Revinylization #43: The Original Jazz Classics label label rises (yet) again

Liner notes from jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s can be shot through with naivete, hipsterism (usually faux), and callousness toward the abundance of musical talent then working. Few though are as shortsighted as the original essay by Jack Maher on the back of 1960's Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. Opening with "Miles Davis is the most maligned and idolized musician in modern American jazz today. He is at once the saint and the sinner," he goes on to cite a dynamic that literally all musicians experience, especially when playing live: "He has been accused of being lackadaisical and unconcerned about his playing. When the spirit moves him, he plays with warmth and lyric beauty, at other times he plays with vague disinterest."

Once the tape was running, however, Miles rarely missed a step. Among all of Davis's recording triumphs, the pair of sessions with Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack, New Jersey, his May and September 1956 sessions with saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, remain among his finest moments on record.

The 24 tracks of hard bop captured in first takes were cut into four albums with similar apostrophe-accented titles: Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (released July 1957), Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (March 1958), Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (January 1960), and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (July 1961). All were released on the Prestige label, two of them before the release of Miles's landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue (on Columbia) and two of them after. While each album has its devotees, Workin', which with eight tracks is the longest of the four, still shines just a little brighter than the rest.

Workin' and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane are the first titles of a new reissue program on Craft Records focusing on albums first reissued by the Original Jazz Classics label. OJC was founded by Fantasy Records in 1982 to reissue albums from the Riverside, Contemporary, and Prestige labels, which it owned; OJC and all of Fantasy is now owned by Concord. Concord's new high-end reissue arm, Craft Records, is upgrading select LP titles from the OJC catalog with 180gm vinyl and heavy tip-on jackets.

Both new Craft reissues, Workin' (mono) and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (stereo), were all-analog mastered from the original tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio and pressed at Record Technology Inc. (RTI). Asked why these two were chosen as the launch releases, Mark Piro, director of artists and repertoire for Craft, responded, "We wanted to kick off the series with two of our most iconic titles. Both albums are certainly deserving of that status, and Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet was one title in particular that we had received many requests to reissue."

Of all the horn players in jazz history, including certain tenor saxophonists known for slow, expressive playing, no one ever approached the beauty of Miles Davis's way with a ballad. On the first track here, "It Never Entered My Mind," with the muted tone that's so uniquely Miles, his solo is piercing, lyrical, and elegantly bittersweet. Garland's accompaniment is equally touching. That's followed by amazingly unified playing on the Miles original, "Four," where any doubts about this group being in the same place creatively are forcefully dispelled. Both album sides close with "The Theme (Take #1)" and "(Take #2)," a number Davis used to close his live shows.

Despite the title, Thelonious Monk is actually with John Coltrane on three of the seven tracks; they share the front line backed by drummer Shadow Wilson and bassist Wilbur Ware. These three tracks are special, particularly the side-two opener, Monk's "Nutty," in which both headliners create solos emblematic of where they ere at that moment and where they were going as artists. Improvising around a nursery rhyme–like theme, Coltrane is all speed and fast-flowing ideas while Monk is quirky and deliberate. Oddly enough, this is another album that was recorded years earlier than it was released, in April, June, and July 1957; it was released in October 1961.

Originally released on Riverside's Jazzland subsidiary, the Monk/Coltrane album has been reissued 92 times on labels including OJC, Fontana (Japan), WaxTime, Vinyl Passion, and DOL (all Europe) and twice in the US, on Analogue Productions, including a 2003 45rpm edition which has a slight sonic edge on all reissues so far but is out of print and routinely priced at more than $200 on the secondary market.

While Workin' has remained in print on Prestige, original mono LP copies in good shape can be found on Discogs and eBay at or near $500. Of its 98 reissues, a 180gm mono 33 1/3 LP boxed set of all four albums from these sessions, issued by Analogue Productions in 1996, and a later 45rpm single-disc reissue of Workin' on the same label, have the best sound, but both are out of print, expensive, and near impossible to find. Also out of print is the super high-end version from The Electric Recording Company cut on an all-tube system that is reputed to have fine sound.

Cut slightly hotter than the original LP pressings, which to many audiophile ears still sound best, the sound of these fresh OJCs is more than respectable thanks to the good ears of Kevin Gray. Both albums come with obi strips. The Workin' obi quotes from a review by DownBeat's Ralph Gleason; he was writing about that record, but his words apply to both new OJCs. "Few bands in the history of jazz have had the quality of this group," he wrote. "The whole LP is a gas. I don't see how anyone can do without it."