The vibraphone can sound really great on vinyl, especially if it is played by the late great Milt Jackson, one of the great innovators who helped to make the instrument a part of the vocabulary of Jazz. According to the Wiki, Jackson was given the nickname "Bags" due to the bags under his eyes, but it is a cool name that gave him years of clever and fun album titles to play around with.
Here are two of them, both collaborations with legendary saxophone players. Both of these recordings are fine examples of Jackson's playing both as a sideman and soloist, so I am not going to dwell much on the individual tracks and performance nuance. They do however show two sides of his playing, one a bit more mellow, one a bit more aggressive, both in keeping with the -- if you'll pardon the accidental pun -- vibe of the featured collaborator.
Bags and Trane - I wanted to be happier with this pressing than I am, given that I am a huge fan of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. While the album sounds pretty groovy and mostly dead quiet despite some warpage, there are a few glitchy sounds in the grooves which indicate a sloppier pressing than one would hope for given its 180-gram pedigree. A close inspection of the grooves indeed reveals little dots or scratches in the grooves. I don't know what these are; perhaps the label used an old stamper for making the album?? Otherwise, the record sounds remarkably full and rich.
Oddly, the thing that bothers me more appears on side two and is what sounded like a wrinkled tape source on side two's first track, a Dizzy Gillespie track called "Be Bop." I checked a version of the song someone posted on YouTube (probably taken from a CD, as it shows CD art) and I hear a similar anomaly about two minutes into the tune, during the opening part of Trane's solo. Perhaps it was simply a mic problem because it also seems to cut to more of a room mic sound intermittently for a moment, or perhaps Coltrane moved his sax away from the mic for a moment. We'll probably never know. Perhaps these were all made from the same safety copy of the album? Or perhaps the original tape was damaged (stuff happens). Whatever. Of course, all this makes my theory of the old stamper being used null and void. It also means that as a collector, you'll probably want to seek out an original pressing.
The stereo imaging on this album is wonderful, with Connie Kay's propulsive drumming spread across the soundstage locked in with Paul Chambers bass. Coltrane's sax is in one channel while Jackson's vibes percolate in the other. This is pretty smokin' stuff and not as polite as some of the music Jackson and Kay made with their band mates in The Modern Jazz Quartet. This is great, prime period Bags 'n Trane along with some of the finest players of their time. All that said, I returned my copy of this album to the store and will be looking for an older original pressing or another better reissue.
Bean Bags - Jackson's collaboration here with one of my other favorite tenor sax players, Colman Hawkins (aka "Bean" also sometimes called Hawk) is a slightly more deluxe affair. According to the sticker on the cover it was made from the original master tapes in a small quantity pressing, on 180-gram vinyl. Indeed, the pressing is mostly pretty lovely, reproducing the unusual lime green Atlantic Records label (I assume) from the period the album was released (1960). It sounds a bit brighter than the Coltrane collaboration LP, so perhaps indeed they went back to the ultimate master tapes. Hawkins' sax blows with a lush breathiness that is altogether his own, played with authority and nuance. This set is also notable for the presence of the great Kenny Burrell on guitar.
Generally I'm happy with the sound on this disc and the packaging (thick cardboard cover, clear crisp original art, nice static free plastic inner sleeve, etc.). But... but ... well... despite the supposed premium, handle-with-care status of this pressing, I hear the occasional little groove glitch (not as bad as the one mentioned above, but still audible, a couple of times). Now, if this pressing was of the $12.98 variety of the release above, I might be less bothered by this passing noise. However, for $19.99, this pressing should really be perfect. I have read some similar complaints on at least one forum site discussing this sort of glitch happening so I know its not just me.
So, while the music on these releases are exemplary, do proceed with caution on this; hopefully your copy will be pressed better than mine.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com