Revinylization #11: James Booker, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Joan Armatrading

Last month, I received so few vinyl reissues that I had to invite a guest writer—jazz critic and political commentator Fred Kaplan—to fill in. Fred had managed to grab an early copy of the excellent Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue of Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I didn't get mine until a week or so after his review was submitted.

This month, I have a tall stack to choose from, so I'll mention several.

On most celebratory Friday evenings at my New York City apartment, an album or two by New Orleans musicians finds its way onto my 'table: Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, Dr. John, the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas. James Booker is sometimes in that mix—one of his live albums usually, most often Piano Wizard Live! on Rounder Records.

Craft Recordings—Concord's reissue label—has reissued Booker's 1982 release Classified, also on Rounder. Classified is a colorful, characterful record, Booker singing and playing mostly familiar covers ("King of the Road," "Baby Face," "Hound Dog"), sometimes just voice and piano, other times with sax, bass, and drums. Classified was recorded at Ultrasonic Studios, which was bulldozed in 2007 following the Katrina-related disaster.

This new version of Classified has a pedigree. It was cut by Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl, current home of the Neumann VMS 70 record lathe used to cut all those great Stax LPs in Memphis. The vinyl was also pressed in Memphis, at Memphis Record Pressing. Some purists won't be pleased, but it was cut from a digital master, created for a 2013 deluxe edition issued on CD and a double-LP set.

Booker is said to have played piano, at age 18, for Arthur Rubinstein, who then commented, "I could never play that, ... never at that tempo." Dr. John called Booker "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." Booker contributed to recordings by Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Freddie King, Ringo Starr, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, but died at age 43 having recorded just two studio albums of his own. Classified was his swan song.

The sound is as good as it needs to be for a Friday night listening party. The vinyl is flat and quiet (but was dusty right out of the sleeve), the bass has good weight, and piano and voice have clarity and presence, although there's a little hardness to both. At $26 on Amazon, the price is competitive with the handful of used copies in good condition that are available online.

A sonic standout this month—despite some issues—is Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, part of Acoustic Sounds' Verve reissue series. It's an album of standards—"That Old Feeling"; "How Long Has This Been Going On?"; "Just One of Those Things," with Louis mainly vocalizing but trumpeting some, too. He is backed by the Peterson trio—Peterson, bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis—joined by Louis Bellson on drums. Remastering, from the original analog tapes, was performed by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound. The record comes in a nice, thick gatefold jacket.


The sound here is rich, full, rounded. The soundstage is wide, with good depth. Louis's voice and trumpet are very palpable and natural-sounding—but the voice is quite forward, even aggressive. I experienced distortion ranging from barely noticeable to seriously distracting on vocal peaks.

Was it my setup? I went back and checked: tracking force, antiskating, cartridge geometry. I cleaned my stylus and the record. The distortion did not go away. Was it a playback error, or was the distortion on the recording?

I checked in with colleagues. Michael Fremer and Ken Micallef both had copies of this record. They both heard the distortion. I listened to a digital source—the 16/44.1 version streaming on Tidal. There is some distortion there, on those vocal peaks, but it's scarcely noticeable, much less than I was hearing on the new LP.

Then Fremer remembered that he had a copy of the 2001 Speakers Corner reissue, cut by Kevin Gray. Does it have the same issues? If it does, that would let us know whether it's on the original recording—or whether Analogue Productions screwed up. The Speakers Corner has the same distortion. Plus, Michael told me, overall, the Speakers Corner version sounded much worse. Acoustic Sounds, then, can't be faulted, unless it's for deciding to reissue a flawed recording. I almost feel like it should come with a warning label.

Despite the distortion, this record is in some ways a sonic standout, with some remarkable qualities. It checks all the audiophile boxes—full, rich, wide, deep—and at moments it gets inside Louis's well-polished rasp. You can hear fallibility, a wavering, human core, in that famous voice. This isn't the audio-show demonstration record I was expecting, but it's still worth owning.


The all-analog Intervention Records reissue of Joan Armatrading's eponymous album, from 1976, remastered for vinyl by Kevin Gray, sounds quite different than I remember this album sounding, and quite different from the CD rip I compared it to to corroborate my memory. There's more bass on the new LP, more depth to the vocals, and less sibilance—but the new version is also darker-sounding, a little more closed-in.

If you don't know Joan, she's worth discovering, and if you're an old fan with original copies—well, what vinyl fan ever said on their death bed, "I wish I'd bought fewer records"

Anton's picture

She's an international treasure.

AaronGarrett's picture

That James Booker record is so good.

Rcrd's picture

I'm very happy to read the comment about the Armstrong/Peterson album... I got it last weekend and it sounded harsh sometimes.. I thought it was my cartridge!

And I didn't knew Joan Armatrading - I streamed it for a bit, and it sounds very interesting - Will definitely have to put some more time into listeing to her.. Thanks for that!