One of the great pleasures of listening to vintage Blue Note albums on vinyl, along with the incredible, groundbreaking music and the sumptuous tones that legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder was able to capture in his famed Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio, is looking at the striking black and white images taken by Francis Wolff, Blue Note’s resident photographer and partner with fellow Berliner Albert Lion of the hallowed jazz label. As producer and Blue Note archivist Michael Cuscuna noted, “He not only preserved a major part of jazz history, but with his remarkable eye he captured amazing candid portraits of great artists that reveal the joy and intensity of jazz at the point of creation.” Added Herbie Hancock, “Francis Wolff’s images of musicians at work are so relaxed and intimate that they capture the spirit not just of the moment but also the era.”
But beyond the beautifully crafted packaging, featuring Wolff’s photos and Reid Miles’s signature design style, a look that continues to be imitated to this day, is the timeless music, the likes of which represents some of the greatest in the history of jazz. The label’s latest rollout, the Classic Vinyl Reissue Series, is a continuation of the Blue Note 80 Vinyl Series, which was launched in 2019 to commemorate its 80th anniversary. The series, comprising many of Blue Note’s most enduring titles, was newly remastered directly from the original master tapes by Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio with all-analog 180-gram vinyl pressings done at Optimal in Germany. The Classic Vinyl Reissue series runs parallel to the acclaimed Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series.
The series kicked off in December with two important titles that definitely merit the term Classics. First up is Lee Morgan’s 1964 The Sidewinder, a commercial hit for the great trumpeter on the strength of the irrepressible, boogaloo-flavored title track, fueled by Billy Higgins’ syncopated backbeat, Barry Harris’ funky piano comping, Bob Crenshaw’s buoyant bass line, and the taut harmonies and interplay on the frontline between the trumpeter and Blue Note regular Joe Henderson on tenor sax. McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy, the great pianist’s 1967 Blue Note debut featuring saxophonist Henderson, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Elvin Jones, his former partner in the legendary John Coltrane Quartet, includes such timeless Tyner originals as the energetic “Passion Dance,” the somber “Search for Peace,” and the earthy, oft-covered “Blues on the Corner.”
January saw the release of Horace Silver’s Song for My Father, a 1965 release which contains his best-known composition, the memorable title track, along with a rousing hard bop staple in “The Kicker” and his melancholic ballad “Lonely Woman” (not to be confused with Ornette Coleman’s song of the same name from 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come). Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, the tenor saxophonist’s 1964 masterpiece, features stellar performances from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, resident Blue Note tenorman Henderson, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Carter, and drummer Jones and such memorable Shorter compositions as “Witch Hunt,” “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” and “Infant Eyes.”
The sound on the first four releases in the Classic Vinyl Reissue Series is remarkably clear, allowing for top-notch dynamics. The low end is outstanding, producing a warm, woody presence from the upright bass and a resounding depth in the low register of the piano, while the high notes issuing forth from trumpets and saxes are swathed in a very natural blanket of sound. Regarding the drum kit, the nuance of brushwork on the snare, as Roger Humphries demonstrates on Silver’s “Lonely Woman” or Elvin Jones delivers on Tyner’s “Search for Peace,” registers with clarity and adds an alluring quality to the mix. And the ride cymbal, the veritable heartbeat of these swinging jazz classics, rings out with authority, particularly when Jones is fueling the proceedings. Overall, the sound is gorgeous on this Classic Vinyl Reissue Series.
The rollout, which will see two releases per month through 2021, continued in February with Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, which featured a rare sideman appearance by Miles Davis, and Joe Henderson’s Page One. March saw the release of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’ and Hank Mobley’s Soul Station. Other Blue Note classics to be released in coming months include Jimmy Smith’s Back at The Chicken Shack, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Freddie Hubbard’s Ready for Freddie, and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. Along with appealing to veteran Blue Note fans eager to fill gaps in their collections, the remastered Blue Note vinyl is pulling in younger record collectors who more recently discovered the joys of listening to historic jazz recordings on vinyl.
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