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Listening Report: Mingus Three a.k.a. Mingus Trio, Record Store Day Vinyl Reissue

Mark Smotroff explores some differences between new and original versions…

In the fairly vast universe of music issued by jazz legend Charles Mingus there are not many commercially released recordings of him playing in a simple trio setting. One of the most popular —and somewhat notorious / legendary early 1960’s sessions, with Duke Ellington and Max Roach — is found on the recently re-issued classic called Money Jungle. (Click here if you’d like to read my review on that fine Tone Poet edition).

Several years earlier in 1957, Mingus hooked up with a then very hot pianist and band leader named Hampton Hawes for an impromptu single-day session which resulted in one album on the Jubilee Records label. This album has long been out of print and has never been an easy one to find in halfway decent condition on the collector’s marketplace (or even in the wilds of thrift shops, flea markets and garage sales… you just don’t see this one popping up much at all, at least out here in California). 

Alternately titled Trio (on the front cover) and Mingus Three (on the back cover and labels), this album was in fact one of the first Mingus records Iever found out in the wilds of collecting many moons ago when I was first getting into his music (I think I was still in Jr. High!). I still have that album, which I picked up at a garage sale for 50 cents or so — the cover was badly damaged but the record itself was in pretty nice shape for its vintage.

Fast forward many decades to the now times and imagine my pleasant surprise to learn that on Record Store Day a new expanded edition of Mingus Three was issued courtesy of Rhino Records! And, I almost didn’t pick it up, having felt somewhat burned by a disappointing prior Mingus RSD re-issue of his 1959 classic Ah Um (click here for my review) by a different label.  But given it was Rhino behind this, at the last minute I decided to get a copy and I’m glad I did.

Here’s why…

First off finding a clean original copy of this album is very difficult — even my beloved original has its share of ticks ’n pops. There have been some grey market versions of the album showing up but those are of dubious origin (possibly mastered off of a CD).

Secondly, as Rhino Records was assembling this reissue a whole batch of previously unreleased outtakes were discovered resulting in this edition being an expanded two LP version containing all the recordings.

Of course the music on Mingus Three is excellent with the two featured artists finding a nice balance, kept in check in no small part by legendary and long-time Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond. The package also includes a nice LP size booklet with expanded liner notes by Mingus’s friend and arranger, Sy Johnson (who worked on Mingus’ classic 1972 comeback album, Let My Children Hear Music, among others).

Mingus Three original tape reel boxes. Photo courtesy of Dominique Brethes of Wolf Studios/Flow Mastering & Rhino Records

At first listen, the reissue of Mingus Three sounded pretty good in general (especially the bonus disc!) but there was no information about how the album was made. so I was curious… Knowing how audiophiles get about this sort of thing — and how speculation can get out of control in the rumor mill of the Internet — I decided to do a little quick research.

Since the liner notes of the reissue offered the names of the people who worked on the re-issue I was able to track down the mastering company and wrote to them with some questions. I was pleasantly surprised to get a fairly quick response with a great deal of detail about how the session was put together!  I was subsequently connected with folks at Rhino who gave me permission to share this information with you, Dear Readers.

Mastering engineer Dominique Brethes of Wolf Studios/Flow Mastering in London England, explains the process which went into the album’s creation:

“I was initially sent five 1/4” reels from the EMI archives, then another three. The reels had very sketchy info, some seemed to be copies or safety copies, so in order to establish which was the original production master, I ended up transferring all the reels (all were done at 15 IPS) on a Studer A810, flat & at high resolution (24-bit, 96 khz)… This was rather complicated as some tapes were mislabelled or labelled ‘Stereo’ when we knew the original recording was done in Mono, and many of the tapes had different takes than the original release…. None of the tapes from the archive seemed to be the actual original production master, as on the best sounding reel we found & used, the last few bars of Back Home Blues were different and needed an edit to become identical to the original release.”

Mingus Three tape reel box. Photo courtesy of Dominique Brethes of Wolf Studios/Flow Mastering & Rhino Records

Reading between the lines, I wonder if perhaps these tapes might have been from a generation before the final production master that was made for manufacturing the original albums? We may never know… 

So the good news is that this new edition was made from the best available sources and is unique in its own right!  

Mingus Three tape reel box. Photo courtesy of Dominique Brethes of Wolf Studios/Flow Mastering & Rhino Records

I’m sure some of you are wondering how this sounds compared to my original pressing? I think it sounds pretty sweet overall. They didn’t use any compression on the remaster so Hawes’ piano sounds especially vibrant and Mingus’ bass is up front and rich. 

Mr. Brethes explains: “… it was better not to use any compression and keep the full dynamics of the recordings, with just a little EQ in the low end and upper mids to keep things under control.”

If you have an original copy of the album you will likely notice some differences in the expanded high end. For example, in the first track, “Yesterdays,” I hear a bit of — for lack of a better phrase — swooshiness coming through on Dannie Richmond’s ride cymbal. My original 1957 era pressing of Mingus Three doesn’t really have as much apparent high end, perhaps for a reason.  

Mingus Three tape reel box. Photo courtesy of Dominique Brethes of Wolf Studios/Flow Mastering & Rhino Records

Speculating here, but it is possible that the expanded dynamic range we are hearing here was reigned in on the original production master (combined with a bit more compression) to keep those sonic textures at bay. I listened closely to my original pressing in comparison and it is really interesting to hear the differences.  The new version sounds quite a bit more open and air-y than the my original, so there are upsides to both versions. 

Mingus Three tape reel box. Photo courtesy of Dominique Brethes of Wolf Studios/Flow Mastering & Rhino Records

That slight swooshing cymbal flavor isn’t very apparent on later tracks and is not an issue on the bonus disc. That second disc, by the way, is quite wonderful as there are some fine alternate versions of the songs there as well as some tasty blues work outs and outtakes. It is great to hear Mingus’ voice in the studio chatter on some of the tracks.  Frankly, it is remarkable that these tapes still exist at all given their age and relative obscurity (as compared to Mingus’ work on Atlantic and Columbia) and the likely shifting around of label assets across various entities which owned the tapes over the years. 

Both albums in this new edition of Mingus Three are well pressed on nice dark, quiet and well-centered 180-gram black vinyl. Each album comes housed in an audiophile-grade plastic lined inner sleeve. So all those benchmarks are checked off my list. They even printed up period accurate labels (albeit, it seems to be the black starburst design from the second pressing back in the day).

Of course at the end of the day, you may be wondering whether you need to own this new release on vinyl?  If you don’t have Mingus Three in your collection you should get it as it is a beautiful session with some lovely playing all around (especially Mingus’ soloing!). Even if you have an original pressing, you’ll want this new edition for the bonus disc of outtakes. And, because of these subtle differences in the recording, collectors with rare original pressings will be happy to know that their copies will probably still retain their value. 

Until a more definitive discovery of the original production master perhaps arises, for now, this new expanded reissue of Mingus Three is a tasty treat to relish. Grab a copy while they are still around.  This is a great way to celebrate Mingus’ 100th birthday year! 

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