Blue Note xrcd24 Reissues – a Cause for Celebration

by | Oct 13, 2013 | Special Features

For years the XRCD re-issue series from JVC put out among the very best “Red Book” CDs of any jazz label. Their attention to detail was beyond reproach.  Original issues in the 1990s were manufactured in the JVC manufacturing plant in Yokohama, Japan. They involved the use of the 20-bit Sony PCM-9000 magneto-optical disc combined with JVC’s K2 20-bit analog-to-digital converter. Jitter and distortion were largely eliminated. The end product produced the highest quality transfer from the original master tapes to compact disc. At that time JVC issued primarily releases from  Fantasy/OJC, well before those labels were sold to Concord Records. [Although these discs are down-sampled to CD 44.1K/16-bit standards and are playable on any CD player, we are still listing these latest versions individually in our Hi-Res Section because the fidelity has been enhanced to the point that they now truly sound more hi-res than standard CDs…Ed.]

In 2006 Elusive Disc took over the JVC XRCD line when JVC USA shut down their operations here. With former JVC employee Kevin Berg as production coordinator, and Robert Bantz as executive producer, under the moniker Audio Wave (marketed by Elusive Disc), they have been re-issuing classic Blue Note issues from the 1950s and 1960s, as XRCD 24s.

Released primarily as a subscription series, these Blue Note re-issues are advertised to have the best acoustics of any Blue Note CD release. They are converted through JVC’s newly re-designed K2 24-bit analog to digital converter. The entire transfer process is documented in a three page explainer following the original liner notes of each XRCD 24 issue. The cardboard “book” packaging of each Blue Note issue is impeccable with feature session photos by the iconic photographer and Blue Note co-owner, Francis Wolff.

Here are four of the 24-bit extended resolution XRCD 24 K2 discs from Elusive Disc. They are fully compatible with any CD player. Each issue is produced by Joe Harley, and mastered by Alan Yoshida. They are issued in limited production at a $29.99 list price, but are available for less on Amazon. [The four buttons across the top will take you to the four xrcd24s in succession…Ed.] According to legendary mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, they are claimed to be the best digital versions ever of classic Blue Note albums. [Although there is now a series of Blue Note analog 45 rpm vinyl reissues from Music Matters which might be competition…Ed.]

Before even listening to these XRCD 24 discs, the level of anticipation is palpable… Blue Note collectors are always looking for the ultimate sonic quality of their favorite BN album, whether it be on Japanese TOCJ, SACD, Blue Note RVG, or Connoisseur issue. The ultimate comparison is usually with the original first pressed Blue Note vinyl, or an audiophile-issued LP. Now once again, Blue Note fanatics have an opportunity to make their own aural decision. It can be a little spendy, but the “testing procedure” is painless. (You have to wonder, though, as our ears age, and with the constant debate over new electronics vs. older classic tube listening components, when we will either declare it a “draw,” or close our pocketbooks with so many re-issues in some of our collections.)

Our first four XRCD 24 K2 reviews are Freddie Hubbard’s initial Blue Note release, Open Sesame; two Lee Morgan classics, Candy and Tom Cat; and Kenny Drew’s Undercurrent. Candy is a mono release; the others are stereo.

On with the show…

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Freddie Hubbard – Open Sesame – Blue Note ST-84040/ Audio Wave xrcd24 AWMXR-0012 (1960) Stereo, 53:38 *****:

(Freddie Hubbard – trumpet; Tina Brooks – tenor sax; McCoy Tyner – piano; Sam Jones – bass; Clifford Jarvis – drums)

Open Sesame was released in 1960, and was the first Blue Note recording date as a leader for Freddie Hubbard. He was only 22 years old then. Featuring a dream line-up, Hubbard was well prepared to showcase his talents. Backed by tenor sax player, Tina Brooks, who died way too young

(at age 42 and had not recorded in the last 12 years of his life), and another 22-year-old prodigy, McCoy Tyner (who would not record his own initial album for another two years), Open Sesame was a rousing introduction for Freddie and company.

Hubbard at this young age already had a full arsenal of trumpet skills, from soulful lyrical talent to full firepower with rapid spitfire phrasing on the burners. The title track opens with a minor groove that hard bop fans will love. An immediate reaction on listening to this XRCD release is how sonically stunning the acoustics are. Listening at my normal volume on my stereo system, I thought someone had turned up the volume without my knowledge. The soundstage was so wide, and Freddie seemed to be so “present” that I felt I was experiencing this album from Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio for the first time, though I have this CD in my collection in at least two reissue versions. It was an awesome experience…

Tina Brooks keeps pace, and brings to mind a cross between early Coltrane in his passionate playing, and Hank Mobley. “But Beautiful” follows and Freddie shows off his warm lyrical side with a steady burnished crystalline tone. Brooks’ solo takes it slow and mellow, caressing each phrase. Tyner gets his spotlight and meshes well with his horn mates. Again I heard a clarity in the mastering that made me wish that I had an audiophile vinyl recording to compare to this sonic bliss.

Tina’s “Gypsy Blue” gives Brooks the chance to take early honors with his blues-drenched solo. Freddie then steps in to re-assert himself, and it is incredulous how mature his presentation is at such a young age. The old man of the group, Sam Jones, then solos and he walks the bass briefly. Again I was blown away as I could swear that Jones was only three feet away from me. “All or Nothing at All” is taken at a upbeat pace, and drummer Jarvis makes his presence felt with propulsive cymbal and skin prowess. Freddie and Tina blend appropriately on “One Mint Julep,” and it’s hard not to nod your head along to this tune. Freddie’s “Hub Nub” closes the session with more hard bop blowing, and the XRCD includes alternate takes of the title cut as well as another version of “Gypsy Blue,” which weren’t on the original LP.

Open Sesame is a clear-cut winner and worth every dime of its premium price both for its sonic brilliance as well as the musicianship of its artists. What a glorious way to be introduced to the XRCD 24 series.

TrackList: Open Sesame, But Beautiful, Gypsy Blue, All or Nothing at All, One Mint Julep, Hub’s Nub, Open Sesame (alt take), Gypsy Blue (alt take)

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Lee Morgan – Tom Cat – Blue Note LT 1058/ Audio Wave xrcd24 AWMXR-0008 (1964) Stereo, 41:23 ****:

(Lee Morgan – trumpet; Jackie McLean – alto sax; Curtis Fuller – trombone; McCoy Tyner – piano; Bob Cranshaw – bass; Art Blakey – drums)

It is surprising that considering the iconic personnel on Tom Cat, Lee Morgan’s 1964 recording for Blue Note, that the label did not release this recording until 1980, eight years past Lee’s death. It certainly can’t be that this session was too weak, or not up to Blue Note’s exacting standards. Morgan fans were pleased to have the album released in 1980, and hard bop audiophiles will be anxious to hear the acoustic improvement on the XRCD 24 issue from Audio Wave.

Made up of five tracks, Tom Cat boasts five Morgan compositions as well as McCoy Tyner’s “Twilight Mist.” The title track has Tyner open with a vamp that brings to mind a creeping cat, a la The Pink Panther. The front line horns join in with an ensemble blend that is pleasing and then Morgan ups the ante with increasing intensity as the melody picks up in pace. Jackie Mac is a great foil for Lee in blowing some soulful blues lines. The tune may not have had the catchy hooks found on “The Sidewinder” or the follow-up funkiness of “The Rumproller” but it is prime hard bop. “Exotique” follows, and definitely has a similar feel to “Search for the New Land,” also recorded in 1964. The edgy melody is made to order for McLean’s careening alto, and Curtis Fuller digs in for his own solo, before Morgan returns and takes off on a tear with resounding power. Blakey follows with a solo before the members return to the theme.

“Twice Around” opens as an ensemble blend for the sextet before each horn gets solo time, as well as Tyner and Blakey. Mogie’s choruses are blistering.  Tyner’s “Twilight Mist” is the ballad feature and Lee has center stage with Fuller and Jackie blending behind the melody set by Tyner. It’s a lovely tune. “Riggarmortes” is far from stiff as Lee blows with ferocity and Jackie matches the leader in passionate blowing.

The acoustics are first rate and have a higher fidelity and better audio quality than the previous Blue Note CD reissue, though not quite up to the level as found on Freddie Hubbard’s Open Sesame. 

TrackList: Tom Cat, Exotique, Twice Around, Twilight Mist, Riggarmortes

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Kenny Drew – Undercurrent – Blue Note ST-84059/ Audio Wave xrcd24 AWMXR-0024 Stereo (1961), 38:56 ****½:

(Kenny Drew – piano; Freddie Hubbard – trumpet; Hank Mobley – tenor sax; Sam Jones – bass; Louis Hayes – drums)

Kenny Drew only officially had one album on Blue Note, though Walkin’ and Talkin’ which was recorded for Pacific Jazz, later was released on the  Blue Note label. Kenny moved to Copenhagen in 1964, and for the balance of his career his albums were primarily piano trios recorded for Steeplechase Records. He remained prolific until his passing in 1993.

Luckily, Audio Wave for their XRCD 24 Blue Note reissue program chose Undercurrent to release as this album is treasured by Blue Note fans as Kenny’s finest album. With the likes of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Hank Mobley on tenor sax, as well as a rhythm section of Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, who’s to argue? When you add the remastering found on this XRCD, it adds up to a winning combination – Kenny Drew’s best album with an all-star horn front line playing all Drew compositions.

The title track begins with Freddie and Hank locked in a tight groove, before Mobley blows in that immediately recognizable funky midrange register. Jones and Hayes (members of Cannonball Adderley’s dream group of the 1960s), are well-recorded and prominent in the mix. Drew stirs the pot mid-track. “Funk-Cosity” sounds like it could have been recorded by Adderley or Mobley, and its title has Mobley written all over it. It is hard bop at its best, and features Hubbard at his most powerful and his swagger is ever present as he takes charge, before Mobley has his say. This track is a highlight of the July 14, 1960 session.

“Lions Den” was probably written for Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s owner. Its groove oriented melody fits right in here, as Mobley takes honors before Kenny gets extended solo time, well backed by Jones and Hayes. “The Pot’s On” shows Mobley and Hubbard in ensemble mode, while “Groovin’ the Blues” has the tenor and trumpet in some straight ahead blues.

“Ballade” closes out the album in a lovely laid back manner, as the quintet shows their lyrical chops, as the young Hubbard shows maturity well past his 22 year old age, and Drew, a decade older, mixes in some classical lines before Hubbard closes out the tune.

The acoustics on this album are superb and up to the level found on Hubbard’s Open Sesame session, which was recorded just one month earlier. 1960 was a very good year for Blue Note recordings

The mastering by Alan Yoshida of Audio Wave is outstanding. This XRCD simply is head and shoulders ahead of the prior Blue Note CD reissue. It is worth every penny of its premium price for audiophile collectors of the golden age of Blue Note recordings (1958-1965).

TrackList: Undercurrent, Funk-Cosity, Lion’s Den, The Pot’s On, Groovin’ the Blues, Ballade

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Lee Morgan – Candy – Blue Note 1590/ Audio Wave xrcd24 AWMXR-0014 (1957) mono, 42:01 *****:

To say that Lee Morgan was a teenage trumpet prodigy is an understatement. He started to record at age 18 as a leader, and by the time that Candy was recorded, it was his seventh album for Blue Note. His albums had been coming out every two to three months at that time. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note, knew that the label had a future superstar on their hands, and Lee was as active a recording artist, even through the years of his drug problems, all the way to just prior to his tragic death in February, 1972.

Without the back-up of another horn, Candy, was recorded on November 18, 1957 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. The rhythm section was made up of Sonny Clark (who also had a premature passing) on piano, and Doug Watkins and Art Taylor, respectively, on bass and drums. Song selection was largely standards, as would be expected when the band leader was only 18.

Not surprisingly, Morgan was talented enough himself to be able to carry this session on his back. The well known title track opens the album, as Art Taylor pushes on Lee, while Sonny Clark improvises throughout his solo. Since the master was mono, producer Joe Harley, and remastering engineer Alan Yoshida, provide a well-mixed “deep mono” experience. Watkins is in the pocket with a steady beat you could set a metronome to, and Art Taylor on drums is crisp and swinging. Lee is expressive with clean enunciation and a warm, inviting tone. We’re off to a great start…

“Since I Fell for You” is sublime and Morgan is comparable to a young Clifford Brown for command of his trumpet on this ballad. The soundstage here is enveloping and provides an in-the studio experience. Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A” follows and Lee’s rapid fire lines put him on par with his contemporary, Freddie Hubbard, showing a little less bravado than Freddie would likely demonstrate on this track.

The Cahn/Heusen chestnut, “All the Way” is up next and though we know its melody by heart, Morgan gives a tender reading that is very easy on the ear. He knows exactly how long to hold each note, and the power of a note’s fading decay. Sonny Clark’s embellishments on his choruses are welcome. Clark was 26 at the time this recording was made, and would be sadly mourned just five years later, when he died in mid-January, 1963.

Lee’s talents with tonguing and slurring are shown on “Personality” and on a bonus track, not part of the original album, “All at Once You Love Her.”  Fans of both Lee Morgan and audiophile quality jazz trumpet would be well advised to get themselves some Candy.

TrackList: Candy, Since I Fell for You, C.T.A., All the Way, Who Do You Love I Hope, Personality, All At Once You Love Her.

— All reviews: Jeff Krow


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