Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (Deluxe)
(Music On Vinyl MOVLP-019. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Is there anything left to say on the most popular — and arguably greatest — jazz LP of all time? Quite a lot, as it happens. For a start there is the matter of the master tapes. The original recording sessions for Kind of Blue took place at the Columbia 30th Street Studios in Manhattan, nicknamed ‘the Church’, in March and April 1959. During these sessions both a mono and a three-track stereo master were created, using a total of four tape recorders running in synchronisation — one prime recorder and one safety backup each for mono and stereo. The mono tapes have gone missing. Maybe they’re in your garden shed. Have a look. The two stereo tapes were stored safely in a vault for over three decades before anyone thought of taking them out for remastering.
One of the interesting discoveries made in 1992 when the tapes were first exhumed, was that Side 1 of the stereo issue, consisting of the tracks recorded at the first session, So What, Freddie Freeloader and Blue in Green, had been playing at the wrong speed since 1959. (The fault in the tape recorder which caused this had been corrected by the time of the second session in April.) The prime stereo tape recorder had been running just over one percent slow, so on playback and during the mastering of albums it ran a little fast. Hence the stereo (but not the mono) releases of Kind of Blue — and virtually all the releases were stereo — had always had those three tracks playing at slightly the wrong pitch. Not just the LPs, but the CDs, cassettes, reel to reel tapes and MiniDiscs…
Sound engineer Mark Wilder, who made this discovery in 1992, then corrected it using the backup three-track stereo tape for the subsequent remastered reissues. Since the mono tapes apparently no longer exist, recent monophonic reissues (yes, some people do prefer mono) were created by mixing down the three tracks on the backup stereo master to a single track. Another, more welcome, discovery on inspecting the master tapes was that a complete alternate take of one tune still existed. This is the first take of Flamenco Sketches. (After completing the second take, which is the one used on the album, Miles Davis reportedly turned to the producer Irving Townsend and said, “That was terrible, Irving.”)
Since 1992 there have been a number of issue of the remastered, speed-corrected, Kind of Blue on both vinyl and digital formats, although arguably never a definitive LP rendering until the release of the Music On Vinyl set reviewed here. A major project took place in 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, and attempts at an ultimate version were made then. Newly remastered from the backup stereo tapes, the anniversary Kind of Blue was released on both CD and LP. Unfortunately for vinyl fans, there were reportedly widespread problems with the vinyl, thanks to poor, noisy pressings.
Luckily for vinyl fans, the story doesn’t end there. Before the sacred tapes were returned the vaults, a copy of the 50th anniversary remastering was transferred to a high resolution digital file. And that file was sourced for a new and noise-free vinyl release by an enterprising company called Music On Vinyl. Based in Holland, Music On Vinyl uses the Record Industry plant in Haarlem — the largest surviving vinyl pressing plant in Europe and one of the top three in terms of quality, along with Pallas and Optimal in Germany. The Music On Vinyl label turns out beautifully packaged LP reissues on high quality vinyl. It has cleverly placed itself between the high-end audiophile labels, whose LPs can be very pricey, and the cheap low-end labels, whose noisy pressings can sound like bacon frying.
The Music On Vinyl Kind of Blue is indeed a deluxe package which offers considerable bang for the buck. It’s a double album, with the first LP offering the record in its original stereo form (speed corrected, of course) and a second disc featuring the first take of Flamenco Sketches on one side and a version of Green Dolphin Street on the other. Green Dolphin Street was recorded just before the Kind of Blue sessions and features the same line up — John Coltrane tenor sax, Bill Evans piano, Jimmy Cobb drums and Paul Chambers bass. Featuring Evans at his most mellow and cheery, moody bass modulations by Chambers, notable fast-shuffle boogie drums by Cobb, rich slabs of Coltrane sax, and slalom-sliding trumpet by Miles — in joyous Surrey With a Fringe on Top style — it might come from a different sound world to the lonely, modal Kind of Blue tunes, but Green Dolphin Street is nevertheless a blue ribbon bonus track.
LPs deriving from a digital source should be anathema to analog purists (like myself) but the Music On Vinyl Kind of Blue sounds terrific, crisp and precise, yet never lacking in warmth or immediacy. Miles Davis’s spiralling, restless trumpet on Freddie Freeloader and its seesaw insinuation on All Blues, Bill Evans’s delicate, meditative haiku of a piano in Flamenco Sketches, Coltrane’s silken, slithering tenor lament on Blue in Green, Paul Chambers’ low, slow heartbeat of a bass, the soft, considered percussion of Jimmy Cobb’s drums and the pulsing tick of his cymbals are all immaculately rendered.
The two bonus tracks are of particular interest. Both run just under ten minutes and, since they are allotted an entire 12 inch side each, there is potential for wide groove spacing and superior sound. And, indeed, they are an audiophile delight. I hate to contradict the man himself, but Flamenco Sketches is not terrible at all, Miles, in either version. And the alternate take just sounds stupendous.
The love and care taken by Music On Vinyl on this release even extends to the printing of the labels, which on these discs are a homage to the 1959 Columbia “six eye” design. Unless you can come up with one of those original LPs, this is as good a sounding Kind of Blue as you will find.