It’s the time of year for saving money!
I didn’t go to the second Record Store Day (RSD) events this year due to safety concerns about crowds ‘n Covid ‘n all that. So I didn’t expect to have a chance at getting one of the 2,000 copies of Charles Mingus’ jazz classic Mingus Ah Um in its new two-disc vinyl reissue, figuring they’d sell out instantaneously.
Then this past Friday, a friend gave me a tip that a local shop had gotten their RSD shipment late and was putting out items in waves. I scurried down there and was able to nab a copy for a seemingly very fair price ($32, for a two LP set).
Now, there is no question about this importance of this album, an influential and timeless recording which for many of us is the first point of entry into the world of Mingus and his unique musical mindset. Mingus Ah Um is in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry and the Grammy Hall of Fame.
While pretty much every Mingus record is distinct, there is a continuum across his catalog of hard swinging large Jazz band arrangements meshed with Gospel and Blues influences. From honking saxes and handclaps to vocal hoots ‘n hollers, listening to Mingus is as immersive and soul-enriching as Coltrane and Duke Ellington, yet with a freewheeling sense of madcap musical mayhem and a tell-it-like-it-is street-wise vibe this side of Tom Waits or even Frank Zappa.
Digging down into this reissue, one of the first curious things I noticed is that the liner notes claim that it is a remix, not just a remaster.
This is where things get squirrel-y: it may actually be a remaster and not a remix. Here is why: there is a 1998 three CD boxed set from Columbia which I own called The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings (pairing Mingus Ah Um — featuring longer, unedited versions of many of the songs, remixed from the original three channel multi-track tapes — with its successor Mingus Dynasty, and a whole disc of bonus tracks).
The new vinyl edition has very similar liner notes and detailing to the CD. However, the track timing listed on the new LP version indicates that they are the original edited versions. So, in all likelihood this is a remaster from some incarnation of the original album, not the expanded editions on the CD (got that?).
Unsure still, I set up my stopwatch (thank you iPhone) and timed a couple of the tracks. “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” indeed clocks in around 4:46 as listed on the RSD vinyl as opposed to the 5:42 on the expanded 1998 CD. “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is 3:41 not 4:59 as on the CD.
Without getting completely out of control timing every song, I’ll make the jump to conclude that what we’re hearing is the original version of the original album remastered and not the remix. Those longer versions have been released via the Music On Vinyl label (click here for that).
While I don’t know for sure whether this reissue of Mingus Ah Um was made from a digital master or analog source, I am leaning towards the notion that it is the former.
I’ve read some fan speculation online that releases from Get On Down — the publishing label in conjunction with Columbia Records and Sony Music Entertainment, which manufactured the albums — are generally cut from CDs. I don’t know about that claim, but this reissue does feel more digital in its presentation of the music — a somewhat harsher brightness envelopes the recording overall.
When I compared and contrasted it with my original Stereo “6-eye” pressing (so-called for the number of the iconic Columbia Records “eye” logos arranged around the perimeter of the label), the 1959 edition sounds noticeably warmer and rounder, delivering a better sense of the studio in which the band was recording. The new edition sounds a bit more like a CD in some ways, quite a bit flatter presence-wise and, again, brighter (which may or may not be a good thing depending on your perspective).
Perhaps the most curious thing is both A-sides of my original 1959 pressing and the new edition are a bit off center, but the impact on the music is different. Notes will sometimes waver in and out of tune when an album is too off center.
More than clicks and pops, it is the one downside to vinyl for me personally (some people don’t really care about this, but I do). It underscores why it is important for labels to use a good pressing plant with a high level of quality control. Honestly, off-center pressing is one of my biggest complaints against vinyl as a playback medium; fortunately it doesn’t happen all that often (yet when it does, I notice!).
My 1959 pressing is not so horribly off the mark as to cause serious fluctuations in notes but it is there if you listen closely. I actually hadn’t even noticed it until I looked closely at my tone arm while it was playing as I was preparing this review. However on the new RSD edition the wavering was very apparent, particularly on slower tracks like “Self Portrait In Three Colors.”
Other nits: Get Down Records honorably went to the trouble of creating a reproduction of a 6-eye label design for this reissue… except they used the wrong one!
The Stereo 6-eye label has a distinctive black border vs. the red theme on the Mono 6-eye labels. And… on Side Four of my set, the label has a printing error, so the one of the “eyes” and some of the legs of the logo are missing! There are quite a number of quality control problems showing up on my copy of this reissue, folks!
All in all, this new edition not really terrible sounding and if you don’t have Mingus Ah Um at all it will certainly serve the music in a heartbeat especially if you can find it cheaply. But it is not like listening to an original pressing or even a ’60s or early ’70s pressing. It feels unnaturally bright, at least to my ear.
But, you do get a second LP of bonus tracks which is handy, even if it does sound inherently digital (more so even than the the regular album). Also, in another bit of misinformation however, many of these tracks have been issued on vinyl several times in the past, most notably on a 1993 four LP set from Mosaic Records called The Complete 1959 CBS Charles Mingus Sessions (click here to jump to a Discogs page on that). So the hype sticker on the album claiming “6 tracks never before available on vinyl” is not accurate.
The gatefold sleeve is a more conventional, modern, thinner oaktag design than the thicker cardboard construct of the original. So, don’t go into this expecting the sort of fancy laminated cover treatment that Universal Music has been delivering with its Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds series — they have truly raised the bar as far as Jazz reissues go!
I guess the only question remaining is whether you, or I for that matter, really need this edition?
I probably don’t. But, if you’ve never been able to get a copy of Mingus Ah Um on vinyl before and know you like the artist, for the price this isn’t a bad place to start on vinyl. If you already love Mingus and this album, you’ll be better served looking for an older pressing – even a 1970s edition will probably sound closer to the original thing than this.