Last Updated November 2019
Interest in American modern jazz has flourished in Japan, which is home to avid collectors of vintage pressings, especially Blue Note. Much original vinyl is found in Tokyo’s record stores and online sellers, such as Tokyo’s Disk Union, seen below, their wall of Blue Note and Prestige originals.
Disk Union maintain a team of specialist buyers who regularly trawl US and European premium jazz records auctions on Ebay. Some observers have suggested that as much as three quarters of US collectable jazz records today is located in Japan.
Back in the 1970s, when America’s interest in modern jazz was waning, there remained continued enthusiasm in Japan. Over the following decades, much of the Blue Note catalogue would be reissued in Japan, through licensing agreements with local record manufacturers and distributors.Between 1966 and 1977, Blue Note titles were re-issued by EMI-Toshiba. Between 1977-83, titles were reissued by King Records. Finally, after 1983, EMI/Capitol moved licensing back to their own subsidiary in Japan, Toshiba-EMI , which relationship continues to this day.
Many of these Japanese reissues, themselves thirty to fifty years old, flowed to American and European collectors, to whom they offer a reasonable quality affordable vinyl of otherwise unaffordable and rare titles (and some material released only in Japan). Original trophy titles, however, often flowed in the opposite direction.
Though famed for their engineering quality, Japanese reissues are often sonically more restrained, lacking the punch of Blue Note originals. Often titles were released only in stereo, in some cases from copies of Van Gelder’s two track tapes which were intended for assembling mono. King faithfully reissued some titles in mono as intended. Thankfully no “fake stereo” was created through electronic reprocessing.
From the mid ’80s, to the present day, Toshiba vinyl reissues are not of the same quality as earlier vintage Toshiba, especially as the emphasis moved to production of CD and digital formats. Japanese collectors in recent decades would seem to have a preference for vintage original US Blue Note pressings.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of Japanese Blue Note reissues is the care which Japanese owners took of their records: home hi-fi with light tracking weight cartridges rather than original ’50s-60s radiograms with their heavy weight tone arms and worn stylus, unstable portable record players, and careless handling.
JAPANESE REISSUE LABELS
1. Toshiba-EMI (1966-77) LNJ and NR series
a. White label promo
Note – at foot of jacket – trademarks under authorisation of United Artists
In 1976-7 the Blue Note and Liberty trademarks belonged to United Artists, who licensed Toshiba-EMI to use them in Japan. These mid-’70s EMI-Toshiba pressings, the LNJ and NR series, should not be confused with the later Toshiba reissues from 1983 onwards, which date from the time when Blue Note came under the ownership of EMI/Capitol.
1b. Commercial release label (1966-77) NR 8000 series
“TOSHIBA MUSICAL INDUSTRIES LTD.” (later Toshiba-EMI Ltd. reason unknown)
1c. LNJ 8000 series
Instead of adopting a facsimile of the original Blue Note edition label (as did King and later Toshiba), the early EMI-Toshiba series used an anachronistic ” A DIVISION OF LIBERTY RECORDS, INC.” text where the Blue Note address would normally be.
The reissue transfer quality is outstanding on the few I have.
c:) LNJ 7000 series
An example below of United Artists using Toshiba-EMI as a vehicle to release other United Artists-owned recordings in Japan, on Blue Note labels – in this case Art Pepper’s Modern Art.
This Pepper recording was made originally in Hollywood in 1953 for the Intro label, one of a suite of jazz sub-labels owned by the Meisner brothers Aladdin records. The Meisners sold Aladdin to Imperial Records around 1961. Imperial was bought by Liberty Records in 1964, who two years later went on to buy Blue Note Records. In 1968 Liberty Records (including its Blue Note and Imperial catalogue) was acquired by a financial conglomerate, Transamerica, who also owned United Artists Records. In the early ’70s, Transamerica consolidated all their record companies holdings under United Artists leadership. So Art’s Intro recording was published in Japan by EMI-Toshiba under United Artists license using UA-owned Blue Note and Liberty trademarks. Simples!
2. Blue Note reissues by King Records, Tokyo, Japan (1977-83)
In 1977 the financially pressured United Artists Music and Record Group moved its Japanese licensing progamme from EMI-Toshiba to King Records. This included the reissue not only of Blue Note recordings, but also other material that had come into possession of United Artists, such as Transition, Jazz West, Pacific Jazz and Contemporary.
Tokyo dealers who specialise in selling Japanese Blue Note pressings say King are becoming particularly hard to find, originating from a dwindling numbers Japanese collections. They sell inexpensive Japanese reissues to US and European collectors, while in the opposite direction Japanese collectors fight over fiercely expensive US originals.
Further reference: http://microgroove.jp/bluenote-jpn/
King Records issued around 400 Blue Note recordings up to BLP 4363 in the six years to 1983, a quarter in mono and the remaining three quarters in stereo only, few if any in a choice of format. King selectively also released some previously unpublished material in its “First World Appearance” and “Unissued Masters” series, (some of which eventually appeared in US/Europe in the rather anaemic Blue Note LT series).
The reissue programme consisted of a series of thematic releases in addition to various catalogue selections and special celebratory releases, such as the ” Special Replica 15 ” series.
For a number of Blue Note artists – those whose records are both extremely rare and expensive, like Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark and Lee Morgan, – the cash-strapped vintage vinyl lover should look to King as the preferred alternative, alongside early Liberty reissues and 70s Toshiba-EMI, though which of the three offers the most satisfying audio presentation can vary from title to title. Realisically, Japanese pressings are not collectable in the same way as original Blue Note: collector lust demands that such things be all-but unobtainable.
Each King series had its own distinctive obi (“sash”) probably more informative to the Japanese-speaker, however many obis were lost or discarded over the passage of time.
King Blue Note Series
|1977 “Immortal Masterpiece Selection” Series|
|1977-1980 ” Blue Note Masterpiece Selection 150 ” Series|
|1978 “Unissued Masters” Series|
|1979 “Jazz Guitar Album” Series|
|1979 “Jazz Piano Trio Masterpiece Collection”|
|1979-1980 “World First Appearance” Series|
|1980-1981 “Unissued Masters Series Part 1”,|
|1980-1981 “Unissued Masters Series, Part 2|
|1981 “Blue Note Collectors’ Item” Series|
|1982 “Blue Note Special”|
|1983 “Blue Note Masterpiece Vol.1, 2, 3 and 4|
|1983 ” Blue Note Masterpiece Special Replica 15 ” Series|
|Miscellaneous King Special Issues|
The final series of reissues released in 1983, well into the period of EMI ownership, was King’s “Blue Note Masterpiece series” (not to be confused with the earlier 150 titles called “Masterpiece 150 “), consisting of around seventy five titles, with fifteen singled out for the Special Replica 15 series, the crème of the Blue Note catalogue given replica vintage packaging – and a 30% price premium.
2. King Records, GXF and GXK series
2.1 Factory Sample Test Pressing
“Factory Sample” is what the three Japanese letter stamp means, I am reliably informed. Japanese is like a foreign language to me. I can see the first letter is a drawing of a factory, with a long approach road leading up to it where the top executives can park their company cars. The middle character represents a set of scales weighted to one side, indicating weighing and critically judging differences. The last character seems to represent a batch production run of boxed products. There, you didn’t know I could read Japanese did you, or it illustrates the fearsome but fallacious power of post-hoc reasoning.
King Record Co., classic cream/blue label , test pressing stamp, P 1977, one of the first King reissues starting with the earliest 12″ 1500 series BLP 1501.
King Test Pressing 2 – conventional “promo” white label, date unknown
Speed with r.p.m., no royalty collection logo (Jaspac) or © copyright/manufacture date, presumed early
King Test Pressing 3
P 1981, JASRAC royalty collection agency logo, speed 33 1/3.
Available from Ebay sellers in Japan priced mostly between $50 and $100, the white label are thought to be more desirable because of the probability of being among the first pressings off the stampers in production, though with reissues, this is a less important than with originals.
King pressings are rarely disappointing, and carry a slight collector price premium over the later 1980’s Toshiba-EMI pressings.Claimed by some enthusiasts to be the best pressings originating from Japan, and preferred to United Artists own US reissues.I should emphasise I don’t consider any of them the equal of either original pre-1966 Blue Note or the first wave of Liberty/NY Blue Notes.
It has been said these pressings were made from masters created by a Japanese engineer flown to the US and given access to the Blue Note vaults and original tapes. It is more likely that Japan was sent copy tapes, as was custom and practice in all other branches of the music industry. Truth is lost in the mists of time.
2.2 King Records, mono 47 West 63rd facsimile label (1977)
2.3 King Records stereo 47 West 63rd facsimile label (1980)
2.4 King Special Masterpiece Replica 15 Series
In 1983, as part of their swan-song Masterpiece series, King released a special limited edition of 15 of Blue Note’s most desirable titles. Though a number of series called “Masterpiece” were issued, Masterpiece Replica 15 stands out. They claim to be perfect replicas: no Japanese markings, pressed on ultra heavy vinyl, with the suggestion they “match of original Blue Note sonically”
The replica exhibits all the usual King pressing plant symbols. It looks like a standard production run, albeit on thicker vinyl, which has no effect on the sound. I would hazard nothing has been done with the sound except a generous sprinkling of marketing hype (like King could say to the engineers: Hey guys, special job, make this one sound better than usual, you know, “like the original”. If only). As with all King pressings, the audio quality is very good but falls short of the original pressing, which I eventually added to my collection, though nice to have both feisty mono and silky stereo.
The King Replica (left) original (right) – missed opportunity – no ear. Also not uncommon, lack of colour fidelity, overplaying yellow to create a cream tint results in blue tilted towards green.
Example of title found only in Japanese editions.
Perhaps this is something more of us would like to play – if we knew where to get it. Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Grant Green feature heavily on the agenda of Japanese jazz enthusiasts. It’s enough to make you want to move to Japan. Note catalogue number 83023 is pure local invention.
2.5. King facsimile UAMRG blue label
A dozen or so Blue Note titles were reissued with facsimile United Artists Blue label/white b, no irony intended, as the blue label is not considered collectable today.
Note addition of not one but two guitarists to the ensemble. Musical jazz fusion waves.
3. Toshiba-EMI years, later series, 1983 to present day.
A change of Blue Note ownership back in the US in around 1980, change of licensee in Japan in 1983. Out goes King, in comes captive subsidiary Toshiba-EMI.
For new owners of Blue Note catalogue in 1980, EMI-owned Capitol Records saw Japan was a still vibrant jazz market for Blue Note, and its Japanese subsidiary, Toshiba-EMI embarked on a reissue programme to match that of King Records a decade earlier.
Though sometimes not as dynamic as pressings by King, later Toshiba EMI series pressings are often preferable to later US and French reissues, though neither stand up well against original Blue Note. Lowering the record arm, their silent vinyl can itself be a pleasure after listening to hours of clicks and pops on well-used American vinyl.
Modern Toshiba (manufactured after 1994/5) are not the “legendary quality” of the pressings of its early years.
The ’70s, early-80s through to the early-90s pressings are generally very high quality, with just a few duds, possibly due to a poor copy source. From the mid-90s however, solid-state equipment and digital production methods took their toll.
Van Gelder was brought in to remaster recordings for CD (not for vinyl!) By the opening years of the following decade industry cynicism plumbed new depths, with examples of CD files copied onto vinyl, resulting in sonically empty pressings.
Much of the Blue Note catalogue went on to be released a second or third time in Japan, and it is always advisable to check the year of manufacture of any particular issue. Earlier editions are generally preferable to later ones.
The word “audiophile” should be treated with great scepticism. Such things do actually exist, though manufactured primarily for the domestic US market,
4. Japanese modern replicas
Ateliers Sawano, Tokyo, lead a wave of hyper-authentic replicas, complete with heavy cardboard sleeves, artwork printed with antique presses, even manufactured with Deep Groove, and I am told, a Plastylite cursive “P”.
Claims are made that the records are mastered from the original tapes, though that is true of every record. One Sawano I bought I sent back as the quality was shocking. Not from original tapes (lost or destroyed) it had been cloned from old vinyl with some electronic trickery to remove the surface defects.
To my mind a copy is still a copy, however good a copy, it is not the real deal. However if you want Mobley 1568 or some Cool Struttin’ you might feel the compromise is worth considering.
Love the 47 West 63rd address and no INC or R, but oh that deep groove looks like its been cut into the vinyl instead of pressed, with the result the label has been pierced and torn by the sharp edge of the groove.
Not ones to give up, the Sawano brothers now produce replicas which claim to have been from the original master tapes. How they came to have access to them remains unclear, and a cynic might remark that every issue or reissue is derived from the original master tapes, just not mastered directly from the original tapes.
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