Sunday, 30 August 2015

Further Definitions by Benny Carter

This immediately sounded great — huge, clean sound. It’s one of the very first pressing Impulses (and one of their first releases, with the glossy Am-Par label, and an RVG etching). A mono copy. I bought it from Jazz House yonks ago (August 2012) — where good old Alan had correctly listed it as a first pressing. It cost the princely sum of eight quid. 

This copy has a sticker which declares it comes from the ‘Jones Collection’ (‘Mr/Mrs Robert E. Jones' followed by a Dorset address). There was a track on Side 1 which I would swear was from Finian’s Rainbow, but no, apparently not. Still, great stuff. And stellar audio quality. It sounds like the horns are in the room with me. This could be an audiophile demonstration record. 

I wonder if I got any other records from Mr and Mrs Robert E. Jones? They seem to have owned some winners. An amazing record, a steal of a deal and almost perfect. This still looks grubby. Let’s clean it again. And again, if necessary. A wonderful record and worth the effort.

What strikes me on a second listening — after a second cleaning — is the immense richness of the musical tapestry here. Benny, you’re my hero! The track that sounds like something out of Finian’s Rainbow is ‘The Midnight Sun Will Never Set’ which is reminiscent — to me — of ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra?’ 

Such lovely rich big ensemble sound. Carter, you’re a genius! This album is a towering classic. What were the earlier definitions, and where can I get the first album? Well, having looked, it turns out that this is the first album, and the follow up is Additions to Further Definitions (1966). 

Apparently this one is a follow up in some senses, too, though — to a 1937 session in Paris with Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt, which echoed the instrumentation here, and also some of the songs. Learn more here. Those four 1937 tracks are on the Coleman Hawkins All Stars 10 inch album. Oh my god, I have got a copy of it on my shelf! Well, that’s next on the turntable. Back to Further Definitions. 
Great, graceful, beautifully contoured sheets and slopes of sound. A phenomenal gem of an album.

Benny Carter and His Orchestra

Further Definitions (Impulse A-12)

(Image credits: All are from Discogs. I could only find a shot of the stereo label. Mine is mono.)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Blade Runner by Vangelis

For years, those of us who loved the music Blade Runner were baffled by the refusal of its composer Vangelis (Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou) to allow his music to be issued as an LP (as was then the dominant music format). But commerce deplores a vacuum, so a Blade Runner soundtrack album did appear, but it wasn't the original version of music on the film, and Vangelis himself didn't play on.

Fast forward to the age of CD and finally there was a release of the Vangelis score. But those of us who love vinyl still had a void in our hearts, because we wanted an LP version of the music. That dream came true in spades when Audio Fidelity released a beautiful audiophile record of the soundtrack. 

It was on 180 gram high quality vinyl, and red to boot, housed in a handsome gatefold sleeve. It was also — more importantly — remastered by a respected audio engineer, Kevin Gray. I bought a copy with the usual doubt and suspicion. Not because of Kevin Gray's credentials, which are exemplary, but because in my experience most modern audiophile pressings, especially American ones, are usually pressed on noisy recycled vinyl (whatever they claim) or, much more commonly, come with scratches added at the factory to destroy your listening pleasure.
But I'm delighted to report my copy of Blade Runner was fine. It sounds great and this is almost a perfect version of Vangelis's music, at last. It is almost entirely a synthesiser score — except for the wonderful presence of Dick Morrissey playing the ravishing sax solo on the love theme. (Oddly enough, Morrissey lived in the small town in Kent where I grew up. I kind of wish I'd known that, so I could have stalked him)

So the sound quality will never be that of a recording of acoustic (or indeed electric) instruments recorded in a a real environment, with air around them. Indeed, in terms of sound quality (though certainly not musically), the best track on Blade Runner may be 'One More Kiss, Dear' sung by Don Percival. But that's the inherent limitation of any electronic score and I'm not grousing about it. This is very nearly the ideal Blade Runner soundtrack.

So what is stopping it short of perfection? The inclusion of three segments of dialogue. Why do people insist on doing this? If I want dialogue or sound effects I will watch the movie on any of the myriad formats available. When I play the soundtrack album, all I want is the music.
I know other people feel differently, but I believe the inclusion of dialogue and effects on this otherwise magnificent record was a ludicrous blunder and represent a tragically missed opportunity.

(Image credits: All from Discogs, who did me proud, except the pack shot which is from Audio Fidelity, who made the record.)

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans (RSD Mono)

I previously wrote a post about the Dutch Fontana pressing of this classic of big band jazz. The music itself, of course, is stellar. But it is instructive — and fun — to search for the best possible rendering of it on vinyl. 

So I decided to compare my recently acquired 1960 Fontana with this Record Store Day 180g reissue from 2013, which was mono. I am a bit dubious about these RSD mono Miles Davis records... I strove like hell to get ahold of their Kind of Blue, only to open my sealed copy and discover that the first track on Side 1 had a nasty factory scratch on it. Have these paragons never heard of quality control? It wasn't cheap, either.

But this Sketches of Spain was unscratched. And it sounded very nice — though of course  it is mono, so there is no exact comparison between it and the stereo Dutch Fontana.  However, compared to that Fontana, which was over half a century older, I felt Miles’s trumpet had lost presence here. 

It was rather soft and soggy by comparison to the 1960 Fontana. What Gil Evans called his “melancholy cry” had been blunted and tamed. Unkind words like “flabby” come to mind. The trumpet still has a harsh, sour quality, but without the fine grained detailed or clean-cut precision that distinguished it on the Fontana. 

The orchestra perhaps sound a little more integrated, but I suspect that’s just because it’s mono.

Miles Davis, arranged and conducted by Gil Evans. Sketches of Spain (Columbia CL 1480; Record Store Day 180g mono reissue, individual number 2957.)

(Image credits: the album cover, front and back, come from Northern Volume. The label shots, which are actually from an original copy rather than the RSD reissue, are from Discogs.)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans (Dutch Fontana)

I picked this up at a boot fair in a posh London suburb. It wasn’t the original US Columbia release. Rather, it was on Fontana, the European label which handled Columbia’s Miles Davis catalogue in this period. 

And it was the Dutch rather than the British pressing. Which is all to the good, because the Fontana records were manufactured by Phillips, who were based in Holland. They made excellent pressings. 

Crucially, this was a first pressing and, what’s more, a factory test record — which meant it was one of the first off the stamper (which equates to the highest audio quality — the more the stamper is used, the more worn and less precise it becomes). A stereo copy, too. Something of a holy grail, then. I spent £25 on it (haggled down from a sticker price of £35). 

A few years ago this would have been an unthinkable sum, and even now it seems like a big investment... 

After a tense, paranoid first listening, I began to relax — the record plays fine. Now I'm beginning to appreciate how Gil Evans makes the whole big combo swing like a single bright, sharp edged metallic construction on a pendulum, absolutely unified, with Miles’s trumpet in the lead. (Miles said, “He made that orchestra sound like one big guitar.”) 

There is a brooding, measured, industrial quality to the sound… with an unsettling tone hovering in the background at the threshold of hearing, not resolving and not ceasing, like the hum of a menacing machine. 

The tuba player, Bill Barber, had worked with Evans ever since his days in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, when Evans first added tuba to the ensemble. (Jimmy McAllister also plays tuba on the Sketches of Spain sessions.) Gil Evans, and Thornhill, were partial to French horns. And Johnny Carisi says “In a sense… a tuba is like a big French horn.” 

The fascinating thing is that Gil Evans uses the orchestra the way Miles Davis plays his trumpet. This shared vision of music is why they got together in the first place.

This is a great record, and a wonderful pressing — I could feel the exciting shock of the impact of the low frequencies. I must compare it to the recent mono Record Store Day reissue. 

(I have quoted from an essay about Gil Evans from Gene Lees magnificent book about arrangers.)

Miles Davis, arranged and conducted by Gil Evans. Sketches of Spain (Fontana 885 122 TY)

(Image credits: the cover — which as you can see weirdly re-uses the photo from Kind of Blue — and the label are from Discogs. The cover of Gene Lees' Arranging the Score is from Amazon.)

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Checkmate by Shelly Manne

Purchased from the excellent Jazz House Records, this looks gorgeous, clean, almost new. It's a 1962 British mono pressing of a US Contemporary album which is legendary for its sound quality, and is also sought after (by me) for the John Williams TV score it contains (yes, that John Williams). Beautifully quiet run in groove... 

The LP was recorded by Howard Holzer not Roy DuNann,who was the famed Contemporary recording engineer — sort of a West Coast Rudy Van Gelder. But “Howard Holzer was a genius, too,” according to Lester Koenig’s son. (Lester Koenig ran Contemporary.) Apparently Holzer was mentored by DuNann. 
I love the sax, which turns out be be Richie Kamuca (“one of the most overlooked of the Lester Young disciples to emerge in the fifties” — Mosaic newsletter). Russ Freeman’s piano is delicate and adroit. Kamuca does a lot of work — and great work — here. He gives a small combo a big band sound.  Kamuca has a huge sound. 

This is a terrific record. Sharp, fresh, keening trumpet — Miles Davis influenced —  by Conte Candoli. Wonderful sound quality. Kamuca is gorgeous. Some very interesting drumming, which isn’t surprising. And moody bass by Chuck Berghofer —also propulsively rhythmic. A real winner.

Shelly Manne and His Men  Play the Music of John Williams from the TV Series
Checkmate (Vogue LAC 12315 — originally on Contemporary)

(Image credits: the cover is from EIL, the labels from Discogs. The labels don't actually represent the British Vogue pressing, annoyingly, but images of these are not to be found on the internet. Yet.)

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Man from O.R.G.A.N. by Dick Hyman

I saw this on Dusty Groove in their bachelor pad/space age section (called Now Sound) and then tracked down an eBay copy from a Danish seller which was in better shape than the Dusty Groove one (sorry, boys) — it's also a white label promo copy, so an early pressing and therefore more sought after. (Early copies off the stamper should sound better.) 

The album is on the Command label, famed for both their wacky abstract cover art (Mike Gething of Little Amber Fish is a big fan) and their high tech stereo sound — "Command Records will delight the most discriminating audiophile." There is a reassuring block of text on the back cover detailing Technical Data. Telefunken microphones, check; Ampex tape recorder, check; Westrex cutter, check; Scully lathe, check. On to the music... 

Hyman, a well-known keyboard wizard, plays the Lowrey electric organ here. The album opens with a superlative version of Schifrin's 'The Liquidator'. 

Less welcome is 'The Third Man Theme'. I've always hated that £*%^@ zither atrocity, and it's no better here with the zither absent (I say this in the full knowledge that it is a beloved classic and has sold gazillions of copies). 

The title track is an improvement, though it's a bit of a country & western oddity. 'Honey West', with its noirish slant is much superior. 'I Spy' is a sort of a sound drama with snatches of dialogue and traffic effects. Indeed Hyman subtitled the arrangement 'Tone Poem of a New York Traffic Jam'. It doesn't have the fluidity and appeal of comparable efforts by Kenyon Hopkins or Roland Shaw, who can make sound clips seem part of the music rather than jarring interpolations. 'I Spy' still has a pulsing appeal, though it sounds to me like the fade out was cut off by some ham fisted chump. All the Telefunkens and Ampexs in the world won't save you from clumsy human intervention. 
'Man Alone' by John Barry from The Ipcress File is lovely, displaying some particularly nice guitar by Tony Mottola with a bossa feel. 

If not for the Third @£$$%^ Man this would be wall to wall high quality spy music. 'Thunderball' has a galloping, almost Spaghetti Western feel (more guitar, this time by Al Casamenti) with some wailing high pitched sputnik electric organ — apparently achieved by using the "piccolo attachment." 

The third Barry track, 'Mister Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' is another highlight, with the whispered accompaniment more effective than the intrusions on 'I Spy'. Schifrin's 'The Cat — Theme from Joy House' isn't about to supplant Jimmy Smith's take, but it has a pleasant 1960s science fiction feel. 

'Agent Double-O Soul' is equipped with some nicely groovy female vocals. You can almost see the singers gyrating in their giant giant birdcages, mini-dresses lit up by the psychedelic colour splashes of the oil lamp. Again with the abrupt cut-off, though. 

There is the occasional bit of very light noise on my LP — some tics deep in the grooves. And the vinyl has a tiny warp. But this copy is probably as good as it gets. A keeper.

Dick Hyman The Man from O.R.G.A.N.(Command RS 891 SD)

(Image credits: all from Discogs. Thank god this isn't my copy with the grubby labels.)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Choo Choo Ch'Boogie by Louis Jordan

A 1982 compilation. One of ten LPs I bought (a quid each or ten for a fiver) from Keith's record shop in Kingston. It was a Music For Pleasure pressing and the cover was so tacky I hesitated, but it was mono, had some proper liner notes and — crucially — had a track called 'Inflation Blues' ("Hey Pres, please cut the price of sugar so I can make my coffee sweet"). So I risked my 50p. 

It actually sounds great, is immaculate and unplayed, and the music is catchy and intoxicating. Smashing snarky sax. And it includes 'Caldonia', which featured so memorably in the James Brown biopic Get On Up. There is a bit of odd crackling echo and the occasional spitting snapping on some tracks — dramatic but very brief distortion. I wondered if it was the system (the valve amps about to explode) but I think it must just be this pressing, or maybe just some tiny specks of crud... 

The informative liner notes, by Bill Williams, make the interesting point that this style of music underwent a revival (including the release of the album in hand, presumably) after Joe Jackson's 1981 LP Jumpin' Jive. 

A highly catchy standout on this excellent compilation is 'Open the Door, Richard'. Apparently 'Tamburitza Boogie' (aka simply 'Tamburitza') features the organ playing of Bill Doggett who would be a major instrumentalist of the rock and roll era. Williams observes that Jordan was a huge influence on the rock and rollers. In fact he left his label Decca just a few months before his producer Milt Gabler 'masterminded' Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock' session. How interesting... Nice album. Good find.

Louis Jordan, Choo Choo Ch'Boogie (Music For Pleasure MFP 50557)

(Image credits: all from Discogs.)