When emails announcing ambitious new vinyl campaigns by Blue Note and ECM appeared in my email inbox on the same day, I took that as a sign. As stated in my article “New Music on New Vinyl” in Issue 226, jazz labels eventually reached the point where virtually nothing was coming out on wax. To give some perspective of how recently that began to change, when I began writing for The Absolute Sound in 2009 several small jazz labels who focus much of their attention on vinyl (Gearbox, JazzHaus, SamRecords, and NoBusiness Records are examples) were not even in existence, and veteran labels such as Cuneiform, Highnote, Delmark, and others had not yet returned to that format for the occasional project. The relatively new but prolific Mack Avenue had yet to release wax; it has now jumped in headfirst, and with splendid results, as I described in “Mack Avenue Records: New Jazz from Detroit” in Issue 240. That Blue Note and ECM are deepening their commitment is good news for both the jazz scene and the vinyl world, and presumably the fact that two historically significant major jazz labels with a large international fan base are putting more focus on vinyl will inspire other record companies to follow suit.
If you’re thinking that this is the first time you’ve seen Blue Note and ECM grouped together, well, you may be right, as stylistically it would be hard to imagine two more different jazz labels. Blue Note is quintessentially American, boasting a vast catalog that includes countless sides recorded during the golden era of modern jazz. When listening to classic Blue Note recordings of the 1950s and 1960s, you feel the soul, spirit, and energy of that period. It has a decidedly urban feel. When you’re listening to an ECM record crowded city streets often seem hundreds of miles away; you’re more likely to imagine that you’re gazing at a fjord in Norway than jumping out of a taxi in midtown Manhattan.
Yet the two labels share legacies that are strongly connected with vinyl. Both include a history of classic album covers so memorable that they’ve inspired books and art exhibits. The labels also have a clearly identifiable sound we associate with meticulous recording techniques as well as high-quality vinyl. Considering how much of the legacy of both labels is connected with wax, it seems appropriate that they would work their way back to it. Significantly, along with releasing important titles from their back catalogue both labels are putting out new recordings on vinyl, a decision that connects the past with the present.
In celebration of Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, 100 vinyl records are being released at the rate of five per month, and it says something about the quality of the label that narrowing the project down to that number was a task that would ignite discussion on chat rooms. The list includes a healthy percentage of classic titles by iconic Blue Note artists. Even the musicians we associate most closely with the label have better- and lesser-known titles, however, and this series will inspire reappraisals of those releases as well as recordings by musicians who, like Kenny Drew and Tina Brooks, had a more limited connection to the label. The rollout also includes releases by a healthy percentage of Blue Note artists who represented the “New Thing,” such as Grachan Monchur, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and Tony Williams. Yet at the end of the list one feels that Blue Note is only scraping the surface; for me, two Jackie McLean titles are barely enough to wet my whistle. For those who feel unfulfilled, Blue Note has stated that the first 100 is only the beginning.
Over a dozen of the reissues stem from the last 25 years, and subsequently the rollout includes first-ever vinyl releases for Terrence Blanchard’s Flow, Brian Blade’s Perceptual, Joe Lovano’s Rush Hour and Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard, Jason Moran’s Soundtrack to Human Motion, Robert Glasper’s Double Booked, Kurt Elling’s Flirting with Twilight, and Stefon Harris’ Black Action Figure. The vinyl is being pressed at QRP, and the remastering is primarily in the hands of Bernie Grundman. At just under twenty bucks, the cost for the discs is modest. Great music, high-quality pressings, and a reasonable cost make an attractive combination, especially considering the music. Calling around to local record stores, I learned that sales have been solid, something employees attribute to a mixture of quality and price, with buyers preferring the new series to thin-sounding cheaper reissues. “They’re doing what they should be doing,” is how one employee put it.
Reflective of the rollout overall, the first batch of five Blue Note vinyl reissues includes two of its most popular titles, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. Art Blakey’s date Free for All isn’t among his more well-known albums, but it’s a remarkable record, a real scorcher whose longer song lengths let this outwardly-probing sextet that included Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, and Reggie Workman stretch out and really go for it. Actually I would say that the same spirit of probing characterizes all five re-releases, which also include Larry Young’s Unity as well as Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, a record that, a half-century after its initial release, still sounds radical and original. Released in 1957, Blue Train was by far the earliest of these releases—the others fall between 1964 and 1966—but Coltrane’s ability to embrace the jazz tradition at the same time that he charted new territory runs through all these recordings.
The quality of the remastered vinyl is impressive, too. These are clean- sounding, quiet pressings that do a fine job of revealing the intimacy and detail that Rudy Van Gelder worked obsessively to capture, and for twenty bucks they’re a bargain. True, compared to original or early stereo pressings that I listened to, the reissues sounded more analytical and had less impact. That was particularly the case with Larry Young’s Unity, which seemed much more vigorous on the original stereo pressing. We can’t all own original Blue Notes, however, and if you happen to snag one it will probably cost you a pretty penny, Meanwhile, for twenty bucks you can take home a copy of Out to Lunch that does a fine job of capturing the holographic sound of Dolphy’s masterpiece—and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
The Re:solutions series of ECM reissues are 180-gram platters pressed at Pallas in Germany, and the mastering is all analog. Because these titles might be less familiar than the Blue Notes, I’ve squeezed in a few more words about the music on the four reissues I was able to compare with my original vinyl copies.
It’s interesting that Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie only made two albums together. Those recordings paired two artists whose sensibilities were so well- matched that they traveled far beyond the standard limitations of a guitar duet and created a sound unique even within their own discographies. Their first effort, Sargasso Sea, was a dark, brooding, deeply intense record whose heavy reverb and full soundscape matched their impassioned performances. By comparison the follow- up Five Years Later has a cooler vibe, with a more compact sound that does a fine job of displaying the interplay of acoustic six- and twelve-string and electric guitar.
Keith Jarrett’s 1976 effort Arbour Zena includes the leader on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, and a string orchestra made up of members of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony.
Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek is the featured soloist on the best track, “Mirrors.” The 70s were an especially fertile period for Garbarek, and I don’t think Jarrett could have picked a more appropriate saxophonist for this project. There’s a bold and deeply impassioned quality to his playing that’s a perfect match for the steadily shifting moods of “Mirrors,” as if Garbarek is completely at one with the music. The nearly 28-minute track doesn’t sustain my interest from beginning to end, but it continues to strike me as a provocative and singular piece of music.
Miroslav Vitous recorded two albums with a quartet that included John Surman, Kenny Kirkland, and Jon Christenson. The earlier effort, First Meeting, had more of a pastoral feel to it. Miroslav Vitous Group swings more, with three open-ended group improvisations. A nice record that, among other things, should appeal to John Surman fans.
For Issue 217 TAS writers were asked to create a reissue wish list, and one of my choices was Contrasts by Sam Rivers. Well, I got my wish. On this session there’s some real chemistry between the leader on tenor and soprano sax and flute, Dave Holland on bass, and Thurman Barker on drums, and when trombonist George Lewis joins in, he adds another layer to an already rich sound. Barker is an exceptionally fluid drummer with a crisp sound that blends in well with Holland’s rounded tone, and it’s nice to hear them on such a detailed recording. The tracks alternate between tone poems and performances with structured head- and-solo arrangements. While Contrasts is the only Sam Rivers album on ECM, this 1979 release can be seen as a follow-up to a classic early ECM album on which Rivers performed, Dave Holland’s 1973 effort Conference of the Birds. That record brought some attention to a young label at the same time that it became a benchmark for avant- garde music in general.
All of these reasonably-priced ECM vinyl reissues impressed me sonically. Like the new Blue Notes and a lot of remastered vinyl these days, there’s a tendency toward a more analytical sound than the original. On “Caminata” from Five Years Later, for example, there was more separation between Towner’s acoustic and Abercrombie’s electric guitar, which takes something away but at the same highlights the interplay between these two musicians. The exception to the rule is Sam Rivers’ Contrasts, which actually has more impact, combining detail with vigor. Although I haven’t heard them yet, ECM is also releasing these titles as high-res digital downloads, an exciting new development for the label.
Finally, more good news from ECM. The classic Officium record by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek will soon receive its first-ever vinyl release. Also, the new Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden project, Last Dance, is coming out on wax. I can’t think of a better way to usher in the new and recapture the old than a vinyl release of this brilliant recording of two great jazzmen at the top of their game.