There is a horrible neologism that I came across in a newspaper recently. In the article the term “premiumisation” was applied to scotch whiskey – it describes the process of rebranding/hyping a product to make it “investible” and “collectable”. Something very similar is happening in the world of jazz, specifically in the world of LPs. It began with coloured vinyl editions, which are nearly always promoted as limited, collectable and attract a few quid extra over and above their monochrome siblings. I fell for this for a while – I have clear, yellow, red, orange, blue and even camouflaged discs. I stopped going colour-crazy when a record company executive assured me that adding pigment can affect sound quality and longevity of the album.
The other route to “premiumisation” is the re-mastered special edition. This is spiralling to quite frightening heights – there was a recent version of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, announced with typical fervour: Definitive handmade limited run reissue Ultra High Quality Record! 33 1/3 RPM LP release limited to 25,000 copies. Mastered directly from the original 3-Track master tapes by Bernie Grundman. Pressed at Quality Record Pressings using Clarity Vinyl® on a manual Finebilt press. Cost for all this? Around £150. I’m sure it’s a wonderful artefact but I already have six versions of that record, including one on cassette. I surprised myself by resisting it.
Less eye-wateringly expensive is the Blue Note Tone Poet series, supervised by Joe “Tone Poet” Harley, and put out to celebrate 80 years of the label. These are “all-analogue, mastered-from-the-original-master-tape 180g audiophile vinyl reissues in deluxe gatefold packaging. Mastered by Kevin Gray (Cohearent Audio) and vinyl manufactured at Record Technology Incorporated (RTI)” . The latter is considered one of the best pressing plants in the world. Artists getting the Tone Poet treatment include Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon and many others.
Again, they are beautifully done, but are they worth the £10 premium they attract (they usually retail at £31-34) over a regular LP? After all, over the years I have been seduced by claims of superior sound quality by Japanese-only Blue Note editions (or maybe it was the obi strip – that band of paper that wraps around the cover) and “Cadre Rouge Audiophile” featuring Direct Metal Mastering and French pressing. Do I need more tweaks?
One of the most recent batches of Tone Poets included McCoy Tyner’s splendid Expansions, which features the great Woody Shaw on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Gary Bartz on alto and, unusually, clarinet, and bassist Ron Carter on an unexpected cello. It encompasses fast and furious modal jazz with the septet firing on all cylinders, Matthew Halsall-like Far Eastern tones and a piano/cello ballad. It was indeed an expansion of Tyner’s regular soundscape. I happen to have a 75th Anniversary re-issue of this, so I bought a Tone Poet one to compare and contrast.
I don’t have a particularly high-end audio system. At its heart is a vintage Quad and 1970s Japanese Micro-Seiki deck with SME arm which is maintained by Audio Gold in Crouch End (it was where I traded a still-boxed CD player for it years ago, back when you couldn’t give record decks away). So not audiophile perhaps, but I do know its sound very well and thought I should be able to detect any differences/improvements in the new pressing.
And I could. A more sonorous piano here, a richer woodier bass sound there, crisper horns in one or two places. But, I realised, paying such close attention and constantly repeating sections not only gave me a headache, but it also spoiled my enjoyment. I was like one of those oenophiles who can wax lyrical about the component parts of a wine without pausing to enjoy the whole (the same is true of some coffee drinkers I know). I’m assured that the superior quality is best appreciated through headphones, but as that isn’t how I like to consume music, it’s a moot point. So, would I rush out to replace an album I already had with a Tone Poet version? No, probably not. But….
And it is quite an interesting “but”. One of the welcome aspects about these re-issues is that Mr Poet hasn’t gone for the big ticket albums. So, no Sidewinder by Lee Morgan, but the more obscure Cornbread, no Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock, but The Prisoner and so on. Also Joe Harley has embraced other labels that were or are now in the Blue Note stable. So for instance, I have a Tone Poet of Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which was on the originally on the Stateside label, and a recent release, Katanga! by Curtis Amy and Dupree Bolton, which was on Pacific Jazz.
The latter is a fascinating album, because it highlights just how brilliant a trumpeter Dupree Bolton was, blistering fast yet astonishing accurate, with a hairs-up-on-the-back-of the-neck high-speed stratospheric excursions and brilliant tone. Bolton only made two real appearances on disc (Katanga! and The Fox by Harold Land, also recommended), frequently disappearing into the fog of drug addiction and subsequently prison. There isn’t space here to tell his whole tragic story of wasted talent, but if you are interested seek out Granta 69 (“The Assassin”). It includes a piece about Bolton by Richard Williams called Gifted, which is as fine and as moving a piece of jazz writing as you’ll find.
So, given the quality and heft of the physical record, the heavy card used for the covers and, sometimes, the inserts with essays (as with Katanga!), I certainly would buy a Tone Poet if it was an album new to me or I only had it on CD and wanted an actual LP. Forthcoming releases for 2021 include Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Red and more Grant Green, all new to me. I’ve got my extra tenners ready.