RVG Blue Note Editions: Pro or Conned?

With overall CD sales floundering, a major jazz reissue program is a brave undertaking indeed. But that bastion of mid-century jazz classics, Blue Note, has done just that with its seemingly controversial Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) Editions.

Now numbering 67 CDs, the series got its start when Japanese Blue Note approached Van Gelder-one of the most celebrated recording engineers in jazz and the man in the booth for many of Blue Note’s most noted releases-to remaster some titles for Japanese release. “Rudy originally said no,” says series producer Michael Cuscuna, whose own Mosaic reissues have set the standard for modern compilations. “At first he didn’t want to stir up that work he had finished so long ago. But then he said, ‘Hey, this might be fun,’ and after 60 or so under our belts, we have more or less gotten the hang of it. It’s a work in progress, and Rudy and I go back and forth on details, fine tuning the sound as we go.”

But some detractors seem to think the improvements are spotty, at best, and others have complained that it is just a marketing ploy to encourage collectors to replace their earlier CD purchases.

Earlier this year, respected critic Gary Giddins dismissed the series in his Village Voice “Weatherbird” column (Jan. 16): “Skeptics bewail the constant recycling of the old and reliable, pointless tampering-like those embarrassing remixes by Rudy Van Gelder that are sabotaging his reputation as well as the music he so brilliantly documented.”

Quizzed about his statement, Giddins says, “An original Blue Note mix sounded unified. These new ones are not as natural sounding. The horns seem to be dislocated from the rhythm section. They don’t have that classic Van Gelder sound; they seem dead, lacking the brightness and life of the originals. I guess I’d have to say I still prefer the sound of the LPs.”

But Giddins does admit that some of the older originals are improved. “The Miles Birth of the Cool is a revelation, as I said last year when it was released. I was knocked out by the new sound, and I should have made that clear in my [Jan. 16] column.”

Nonetheless, the general consensus is that the RVGs are, for the most part, a giant step ahead of previous digital masterings of this material. The chat area, or bulletin board, on Blue Note’s own Web site has been bubbling with dialogue about the series since its debut two years ago, and one of the most prodigious of the contributors to those chats is Lon Armstrong, a jazz lover from Austin, Texas, whose knowledge extends to the several Japanese digital incarnations of many of the titles, as well as original vinyl. “I love the series,” he states. “I think that this is bringing to digital some of the energy and bold sound that RVG mastered onto vinyl. Having the original engineer, at least for most of these, revisit the material with this new technology is a solid idea for the music, but happens to be a great marketing idea also.” Blue Note admits that sales are above those of the average reissue.

Regarding the specifics of Giddins’ complaint, Armstrong answers, “I don’t find the horns detached from the rhythm section any more than is normal in RVG recordings. That seems to be one of his signatures, to make the horns larger than life, nearly supernatural, and these remasterings bring this quality out more than perhaps other remasterings of his work in the digital domain. The new ones are sort of a ‘Super RVG,’ like much of his early, especially mono, LP mastering-bold, nearly supernatural, as opposed to being strictly realistic.”

Fred Kaplan, jazz editor for The Absolute Sound, the high-end audio bible, though not effusive, concurs that the RVGs are probably a step forward. “Some of them are very good,” he says. “But on a few, Van Gelder attempts to narrow the soundstage-a very hard thing to do-and creates kind of a ‘fat mono’ or a kind of blob in the center third of the soundstage.”

Cuscuna explains that some of the Japanese versions were a bit narrow. “He brought the channels too far together, but on most of the American issues the separation is more reasonable.” On why some of the RVGs might succeed more than others, Cuscuna says, “Sometimes we had the original master tapes, while for others we had to rely on 1970s Dolby copies because the originals had been thrown away.

“I think the most successful so far are the reissues we did from the 16-inch acetate masters like the [Genius of Modern Music] Monks and The Amazing Bud Powell. They are far better than any version of these that’s come before,” Cuscuna relates.

Armstrong agrees. “All the classic material from the disc-recorded era, perhaps my favorite of the label’s periods, sounds fantastically restored and has exceeded my expectations.”

There does seem to be consensus with Giddins about the sound of vintage vinyl. “Nothing will ever be as warm as the LP except the LP,” concurs Cuscuna. Kaplan chimes in, harmoniously, “The LPs continue to be much better. I have not heard any reissue that is better than those old LPs.” Those would cost big, big bucks to collect, but here’s some good news for vinyl lovers: Classic Records has recently announced a vinyl reissue program encompassing at least 25 mono Blue Notes from the early ’50s, complete with original cover art, going so far as refurbishing a mono cutting head to master each title and issuing some as 10-inch LPs as they were originally.

Cuscuna is not afraid of criticizing digital sound in general, particularly regarding early CD issues. “Digital technology was rushed and we went in too quickly. I mean, why did we have to settle for the 16-bit standard or the 5-inch disc? In those early years we really were not sure of what we were doing and there were hundreds of mistakes made,” he admits. “One of our goals with the RVGs is to go back to those first Blue Note CD issues of Rudy’s classic work at the label and replace them to correct some of those errors,” he says.

For my part, I find the sound on the RVGs I’ve heard to be lively and dynamic, but unlike Giddins, perhaps a bit on the bright side. They are unquestionably more detailed than the older CDs, and with Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, for example, the experience is like looking at the recording through a magnifying glass, and on Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage individual instruments seem round and full-bodied, realistically defined in an almost three-dimensional way; that is a good thing.

And I’m in complete agreement with Giddins, Armstrong and Cuscuna: the sound of the late ’40s, early ’50s titles like Miles’ Birth of the Cool, The Amazing Bud Powell and Monk’s Genius of Modern Music makes these undeniable classics all the more mineable for the stunning jewels they continue to hold with each repeated listening.