Revinylization #23: Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Oliver Nelson

Two new reissues in Blue Note's Classic Vinyl series—Grant Green's Idle Moments and Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue—capture peaks of jazz guitar's possibilities at a juncture when modernism was primed for a shift to something else. Both albums were recorded in 1963; both sport "the Blue Note sound," which engineer Rudy Van Gelder had refined to its high point. But the two albums lay out very different musical paths.

Green's album follows the modal outlines that Gil Evans and George Russell had traced a few years earlier, though Green's sextet imbues the harmonies with a still-cooler blues and a jauntier swing. Green was influenced by Charlie Christian, one of the first electric guitarists to be influenced by Charlie Parker; and, like Christian, Green unfurled single-note melodies—I don't know if I've ever heard him strum the guitar—with a lithe, limber touch, in the manner of a horn player but also with a precise, steely clarity. There's a bracing, breezy quality to his playing that's unlike any other jazz guitarist's.

His band on Idle Moments—Joe Henderson, tenor sax; Bobby Hutcherson, vibes; Duke Pearson, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; and Al Harewood, drums, most of them rising young innovators—match Green in his flair for melodic improvisation. This may be Green's best album, notable for its 16-minute rendition of the title tune (composed by Pearson) and the engaging liner notes (also by Pearson), which recount how the tune got to be that long and how smart producer Alfred Lion was to leave it alone. (Other record executives of the time would have cut it.)

The sound, mastered by Kevin Gray from the original analog tapes, is excellent. You get the full plucked shimmer of the guitar strings, the ring and glow of the vibes, the warmth and brass of the sax—even the piano (a weak point in many Van Gelder productions) is rich and vibrant. Blue Note's Classic Vinyl series isn't as elegant as its Tone Poet LPs—the latter sport glossy gatefold covers instead of plain cardboard, pressings from RTI instead of Optimal, and overseer Joe Harley's tweaks—but this album sounds just as fine as nearly any Tone Poet, for a smaller price tag.

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Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue, another sonic wonder in the Classic Vinyl series, is a more conventional jazz-blues album. (Track titles include "Chitlins Con Carne," "Wavy Gravy," and "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You"). Across his long career, Burrell, who was 30 at the time of this recording (Green was 28 when he made Idle Moments), played with a wide swath of musicians—Coltrane, Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Gil Evans, and many more—but his most frequent sideman gigs, on 22 albums, were with Hammond B3 organist Jimmy Smith. In other words, Burrell was deeply immersed in the nexus of jazz and blues, though, like Green, he mainly walked it in single-note lines and, even on this album, with inventive harmonies.

Another sign of contrast: While Idle Moments features Joe Henderson on tenor (contemplative, complex, cool), Midnight Blue blares Stanley Turrentine (more of a boisterous bar-walker, though I don't mean that as criticism: he's as good as that type comes). The quintet includes no piano or vibraphone, but it does have Ray Barretto on conga.

The sound, again Van Gelder via Gray, is also superb.

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While we're on the subject of blues, jazz, and abstraction: It's worth drawing attention to Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth, a 1961 Impulse! album reissued on Universal Music's collaborative series with Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds.

This is a classic jazz recording; its lead track, "Stolen Moments," is one of the true jazz masterpieces. (The song has similarities, and not just in their titles, to "Idle Moments"—both are casually paced minor-key modal progressions with each player allowed long solos—though I know of no evidence that the latter was directly inspired by the former.) It also sports a jaw-dropping all-star lineup: Nelson, alto sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax and flute; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Roy Haynes, drums.

Nelson, just 28, had recorded six albums as a leader in the two years before this one, seeking a direction under the influence of Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, like many saxophonists at the time. But with Blues, his breakthrough, he found his own way, shifting to a more modal gear though his range remained eclectic. (The album's second song, "Hoe-Down," is modeled after Aaron Copland's Rodeo.) Throughout his career, he infused deep blues into his most lyrical pieces (check out his arrangements on Sonny Rollins's soundtrack album, Alfie), and he crafted rhythmic or harmonic complexities into his most panting wailers. The blues and the abstract truth indeed.

The sound—another Van Gelder production, mastered by Ryan K. Smith, and pressed on QRP vinyl at Acoustic Sounds—is another scorcher. It's not quite as warm or 3D as the original Impulse! pressing—but try to find one of those in great condition. (If you do, buy it!) In any case, it comes very close to the original—much closer than any earlier reissue, vinyl or otherwise.

COMMENTS
Jonti's picture

Thanks for the write-up.

Anything produced by RVG is going to be good - and his Blue Note sound, aka the meticulous all-analogue, tube-driven recording of some of the world's finest musicians gathered in a plushly decorated, sonically lovely living room with heavy curtains, is one of my favourite signature sounds (right up there with the similarly distinctive sounds achieved by King Tubby and Studio One respectively in Jamaica a few years later) - but I'm not convinced that a new pressing (presumably using non-tube/non-analogue techniques, though I'm happy to be told otherwise) from the now-60-years-old tapes is ever going to sound as close to what RVG first concocted than, say, a reissue from 5-10 years after the initial recording sessions were put to tape.

Original pressings, as you rightly say, can be prohibitively expensive at this point, but to my ear - and this is the result of extensive comparisons - the early reissues that can be had for the same price as (or frequently less than) the modern-day reissues, are the best-sounding presses within ready reach. The true analogue warmth is still there, the freshness of the then-sprightly tapes is still there, the good business is there.

Jonti's picture

I should add that buying used vinyl rather than new vinyl is also a small way to do something good for the environment. Though of course this is not what the vinyl repressers want you to hear...

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