Masterpieces by Ellington at 45rpm

In 2014, Chad Kassem, proprietor of Acoustic Sounds and Analogue Productions, released a 200-gram QRP vinyl pressing of Masterpieces by Ellington, one of the Duke's least-known but possibly finest and finest-sounding albums, to wild acclaim and (by audiophile standards) brisk sales. Now he's put it out at 45rpm, and while the 33 was a startler, the new version—spread out on two LPs, to accommodate the wider grooves—will leave you breathless.

Here's the shocker: this album was recorded in 1950. That is not a typo. It was recorded 67 years ago. It was Ellington's first "long-playing" album and, rather than fill the extra space with more pieces, he and his collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, took three of his most popular tunes—"Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Solitude"—and expanded them into long, almost symphonic arrangements (ranging from 5 to 15 minutes), then, for good measure, added a new composition, "The Tattooed Bride" (talk about masterpieces!).

For more about the music, I refer you to the blog I posted three years ago, when Kassem first reissued the album, and to a longer piece I wrote for Slate (where I have a regular column on national-security issues). I'll focus here on the sonics, and my message is simple: except that it's in mono, this album sounds as vivid, present, lifelike, and colorful as almost any great modern recording.

If you link to those earlier pieces, you'll see that I said pretty much the same thing about Sony Legacy's DSD-mastered CD, which brought the album back in print after decades of obscurity, in 2004. I said it again, with more emphatic adjectives, when Acoustic Sounds' 331/3rpm LP came out. What's hard to convey in mere words is that the 45rpm LPs sound better still.

There's more sparkle to Ellington's piano, more wood in Wendell Marshall's bass, more breath and reed and romance in Johnny Hodges' alto sax, more force in Jimmy Hamilton's hard-blown clarinet. Each player in the horn sections sounds more distinct; I hear more of Duke's playing, underneath those sections, too. And soloists—palpable enough in 331/3rpm—are holographic at 45. In short, the 45 lets us hear more of the music, more of the detail, more of the human presence; it transports us more completely back in time.

As with the 33, the mastering was done by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, who worked from the original Ampex master tapes. The original engineer (though uncredited at the time) was Fred Plaut, who later recorded Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Time Out, the Broadway soundtrack to West Side Story, and many other Columbia classics from the era.

If you already have one of the other Acoustic Sounds reissues of this album (the 331/3rpm LP or, if vinyl isn't your thing, the SACD), you're in good shape. Hey, Sony's CD sounds pretty damn good, and you can get that from Amazon for less than $5. But if you love this music as I do, if you want to hear it in the most exquisite sound available, if your hi-fi lets you hear the exquisiteness, and if you can shell out the extra money (more than 10 times as much money as that Sony CD), then you'll want this 45.

COMMENTS
fetuso's picture

I have the Sony cd and had no plans to buy a vinyl version, but you make it sound so irresistible. Tomorrow is father's day...

Allen Fant's picture

Agreed-

I own the original Sony CD and the newer SACD. Both formats are excellent w/ a little more sparkle on the SACD disc.

worldofsteveUK's picture

It's on Spotify for anyone not familiar with the music, sounds a cut above what I'm used to hearing from that source. Thanks for the heads up, when I play "Ellington '55" on vinyl it does make me wonder why anyone felt the need for digital.

volvic's picture

Have it on 33.3, played it for a friend last week and he was mesmerized by the sound and performance. The vinyl is so quiet. Interesting how different it sounds on my LP12 and VPI HW-19. Love it.