Despite the origin of the CD roughly three decades ago and the more recent digital revolution, the old fashioned "record album," spinning at a rate of 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, never went out off style. Some companies have produced them all along. Others have simply maintained and revered the vinyl of old. With the right equipment -- high-end turntable and proper receiver an speakers -- people say it still produces the best sound. As technology soars, that may not always be the case.
But there has always been something to be said for the old records. Not the least of which was the cover art, and important way of attracting buyers, or simply conveying something deep about the music and the people making it.
This year is the 75th Anniversary of Blue Note Records, an iconic jazz label. The label is planning many things to mark the anniversary this year. But one of them is a slow rollout of classic Blue Note recordings by legendary jazz musicians. The label is also known for its fantastic cover art, featuring the photography of Francis Wolff, also a Blue Note producer, and the design of artist Reid Miles. It begins March 25, with the release of five classics: Art Blakey's Free For All, John Coltrane's Blue Train, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch, Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, and Larry Young's Unity. The vinyl releases are set to continue monthly and will also include modern classics from Blue Note’s recent catalog. In all, there will be 100 vinyl releases. The label says five albums a month--for many months. Blue Note Records was founded on January 6, 1939, by Alfred Lion, a German immigrant. In 2012, Don Was, known from the rock band he co-founded called Was (Not Was) became president. It may seem like an unlikely marriage, but a recent conversation with Was for a article at the All About Jazz website, Was shows himself to be a good man for the job.
"We're trying all kinds of stuff. Even with vinyl," Was told me in January. "We've organized a network of independent record stores who are going to be authorized Blue Note dealers. We're launching a series of low-cost, but really high quality, re-mastered vinyl"
Was is a musician, but a long-time producer who's credits include Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and many more rock greats. He grew up loving Blue Note jazz. He has great respect for music and musicians. So he had a good time in the vinyl selection process.
"That was a very interesting experience, going back and re-mastering our catalog," he said. "It's been re-mastered over and over and over again and there are a number of philosophical approaches you can take. They're radically different ... We went through and listened to everything. From the initial vinyl pressings, right through to the latest CD master ... In terms of the feel of the music, the original vinyl felt best.
"There's something about the original intention of the artist. What did everyone get when they left the studio and said, 'Yeah. This is great.' What did that sound like? What were they hearing? That's really what people should hear. Not the reinterpretation of what they were hearing. It's not for me to editorialize over Kenny Burrell. What was Kenny excited about? What did he want it to sound like? We've done some painstaking work trying to recapture the feel of the initial pressings. But still take advantage of the fact that in the hi-def digital downloads, which you can get on HD tracks, for example, you have a little more transparency now.
"For example, when you go to vinyl, the back of the mix moves in closer. The imaginary room that the musicians are in--that room gets apparently smaller with vinyl. With 96k and 192, you're able to keep the back wall, get the transparency. The important thing is to do that without losing the feel of the music that was on the vinyl. It's a delicate thing."
Was said it was done right and it's a source of pride. As a musician (primarily a bass player), producer and now label head, his stance on the sanctity of the music hasn't changed. That's why he'll do a fine job for Blue Note.
Here are some of his thoughts he shared with me on music:
"I believe that the area of the brain that processes music, neurologists have identified it and feel it's there initially in infants for per-language communication. When you talk to a baby, they don’t understand words but they understand tones. A mother coos to her child, 'Ahhh look at the baby.' Those notes. People use those notes in all cultures. Disparate cultures from around the world make the same sound. And intervals have emotional meaning for people. You find those intervals appearing in timeless songs, like 'Amazing Grace.' You coo to a baby with 'Amazing Grace' and it communicates to them.
"By the time your 12 years old, you shut down 19 out of 20 synapses because we can't operate at that level. The ones you keep open are the ones that you use all the time. Even tough we develop language skills, we keep the area of the brain that processes music open. Those synapses stay open. My feelings it's because conversational language has limitations that fail to convey the full depth off our emotional lives. Art, in particular music, puts us in touch with our feelings and helps us make sense of our lives. That should be the goal of music ... Artists, they may not all be like Albert Schweitzer, you know? [chuckles] It may not be a humanitarian effort. Artists are trying to express themselves to make sense out of their lives. But people listen to music and people participate in art because it helps them feel the same way. That's the goal. That's what you're trying to do if you're producing a record, whether it's a Bonnie Raitt record, a Rolling Stones Record or a Wayne Shorter record. Put people in touch with their feeling. Make them feel something.
"You do this by being for real and honest, yourself. That's at the core of record making. What modes or scales you use are kind of irrelevant. That's different to everybody. And there are plenty of people who know all the modes and scales and don't make you feel anything except, 'Wow, look how many notes that cat can play.' I don't think that's noble incentive for making art. [chuckles]. To show off your technique. In the end, there's not that much difference. You either feel something or you don't. The categories I use to differentiate it are: It's either generous music or it's selfish music. 'Look how many notes I can play' is selfish music. 'Here's what I feel. Maybe you feel the same way.' That's a very generous stance."
And long live Blue Note.