In preparing for this review, I gave myself a refresher listen to my original Mono Impulse Records pressing of the 1963 release that paired one of the founding fathers of Jazz with one of the shining rising stars of the day, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.
For those not in the know, it is important to recognize that in 1962 when this was recorded, Duke was entering a very different phase of his career at this point, starting to play with smaller bands and allowing his own playing to take a bit of center stage. Just a year prior he’d released his Piano In The Foreground album, recorded with a trio featuring some of the same players on this Coltrane session (Sam Woodyard, Aaron Bell).
I have to admit I haven’t listened to this album in a while and in the interim years I’ve gone much deeper in my appreciation for Duke’s later years. Typically I have filed this album under C for Coltrane but am considering moving it over into Duke’s sizable section of my collection. The title — Duke Ellington & John Coltrane — does place Duke in foreground, if you will, not the other way around. Trane lets loose a bit on these sessions but he’s careful to not steal the show.
Coltrane even has a quote in the album liner underscoring his respect for Duke and his music:
“I was really honored to have the opportunity of working with Duke. It was a wonderful experience. He has set standards I haven’t caught up with yet. I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity. And they mightn’t have been any better!”
So this is a genuinely interesting session, finding Coltrane playing at his tender and most sympathetic best even while Duke gives him lots of room to flow. He’s not quite restrained, but clearly he is trying to fit the mood of the music.
If you are new to Duke Ellington’s music, this might be a good gateway for you to go back to appreciate all he has contributed to the form. There are many riches and it is important to at least listen to understand his music in context with the overall journey of how Jazz — and, frankly, popular music in general — got to where we are today. Duke was a key part of that evolution.
Anyhow, you are probably wondering how this new edition of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane stacks up against the original Mono.
Well, it is interesting and curious…
And, there is no easy answer…
As I’ve learned in recent years, Rudy Van Gelder apparently recorded everything in Stereo as soon as the format was available in 1958 and then mixed down to Mono. In this case, I suspect he made dedicated distinct mixes and not a so-called “fold down” from a Stereo mix. More on that in a moment…
I have two turntables hooked up to my system with similar Bellari tube preamps for each, but the cartridges are very different. When I played the albums back to back on my Music Hall MMF 7.1 (with a Goldring 2400 cartridge fitted with a 2100 replacement stylus that a more sympathetic for older albums), the Stereo version overall sounded better in some ways.
But, when I did more of a direct A/B comparison playing the Mono version on my other turntable fitted with the more forgiving-still and workman-like Sumiko Pearl cartridge, the differences were less apparent. In fact, I liked how the Sumiko handled the Mono mix better than the Goldring. The two recordings started to sound more similar and in reality the bass was more apparent on the Mono than the Stereo, which is a curious thing. I went back and played a bit of the Mono on the Goldring and indeed the bass is more upfront there.
The new edition of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane has a nice clean high end with a better sense of air and the room the album was recorded in as compared to the somewhat more compressed-feeling Mono mix.
The Stereo mix is however curious in its design as the drums are panned more to to the right while Duke’s piano and the bassists tend to be staged in the center channel. Thus the bass presence in this mix falls down behind Duke’s piano volume-wise. On the Mono mix the bass is more prominent, with all the instruments in fairly equal balance.
At the end of the day, you ultimately can’t compare the two versions but this does underscore why some might prefer the Mono mix. They are different beasties…
Its worth noting that Duke’s piano is recorded with some of that boxy flavor which engineer Rudy Van Gelder sometimes delivers in his approach to the instrument. Still, that hushed tone works in some ways, complementing Duke’s thoughtful, tasteful and often subdued playing style. Coltrane’s sax and the drums are certainly bright, rich and clear.
This new edition of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane — pressed at Quality Record Pressing (QRP) — delivers a nice wide sound stage. The new pressing is excellent, perfectly centered and dead quiet dark black 180-gram vinyl — it feels, frankly, much thicker than my original Mono copy!
The cover art on the new Acoustic Sounds edition of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is also improved over my original. Both covers are laminated and look very similar on the outside, but the inner gatefold on the new edition features deep black and white photography as opposed to the odd sepia-toned versions on the original pressings. Looking at images of the album people have posted on Discogs (dot com) I see that some copies were printed with a darker, higher contrast brown ink while my copy looks relatively washed out. So this new edition is a different thing, but in a good way ultimately.
The only down side — if there is one — on the new Acoustic Sounds editions has nothing to do with the label or the recording. As with most everything these days due to the Pandemic (now compounded with the Ukraine crisis), prices have gone up considerably. So while the album typically sells for between $35 and $40. Still, that is still a whole lot cheaper than what it would cost to buy a mint condition original pressing if you could find one.
At the time of this writing there were only seven Stereo ‘60s pressings on Discogs beginning at $75 for a “Fair” condition copy and going upwards to near $200 for a VG plus copy. So, in that sense this fresh pristine pressing is a relative bargain!
You would be smart to pick up one of these new editions of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane while they are still around. They sound great and I suspect they will only go up in value, for those of you who are concerned about that sort of thing. And the music of course is sublime…