Elusive Disc, Blue Note, and the Resurrection of an Audiophile Treasure (TAS 203)

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Elusive Disc, Blue Note, and the Resurrection of an Audiophile Treasure (TAS 203)

The fact that life can be unfair is hardly headline news. As the world has witnessed time and again—from Mozart to Billie Holiday, Van Gogh to Orson Welles, and more recently with our own friends and neighbors—excellence doesn’t always lead to financial security.

And so it came to pass that sometime in 2005 JVC decided to shut down the American division of its highly regarded XRCD (Extended Resolution Compact Disc) label. While high-resolution formats, including DVD-A and SACD, have made their marks—the former essentially kaput, the latter still standing—XRCD, along with HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital), continues to represent the pinnacle of sonic achievement for Red Book (16-bit/44.1kHz) compact discs.

Enter dramatis persona number one, Bob Bantz, owner of the audiophile hardware and software e-commerce site Elusive Disc. When Bantz first heard the news that American XRCD was to be no more, his initial impulse was to purchase all remaining XRCD stock to offer for sale on his site. His second impulse was to take over the label’s U.S. operations.

As Bantz tells the story, “We hoped to revamp the existing catalog based on ongoing licensing agreements, but we soon realized that was easier said than done.” Meaning that, since JVC was no longer involved, Bantz would not only need to seek out and license compelling new titles to reissue in the XRCD format, he would also need to start a new label to release them under.

But before we discuss that part of the story, as well as the titles already here and those to come, a seemingly obvious question comes to mind.

Given that the compact disc is following in the, shall we say, tracks of the LP—meaning displacing an older medium, and then rising to a long period of dominance followed by a slow decline—and that LPs are now the hot ticket in the audiophile community and also embraced by younger listeners, who are largely ignoring CDs in favor of digital downloads, why bother at all with a high-quality CD format, no matter how good it sounds?

Bantz has a simple answer, “Lots of people are putting out great LPs,” he told me, “but not as many are doing CDs.”

He’s right about that. Although several specialty labels are still producing SACDs, outside of Reference Recordings and Mobile Fidelity few are putting serious effort into releasing superior sounding Red Book CDs. And while your kids or grandkids may not give much of a hoot for the compact disc, millions of households, and of course, most audiophiles, still spin five-inch silver platters. Which means there remains a shrinking but devoted group of listeners who cherish their CD collections but whose desire for superior sound is not being fully served.

As to the sound of XRCD (and frankly, sound is its raison d’être), as those who have heard them know, a well-done XRCD—and especially those mastered by Alan Yoshida at Ocean Way Recording—isn’t just any compact disc. It’s a sound that comes about as close to analog excellence as we’ve heard from any digital format.

“The most important part of the XRCD process is the driver,” offered engineer and producer Joe Harley, who, as a key player in Music Matters’ knockout 45-rpm series of Blue Note vinyl reissues, has been working with Yoshida to bring Blue Note titles to life on XRCD. “It’s like a car. The car itself is important, as are key elements in the XRCD process, but the guy driving the car is even more important. Alan is a very gifted engineer who, I would argue, more than any other knows how to maximize XRCD’s potential.”

Even a mastering engineer as discriminating as Steve Hoffman, who, along with Kevin Gray at AcousTech, is responsible for some of our finest vinyl, CD, and SACD releases (including Blue Notes from Music Matters and Analogue Productions), has sung his rival Yoshida’s praises.

On a recent blog-post, Hoffman conducted a brief self-interview that went like this:

Reviewer: “Would you have loved to master these XRCDs yourself?”
Steve: Of course. Who wouldn’t?
Reviewer: “Are you mad or something that Alan Yoshida at Ocean Way got the gig?”
Steve: Not in the slightest. He is probably the best digital mastering engineer in the world today and will do the Blue Note catalog proud on XRCD.”

Although it sounds like it was inspired by Ocean Way, the label Bob Bantz launched to release the new XRCD titles, Audio Wave Music, was, as Bantz said, “Named after the Zen-surfer in me.” Yoshida, of course, is in charge of mastering; Kevin Berg, formerly of JVC America, has been recruited to help usher the series back to fruition; and Joe Harley was hired to select the titles and produce Audio Wave’s first releases, the Blue Note jazz series.

Why Blue Note?

“Blue Note has been my favorite label going back to Junior High,” an elated Joe Harley recently told me. “To work with these mastertapes is a dream come true.” Harley, who is also Vice President of AudioQuest cables, is a critical part of the Music Matters team, as well as, of course, the group behind these XRCDs.

It makes sense that Bantz & Co. would choose to debut the revived American XRCD series with titles that inspire such impassioned devotion (and that also are among the best selling of all two-disc 45-rpm LP reissues from Music Matters and Analogue Productions). It could even be argued that Blue Note is the most American of all record labels. Founded and run by immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Blue Note focused on the most American of all musical expressions, jazz, and committed itself to recording the great artists of  the mid-Twentieth Century—Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, to name just a few. But Blue Note also nurtured young players such as Tina Brooks, Horace Parlan, Johnny Coles, and Lee Morgan. Guys who, while not exactly household names, were nevertheless important voices during the post-bop years when Blue Note recorded with such vigor (from the mid-50s to mid-60s).

There was also the look of Blue Note. Graphically striking covers that combined sophisticated typography (mostly designed by Reid Miles) with high-contrast black-and-white photography (mostly by Francis Wolff) to create arty, often playful jackets that cleverly hinted at the hip grooves contained therein.

Finally, of course, there’s the Blue Note sound. While he wasn’t the first or last to record for the label, the name Rudy Van Gelder is practically synonymous with Blue Note, for which he recorded from 1953 until the late-60s. That sound is typically very immediate, dynamically explosive, large, spacious, and upfront in a way that places the listener in intimate proximity to the players.

“To listen to the way RVG recorded,” said Joe Harley, “is to see patterns. Especially once he started recording in stereo, around 1957. You can hear when he changed the mics, when he went from using spring reverb to plate reverb, and when he switched from tubes to solid-state in 1964—which was not necessarily a good thing.”

Van Gelder soon hit on a formula he rarely if ever strayed from. “Listen to Hank Mobley’s Soul Station,” Harley continued, “You’ve got the lead player in the left channel, piano and bass in the middle, drums on the right. And because there were no isolation booths, and he recorded with the piano lid wide open, there’s tons of leakage into the mics.”

As of this writing, the first Blue Note titles were available for purchase: Horace Parlan’s Speakin’ My Piece; Hank Mobley’s Soul Station; Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’; and Tina Brooks’ True Blue. Another 21 are lined up to complete the initial 25-title release schedule. (To see the complete catalog see elusivedisc.com.)

The Process

It may not be something the music lover thinks about while enjoying a historic reissue—be it jazz, classical, or rock—but as a recent visit to Mobile Fidelity (see Issue 199) and then speaking with Harley underlined, working with tapes covered by million-dollar insurance policies is not something to be taken lightly.

And like the engineers at MoFi, Yoshida is said to be exceedingly fastidious—“anal” was Harley’s admiring word—when it comes to every aspect of tape preparation. “Remember that these tapes have no test tones,” he said. “Playback head alignment is the most critical aspect of all, and Yoshida can spend hours on that alone.” Other prep techniques include checking a tape’s phase, and deciding whether or not to “bake” it—literally placing the tape in a low-temperature oven to reactivate its binding elements—which is particularly important for tapes manufactured after 1964, when synthetic lubricating elements replaced older natural ones such as whale oil.

Finally, there seems to be some confusion over exactly what XRCD is. According to both Bob Bantz and Joe Harley, it is simply “CD done right,” the way all discs should be made if time (read money) wasn’t squeezed out of the process. “It’s not like the signal is run through some magic box.” Harley explained. “But unlike, for example, SACD, where the DSD signal is transferred from the hard drive to an AIT tape, with XRCD the data on the hard drive of the (no longer made) Sony 9000 is literally shipped whole to the replication plant. It’s a very different and much more direct means of getting the stored data to the cutting laser than either DSD/DACD or normal CD.” (For details about XRCD technology, see Robert Harley’s accompanying article.)

Listening

Given the dedication of the team involved, as well as the general excellence of the Blue Note masters, it’s no surprise that these XRCDs not only sound consistently superb, but essentially lack any of the gnarly artifacts Keith Johnson refers to as “digital gritchies.” These discs are open, dynamically free, tonally natural, and warm or cool depending on what the tape had to offer. Highs are airy, with floating cymbals and piercing trumpets, and the bass is textured, melodic, and explosive when a drummer lets loose. Spaces are well delineated, too. And given that the mics were picking up multiple sources, you’ll hear musicians approaching and receding from them, as well as abrupt changes of reverb that I assume were sometimes activated on the fly.

The earliest recorded and best known of these four titles, Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’, dates from 1958 and features the pianist/composer in a quintet setting with Art Farmer (trumpet), Jackie McLean (alto sax), Paul Chambers (bass), and “Philly” Joe Jones (drums). Although the music fits the hard-bop mold, the stand-out title track is a laid-back, bluesy stroll that finds Clark spelling out a lovely solo followed by Farmer, and then a deliciously funky McLean, before the tune kicks into a more forceful exploration of the theme. Two (mono) “bonus” tracks are included, that, while okay, don’t add much musical value to the original four-tune release.

Tina Brooks honed his chops in R&B bands and as accompanist on Blue Note outings with Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell before taking his turns as leader. He penned most of True Blue, and along with Freddie Hubbard, a meaty-toned, blues-oriented trumpeter, leads an excellent set that ranges from the chicken-shack feel of the title track to rollicking boppers.

With sidemen Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Art Blakey (drums), Hank Mobley’s Soul Station remains one of my favorite discoveries of these new Blue Note releases. Overshadowed by the likes of Coltrane and Rollins, Mobley may not be their equal, but he was an inventive and expressive player with a distinctive, less bop-oriented, open-throated sound. Aptly titled, this is a most satisfying set.

With Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax), his brother Tommy (trumpet), George Tucker (bass) and Al Harewood (drums), Horace Parlan’s Speakin’ My Piece is also a beautifully realized record that reveals this soulful pianist’s funkier personality. His days playing with Mingus, and influences from Bud Powell to Bill Evans, are evident, yet his playing is all his own.

Much-discussed aspects of Music Matters’ 45-rpm series are the gorgeously produced gatefold jackets that include additional—mostly unseen—session shots by Francis Wolff. Although these XRCD packages can’t compete with those full-size LP jackets, the CDs are lovingly housed in mini LP-like cases that also include the same, albeit smaller, photos.

At $30 a pop XRCDs are expensive, though not as pricey as the same $50 vinyl sets. And while—for these ears—they may not quite equal the breathtaking sonics of the vinyl discs in transparency, immediacy, and ultimate dynamic pop, they come very close. So close, in fact, that during one of my recent listening sessions I was prepared to get up and flip the LP to Side Two—except I wasn’t listening to an LP but to a Yoshida-mastered XRCD.

You can read Robert Harley’s accompanying article here.