April 2010

Original Recordings Group

The first thing you’ll notice with many of Original Recordings Group’s (ORG) two-record vinyl releases is the sturdiness of the LP covers. I haven’t seen gatefold covers this hefty since the late 1960s, when record companies started using thinner cardboard and even flimsier material, like the thin paper Shorepak. The ORG covers are also a bit larger than normal, which prevents them from splitting, a common occurrence when 180-gram vinyl is shipped cross-country. For me, an LP cover has always been the introduction to a record, and ORG’s quality control in that respect is a good sign.

Monti Olson and Jeff Bowers started Original Recordings Group in 2006 with a vinyl release of Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong. The label received some attention last year when it announced it would be issuing Nirvana’s three major-label releases, Nevermind (1991), In Utero (1993), and Unplugged (1994) for the first time on wax. (The Seattle-based indie Sub Pop owns the rights to Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach.) While ORG’s catalog will soon include recent pop releases by TV on the Radio and Eels, as well as classic Dusty Springfield and Velvet Underground recordings, much of its focus has been on jazz titles originally released on Verve and Impulse. Olson is a vice president of A&R for Universal Music Publishing Group, which may explain why he and Bowers have been able to license titles from Universal’s many labels.

Olson and Bowers own ORG outright, independent of any major label, and their commitment to doing vinyl right defines their company’s mission. They realize that vinyl is a specialty item, and their product is luxuriously produced for the truly committed music lover. ORG’s release of the 10th anniversary edition of Beck’s Odelay features quad gatefold packaging, a full-color booklet, and careful mastering by Bernie Grundman. The label pressed only 3000 copies of the four-record set. Other flagship Original Recordings Group LPs are limited-edition 45rpm jazz pressings, once again carefully mastered by Grundman and pressed by Germany’s Pallas Group, which produces audiophile vinyl for Speaker’s Corner and Analogue Productions, among others. Those titles run about $60, but ORG also produces more affordable two-record 33rpm sets ($40 each), and its single-record pop releases, including the Nirvana LPs, are affordably priced.

Rickie Lee Jones’s Pop Pop (ORG 007) is one of ORG’s 33rpm sets, comprising two 180-gram LPs with three tracks on each side. David Was and Jones co-produced this collection of 12 standards, including "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Spring Can Hang You Up the Most." The accompaniment was very simple, with Robben Ford on acoustic guitar and Charlie Haden on stand-up bass as the foundation for many of the arrangements. Steve Hoffman and Kevin Grey remastered Pop Pop for this vinyl edition, although a few reviews and dealers credit Bernie Grundman. As soon as Ford’s nylon-string guitar rings from the speakers on the opening track, "My One and Only," the quality of this pressing is immediately apparent. The resonance of the guitar, the timbre of the instrument as the strings interact with the wood, is palpable in a way that a CD rarely captures. Charlie Haden’s bass rumbles forth and, again, the resonance of the music in the large wooden body of the instrument is beautifully rich.

The sense of acoustic space on this LP is remarkable and often delightful, especially for audiophiles who live for the experience of hearing a singer’s voice as it echoes slightly within the walls of a recording studio. Lee’s voice is presented sharply and with a stunning three-dimensionality in the soundstage. The subtle mix of the percussion in "Love Junkyard" is captured perfectly, and the occasional click of the keys on Dino Saluzzi’s bandoneon adds to the enjoyment and realism of the recording. The packaging on Pop Pop is a lightweight single sleeve, but the inner sleeves are of good quality and the vinyl is heavy and quiet, with just a tiny hint of groove noise on the lead-in. I hope ORG decides to do more of Lee’s music, especially The Magazine.

I have two versions of John Coltrane’s Ballads (1962), which I compared to ORG’s Ultimate Edition 45rpm pressing (ORG 012), mastered by Bernie Grundman using his recently upgraded mastering and cutting system. I have a 1970s MCA pressing of the LP and the seven-disc box set The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings, which includes the tracks that comprised Ballads. My old LP is actually a pleasant listen, though it never struck me as a definitive or demonstration-quality disc. This new pressing is both. Each instrument on "Say It (Over and Over Again)" comes through with more clarity and with a much more accurate placement in the soundstage. The texture of the air moving through Coltrane’s tenor sax is easily audible, and McCoy Tyner’s piano, particularly during the solo, is more open and resonant.

The mastering on the CD version is fine, but the bass is somewhat aggressive, while on this pressing it’s more naturally integrated with the rest of the band. Elvin Jones’s understated brushwork on "Say It (Over and Over Again)" and on the track that follows, "You Don’t Know What Love Is," is also a bit too forward on the CD, and on the first track the squeak of the high-hat pedal is clearly audible. The CD master of the tracks on Ballads, at least in the box set, is more insistent overall, and while I’ve always enjoyed listening to it, the ORG pressing is more musical and lush. The instrument placement is also more convincing and real. The bell of Coltrane’s horn is forward on the left at ear level and Jones’s brushstrokes on "I Wish I Knew" are on the right and slightly lower, as the snare would be in a performance. This pressing is surely the finest presentation of one of Rudy Van Gelder’s best recordings.

The Ultimate Edition pressing of Stan Meets Chet (ORG 014), a 1958 recording of the first of only a few meetings between Stan Getz and Chet Baker, is better in every way than the CD. The CD mastering is driving and energetic on the opening track, "I’ll Remember April," with Marshall Thompson’s ride cymbal moving things along at a brisk pace. But Jodie Christian’s piano comping is in danger, at times, of crowding out Baker’s trumpet, and Getz’s horn sounds somewhat edgy. Baker often sounds tentative throughout the recording, and the CD mastering seems to highlight his discomfort. By contrast, on the ORG pressing, mastered by Grundman, Thompson’s work behind Christian during the pianist’s solo is a support rather than a distraction, which is the way it comes across on the CD. Getz’s horn sounds more natural and warm, while still very detailed and clear. Thompson’s occasional drumstick taps on the rim of the snare come across more clearly, and they resound instead of immediately decaying.

The sound of Baker’s horn on the next track, a ballad medley, is rounder and fuller than on the disc, and, once again, Thompson and Christian are in a supporting position in the soundstage. Thompson’s accents on the high hat and his brush strokes on the snare are well behind Baker, and they offer a soft counterpoint, while on the CD the high hat sounds as if it might close on the trumpeter’s jacket tail. The sound of Christian’s piano throughout the ORG pressing is more pleasing and musical, and it presents a much better representation of his solid playing throughout the recording. Victor Sproles’s bass is also presented more enjoyably, with the attack more audible and without the occasional distortion that mars the CD. Stan Meets Chet is by no means an essential recording, but fans of Getz in particular will find much to appreciate, and the rhythm section is much more impressive on this pressing than on the CD.

The four sides on the Coltrane release average less than ten minutes, while the Getz/Baker sides clock in longer because of the total time of the original LP (50 minutes). The gatefold covers include the original liner notes and beautiful reproductions of the cover art, with the Coltrane in high gloss and the Getz in a matte finish. The vinyl is absolutely quiet on both of these Ultimate Editions, even when I push the volume on the lead-in groove.

I can’t add much to our previous review of Diana Krall’s Live in Paris (ORG 003) and All for You (ORG 006), except to say that ORG’s vinyl version of Live in Paris, cut at 33rpm on two 180-gram records, has more space and live ambiance than the excellently mastered CD. I don’t have All of You on CD, but Krall’s piano sounds engagingly warm and expansive on this pressing and her voice has tremendous presence on vinyl. I don’t know where these records were pressed but, as with the Rickie Lee Jones, there’s a small but audible bit of groove noise on the lead in, whereas the Special Edition pressings are silent.

These sets are a testament to how vinyl at its very best can bring music alive in a way CDs don’t often match. The Original Recordings Group’s attention to all levels of the vinyl manufacturing process, whether mastering, vinyl quality, or cover reproduction, places it at the front rank of companies that are keeping the format alive. You’ll find some of its current catalog here, but I’m putting together a wish list. How about Gil Evans’s Into the Cool and Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio?

. . . Joseph Taylor