Kenny Burrell: Midnight Blue from Music Matters Jazz

Music Matters Jazz is going 33. As all high-end vinylphiles know, MMJ is the LA-based company that's been reissuing classic Blue Note albums cut at 45 rpm, spread out over two slabs of 180 gram virgin vinyl, encased in a gatefold cover that meticulously reproduces the original's artwork on the outside and gorgeously reprints session photos of the musicians on the inside.

But now, after doing this with 112 titles, the company's proprietors, Ron Rambach and Joe Harley, are re-reissuing some of the greatest Blue Note titles on single-disc LPs cut at 331/3rpm. When I first heard the news, I thought they were merely trying to expand their market (nothing wrong with that), putting out a slightly lesser product at a slightly cheaper price ($35 per title, down from a 45's $50), so that the upper-mid-fi element—those who care for music and sound, but not so much to drop so much money or to turn the record over so many times—can get a taste of the really good stuff.

It turns out, though, that Rambach and Harley aren't dipping in the slightest. Judging from the first of these albums that I've heard (and from reliable reports that I've read about others), the MMJ Blue Note 33s sound as good as the 45s, in some cases better.

The one that I've heard is guitarist Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue, a 1963 mix of potent soul, blues, and jazz, and it's eye-popping.

First, as always, the music. Burrell, who ranks among the top handful of electric guitarists in jazz, once said that he strives for "the sound of the acoustic guitar, only louder . . . that warmth and midrange." But there's more to his sound than that. Jimi Hendrix is reputed to have said, "Kenny Burrell, that's the sound I'm looking for"—a bit of a puzzler, until you listen closely to Burrell and hear that fractured syncopation behind his melody line and, once in a while, the blue note that accents a chord and dips it one toe into the next octave. Hendrix took these extensions way beyond a dip, but yes, Burrell might well have been his inspiration.

Nearly all modern jazz guitarists (and a few rock ones, too, whether or not they know it) have taken something from Burrell. He grew up in Detroit, sat in as a teenager with the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis when they toured through town, and after moving to New York played in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Gil Evans, and Jimmy Smith. The gigs with Smith on B-3 Hammond turned him toward a more soulful direction, and, while there's no organ (or piano) on Midnight Blue, that's what we get here.

It's a soul-jazz-blues that's loose-limbered but precise: there's no bar-stomping here. It features Burrell on his midrange-plush electric guitar, Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax, Major Holley on bass, Bill English on drums, and Ray Barretto on congas—and, while it's not an up-off-your-chair booty-rouser, it is a deep-down head-shaker, a finger-snapping shoulder-groover.

Back to the sound. This is one of Blue Note engineer Rudy Van Gelder's sonic gems. (His piano-less albums tended to sound better, maybe owing to the lack of reflections: cf Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch). And while I don't have an original pressing handy, my guess is that this MMJ 331/3rpm reissue equals or beats it for sheer immediacy. These guys are in the room. The pluck and frame of the guitar, the whoosh of air through the horn, the sticks on the drumkit, the skin-slaps on the conga, the sense of space between and around the players—it's amazing. I couldn't believe it's not a 45.

The mastering was done by Kevin Gray of Cohearant Sound, who several years ago mastered a 45 rpm double-LP of this album for Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds, but this 33 sounds—dare I say it—better in every way. Gray told me in a phone conversation that he's spent the last couple years overhauling his entire system, from the console to the cutting heads, replacing every stage with discrete, class-A circuitry, and he wound up surprised by how good it sounded.

Really, this album sounds as vivid as just about any Blue Note 45 I've heard. A tantalizing thought: If Kevin Gray's new cutting gear can produce 33s that sound this great, then certainly it would produce 45s that sound better still. MMJ's Rambach tells me that he's finished with 45s: he and Harley, after all, have pretty much exhausted the Blue Note catalog in that format, and, besides, the two-disc packages were an economic headache, from production to shipping. But how about a boutique (or, in this case, a boutique-within-a-boutique) label, offering maybe a dozen "2nd-Generation Blue Note 45" titles? I'd bet enough crazy audiophiles would pay $100 a pop for this level of purity, which should be enough to finance a run of, say, 100 copies each. Whaddaya say, Ron?

cgh's picture

I ordered this version after reading Mikey's review on AP. The sound is great. Even upon visual inspection the slab looks like it sounds black. The timbre, presentation, and onset of the instruments are fantastic. My only critiques / questions are:

- It is very left / right for certain instrument, esp Burrell, in some songs. In Chitlins con Carne there is no L/R mix, the guitar comes out of the left speaker, so I can "hear" the speaker, which drives me nuts. Then, on Mule, he's dead center floating.
- There are some obvious pre-talk artifacts on Burrell's guitar. I've heard these are on the master tapes, so not much to do in that case, but definitely a mental reminder that you're listening to a recording.

carlosgallardo's picture

In the internet era, it's not so hard to share a link, this way, us the readers, could have the opportunity to listen to the music you are talking to about.
I miss the SM way