Weekend Listening: Lee Morgan and Kenny Burrell in High Resolution

Following on last month's release of six Blue Note/EMI jazz classics in brand-new high-resolution versions by HDtracks, the label, this week sees the release (again in fresh remasters, by Alan Yoshida and Robin Lynn, from the original analog tapes) a couple of gems recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in 1963, Lee Morgan's pioneering soul-jazz classic The Sidewinder (released in 1964) and guitarist Kenny Burrell's spare, grooving Midnight Blue. Both are available in 24/96 and 24/192 resolution as FLAC files; and can be purchased as complete albums only (sorry, no individual tracks). Check 'em out at HDtracks' Blue Note store.

No extra tracks or bonus features here, just the original albums presented in all of the glory with which they were intended - it's like taking a trip back in time to the early '60s to listen in at the mastering session. Got a good DAC in your rig? You'll likely note a "blacker" background than you've heard from previous CD reissues, but otherwise you'll just notice that these remasters just sound good. This is no anachronistic remix -- you get the period correct presentation - rigid stereo separation (these recordings generally have the leader firmly planted in the left channel, brass accompanists on the right, and rhythm section across the center, so headphone fans be advised. Nor have Yoshida and Lynn gone overboard on the noise reduction...you'll note that there is some tape hiss still evident, and you'll hear a little background noise from Bill English before he enters on Burrell's "Mule," but frankly, that's as it should be. This is a purist, archival reissue, and done quite well.

The Sidewinder

Sure, the title track of this album has that oft-sampled riff, but the charms of this record are many, with the HD remaster possessing the immediacy and warmth you'll recall from your original vinyl copy (and without any of the surface noise). The ambience of the session makes it across here, with the absolutely killer ensemble - Morgan, Joe Henderson on tenor, Billy Higgins on drums, Barry Harris on piano, and Bob Cranshaw on upright bass - sticking together with the sonic glue Van Gelder's room could provide.

All of the details are here in stunning clarity, sharply in focus, without any haze or blurring - the slightly sharp intro to Cranshaw's bass solo on the titular soul-jazz statement, the somewhat strident tone of the piano's upper registers, the tonal counterpoint of the already stunning tone of the 26-year-old Henderson's tenor against Morgan's authoritative trumpet. Higgins's kit, including snare and cymbals, sounds resonant and natural.

There's maybe just a tad too much room audible on the right channel, at least to my ear (for some reason, on this disc it's always sounded to me that Henderson was standing a little too far from the mic, but maybe I just want more Joe Henderson), but that reflects the original session, and not a failing of the transfer. A beautiful rendering of a classic.

Midnight Blue

Kenny Burrell may never have become the sort of household name that, say, George Benson is, but his masterful, blues-steeped approach to jazz guitar is much respected among by other musicians (Hendrix was an obsessive devotee, and the title track is the source of the riff and changes that underpin Van Morrison's "Moondance," to name a couple), and this Blue Note date (considered by many to be one of the best jazz guitar recordings of all time, and one of the best-sounding Blue Note records to boot) finds him at the height of his powers, accompanied by Stanley Turrentine on saxophone, Ray Barretto on congas, Major Holley, Jr. on bass, and future Willie Nelson band mainstay Bill English on drums.

Burrell's near-perfect tone - nuanced, cleanly articulated, with just the barest hint of tube amp overdrive -  is captured Room sound (even a bit of snapback) is clearly audible around Turrentine's dark-toned tenor as he enters his solo on the classic "Chitlins Con Carne," likewise, the almost pointillist introduction to "Mule," with Burrell trading legato lines with Holley's glisses, evokes a clear sense of space and warmth that'll have you swearing you're listening to analog. Burrell's own solo on the title track, displays the leader's signature mix of restraint and technical prowess, each note attack clearly defined against the rhythm section.

There's a bit of evident tape hiss here and there (in particular behind the mournful, reflective Burrell solo, "Soul Lament"), but that's no fault of the remaster, and in fact a welcome indicator of the lack of tampering on the part of Yoshida and Lynn, who seem to have done their job from a preservationist perspective; getting nothing more than the clearest possible window on the original tapes. 

There are, of course, extant SACDs of both Midnight Blue and The Sidewinder, remastered by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at Acoustech for Analog Productions, and those include some alternate takes. So if those are already in your collection you may not absolutely need to get this - but you'll still likely want to. And if you've gone through a few vinyl copies of these, or only have the Van Gelder remastered CD versions (and if you consider yourself a jazz fan or maybe if you are just now or have ever been a guitarist, you most likely fall into at least one of those camps), these should probably be your next replacements. Great, great stuff.