George Russell: Stratus phunk (1960) US Riverside

Selection: Stratus phunk

.  .  .

Artists

Alan Kiger, trumpet; Dave Baker, trombone; Dave Young, tenor sax; George Russell, piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Joe Hunt, drums; recorded at Plaza Sound Studios, New York, October 18, 1960 recording engineer Ray Fowler, cover design Ken Deardoff.

Between 1960 and 1962, George Russell formed a sextet around his piano with five of his students at the Lenox School of Jazz, Massachusetts. The Sextet  yielded the six albums below, two for Decca and four for Riverside.

His students were musicians in the making, and those taught at Lennox included Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley, underlining Russell’s  influence over the shape of jazz to come.

A drummer turned pianist, turned band-leader, composer and arranger, turned educator, turned music theorist, Russell was instrumental in narrowing the gap between free-blowing jazz and written chamber jazz. He helped lay the foundations for the modal revolution and post-bop, which liberated musicians from the straight-jacket of Broadway show-tunes and the iron grip of chord progressions, though thankfully not everyone wanted liberating. There was still plenty of mileage left in those older forms, with their blues and soul foundations, snappy boogaloo beats and Latin influences.

In Russell’s  2009 obituary  John Fordham puts his finger on Russell’s distinctive qualities: “ a pianist whose chord voicings still sound strikingly fresh, he had a way of accenting,  like Thelonious Monk, that was totally unpredictable“. Russell’s  balancing act was always to manage the discipline of composed structure, group-managed improvisation and individual expression.

LJC says: sometimes Russell works brilliantly, some times he’s just hard work. 

Music

The title calls the shots: stratus, a cloud at an intermediate altitude of 2 to 3 miles height, sets the cerebral stage;  phunk, funk, but not quite as you know it: layered  rhythmic construction, outer-galactic vibes, twisted bop memes, and somewhere briefly, a melody.

Vinyl: RLP 341 deep groove US Riverside mono.

In the early days, Riverside titles were pressed at Abbey Mfg. NJ. and Research Craft LA. However, presumably under pressure to cut costs, third party pressings began to appear, including oddities like Keel, Hauppage, and unidentified plants. Major independents liked to advertise their presence in the runout (Bestway, Presswell, PRC, Pitman), but not this one –  no distinguishing marks, no stamps, no engineer initials, nothing but a pin-etched catalogue number. 

A familiar Scully lathe pre-set runout groove, as seen  on many Van Gelder cuts.

Collector’s Corner

Time to own up:  the cover images for this post were Photo-shopped. The actual condition of the cover when purchased was as below.  Delighted to find an affordable US original pressing here in the UK. I have always said I don’t care about cover imperfections, it is the vinyl that matters. Mind you, it is pretty horrid.

VINYL SUPPLEMENT

Pressing Matters: Vinyl Detectives On The Loose

Interdisc

The Interdisc company was set up in 1959 by Californian record distribution specialist Jack Lewerke, to provide European distribution for US labels that didn’t have the necessary licensing agreements. Those labels included Riverside, Contemporary and Fantasy, though not Blue Note.

Interdisc opened offices in Lugano, Switzerland, a perfect location on the southern shore of Lake Garda, home of splendid Verdicchio  white wines (Trebbiano di Lugana), and an office in  London under General Manager Alan Bates (who later founded the Black Lion record label.)

Interdisc organised licensing, vinyl pressing, label and cover print, and commercial distribution. This included the first European release of  Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and Cannonball Adderley Riverside titles, for many, an affordable alternative to imported US records.

In the UK, France and Holland, pictured, records were manufactured for Interdisc by a local pressing plants, and for the rest of Europe,  in Italy (see Postscript)

Interdisc was active between 1959 and 1963, when it closed down, and within a few years, Riverside itself closed, many of its artists moving to major labels with their own distribution networks. The distribution niche for Interdisc came to an end, but left us with a treasure trove of vinyl from this golden era.

Interdisc editions are the most common copies in circulation in Europe. With a few exceptions they used the same artwork and liner notes as the US release, and are  identifed by the small footer on the back cover, shown below. UK Interdisc editions were pressed initially by Decca, then later by Philips, an important  distinction to return to.

LJC reader Ankur from California noticed certain similarities between UK  Riverside Interdisc pressings and US Riverside pressings. Whilst a number of my UK Riverside Interdisc  pressings have a Decca matrix , a number have hand etched catalogue numbers, bottom left, similar to the US Riverside pressing of Stratusphunk. Until now I thought these were merely anonymous thirty party UK pressing, but I thought wrong. 

These are both UK Interdisc Decca pressings, the same large pudding-basin pressing die of the time. The record on the right has the characteristic Decca machine drilled matrix, numbering convention A-2/ B-1. On the left,  what can only be an impression from US original Riverside metal.. 

Before jumping to conclusions, the only Olympic sport at which I excel, another UK Riverside Interdisc was pulled off the shelf, RLP 12-311 Adderley in San Francisco. Ankur matched up these two Riverside editions, a dead ringer.

It revealed the same US pattern in the run-out, a pin-etched catalogue number, in the same hand as the US metal. In each case, R L P is written with a small letter L. More Riverside records down from the shelf, mostly Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley titles,  revealed more with a US metal source. It seems Decca used original US metal for a good number of Interdisc pressings. A revelation.

Ankur also spotted an etched code, E|T or E/T,  which I conclude is a UK Purchase Tax code. UK Purchase Tax codes consisted of two letters, one letter code, forward slash, T for Tax. The first letter code changed each time the rate of tax on records changed. These codes were usually stamped around the spindle hole or printed somewhere on the label, though some are not found anywhere

Record manufacturers kept track of the tax rate at the point of manufacture by stamping the record with a code, which helpfully dates the approximate year of manufacture. Only faintly visible in room light: UK Purchase tax code “E/T” which  applied from Apr 8th 1959 until Aug 1st 1960, the time this record was manufactured.

At around the same time as pressing for Interdisc, Decca was being supplied with US metal by Abbey Mfg. to press Prestige recordings for the UK label Esquire. The Decca / Esquire/ Prestige connection is easily identifiable because RVG and Abbey Mfg. hallmarks appear on Esquire pressings. These are effectively Prestige “originals” without the price tag.

US Riverside metal source remains unknown to me. US pressing plants mostly have their own identifiers. (pitch Michael Caine voice) Somebody must bloody know something. The random selection of Riverside Interdisc Decca pressings pulled from Discogs includes some with original US metal, spotted by incidental reflections in the runout. No one remarked on it, looks like it is our secret.

In 1961, Interdisc moved manufacture from UK Decca to the multi-national Philips, who pressed these at their plant in New Malden, London or Baarn, Holland.   Audiophile notice:  without access to the original master tape, no original metal,  Philips remastered from copy tape. It was standard industry practice, who would have imagined that sixty years later some “nosey old record collector with a fancy hi-fi” would call them out. You are supposed to take what you are given, The Industry knows best.

Pressing Matters: Original US Master vs Local Re-mastering  

It is widely recognised that mastering from copy tape drops quality, at least one generation from the original tape, possibly more if the copy is itself taken from another copy, if not multi-generation copies. The quality of the tape source matters, but it is not the whole story, nor even the main story, but often presented as such. 

This is rarely spoken about, just the province of lathe-trolls. Only the original US  metal preserves the cutting decisions made on the original release. This includes the cutting engineer’s decisions on groove width and depth, which have an important impact on signal dynamics and volume, as well as obviously playing time. The  wider the vinyl groove width, and depth of cut, the more bass and volume (gain) can be accommodated, but the shorter the playing time, and the closer the grooves approach the record centre, where information density per revolution decreases and distortion increases. 

This topic has been been  explored  at LJC regarding modern audiophile reissues, and those anodyne vintage Japanese reissues, but discovering the use of original US metal for some Riverside European pressings, a close inspection of 1960’s Riverside Interdisc editions showed this issue has a longer history than I had thought.

I happened to have two copies of a Bill Evans Quintet recording, Interplay (1962, quintet featuring Freddie Hubbard and Jim Hall), one US original, below left, the other an Interdisc copy remastered in Holland by Philips, below, right. (One of the few titles where Interdisc has a different cover, stealing Bill’s picture  from Portrait in Jazz, arguably more effective than Ken Deardoff’s off-topic abstraction)

Posting on these copies back in 2012, with rips, a reader noted that the Philips issue was “quieter.” Armed with new knowledge, it is not difficult to see why: 

Same recording, same length of playing time, pictured at the exact same scale, significantly different  size groove-area and “deadwax”.. It is not just about which tape was closest to the source, it is also about what the cutting engineer did with the tape. Philips engineers chose narrower more tightly spaced grooves, possibly cut more shallow, resulting in a quieter and less visceral pressing than the US original.

The original recording engineer of “Interplay” was Tom Nola, recording at Nola Penthouse Studio, NY. The US original grooves run virtually up to the centre label, leaving the briefest runout spiral groove. It is cut hot. Other US originals are similarly cut. Dutch Philips usually have a large run-out, as a result of narrow cut grooves..

According to engineer Glen Kolotkin (quoted on  Hoffman Forum): “Went to a 2-track studio, Nola Penthouse Studio, in the Steinway Building, where we were doing big jazz sessions. Tom Nola used to record all these jazz players…  We’d record the band, then we’d master it there; they had Scully lathes in the back“.

The lead-out spiral on the US pressing is indeed a Scully pre-set, as seen on many Van Gelder masters. Possibly mastered and lacquer cut at Nola Studio, after track selection, edit splices and all that business stuff, not after immediately after recording. Close, but  who is the “we”? Perhaps Nola himself..

There are just a few remaining clues who mastered this hot Riverside,  a mysterious circled M after the matrix code, not obviously related to the name Tom Nola. 

And in the runout elsewhere another even more faintly scratched clue, the letters M M, possibly reversed (different metal stage),  The circled M after the catalogue number has an emphatic first ascender, similar to the M M etching if reversed. 

Discogs exhaustive and exhausting 30 page guide to common etchings lists many variants of  “M”. and every other letter, but none which matches this case.

Here the trail goes cold.

The final stage of vinyl production is pressing. This US copy of Interplay (there may be more pressings at other plants) has a serrated edge, thought to be the pressing signature of Keel Mfg. Corp., Hauppage, NY.  Possibly useful knowledge at some future date, but not particularly useful right now.

My thanks to Ankur of California for this interesting trip down a previously undiscovered rabbit hole, another advance for knowledge, and an opportunity to dust off my macro lens lens.

I am sure there are still a few twists and turns as yet unexplored, for another day, but with vinyl, guys, every day is an adventure

Postscript

LJC reader Dino sent me an unusual Riverside label a while back, The jacket bore the attribution “INTERDISK” but printed in England . Dino being of Italian origin, I guess, could this be the Italian Interdisc, pressed for the rest of Europe? 

The term “Monophonic” is an anomaly, never used at this time. It looks like the Rights Agency under the SIDE number has been obliterated. Perhaps the Riverside label design was copied photographically from an old label (no INC.), for local printing, and unintentionally scooped up an inappropriate rights agency name, which it blocked out. It’s a puzzle.

Any sighting of Italian Interdisc? Any Riverside/ Interdisc pressing info to add? The floor is yours. 

LJC

Rudolf adds sighting of a Contemporary Interdisc title; “not licensed for sale in USA.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “George Russell: Stratus phunk (1960) US Riverside

  1. Your copy is an Abbey pressing–it has the distinctive “wide” DG and the small pressing ring around the spindle hole on side 2.

  2. Thanks for the explanation about Interdisc — I have always wondered what the story was. But did Interdisc really cease operations in 1963? If so, I am surprised because I have lots of them and it never struck me that they were by definition pre-1963 or at latest 1963 pressings — I had always assumed that Interdisc lasted into the 70s. Not that I have ever tried to check because I think Interdisc pressings are undated — or perhaps I simply haven’t looked properly…

  3. Thank you for unveiling who was behind Interdisc S.A. When they were in business I figured out that it could be some sort of joint venture between Riverside and Phonogram in Baarn. I was wrong. In the early sixties U.S. Contemporary albums would be sold in Holland with a stamp on the rear. Will send a picture separately.

  4. A couple of interesting clips on you tube from the 1958 TV show “The subject of jazz” Russell is interviewed about the Lydian scale in one clip and the other ( under Bill Evans name ???) is from the same show with the band playing Stratusphunk featuring Evans, Farmer, Cleveland ,McKusick
    Galbraith etc . Worth checking out.

  5. Are you sure narrower, more tightly spaced grooves would result in a quieter pressing? I have often observed the contrary: Narrower grooves means you have to turn up the volume, making surface noise more audible. Example: Miles Davis “My Funny Valentine” (Columbia) – narrow groove, 63 (!) minutes playing time. Predictably, my own copy, bought new back in the days, turned out to be rather noisy.

    • Listening test A:B with Interplay yesterday with a friend confirms, narrow groove/large runout Dutch press is around 15% more quiet than the same recording US cut hot.

      I get the same result when watching the histogram during a rip of the Dutch press in Audacity. You have to turn up the gain by around 15% to stretch the histogram to touch the upper and lower bounds compared to the hot cut. The noise floor seen from the lead-in visibly increases – the signal-to-noise ratio is more convergent.

      When you increase the playback volume of the more quiet pressing to match the louder pressing, they do not become sonically equivalent. The more quiet pressing oddly has better top and bottom-end presentation, but lacking in the mid-band, resulting in a lack of tonal-range integration and punch compared to the more hot cut. When you restore the volume, other consequences are unmasked, unfavourably.

      To be clear, I’m not making a generalisation about “long albums” being loud or quiet – I don’t have any basis for comparison in these cases.

      Listening is subjective and there are many confounding factors like the system, so I am not being dogmatic, just suggesting where it might be worth exploring, people draw their own conclusions.

      • On second thought, you may be right. On a hot cut, the needle has to cover a much longer distance than on a low-amplitude cut. Thus, it will also be travelling much faster in absolute terms, picking up more noise. Amazing …

        However, the noise produced by damage will most probably be amplified disproportionately when the grooves are narrow.

      • I think American pressings are a bit louder for a couple of reasons. Agreeing with the wider groove, the first is because they are generally made for cheaper playback systems, as the majority of record buyers back then had in the States. The simple trick was to boost the midrange. Most labels did not want records being returned when they skipped on their very cheap stylus. Secondly, the equalisation is different. Note all the settings on a Graham Slee pre amp and the like, where the varied readings are reverse engineered as pre-sets. As a classical seller, the UK Mercury’s are less popular as EMI pressings because the tape to lathe cut is more restrained.

  6. Re: “Stratusphunk,” I previously wrote: “An album that rewards focused and repeated listening is Gil Evans’ 1960 Impulse album OUT OF THE COOL. Fronting a 14-man band, Evans, on piano, leads them through an exceptionally interesting and varied program – two tunes written by himself – “Le Nevada” and “Sunken Treasure” – George Russell’s famous “Stratusphunk” – John Benson Brook’s very lovely “Where Flamingos Fly” and Weill/Brecht’s “Bilbao Song.” For me, the long “Le Nevada” is the outstanding track – the epitome of cool…..Listening to Evans’ interpretation of “Stratusphunk,” I pull out George Russell’s album of the same name, which I have as the original 1961 Riverside release. This great album was once on my most frequently played list, and I look forward to hearing it again after many years. In addition to the title track, it has an interesting set of tunes, including “Bent Eagle,” an early composition by Carla Bley.”

    Update: Inspired by your post, I once again, “pulled out” my copy of Russell’s STRATUS PHUNK and examined it more closely. First, a trivial point – though it appears to be written as two words on the front cover, on the back cover, the spine and on the record labels, both the title of the album, and the song itself, are written as one word, Stratusphunk. Is mine an original pressing, as I blithely assumed? It appears exactly as shown in your excellent post, deep-grooved and all. Delving through the canyons of my mind, sans the flowers in my hair, I recall that this was purchased for a song as a “cut out” and, since I have been the sole care-taker of this relic, the record is in pristine condition, although the jacket now has a yellowish tinge and, having weathered several changes of abode through the decades, is splitting at the top – it seems these Riverside covers had not the heft of similarly vintaged Blue Notes, Atlantics or Impulses – and the paper sleeve – a translucent, onion-skin affair – is sadly in a late state of disintegration – it is after all, in its seventh decade, isn’t it?

  7. Intruiging! You didn’t happen to purchase this from Discogs did you? The tearing on the cover looks strikingly similar to a copy which I seriously considered purchasing myself before finally deciding against it. If so, you’re welcome, and I am pleased to have played a minor role in indirectly helping you pick up another great Jazz LP. For me, Russell is the man, this one is not to be sniffed at, though in my (outer) view, the Stratus Seekers is the apex.

    Dave

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