced that any NYT contributor has ever  listened to “the original vinyl” for comparison, how would they, copy deadline looms, go buy a record player, now hunt an original? Just recite conventional wisdom. But on the bigger question, why is the master tape source important? I found this interesting.

“It is sonic fidelity, first and foremost, that defines the importance of masters”. “A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”

This is not an academic point. The recording industry is a business of copies; often as not, it’s a business of copies of copies of copies. A Spotify listener who clicks on a favorite old song may hear a file in a compressed audio format called Ogg Vorbis. That file was probably created by converting an MP3, which may have been ripped years earlier from a CD, which itself may have been created from a suboptimal “safety copy” of the LP master — or even from a dubbed duplicate of that dubbed duplicate. Audiophiles complain that the digital era, with its rampant copy-paste ethos and jumble of old and new formats, is an age of debased sound: lossy audio files created from nth-generation transfers; cheap vinyl reissues, marketed to analog-fetishists but pressed up from sludgy non-analog sources. “It’s the audio equivalent of the game of ‘Telephone,’ ” says Henry Sapoznik, a celebrated producer of historical compilation albums. “Who really would be satisfied with the sixth message in.

 

The remedy is straightforward: You go back to the master. This is one reason that rereleases of classic albums are promoted as having been painstakingly remastered from the original tapes. It’s why consumers of new technologies, like CDs in the 1980s, are eager to hear familiar music properly recaptured for the format. Right now, sound-savvy consumers (LJC  sniggers) are taking the next leap forward into high-resolution audio, which can deliver streaming music of unprecedented depth and detail. But you can’t simply up-convert existing digital files to higher resolution. You have to return to the master and recapture it at a higher bit rate.

But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs (LJC sniggers, high-end frequencies “audible only to dogs” matter, repetition of industry bs) . It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” Zax said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.”

 

The comparison to paintings is instructive. With a painting, our task as cultural stewards is to hang the thing properly, to keep it away from direct sunlight, to guard it from thieves. A painting must be maintained and preserved, but only in rare cases will a technological intervention improve our ability to see the artwork. If you were to stand before the Mona Lisa in an uncrowded gallery, you would be taking in the painting under more or less ideal circumstances. You will not get a better view.

In the case of a recording, a better view is possible. With recourse to the master, a recording’s “picture” can, potentially, be improved; the record can snap into sharper focus, its sound and meaning shining through with new clarity and brilliance. The reason is a technological time lag: For years, what people were able to record was of greater quality than what they were able to play back. “Most people don’t realize that recording technology was decades more sophisticated than playback technology,” Sapoznik says. “Today, we can decode information off original recordings that was impossible to hear at any time before.”

 

The process of revisiting and decoding can transfigure the most familiar music. In May 2017, a new box set of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released to mark the album’s 50th anniversary. “Sgt. Pepper’s” is one of the most famous recordings in history, but the version most listeners know is the stereo mix, which was of secondary importance to the Beatles, their producer George Martin and his engineer, Geoff Emerick. It was the mono mix that consumed the Beatles’ attention, and it is to those materials that the box set’s producer, Martin’s son Giles, returned, creating a fresh stereo mix from the mono masters. “The job was to strip back layers, to get back to that original sound and intent,” he says. “The detail we can garner from the mix compared to what they could have done 50 years ago is fantastic.”

The result is a vivid new “Sgt. Pepper’s.” In certain quarters, the album has been regarded as twee, but Giles Martin’s mix reveals a burlier rock ’n’ roll record. The box set opens new vistas on the album’s themes and adds force to its pathos. The opus “A Day in the Life” sounds more ominous than ever, a portent of late ’60s chaos, of the storm gathering on the other side of the Summer of Love. These epiphanies would not have been possible without masters. “Working without the master tapes,” Martin says, “would be like a chef having to use precooked food.”

 

The “Sgt. Pepper’s” masters are kept in a secure location in London. The tape boxes are marked with recording notes that helped guide Martin’s mixing decisions. The tapes themselves feature additional recordings — alternate versions, overdubs, studio chatter — that were included on the rerelease. Tens of millions of copies of “Sgt. Pepper’s” have been sold over the years; it may seem precious to place special value on the original of a record that is so well known and ubiquitous. But the masters in the London archive are unique. They have greater fidelity than any copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s” that is out in the world. They have more documentation than any version anywhere. And the masters contain more Beatles music too.

The same is surely true of many masters destroyed in the Universal fire. John Coltrane and Patsy Cline music has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot. But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings. Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained — music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape.” [ nyt ENDS]

 

I guess and hope master tapes  are loaned only to the most trusted sources. And that the custodians of masters honour the obligation they have, to preserve our musical heritage.
The Tone Poets deserve some recognition for authenticity, and quality manufacture. Up to you if you think the quest for “the original” is worth it. It is always the same question, compared to what? Until you have made comparison, you don’t really know. There is a lot to be said for Ignorance. I lived in Ignorance for a long time, and was mostly quite happy there. I then moved to neighbouring town of Comparison, and paid a heavy price. But it’s worth it, to always strive for something better. Then you will be truly amazed.
LJC Beachcomber’s Crate Watch
Popsike Top 20 – Cornbread original peaks at $350, which surprised me. A lot of copies in shrink, which was common practice in the Liberty era. Almost entirely mono in the higher price range. Not “rare” – Popsike lists over 800 auctions, depending on how you write the query. Later editions include United Artists Blue Label, and modern vinyl.
Holy Harry Houdini, looks like Billy Higgins managed to sign the front cover under the shrink. An autograph forgery would Most Like Lee be Morgan, so our man Higgins is probably the real deal.
This caught my eye: a promo stamped audition copy, with the final 27 Years picture sleeve virtually exclusive to Liberty releases. Sold for $136, described as
” ’65 Blue Note ” with all the sales sizzle “New York”, Van Gelder…
Finally, this copy was described as  “rare” and with “43 W 61,  DG”.  Which would make it very rare, if it were true, which it isn’t. Still, netted $75. Many times I have seen the cover address quoted as though it was the label address, to catch the unwary. DG stopped years earlier, pure bs.  Caveat Emptor.
Stereo copies are found more commonly in the lower price range. I guessthe stereo would make an interesting comparison, but I am fresh out of enthusiasm for another copy. The TP will do me fine., rest of the crate, none too interesting. Over and out.
Whoa, Update May 23: Harry M has the picture, Larry Ridley, bass, 1969:
Ruby Braff & Larry Ridley Jazz Expo 1969 (14a)[8662] 1920px LJC

Ruby Braff and Larry Ridley, Jazz Expo 1969 – Photocredit, Harry M

LJC

 

7 thoughts on “Lee Morgan: Cornbread (1965) Blue Note (Tone Poet 2019)

  1. Just checked my collection…I have a Liberty VanGelder MONO copy also. I will have to find a stereo copy or settle for a TP. I have done a few comparisons, and the TP stereo pressings generally sound great. Amazing ? No and they also sound different than vintage BN pressings. I find that TP pressings may have slightly better clarity at frequency extremes, but with a wider stereo spread. BN pressings have (to my ears at least) greater cohesion and better sense air and space around the musicians.

    • Cornbread is not a valuable title. I can find a clean stereo copy for mid-upper 2 figures. In most cases a clean original BN title is many x the cost of a TP pressing. Not in this case, and certainly this information may influence what may be considered the better overall value. Another data point would be a Japanese pressing, but unless King or LNJ series, these tend to be a step behind premium US reissues. A true collectors dilemma that would cause most (non collectors) to roll their eyes.

  2. SNAP !!! Mine is a mono with fire in the belly and a 27years inner sleeve. This is great album and very overlooked in my opinion.

  3. Nice thoughtful posting with themes that resonate: the value of getting as close to the source as possible and the effect of comparison. I (only) have a stereo Liberty original pressing of Cornbread. One might argue that this is closest to the source given that the mono was probably a fold-down. Either way, I don’t have the opportunity to compare it with any other variants on my system. Luckily, I think my copy sounds terrific (my turn to snigger ironically). My recollection of searching for this record was that the vinyl was more readily available in nice condition than the cover. For some reason this red cover seems to attract an awful lot of ringwear.

    Moving on, I am a big advocate of the Tone Poet series – perhaps a little oddly since I only own one at present: Joe Henderson – State Of The Tenor, Volume 2. And that was originally recorded to a digital master! Still, I do have my eye on some of the others, particularly the upcoming Bobby Hurcherson – Oblique.

  4. I have compared the Tone Poet with my Liberty Stereo White b 1975 M- pressing with Van Gelder in deadwax. It’s not bad at all but the Tone Poet sounds a bit better IMO. TP has better bass meaning that it is deeper and more articulate. Easier to separate the notes. Lees trumpet has more grease and shine to it – whatever that means, but I guess if you compare with the graphic worls would be more “saturated”. The dynamics are about the same but the Liberty is maybe a touch hotter and the midrange is a bit more prominent – giving the presentation a harder and “tougher” sound that might engage some listeners. Higgins cympal playing shines without sounding harsch or treble lifted. Good work Kevin Gray!

  5. I have the stereo Liberty pressing (I don’t have the ToPo version but I do own other ToPo’s which I appreciate the sound of) and it sounds exactly as you described how originals sound: “freshness, clarity, authority, and immediacy”…..

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