Alice Coltrane: Ptah, The El Daoud (1970) Impulse (original)

Sadly, the cover above is Photoshopped back to its original state. It’s actual state is a sorry one – remaindered cut corners, prominent water damage at the bottom edge, traces of Sellotape edging, and a complete split seam. Such is the collector’s lot. But I can pretend.. the vinyl is an original 1970 US Impulse in very good if not not perfect condition, and as luck would have it, vinyl is waterproof! 

Selection 1: Turiya & Ramakrishna (8:19)

.  .  .

Selection 2: Mantra (16:33)

.  .  .

Tracklist

A1 Ptah, The El Daoud 13:58
A2 Turiya & Ramakrishna 8:19
B1 Blue Nile 6:58
B2 Mantra 16:33

Artists

Joe Henderson, tenor sax, alto flute; Pharoah Sanders, tenor sax, alto flute, bells; Alice Coltrane, piano, harp; Ron Carter, bass; Ben Riley, drums; Chuck Stewart, photographer, occasional bells; recorded in the basement  studio of Coltrane’s house at 247 Candlewood Path, Dix Hills, Long Island, New York, January 26, 1970, engineer, W. L.  Barneke; produced by Ed Michel; cover art, Jim Evans.

Music

This album is musically fabulous, abrasive post-bop spiritual-lite.  Alice’s harp makes just a few contributions, and she is mostly in piano mode. Henderson, Sanders, Carter and Riley bring their own chemistry, each arriving from different directions, no-one looking to take on the John Coltrane role.

Henderson jumps straight in, very free running, his characteristic twist and turn phrases. experimenting further with lengthy harmonics. Pharoah is more measured, making his own stand, (and thankfully there’s no yodelling). Alice’s piano is percussive, lots of crashing chords, repeating arpeggios with little harmonic progression. Carter, shaped by years with Miles, and Riley by years with Monk, together provide a sympathetic foundation for the frontline theatrics.

The stereo engineering is strong, all the instruments have their own space in the room. Henderson owns the left speaker, Pharoah the right, while the piano bass and drums lurk between the two. The tonal range is broad, Carter’s bass has deep extension, “walking on air”, Riley’s  drums are articulate but soft-spoken, with just enough use of the cymbals to remind you the top-end frequencies are there, and not cut.

The room-acoustics may lack the spaciousness of Englewood Cliffs, it’s a basement studio, but this is no amateur home-taping session, the engineering is professional and microphones studio quality. Alice Coltrane pictured in The Studio (1967), bits of recording equipment, tape machine/s, a mixing desk,  and the walls and ceiling look acoustically baffled, not much else to go on.

 

W.L. Barneke  is credited a with ” Engineering”. Pictured here in1969 Audio magazine, hands on dials,  “ W.L. Barneke, Executive Engineer of Decca Records, New  York“,  linked with classical tape masters.

Barneke supposedy founded Soundtek Studios in New York, taking it over from MCA in 1972. Barneke’s name is linked to the studio but does not appear in any recording credits. Soundtek catered for a wide range of artists in country, rock, R&B and soul, no jazz to speak of, credits different recording engineers, none named Barneke.

The engineer most frequently credited with recording Alice, though among others, on her Impulse titles from 1968 to 1973 except Ptah, is Roy Musgnug. Yes, Musgnug, I checked the spelling, twice – you can’t be too careful with “Cecil Taylor” snooping around. Musgnug’s apparent absence on the Ptah recording credits is suspicious, as is the absence of W. L. Barneke’s name on any other recordings, and no known connection between Decca and Coltrane.  Something here doesn’t add up. “Engineering” could mean any of recording, mixing or mastering, technical production, metalware, not assumed to mean “recording engineer”. Too many loose ends.

Was Ed Michel smarting at the loss of Van Gelder, and shopping around for a replacement? By 1970 Van Gelder had parted company with Impulse, signing exclusively to producer Bob Thiele who had left ABC to set up his own label, Flying Dutchman, leaving producer Ed Michel with the responsibility of keeping Impulse! afloat, and finding a technical replacement for Rudy. 

Maybe I’ve overlooked it before, but “UNIVERSITY SERIES OF FINE RECORDINGS”? Universal Consciousness University?

Vinyl: Impulse AS-9196

This original pressing was an education. My previous under-£20 grey reissue, likely a digitised needle-drop, or mastered from some other digital source, sounded quite acceptable in isolation, captivated by the music itself. I dare say many other collectors have the same “180gm audiophile” experience, a sample of one, of great music. Those Hoffman posters and their “sounds great to me” tribute to “180gm audiophile” reissues.

There is something about the way the critical faculties work, in the absence of a reference point, a comparator. For the most part the ears accept what they hear, just want to enjoy the music. That is why the “180gm audiophile” schtick is so pervasive.

If you have an original, why buy a grey copy? If you buy a grey copy, it is because you can’t  afford an original. You may not have a very  revealing system.  Most of your records may also be  “180gm audiophile”. Each looks for pleasure in what they have, few if any have a reason to play them side by side.

But immediately the needle dropped on this Impulse pressing, Whoa!!! Suddenly I stepped into a new room, the Dix Hills Coltrane Studio, filled with Coltrane, Sanders and Henderson, a big open soundstage, lots of air and space around the instruments, the presence of the musicians in the room, and musical coherence, communication between those in the room..

The Grey reissue was muddy boomy, lost transients, which you recognise once you have an comparator.  It was a wake-up call. It is nothing to do with collector sentiment, the Impulse  black/red rim label is sonically miles apart from these grey reissues. I can’t speak for the black/neon logo label or green bullseye label  editions, as I haven’t heard them.

These were from the mid 70s, usually remastered, not from the original metal, and generally disappointing. 

Original Vinyl 1970, AS-9196 

 Released in October 1970; Impulse!/ABC single logo-box, without  ®  

An Impulse  jazz chart success, Ptah went through several re-pressings in the following years, indicated by the evolving Impulse label design and text.

 

 

 

 

The timing of the release of AS-9196, and the registration of the Impulse logo is a helpful signpost as to the date of manufacture. Recorded on January 26, 1970, but not released until October 1970, ten months later, the slightly later title AS-9199 was recorded in July 1970 and released in November 1970, among the first with the new two-box logo label with ® tags . The circumstances suggest the single box labels for AS-9196 were among the last printed with that design, somewhere around September 1970. That maybe the first pressing run by only a matter of months.

New Impulse leader Ed Michel may have been surprised by Alice Coltrane’s sales success. Within three months of release, February 1971, Ptah entered the Billboard Jazz Charts at No. 13. All the more remarkable, looking at the popular soul-jazz-blues competition – Isaac Hayes, Ramsay Lewis, Eddie Harris, electric Miles in ascendance, Bitches Brew 43 weeks in the Charts.

Time Capsule: 1971

Gatefold:

Back cover Photoshop restored (remove water damage and ring-wear)

Actual front and back cover:

The seam-split repair of the bottom edge is actually very easy: insert a LP-length card v-shaped flange, rounded corner, about 20mm each side inside the sleeve bottom, glued in place edge to edge with contact adhesive, three minute job, invisible from the outside, fully functional. The Photoshop image repair equally simple. Find the same cover picture in good condition, float it over your picture, and erase to merge just the good bits.

Impulse covers from 1970 almost all show heavy ring-wear, and not a few turn up in even worse condition.

Art Director’s Tea Break

Ptah is a  marvel of graphic design by Californian artist Jim Evans. Evans started out as an illustrator for West Coast underground comics and surf culture. His creative career spans five decades, everything from album covers, Hollywood film and rock posters, band logos, star silkscreen portraits, and more recently,  web design. His grounding in  underground comic art  shows through in his illustrations. He is an artist, he draws and paints, rather than mechanical graphic design.

And he puts those skills to work on Ptah the El Daoud. Evans cleverly gathers together many of the symbols of 3,000 year old ancient Egypt, arranging them into a unified design that is relevant to the spiritual element of the music,  and a wonderfully effective image.  To deconstruct it, have your Egyptology checklist to hand: 

Ptah Egyptology Primer

The scarab (dung beetle) with its serrated claws designed to dig and bury its eggs in dung, is a beautifully executed backcloth. On top of it are placed near comic-book style elements, such as the rising hooded cobra with lizard forked tongue, and a mummified Ptah going the full-Tutankhamun in 1400 BC Nemes striped designer head-gear. His collection of Essential Deity Power-tools includes a Was Sceptre with falcon’s head (matching pair), an Ankh fitted with Djeb stabilisers, a shepherd’s crook and flail to lead and feed his people, while the Sphinx guard the tomb. Its easy being a deity if you have to have the right gear.

The red ball, rolling sun, explains in simple 3,000 year old cosmology, what happens to the sun when it disappears at night, but returns, rolled back, the following day. What’s your best shot?  Give Ptah a break, it’s as good an explanation as any. It is not that long ago we thought the Earth was flat. 

The Egyptian lute, with its large individual wooden tuning pegs, is a wild card, not often referred to in Egyptology, but quite apposite with harpist Alice Coltrane in the driver’s seat. Jim Evans clearly  understood how to please commissioning Art Directors. 

The final piece of Evan’s jigsaw, mummified Ptah is depicted a cat with whiskers and paws, colour jade. Cats were apparently considered demi-gods in ancient Egypt, and I know of at least one that fits the bill, coincidentally, called Jade. Ptah ranked higher, but artistic license, it looks good, cool for cats.

Collector’s Corner

I had  given up on finding an original copy in decent condition here in the UK. The ubiquitous grey reissue was an “acceptable” substitute. Mine claimed to be “ABC/Dunhill”, but on an unofficial copy anyone can claim anything. Then a couple of weeks ago I walked into a new local record shop and in the jazz section, came face to face with Ptah: the original.

There have been no official vinyl reissues since 1974.  A CD edition was issued  by GRP Records in 1996 , digitally re-mastered,  so the tapes may have existed then (or a copy tape, or a digital transfer from a copy tape). A high rez CD was issued in Japan in 2004. In the absence of any modern official vinyl  releases, it is quite  likely the original tapes fell victim to the 2008 backlot fire, in which it is claimed over 100,000 original master tapes in the care of Universal Music Group (UMG) were destroyed, including many from the Impulse catalogue.

In the absence of official releases, Ptah The El Daoud is a regular item on the unofficial release schedule, and in recent years there have been at least three unofficial vinyl editions, variously falsely credited to ABC/Dunhill Records. Another batch is forthcoming from Russian bootlegger Audio Clarity, manufactured at GZ Media, Czech Republic:

Many widely sold unofficial editions, including jazz-specialist Doxy, are housed under the umbrella of Lilith Records, an address in Miklukho-Maklaya St., Moscow, Russian Federation. Record label names are not licensed. My grey copy of Ptah was attributed to “ABC/Dunhill Records” a name in legitimate use in the mid-70s that has a ring of plausibility about it, but the rights have belonged to UMG. for decades.

Searching for a long lost holy grail, Mike Westbrook 1970 album Love Songs, no original anywhere, but turns up – yes, found as a Russian bootleg, on the arbitrarily-named Endless Happiness label.

LJC Soapbox: There is something supremely ironic about the corporate holders of our musical heritage sitting comfortably on their superannuated  bottoms, or partying with their celebrity artists, while hungry and enterprising bootleggers from the former Soviet Union are manufacturing our musical heritage on vinyl, and selling it back to us in the West.

It’s as though somehow the polar opposite models of Capitalism and Communism have been mysteriously reversed. We have the Party bureaucrats, they have the risk-taking entrepreneurs. 

The problem is not that grey editions are unlicensed, that’s money for lawyers. I’m happy to chip in to the licensing cost, or to the artists estate. The problem is that the illegitimate digital counterfeit process destroys the original recording quality and artistry of our heritage, and that is a very high price to pay, and it doesn’t have to be like this. Capitalism has the answer, quality remastering from original tapes, but the industry  needs to pull its finger out.

London Jazz Collector’s Scene, Out and About

A recent stroll between Hackney and Shoreditch took me through Columbia Road, London E2, a weekend market street, which has no connection with Columbia Records, or so I thought, until I spotted this:

Idle Moments, a concept store that brings together vinyl records, vintage hifi, and wine, which apparently opened a year ago, I should get out more. There is a strong connection with Japanese pressings, shipped from Japan. They were closed as I was passing but I need to (needle) drop in next time. More on their story here.  They have a Discogs entry as Vinyl Delivery Service.

Wine, Records, and HiFi. Who would have thought to put those three together under one roof, my ideal one-stop shop, that’s what I call enterprising, I raise my glass to you.

LJC

16 thoughts on “Alice Coltrane: Ptah, The El Daoud (1970) Impulse (original)

  1. Thanks for all the information, and at least you have a cover! Mine has the second variant of the red rim label but no cover at all, and I can’t remember where/when I found it. I am surprised it was commercially successful given how hard it is to find an original copy.

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  2. Interestingly, the Egyptian mind associated the ball of dung pushed by the beetle with the sun moving across the sky. One of the solar myths actually has the beetle deity pushing the sun to the netherworld and back.

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  3. There is a bar in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live, that sells records. There are no prices. You take the records to the counter and the owner looks them up on Discogs. I decided to test what I already assumed would be true: he has no idea what he is doing.

    I took a DMM press of a Wayne Shorter LP and two copies of Bob James’ “One”, one NM and one… ruined, up front. He wanted $20 for either copy of Bob James, and $200 for the Wayne Shorter. I said no thanks and left.

    I hope your wine friends are more aware of ALL the aspects of their business!

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  4. Lets hear your thoughts on the 1996 CD Reissue, produced by Michael Cuscuna. It’s my understanding that this recording is the next best option to an original vinyl pressing, as Cuscuna (a true pro) would have used the best source material available, most likely a 1st/2nd Generation Analog Tape. Am I correct?

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    • I can’t really comment on a CD I haven’t heard, I don’t own a CD player as I listen only to vinyl. I gave up on CD several years ago as vinyl was a better experience. I have the greatest respect for Michael’s unparalleled knowledge and experience. Judging from Mosaic, and the variable audio quality. I think he doesn’t fully appreciate the vinyl thing, puts out too much material now on CD, which he assumes is more modern and therefore must be better; it’s a common enough mistake. But you may well be right that its a better alternative to these unofficial vinyl bootlegs,

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      • Re: “better alternative to these unofficial vinyl bootlegs”
        That’s the conclusion I came too, the 1996 Cuscuna produced CD -likely from an original analog tape (96′ =pre-fire), vs the CD to Vinyl bootlegs. Until I can find an affordable/decent 1970 copy -or someone finds an original analog tape and reissues it- the 96′ CD was the best option for me.

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  5. Lovely pressing, this one, and the engineering/recording stand up well to the test of time too. I’ve detected a gradual increase in Alice Coltrane’s records in recent years and that’s definitely been reflected in the prices. From memory, Ptah is to most expensive of her OGs to obtain. I hadn’t really thought much about that before but your observation that there hasn’t been a “proper” official reissue since 1974 goes a long way to explaining the market value.

    I have exactly the same pressing as you (though I’m lucky that my gatefold sleeve is well preserved). I checked my records when reading this posting and, yes, as I thought, I acquired Ptah as one of three Impulse spiritual jazz originals in one deal. The other two were Journey To Satchidananda and The Pharoah’s Jewels Of Thought. Not bad for a single transaction!

    Finally, I find it oddly entertaining that you picked the two extreme ends of the LP’s styles with your needle drops. The exquisitely beautiful and charming Turiya & Ramakrishna at one end of the scale and the er… somewhat more challenging Mantra and the other. Still, that does serve to demonstrate the breadth of Alice Coltrane’s approach.

    Oh, finally for real his time – just look at that 1971 Billboard chart – note a single Blue Note. How quickly things changed at the turn of the decade and in the aftermath of Bitches Brew!

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  6. Glad to see you cover this album. It’s a great one and one that I know is desperately in need to a modern reissue of quality. It’s too bad that it doesn’t seem likely as I’m afraid if it was, it would have happened by now. It would be nice to see this one pop up in the AP collection or reissues they’re doing, but it doesn’t seem to be in the works.This is one that would appeal to a cross of jazz fans, rock hipsters, and maybe even some of the “what albums do I need to own on vinylS?” contingency.

    I’m in the US and honestly, I have pretty good luck finding Impulse stuff. Yet this one has evaded me at a price closer to what I’m willing to pay. Is it worth the collector’s prices? Tough to say. It is a great album. But when the CD is acceptable and I can pick up say 3 other Impulse albums for the same price as one of these…

    And for a catty comment that I may regret later, yeah the Hoffmen are to be taken with a grain of salt, for sure. In my experience, too many of them listen with their eyes. If they see the right buzzwords on the packaging, if their waveforms look good, if it’s approved by the right forum members, it’s good. Granted, sound quality is subjective and there are some people there worth listening to. But many seem to be just opining to contribute to the conversation. (As an aside, it’s always fascinated me how many became jazz fans once audiophile approved pressings started popping up, especially those with the involvement of their “host”. You have to wonder if they’re listening to the music or the sound quality.)

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    • I think I’ve actually asked the question on SHF why all the new Jazz fans are only buying specified audiophile reissues when there is so much more out there, to be fair there are plenty on there with open minds who are expanding their horizons and I don’t want to put down or put off those who have only recently discovered Jazz, but for example the Decca and Wallen Bink threads get very little traction.

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      • Wallen Bink do lots of 7″ singles, seems an odd niche, certainly not one that appeals to me. I came across their Duke Pearson double just the other week, and auditioned it in the store. A mish-mash of artists, three tracks with vocals, Flora Purim and Andy Bey, ugh! I saw it was unreleased material, and I understood why, recordings for Liberty end of the 60s, not really “Blue Note” though the packaging was impressive, and licensed from Universal. They have the right idea but not the right material. Maybe they will get it right in future.

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        • The 7″s didn’t appeal to me either, but their latest three releases featuring Erich Kleinschuster recorded by Austria’s ORF with visiting Americans including Joe Henderson, Clifford Jordan, Art Farmer and Charles Tolliver are excellent, both musically and as properly done double vinyl LPs, for me they’ve got it right.

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  7. but how many times can you remaster from an original tape before you wear it out and how long will an original tape last before it disintegrates? Assuming it hasn’t been incinerated in a warehouse fire?

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    • Seems to me that the owners or someone should be investing in new technology to capture for posterity the analogue originals 100% faithfully. After all it was technology that created the original media and with further technological innovation it must be possible to create digital copies of your favourite RVG platters that are indistinguishable from the originals?

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      • Otherwise in a few centuries they’ll be restoring the music from fragments in much the same way as the Sistine Chapel gets an occasional workover. Who knows if if they’ve succeeded in recreating what Michelangelo daubed whilst lying on his back 500 years ago?

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        • High-res digital, either DSD or PCM is effectively transparent and indistinguishable from the analogue master tape, Sony have been converting their masters to DSD for a long time, I assume that the other majors have done similar with high-res PCM. Incidentally what can be achieved with needle-drops from original vinyl has come on in leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and is pretty amazing, although it will never beat using the master tape, I suspect few people could tell a state of the art needle-drop in isolation.

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