The Riverside pressings we’ve auditioned of both The Thelonious Monk Orchestra – At Town Hall and Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two – At The Blackhawk were just awful sounding. The OJC reissues from the ’80s, although better, were not overflowing with the rich, natural, relaxed sound we were looking for either.
Ah, but a few years back we happened to drop the needle on one of these good Milestone Two-Fers. Here was the sound we were looking for and had had so little luck in finding.
Which prompts the question that should be on the mind of every audiophile: What are the rules for collecting records with the best sound quality?
The answer, of course, is that there are no such rules and never will be.
There is only trial and error. Our full-time staff has been running trials — we call them shootouts and needle drops — for more than twenty years now, with far more errors than successes. Such is the nature of records. It may be a tautology to note that the average record has mediocre sound, but it nevertheless pays to keep that rather inconvenient fact in mind.
Even worse, if you make the mistake of pinning your hopes on a current reissue — and you unfortunately find yourself a member of that small minority of audiophiles with reasonably high standards and two working ears — your disappointment is almost guaranteed.
This vintage Milestone pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.
If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.
What the best sides of In Person have to offer is not hard to hear:
- The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
- The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1976
- Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
- Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
- Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the studio
No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.
The Real Piano Sound
If you have full-range speakers, some of the qualities you may recognize in the sound of the piano on this vintage pressing are WEIGHT and WARMTH. The piano is not hard, brittle or tinkly. Instead, the best copies show you a wonderfully full-bodied, warm, rich, smooth piano, one which sounds remarkably like the ones we’ve all heard countless times in piano bars and restaurants.
In other words like a real piano, not a recorded one. This is what we look for in a good piano recording. Bad mastering can ruin the sound, and often does, along with worn out stampers and bad vinyl and five gram needles that scrape off the high frequencies. But a few — a very few — copies survive all such hazards. They manage to reproduce the full spectrum of the piano’s wide range (and of course the wonderful performance of the pianist) on vintage vinyl, showing us the kind of sound we simply cannot find any other way.
Rudy Van Gelder, eat your heart out. This is the piano sound Rudy never quite managed. Some say it’s the crappy workhorse piano he had set up in his studio. Others say it was just poorly miked. Rather than speculating on something we know little about (good pianos and their miking) let’s just say that Milestone had the piano, the room and the mics to do it right as you can easily hear on this very record.
What We’re Listening For on In Person
- Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
- The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
- Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness common to most LPs.
- Tight, note-like bass with clear fingering — which ties in with good transient information, as well as the issue of frequency extension further down.
- Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the players.
- Then: presence and immediacy. The musicians aren’t “back there” somewhere, way behind the speakers. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would have put them.
- Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.
Crepescule With Nellie
Little Rootie Tootie
Little Rootie Tootie (Encore)
Friday The 13th
Let’s Call This
Four In One
I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later)
AMG 4 1/2 Star Review
The first half of In Person contains the pianist/composer’s famous Town Hall concert of 1959 in which he performed his compositions as part of a ten-piece group also featuring trumpeter Donald Byrd, altoist Phil Woods, Charlie Rouse on tenor and baritonist Pepper Adams; Hall Overton’s arrangement of Monk’s recorded piano solo for the full band on “Little Rootie Tootie” is a highpoint.
The second half of this two-fer finds Monk leading a strong sextet with trumpeter Joe Gordon and tenors Rouse and Harold Land live at the Blackhawk in 1960 for four of his originals and “I’m Getting Sentimental over You.”