Tatum & Webster at 45 (rpm)

Audiophiles well know the glories of a 12-inch slab of 180-gram virgin vinyl cut for 45-rpm playback. Compared with a normal LP’s 33-1/3 revolutions per minute, the grooves on a 45 are stretched out over a wider space, allowing the stylus to track them more accurately and to give voice to the music’s minutest details. The non-‘philes among you may be shaking your heads (Oh, no, Is this guy a nutball?) but, believe me, it’s true. A few years back, Classic Records, Mike Hobson’s L.A.-based audiophile label, put out a series of limited-edition single-sided 45 rpm LPs, one album stretched out on four slabs of vinyl, each of which had grooves on one side but nothing, just plain black vinyl, on the other. The theory was that a perfectly flat bottom surface would couple more firmly to the turntable’s mat, eliminating the distortion of vinyl resonances. That may sound nuttier still, but, believe me, it’s true, too. (I’ve compared single-sided and double-sided 45 rpms of several albums that Hobson released in both formats—especially Sonny Rollins’ Our Man in Jazz and the Chicago Symphony’s performance of Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije, conducted by Fritz Reiner. The differences were not subtle. I value those albums as much as any in my collection, for musical and sonic reasons.)

Acoustic Sounds, Chad Kassem’s audiophile label in Salina, Ks., doesn’t go that far—he has the mastering engineers at AcousTech stamp grooves on both sides of the slabs—but, over the past few years, he has been reissuing 100 albums from Fantasy’s Original Jazz Classics catalogue on 45 rpm LPs (two black discs for each album—the wider grooves can’t fit on just one). Not all 100 are masterpieces, nor do they all sound terrific (some of them never sounded terrific), but, in my experience, they sound better—in some cases, much better—than they have in any previous reissue; some sound better than the original pressings.

He’s now in the process of releasing the last batch of the 100, and a must-buy among them is The Art Tatum Group Masterpieces, featuring Tatum on piano and Ben Webster on tenor sax (with Red Callender on bass and Bill Douglass on drums). This was the last of eight albums in the “Group Masterpieces” series that Tatum recorded in the mid-1950s for producer Norman Granz (he also laid down seven volumes of “Solo Masterpieces”), and it is by far the greatest.

Tatum was simply beyond peer. As the famous story has it, one night when Tatum stepped in a Chicago club to see Fats Waller, his childhood idol, Waller stepped off the bandstand, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m just a man who plays piano, but tonight God is in the house.” He was a virtuoso on the level of Horowitz, but with a blues cadence and a swing rhythm; and he had a way with playfully dissonant harmonies, which foreshadowed (and greatly influenced) Bud Powell and Monk.

Webster seemed an unlikely partner for an album of standards. At this point in his career, he did little more than blow the melody; his focus was on tone, but what a tone—hefty, rich and warm, gushing with air and vibrato and muscular romance. The contrast between the two is heady, riveting, irresistible.

This is a mono recording; the uppermost octave is slightly truncated; and there’s a bit too much reverb on the horn; but aside from that, it sounds great. The (pretty good) XR-CD, put out by JVC a few years back, is gaslight by comparison. The 45 rpm LPs let you hear all the detail in Tatum’s fingerwork; the cymbals whoosh and sizzle more like the real thing (on the CD, they sound like they’re covered by a blanket); and Webster’s horn (despite the reverb) swoons.

This is an essential album.