Masterpieces by Ellington, now on SACD

I've probably raved enough about Analogue Productions' 200-gram vinyl reissue of Masterpieces by Ellington, one of the greatest (yet, strangely, least-known) albums in Duke Ellington's vast catalog—and, despite its vintage (1950, mono) his best-sounding. The good news here: for those of you who aren't into vinyl, AP has now issued it again as a hybrid SACD.

The sonics aren't quite as jaw-dropping as the LP—it doesn't have quite the 3D presence, lush warmth, or snap-crackle percussiveness—but it comes very close. More pertinent, I suspect, is that it sounds considerably better than the 2004 Columbia Legacy CD.

Analogue Productions' SACD costs $30, the same price as its LP. Columbia's CD can be had for $7.50, and sounds pretty terrific in its own right. But let me make the case for the SACD (though, again, if you're into vinyl, get the LP).

First, the SACD has much vaster dynamic range, on the soft and loud ends of the spectrum. It's clear, after listening to the two back-to-back, that the Columbia CD was compressed. Not heavily: before hearing the LP and now the SACD, I wouldn't have guessed it was compressed at all; the superb Mark Wilder, who mastered that edition in DSD, has a subtle touch. But for lifelike dynamics, the real sound of the horns, bass, and drums especially, spend the extra $22.50.

Speaking of "the real sound," the SACD also sounds tonally more real: Jimmy Hamilton's hard-blown clarinet, Johnny Hodges' sexy alto sax, Tyree Glenn's explosive (yah-yah-yah!) trombone, Wendell Marshall's soulful bass walk—they're all here, in their full finely woven textures.

Mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound from the original analog tapes, it's a pleasure and a treasure, exceeded (again) only by the LP.

One caveat: the packaging is disgraceful. Maybe Chad Kassem, Analogue Productions' proprietor, was in a hurry to get this out, but the brochure (though graced with a beautifully reproduced cover) doesn't list the musicians or engineers; nor does it mention (this is important) that the three "bonus tracks" (which also appeared on the Columbia CD) were recorded at two later sessions, in 1951, with a different engineer (Harold Chapman, not Fred Plaut, who did the original four tracks in 1950), and with several different musicians (Hodges, Glenn, and drummer Sonny Greer, left the band after the 1950 date). It's not nearly as good, musically or sonically.

Chad has since noted these facts on the website, and he tells me they'll be fully spelled out in the liner notes of subsequent pressings. (The current edition, numbering 1000 copies, is nearly sold out.) Meanwhile, if you've already bought the SACD, print the website page and keep it handy. The music, the sound, and, of course, the swing are the things, and they're all just gorgeous.

ken mac's picture

I found an original green-label copy of this a few weeks ago at new vinyl store in Bushwick, Northern Lights. $5. Punters are so busy going to Academy, A-1, In Living Stereo and Good NYC, they forget this great store. Oh yea, beautiful Ellington, but not sure if it's better than His Mother Called Him Bill or the Bluebird small group sides

Fred Kaplan's picture

Ken - The original pressing is a Columbia six-eyes, not green-label. (I don't know any Columbias that are green-label.) "And His Mother Called Him Bell" is great, as is "Far East Suite" and others...Fred

Fred Kaplan's picture

Oops, you're right. Original Columbia Masterworks LPs did have a green label. Sorry.

Allen Fant's picture

FK- I really enjoyed your Jazz coverage in 2014. It is very good to read that you are continuing this trend into 2015.
I look forward to more wonderful Jazz this new year!

ken mac's picture

Funny, I think the only green label Columbias I have seen were 78s. So they were reusing labels? Common practice I know, here's the evidence