Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am

It's astonishing that Rudy Van Gelder, almost certainly the greatest recording engineer in the history of jazz, still has an ear for the job at the age of 84.

The album reissues over which he presides for the Prestige and Blue Note labels continue to outclass the inferior versions released before he was commissioned to go back to his original tapes and remaster them at 24-bit audio.

Van Gelder's Blue Note editions are definitive and the growing RVG Remasters catalogue of old Prestige recordings also includes some classics. The latest batch includes Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, John Coltrane's Black Pearls, and Bluesy Burrell, a collaborative album featuring Kenny Burrell and Coleman Hawkins.

The weakest of these is Black Pearls, by Coltrane's standards relatively ordinary blues, based on a three-tune blowing session recorded in 1958 but not deemed worthy of release until 1964.

The session placed Coltrane in the company of trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor, and as you would expect of a lineup that strong, the music is worth hearing, but the album is hardly essential listening.

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, recorded in 1954, conversely features some unequivocally great playing from an extraordinary lineup: Davis on trumpet, Milt Jackson on vibes, Thelonious Monk on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums.

One track from 1956 features several of the musicians on Black Pearls - Coltrane, Garland and Chambers, with Philly Joe Jones on drums. The track is Monk's Round Midnight, one of several versions of the song recorded by Davis and one of his best.

Bluesy Burrell has only been available previously in an inferior remaster marred by tape hiss. Van Gelder has cleaned it up beautifully for this edition.

The set was recorded for Prestige in 1962 and was the immediate predecessor of Burrell's most popular album, 1963's Midnight Blue.

Burrell is in superb form here and the same can be said for Hawkins, although he only appears on four of the eight tracks. If you like Midnight Blue, as most fans of the Blue Note sound do, you will almost certainly enjoy this lesser known recording.

Not all of the RVG remasters are by famous musicians. I had not previously heard of Boogaloo Joe Jones, an Atlantic City-based guitarist, but Right on Brother, first issued in 1970, is a delight.

Featuring Rusty Bryant on saxophones, Charlie Earland on organ, Jimmy Lewis on bass and the legendary Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie on drums this is a vintage soul jazz recording from a distinctively fluent bluesman who went on, sadly, not to greater fame as a musician but to a career as a slot-machine maintenance engineer and lay preacher.

In the week of the Tamla Motown label's 50th anniversary it was good to hear Jones' version of the Supremes' Someday We'll Be Together, and be reminded that jazz musicians shaped that sound - as chronicled in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Vintage stuff. Let us hope Van Gelder keeps them coming.