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Classic Chet Baker, RTI-Pressed Kevin Gray Remastered Craft Recordings Vinyl (Part 1)

Before I get to the review portion of this exploration of the new remasters of classic albums by the legendary jazz musician Chet Baker, I thought it would be important to put the need for these reissues in perspective.

You see, my curiosity was peaked as to why these albums might be getting the analog, Kevin Gray Cohearant Audio mastering treatment here and now. There are several reasons, I suspect. The obvious one being that in 2019 these recordings were put into a boxed set with a bonus disc of outtakes and alternates from the period — so this is the first time those new remasters are available individually.

In keeping with similar reissue series from Universal Music and their Blue Note Tone Poet and Analog Productions imprints, these releases from Craft Recordings — the boutique audiophile arm of Concord Music which owns the catalogs of Riverside, Fantasy and Prestige Records among others — are albums which have achieved near legendary status among both jazz aficionados and audiophiles alike. 

And one resultant of that status is the reality that finding original pressings of these albums out in the wilds is next to impossible for all but the most fastidious of crate diggers.  I mean, I’ve been out there (pre Covid, at least) digging regularly and have only found a handful of good Chet Baker gems in the past 10 years (and almost none on the Riverside label). 

There have been many reissues of these albums over the years in varying quality and there are even “gray market” versions of some of these albums made from dubious sources and often using alternate artwork, yet charging full prices. So it is in the label’s and the fan’s best interest to issue a quality product to make sure people aren’t ripped off by unscrupulous marketers taking advantage of expired copyright laws overseas.

Accordingly, original pressings of Chet’s albums in Good to Near Mint condition go for quite a lot of coin on the collector’s marketplace. I spot checked what the titles in the new reissue series are going for at the time of this writing earlier this week, so click on any of the underlined titles in the next paragraph to jump to those pages for reference.

There were only three original Stereo pressings on Discogs  of Chet Baker In New York, selling for upwards of $250! Sellers of three Stereo copies of Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner & Loewe are asking for upwards of $125 each. There is one copy of Chet Stereo going for $136 — even the 1963 repressing of that album is asking upwards of $400!! The Monos are more abundant (six copies) yet very pricey!  Heck, the more recent 45 RPM two LP set of Chet from Analog Productions is going for upwards of $500!  The one Stereo copy of It Could Happen To You, Chet Baker Sings was going for nearly $600 and Mono copies ain’t cheap either!

So, yes there is clearly a need for these reissues for the rest of us who can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a single rare original issue! All the pressings I have received for review are 180-gram, remastered at Cohearant Audio by Kevin Gray. The albums are all pressed at RTI and the packaging is exemplary with high quality, period accurate thick cardboard sleeves with pasted on artwork just like original copies (probably nicer than originals in some ways, actually). The black Stereo labels also seem accurate, only the serial numbers have inevitably changed.

And, how do they sound?  Generally, they are consistently quite beautiful — clean and rich, some delivering a nice sense of air around the music. The pressings are dead quiet, so there are no issues with quality controls that I can see/hear. While I don’t have original pressings to compare these albums to, I suspect they are a bit brighter than the 1958-59 editions (higher quality vinyl, audiophile grade pressing, less compression used in mastering, etc.).

Chet Stereo is my favorite of the batch with its lovely sound design which compliments this expressive music nicely. I like how the then-new Stereo reverb applied to Baker’s trumpet ricochet’s from one channel the other without feeling gimmicky. His horn playing works sympathetically with the band which on many cuts includes legends like Bill Evan on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar and Paul Chambers on bass. This album has classic oozing from every corner…

I did notice one curious reality, a detail likely of interest to those seeking a pristine presentations of the music. 

I had to listen to “It Never Entered My Mind” very closely many times to confirm whether what I was hearing was some sort of drop-out on the original magnetic tape at points or perhaps such clarity that it might be fluid gathering in Chet’s trumpet. Comparing the new reissue LP to versions on Qobuz and Tidal, I am leaning toward thinking it is physical wrinkle on the source tape used.  

Allow me a moment to be a wee bit obsessive about this while I offer some details…

On Qobuz, listen to this first version (click here) at around the 3:48 mark and you’ll hear the slightly garbled-wrinkled-tape sounding distortion similar to what I’m hearing on the new LP reissue. Yet, if you listen on another version also on Qobuz — click here, from the “Keepnews Collection” series — it does not have that anomaly.  There is a third version which sounds more clearly like a tape edit as it alters the sound stage for a moment (click here). There is a version with it on The Legendary Riverside Albums version (click here) streaming in 192 kHz, 24 bits. I suspect what I’m hearing is a physical tape edit wearing out, which happens over time.

For those of you on Tidal, compare this CD quality version (click here) with another containing the audible (likely) splice (click here). The Legendary Riverside Albums version streaming in 96 kHz  24-bit MQA format also has that anomaly (click here). 

Ok, thanks for indulging my obsessive audiophile-collector moment, but those of you who geek out on original pressings and getting the best audio quality may appreciate this microscopic focus.  

The question of course remains which tape source is the original? I would guess that the tapes with the audible splice — wrinkled or other wise — are probably the closest to the original. Just guessing, but I would suppose that perhaps later editions were digitally repaired. If any of you out there have further insights into this, please let us know in the comments below. 

Anyhow, Chet Stereo is a great album. Stay tuned as next week I’ll explore the other three albums in this fine reissue series, It Could Happen To You – Chet Baker Sings, Chet Baker In New York and Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner & Loewe.

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