Happy Kind of Blue Day!
For an elaboration of why Kind of Blue is such a great and revolutionary recording, see my column in Slate today (with illustrative sound clips included).
But for you readers of Stereophile blogs, most of whom know a lot about that sort of thing anyway, let’s deal with the important question: which LP and CD pressings of this album are the best-sounding? (And, as engineered by the shamefully unsung Fred Plaut, this is one of the best-sounding jazz albums as well.)
The version that I’m most prone to put on the ’table (and I say this as someone who has all of them) is the four-disc, 45rpm LP reissue by Classic Records. (It’s four discs because each slab of vinyl has only one side with grooves implanted; the other side is blank, which is to say flat, to minimize groove resonance against the platter. Yes, sounds wonky, but it does have an effect.) Anyway, this is the one: the instruments sound so there, so 3D; the tonal colors are just right; Paul Chambers’ bass is plucky, Jimmy Cobb’s drums sizzly, and John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis sound blissfully like themselves. (Bill Evans’ piano falls a bit short of the highest fidelity, but it sounds much better here than on other pressings.)
Classic also put out a number of 33rpm reissues of Kind of Blue, and they too sound excellent, if not quite as jaw-dropping.
As for original pressings, if you can find them in good condition, the original (with the center label illustrated with six eyes—hence the collectors’ designation “six-eyes” pressing) is terrific, though the Classic 45 is at least as good in every category, often better, except for the bass, where the original is a bit more tuneful.
Columbia’s second-pressing LP, which says “360 Sound” on the label, is just a couple notches below the original. Later pressings from the ‘70s, which have no such fancy work on the label (and which have a different serial number, beginning with “PC” instead of the original “CS”), are not worth getting: the music’s still great, but the sound is flat, one dimensional, less involving.
Last year, in celebration of the then-impending 50th anniversary, Sony Legacy (which long ago took over Columbia) put out a deluxe box-set, which included, among other things, a newly mastered blue-colored LP. The folks at Sony say they used the Classic pressings as a sound check, but I’d like to know what kind of playback gear they used. It sounds much like the 1970s reissue.
Kind of Blue has a checkered history on CD. Do not get the early ones; they sound bad. A startling breakthrough came in the late 1980s, when Sony’s engineers discovered an error in the original recordings. It turned out that the tape-recorder used on that fateful day at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio was running a quarter-tone slow, meaning the playback was a quarter-tone fast. The engineers for this gold CD dug up a backup tape, which ran at the right speed; the gold CD was mastered from it; and what do you know, the correction made a real difference; the music sounded a bit hip-groovingly bluesier still.
All subsequent CDs (and all of Classic’s LP reissues, which came a bit later) incorporated this speed adjustment. But caution: Do not get Sony’s SACD of this album, a very early stab at the technology, which was often used as a demo disc by people who tried to argue that SACDs were lousy.
The next CD, which came out in 1999 and was mastered on the three-channel vacuum-tube equipment used in the actual recording, sounded much better, though, for reasons that have never been explained, it includes an unusual amount of tape hiss.
The newest CD, a double-disc 50th-anniversary edition, removes the hiss, but the music has been stripped of a smidgen of high frequencies as well. You’ll notice this shortfall only on really excellent hi-fi systems. The bonus CD consists of other recordings by the same sextet, some live, most out of print; the sound is superb, and the music much worth having.