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Jazz and the Vinyl Renaissance

Vinyl records continue to climb new sales heights, and jazz is at the heart of the trend

Hank Mobley’s 1957 self-titled album on Blue Note, the most valuable jazz record ever sold at auction
Hank Mobley’s 1957 self-titled album on Blue Note, the most valuable jazz record ever sold at auction

COLLECTORS’ TIPS

If your goal is to build a jazz vinyl record collection from scratch, you have several options: buy reissues, whether all-analog or digitally sourced; go onto the Discogs website; break the bank at eBay; or tromp through your local record store in hopes of finding that rare original mint pressing or later all-analog reissue. As vinyl’s ascension has grown, record stores have popped back up in major cities from coast to coast. New York City now has over 40, appealing to various tastes and demographics—one of them being Fred Cohen’s long-running Jazz Record Center. One of the questions he asks his customers most frequently is: “Are you buying for the music or are you buying for some pressing detail, which is more related to value and cost and collectability?”

Some vinyl lovers are only interested in the performance; the cheaper the record, the better. If you resemble that remark, Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary Series reissues go for $18.99 per disc. Pressed from high-resolution digital files of the master tapes, these 200 or so releases cover some of the greatest jazz records ever produced and offer acceptable sound. Meanwhile, fans of the classic Riverside, Atlantic, Impulse!, Prestige, Jazzland, and Verve catalogs have been limited to expensive, cut-from-master-tape reissues or vinyl from EU-based labels that are typically of poorer sonic quality. (EU copyright laws allow reissued titles that U.S. labels literally can’t touch.)

“I don’t want to stock more of the EU reissues, but it gets complicated,” Cohen explains. “Let’s say I’m used to ordering an Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis record under a certain label with a certain catalog number. Often, those EU companies will take that exact same material and switch labels. The music is the same, but I wind up ordering it and then have two copies of the same record under different labels, different catalog numbers, sometimes different graphics. And what I want to avoid, particularly when ordering from overseas, is duplicating the American reissues, which I prefer because as far as I’m concerned you’re going right to the horse’s mouth if you’re dealing with, say, Universal Records for any reissue of a Prestige or Blue Note title.”

If you want a vinyl reissue of a classic jazz title that sounds closest to the original pressing, these domestic labels all press from the master tapes: Mobile Fidelity, Mosaic’s Q-LP Series, ORG and ORG Music (two different companies), Intervention, Analogue Productions, Music Matters Jazz, IMPEX, Venus (Japan), Craft Recordings (from both tape, such as the recent Chet Baker box, and digital files), Analog Spark (now owned by Craft), Rhino, and Blue Note’s Tone Poet, Blue Note 80, and Blue Note Review series. “And the original OJCs [Original Jazz Classics] were amazingly good and budget-priced,” Fremer adds. “George Horn cut those from fresh tape 30 years ago. Decades ago, Chad Kassem [of Analogue Productions] licensed a bunch of those and used the OJC metal parts to press on 180-gram vinyl at RTI, one of America’s premier pressing plants.”

High-quality EU labels including SAM, Speakers Corner, Gearbox, and Alto Analogue also cut vinyl from master tapes. But if cost is an issue, consider product from these inexpensive, digital-to-vinyl labels: Wax Love, Wax Time, Jazz Images (which creates beautiful alternate album covers using rare photos), Jazz Wax, DOL, Vinyl Lovers, Doxy (not Sonny Rollins’ label), Vinyl Passion, Jazz Time, Green Corner, and Pan Am. Most of these labels lack dedicated websites or means of contact; the ones I contacted didn’t respond.

Consider also this recommendation from Fremer, who’s as diehard an analog devotee as they come: “When people go to a store like Jazz Record Center or Amoeba, they’ll see different versions of the same Miles Davis record: the good ones from Mobile Fidelity or Analogue Productions for $40 and the crummy ones from Doxy for $18. If they go for the cheapest one, they’ll never get to experience how good vinyl can be.”

One more factor to weigh is scarcity, which may become more significant in the near future. As this story went to press, news of a fire that destroyed the Apollo Masters factory in Banning, California—one of only two facilities in the world currently making lacquer for use in vinyl mastering (a reflection of just how neglected the technology of record manufacturing has been over the past three decades)—cast the future of the LP into doubt. It’s too early to say what the fallout from this catastrophe will be, but one thing’s for sure: Vinyl records won’t be getting any less desirable, less collectable, or less expensive any time soon.

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.