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.)