Masterpieces by Ellington, Finally, on Vinyl

For five years in this blog space, I've been urging, begging, audiophile record labels to reissue Masterpieces by Ellington, to my mind Duke Ellington's finest (and finest-sounding) album, on vinyl. Now Chad Kassem of Analogue Sounds has done it, and his QRP pressing is the jaw-dropper of the year—several years, actually.

The album was recorded at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio in Manhattan in December 1950 (that's no typo: 64 years ago), and even the Sony Legacy CD reissue that came out 10 years ago (with DSD mastering by Mark Wilder, but no SACD follow-up) sounded shockingly good. I've played it for many audiophiles, and a couple of high-end audio manufacturers, and their eyes all bug out. It's hard to believe, given the vintage, but few recordings of any age beat this one for color, clarity, and vividness.

And yet, the CD casts a pale shadow next to the sonic fireworks bursting forth from this new slab of virgin vinyl, which, I should note, was mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound from the original Ampex master tapes.

The session, way back then, was engineered by Fred Plaut and Harold Chapman, who would become Columbia perennials in the years to come, Plaut as the unsung master who later manned the mikes for Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Monk's quartet albums, and more. (He was literally "unsung" in his day, as Columbia—unlike Blue Note, Verve, RCA, Contemporary, and other jazz labels—didn't print technical credits on the back covers.)

This was Ellington's first LP, and rather than stuff each side with more songs, he and Billy Strayhorn penned longer arrangements of three classics from the '30s ("Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Solitude"), ranging from 5 to 15-plus minutes, as well as a new song, "The Tattooed Bride," at 11½.

They are staggeringly great arrangements that swoon all over the musical map but never lose the beat, the beauty, or the swing. (For more on the music, see the column I wrote in the December 9 Slate.)

If you're reading this blog or anything else in Stereophile (and, clearly, you are), you need this album. It sets a new standard for "must buy."

One more favor, maybe for next holiday season, Chad: put it out again in 45rpm.

volvic's picture

Ordered! Thanks for the heads up.

Azteca X's picture

Thanks for the longer article over at Slate as well. I really appreciate the backstory and context.
One note: there is a hybrid CD/SACD of the same remaster coming in the future for the digitally minded. It looks to be the same price as the LP but is worth noting.

Allen Fant's picture

As always, FK, nicely done! I am digitally-minded and will be buying this CD/SACD.

volvic's picture

I noticed the link you provided with a blue cover but have seen cd's with the red cover what is the difference?