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Nina Simone’s The Montreux Years On MQA-Mastered Vinyl and Expanded CD Sets

Mark Smotroff connects some musicals dots…

A fantastic musical event seems to be happening: The Montreux Jazz Festival is beginning to open its archives again, this time on vinyl, compact disc and probably streaming.

And before I get to talking about the fabulous new Nina Simone releases from BMG called The Montreux Years, I think it is important provide a bit of perspective on the how and why these recordings have come about. 

I found a useful paragraph on the website for The Claude Nobs Foundation website — the organization carrying on the legacy of the festival founder — which offers some good insight into this incredible team of a passionate music lover and tremendously talented technologist:

“A lover of music and cultural diversity, tireless talent spotter and staunch defender of freedom of expression and improvisation, which are in integral part of jazz. Avant-gardist and collector at heart, he is committed in the early years, then in 1987 with his life partner and associate, Thierry Amsallem, to recording and preserving all performances with state-of-the-art audio-visual technologies and thus began experimenting also high definition as early as 1991. More than 5,000 concerts have been recorded both in audio and video, since the creation of the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967 until 2012.”

Mr. Amsallem’s contributions are massive and I encourage you to click here to jump to his amazing bio on the foundation website. 

So here on Nina Simone’s The Montreux Years we actually have two releases to consider. The vinyl version is a wonderful two-lp retrospective of Nina’s numerous appearances at the festival dating back to its earliest days.  

From her classic 1968 debut there to returns into the 1990s, Simone is engaging, compelling and even a bit edgy at times, keeping the audience entertained but also challenged. Some of my favorites on this include a wonderful take of “Someone To Watch Over Me” and a lovely version of “Just In Time.”  

Her take on Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” is uplifting and “Little Girl Blue” from her first album remains a haunting masterpiece. 

The vinyl pressing is excellent here on both LPs in the two-disc set, each well centered on dark quiet (probably) 180-gram vinyl.

As good as this is you’ll want to get the CD set as well because it includes a bonus disc of the entire landmark 1968 performance.

Overall the sound quality is excellent throughout these recordings, which according to engineer Tony Cousins brought with them numerous challenges:

“The audio quality of some of these recordings was extremely variable. Added to that, the different formats of the original recordings included: 1/4″, 1/2″, DAT, U-matic, 1” Betacam, and sometimes to multi-track for mixing later, some from a feed to the mixing desk, others were taken from Swiss radio broadcasts. The analogue audio was mostly transferred to the archive at 96k, but sometimes there were completely different artists to what was labelled on the boxes – the archive is so massive, there are obviously going to be mistakes.” 

So they have a lot of different tape formats to consider each delivering audio with distinctive characteristics. Curiously, the vinyl master lacquers were cut using MQA’s technology. 

Not quite clear on how that would be used, I reached out to the company and learned that all mastering for this project has been done digitally. And, according to them, the process of digitization (whether historic or recent) introduces artifacts such as time smear, or “blur.”  Apparently, the MQA encoder ‘cleans’ or ‘de-blurs’ the recording and then the MQA decoding and rendering in the DAC provides a clean path to analogue, preventing any artifacts being reintroduced during conversion.

Clearly there is something to this. Bruce Botnick, legendary engineer for The Doors, remastered the vinyl for the current run of 50th anniversary deluxe editions using MQA (I hope to write about my experiences listening to The Soft Parade set at some point, in fact, and will no doubt explore this further).

Whatever the case, the end result is solid and indeed the end-to-end listening experience when playing this album on vinyl is very positive.  Nina Simone’s The Montreux Years is one of those albums you’ll keep flipping over to play again or hit the repeat button on your CD player or streamer.  Classic and even essential listening.

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