Blue Note Records B0032112-01 / BST 84426
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: *****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff supervised countless recordings for Blue Note Records over the years, but some they decided not to release. Often, they were trying to avoid crowding the market, but sometimes Lion’s rigorous quality control standards caused him to shelve a session. Many of the performances on those shelved tapes are as good as anything Blue Note ever released, before the label was suspended in the late 1970s. When such recordings are eventually made available they give jazz lovers a fuller picture of a musician’s association with the label.
I had assumed it was the mid-1980s revival of Blue Note under Bruce Lundvall’s leadership that led to the release of many previously unavailable recordings from the label’s vault. When I looked at trumpeter Lee Morgan’s discography, though, I saw that many of his posthumously released recordings appeared between 1979 and 1981, prior to Lundvall’s tenure. Having acquired the catalog during the purchase of then-owner United Artists Records, EMI had also released five mid- to late-1960s Morgan recordings from the vault during that period.
Blue Note did release another Lee Morgan album in 1984, when the label was back in full flow. Morgan recorded The Rajah in November 1966, with Hank Mobley on tenor sax, Cedar Walton on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. I picked up the album on cassette in a budget bin in the late 1980s, then tracked it down on CD* and vinyl. Jazz critics don’t rank it as highly as Morgan’s masterpieces, such as The Sidewinder (1963) or Cornbread (1965), but it’s always been one of my favorites.
I was pleased to read that producer Joe Harley had chosen The Rajah as one of the titles to include in Blue Note’s Tone Poet series, which is notable for its deluxe packaging and exceptional audiophile mastering by Kevin Gray. The original 1984 vinyl release of the album was digitally remastered by Ron McMaster and Wally Traugott, who cut the direct metal master for the pressing, which was done at EMI’s plant in France. In 1988, when Blue Note released the album on CD for the first time, McMaster handled the mastering. The Tone Poet release is the first fully analog release of this underrated LP.
I wasn’t surprised to hear similarities between the original LP and CD releases, since McMaster had a hand in both of them. I prefer the work he and Traugott did on the LP, which gives better focus and greater resolution to all the instruments. Higgins’s ride cymbal on “A Pilgrim’s Funny Farm,” the Cal Massey tune that opens the album, has a brighter and sharper edge, and when he taps the bell of the cymbal, it sounds out vigorously and hangs in the air. His snare-drum taps and occasional cross-sticking also register in a more satisfying way. Walton’s piano chords are more fleshed out on the vinyl, and Chambers’s bass has more drive and attack.
The Tone Poet pressing allows all those details to come through even more distinctly. Kevin Gray’s remaster, under Harley’s guidance, broadens the soundstage and gives each instrument a more clearly defined space. Hank Mobley’s sax in the opening vamp is set apart better from the drums in the right channel, and Walton’s piano shines in the less restricted space. When the band falls in behind Morgan’s improvisations, each musician’s supporting contribution is more audible. Chambers’s bass benefits greatly from this new master; his long, flowing lines and rhythmic flexibility are even more impressive now.
Lee Morgan penned the title track, which has some of the soul-jazz bounce of his big hit, “The Sidewinder.” The 1988 CD is, again, slightly softer around the edges than the original LP. Higgins’s drums have more presence and directness on the LP, Mobley’s sax is rawer, and Morgan’s solo feels more self-assured. The Tone Poet pressing brings those qualities—and more—out in greater relief. It’s easier to hear the tones of each of Higgins’s drums, and when Mobley and Morgan play in tandem in the opening theme of the track, each horn is more clearly delineated. Mobley’s solo has more spirit and edginess, and aspects of Morgan’s technique—his occasional slurring of notes and his use of dynamics—are strikingly presented.
The counterpoint between Mobley and Morgan on the opening of “Is That So” is more cleanly rendered on the Tone Poet pressing, which reveals more nuance in their interaction on this cover of a Duke Pearson tune. Cedar Walton’s solo on the earlier releases sounds tinny compared with this new master, where it is more assertive and confident. His piano playing is also more impressive in the opening to Walter Davis Jr.’s “Davisamba.” In fact, all the instruments on the track have more realism and timbral accuracy.
Now, the group’s swinging take on Anthony Newley’s “Once in My Lifetime” sounds tame when I play the earlier pressing. On the Tone Poet release, Morgan’s trumpet is further out in the room, with a bright, shiny tone. Mobley’s solo moves with more conviction and grace—and more guts. Walton’s comping is more harmonically complex, and it’s easier to hear how Mobley and Morgan pull their inspiration from his chording. His solo has more spring in its step and moves along more briskly, with his left hand feeding him the chords that help the solo build.
Higgins’s kick drum accents throughout the album move more air on the Tone Poet pressing—they punch out emphatically, giving impetus to the music. Gray and Harley haven’t overemphasized them in the mastering. They’ve cleared enough room to let them make their point. The improvements in immediacy and inner detail throughout this new release of the album give the music more life, muscle, and cohesiveness. Morgan’s playing on the lovely “What Now My Love” sometimes feels a bit tentative on my other copies of The Rajah, but now the notes carry a sense of purpose.
As I noted earlier, The Rajah is among my favorite Lee Morgan albums, even though many jazz critics rank it as mid-level Morgan. Part of the reason for my enjoyment of the album is Cal Massey’s “A Pilgrim’s Funny Farm,” a fine tune by an underrated jazz composer whose work was recorded by Morgan, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, and others. Other tracks on the album are also strong, but in the past I’ve felt that “What Now My Love” was perfunctory and slowed the album down. On this pressing, it’s apparent to me now that the players were fully committed and the track helps vary the pace of the album while keeping the overall intensity going.
As with all the Tone Poet releases, the Record Technology Incorporated pressing presents quiet backgrounds and shows no warping or dishing. The cover photo on the reissue is different from the one on the original cover, and more striking. The photos in the gatefold, taken during the original session, are beautifully reproduced. They’re by Francis Wolff, who was a noted photographer as well as a record producer and documented most of Blue Note’s sessions. The heavyweight cardstock of the cover, the tip-on artwork, and the high-quality pressing justify the slightly higher cost of this release. At about $35 (in USD), it’s still reasonably priced.
Hearing The Rajah in this new pressing confirms my feeling that the album is a very strong Lee Morgan outing. It’s so much more apparent on this release that the level of communication among the musicians is of a very high order, and they are responding to each other almost telepathically. Morgan and Mobley had played together many times over the years, and their ability to anticipate each other’s moves and intentions is so much easier to hear and appreciate in this Tone Poet reissue. When a remaster is this good, it can cause a reappraisal of a recording. I hope that happens with The Rajah.
*The CD release lists Gene Taylor as the drummer, both on the CD case insert and on the back of the CD booklet. While there was a Gene Taylor who played bass on a number of Blue Note sessions with Horace Silver, Duke Pearson, and Blue Mitchell, I can’t find a listing of any drummer named Gene Taylor on any Blue Note recordings. The original LP release of The Rajah and this new release list Billy Higgins on drums, as do the online Lee Morgan discographies I checked.
. . . Joseph Taylor