Since I have started reviewing the generally acclaimed reissues from Universal Music’s Blue Note and Verve Records label imprints — the “Tone Poet” and “Acoustic Sounds” curated brands in particular — some questions come up fairly frequently from readers and participants in social media vinyl enthusiast groups.
Is it any good?
That isn’t rare, why do I need it?
When reviewing the new Tone Poet edition of Paul Chambers’ 1957 gem Bass On Top, I can assure you that it is a mighty good album and recording. Here we find the soon to be legendary bassist supported by a sympathetic trio of Art Taylor on drums, Kenny Burrell and guitar and Hank Jones on piano.
Musically, this album feels — bad pun intended — like chamber music, finding the bassist bowing his instrument frequently, a technique and texture that often gets overlooked in live recordings especially. Here on Bass On Top, Chambers’ brilliant work doesn’t get lost in the mix. Beyond being considered the “Bass On Top” in musical terms — a reference explained in the album’s liner notes to Ellington’s brilliant and groundbreaking 1940s-era bassist Jimmy Blanton, who died tragically young from TB — Chambers’ playing is mixed carefully by Rudy Van Gelder, as it is both a lead and support instrument in the music here.
What’s interesting about this album is that it appeared just a couple years after he’d made it to New York and settled in with Miles Davis’ band. He quickly became known as one of the best bassists around, winning awards and such.
And while he was acclaimed from the get go and went on to record on many legendary albums including John Coltrane’s landmark Giant Steps — he is the “P.C.” in Coltrane’s tune “Mr. P.C.” — his own albums were probably not super big sellers or widely distributed at the time.
Thus we get to the second frequent question: scarcity.
So, sure, there have been many reissues of Chambers’ music over the years. But, pop on to Discogs and look to see what is out there on the market in terms of similar editions of this album: high quality remasters taken off the master tape presented in a premium package that pays tribute to the original and then some. You will find that Chambers’ original albums are highly collectible rarities commanding hefty dollar values.
At the the time of this writing, there were exactly zero copies of the 1966 Stereo edition of Bass On Top with the same serial number as this reissue, BST-81569, available. The handful of 1957 Monaural editions begin priced in the $500 range and go up from there! Heck, there is a 1966 Mono repressing asking $400! Head over to Popsike, another collector’s website, and you’ll find that original editions of this album were selling in the $1000 range!
So there are original copies around but they are mostly in the hands of dealers and collectors seeking premium coin (justifiably, if you are into collecting original pressings).
But now, for a mere $20-30, you can now own a premium quality reissue of this much sought after album in terrific fidelity — mastered from the original analog tapes by Keven Gray at Cohearant Audio and manufactured at RTI on 180-gram vinyl.
While I don’t own an original pressing of Bass On Top, as we’ve seen from other reissues in this series — and just listening to the sound of the album — it is fair to reason that this sounds close to the original. And, it is likely better because of advances in mastering and tape transfer these days. They don’t have to compress the recording quite as much so you get a better dynamic range in some instances than the originals (as I found with my review of Kenny Burrell’s debut, click here to read that).
The only “difference” I noticed on the back cover is a disclaimer about the original Stereo master tape in which there were several instances of microphone “overload” on on Art Taylor’s crash cymbal. Personally, I didn’t notice it as anything super distracting — perhaps I am just used to that sound of oversaturated magnetic tape when engineers ran the recording levels hot to capture the most music on tape (and mask the inherent tape hiss along the way).
I think this recording sounds lovely. Bass On Top is a classic sounding production, again originally recorded by Rudy Van Gelder.
The packaging is exemplary with a beautiful laminated gatefold cover which includes photos of the musicians on the sessions and what looks like original photo negatives used for creating the cover art. It is in many ways better than the original which I don’t think was a gatefold edition (again, I do not own an original!).
If you want to hear it streaming in CD quality and have access to Qobuz or Tidal, click on the service names in this sentence and you’ll jump to them. There is one bonus track, “Chamber Mates,” which is on the CD version of the album as well.
You should grab one of these while you can. I’m glad I did.