The Original Mono Albums Collection Box set
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Nine CD box from the Jazz icon. Here, Miles Davis' first nine albums for Columbia are collected in one package - all in impeccable mono mixes for the first time on CD. Seven of these albums - 'Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead (both 1957), Milestones (1958), Porgy And Bess, Kind Of Blue (both 1959), Sketches Of Spain (1960) and Someday My Prince Will Come (1961) - are familiar classics which saw Miles rise to prominence as an architect of the hard bop style of jazz before revolutionizing the genre with ventures into modal jazz. Of these, Milestones and Kind of Blue remain among the most universally recognized jazz recordings in the world. The box also includes two exciting rare albums: Jazz Track (1958) and 'Miles & Monk AT Newport (1964).
Top Customer Reviews
The Mono records are a must-have for every jazz collection.
The sound reproduction on these albums is just stunning. I haven't played all of them yet but I'm sure that none will disappoint.
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"In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of it's becoming obsolete in the future." The "small print" on the back of a 1959 Columbia Records mono edition of a Miles Davis album.
Chances are if you're reading this you're at least familiar with a few (if not all) of these albums--now in wonderful sounding monophonic sound. The best of these albums include some of the finest jazz of the Twentieth Century. And with fans now able to hear them in mono, we have a chance to better hear what the music originally sounded like back when it was recorded. And this box set does the job it was intended to do.
"Mono featured less audio trickery and fewer audio distractions, so you can actually hear the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians as it occurred in the studio." George Avakian.
The music itself (obviously) hasn't really changed, just the way we hear it. And for fans of monophonic sound (like me) there's no real revelations across these albums (the majority featuring Coltrane alongside Davis), just a smooth, clean mono sound. I keep hearing that the master mono tapes for the album "Kind Of Blue" have been missing for many years or they have deteriorated beyond use, and if so, the engineers have done a fine job with that classic album. Do a comparison of the stereo editions with these mono editions and I think you'll hear the difference is notable. Instruments that sounded slightly low in the mix now have agreeable space around them--you'll hear with more clarity the different instruments that in the stereo versions seemed to be in the background.
"Can he play?" Davis asking about Coltrane.
"Uh huh." Philly Joe Jones' understated answer.
And the "rare" albums--the soundtrack to "Lift To The Scaffold" (a personal favorite--and dig that crazy 50's cover man!) and the Miles and Monk live sets--have been around for years, maybe not with the original album graphics ("Lift To The Scaffold"), but still easily obtainable. And the three tracks ("On Green Dolphin Street", "Fran-Dance", and "Stella By Starlight") recorded in 1958, just before the "Kind Of Blue" sessions, have been previously available. But saying that, all three tracks are well worth having (especially the nearly 10 minute "On Green Dolphin Street") because they reinforce how good this band was. But I don't understand why Sony is touting these albums as some kind of long lost rarities.
The booklet contains a fairly long essay with good information on the various albums and tracks and how they were mastered for monophonic sound, along with period photos. Any lengthy information on the individual albums, the musicians, or the music itself has already been written about in previous album notes, and can be found elsewhere. Plus it's nice to have all the original album covers (not just the "Lift To The Scaffold" soundtrack album) for these seminal albums--a small point but it is nice. Several of these albums featured different cover graphics over the years depending on who released them--the Fontana label is a good example. The outer packaging is similar (though slightly smaller) to the Dylan mono collection from a while back. Everything is nicely done--the clean sound, the thick booklet and the clean looking outer packaging--make this a beautifully understated looking and (most importantly) fine sounding collection.
And while I own all the Davis box sets, plus various individual albums (both CD and original vinyl from way back), I can't help but think that this mono set may be another way for the big labels to grab more of our money. Miles Davis has said in the past that the original albums should speak for themselves--that's it. And Davis' long time friend and producer Teo Macero has said repeatedly that Davis would never have allowed most, if any, of the extra tracks appended to the original album's finished tunes for release. But I have to admit I do like hearing most of the extra tracks that have been issued on the various box sets. For me some tracks do give a better understanding of the finished music, and some don't.
"My music has to get past me, and I'm too vain to play anything I think is bad." Miles Davis.
I'd like to think I'm wrong, but I still have a picture in my mind of a slyly smiling dark suited accountant, with his hand holding open his pocket, so my (and other fan's) money can more easily slip into it. But the chance to get closer to the "original" mono sound will no doubt suck in a number of fans (obviously including me) who want to hear what Davis and the producers/engineers heard way back in another era.
It's nice to see that this fine set is now available at a more realistic price ($50 or so) even if it's from only a very few U.S. sellers. For whatever reason this set seems to be readily available at a decent price in Europe. Hmmm. Hopefully more U.S. sellers will have this in stock at a good price soon so more fans will be able to afford it. This isn't an "import" from Europe so I'm perplexed as to why it isn't readily available from a good number of U.S. sellers.
I realize that mono sound isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for those of us who've been waiting for this set to be released, the wait has been worth it. Hopefully, wherever Miles Davis is, he isn't too unhappy with what's happening to his music.
And for a fantastically illustrated large format book on Davis, check out "Miles Davis the complete illustrated history" (sic), with contributions by Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Ashley Kahn, Francis Davis, George Wein, Ron Carter, Clark Terry, and a number of others who knew Davis. But it's the memorabilia reproduced from Davis' entire life that takes center stage--photographs, ads, posters, album covers, etc. If you're a Davis fan you probably need this book.
Bottom line, this Mono Box excels in its versions of "Round About Midnight" and "Milestones"; while "Miles and Monk at Newport" is a unique item; the other titles sound good enough, but in my opinion their sound is surpassed by various extant stereo versions.
The rest of this review is more specialized for those looking for specific recommendations regarding versions of each album.
Round About Midnight
This has always been in mono, and the Mono master tape was used for this issue with some EQ. The 2000 Coltrane-Davis box version is pretty good, but the version on this mono CD box is better sounding. The Mono box version has more pronounced, realistic sounding bass and a more pleasant reduced treble emphasis than on the 2000 box. The 2000 box tracks are also dynamically compressed (louder).
This was issued originally issued in mono. For the present issue the Mono master tape was used with for this issue with some EQ, and it sounds acceptable. However, my favorite version is the stereo version assembled from original elements for the 1996 Davis-Evans Columbia box. "Miles Ahead" was the great triumph of that box set and sounds wonderful. It used the 3 track tapes as source and has a mix that better emphasizes Gil Evans' masterful orchestration, while the sound separation in the studio (most brass on the left, woodwinds on the right, trumpet in the middle) allows the listener to engage better and appreciate what's being played.
This was issued originally issued in mono and stereo versions. The liner notes say that an alternate "session reel" was used here instead of the mono master. Anyway, it is a little-played mono tape that sounds superior to tracks in the Evans-Coltrane 2000 Box. On this mono CD the bass is more defined and treble on the drum kit is less dominant than on the 2000 CD.
The A side with the film soundtrack material uses the master tape. This Mono box harbors the version with heavy post-production reverb added; the tapes have some hiss, though not to an obnoxious extent. The sound is faithful to an LP that I have. The echo-ey sound works fine for the film, but I recommend that the best versions of these tracks for listening are the original pre-reverb recordings that are bonus tracks on some Fontana issues (look for an edition with 26 tracks). There, the instruments sound more realistic and you can hear the sound of the bass and drums much better.
The B side uses "session reels" from May 1958 with the classic quintet. It sounds very good, though with a somewhat boomy bass. The sound of these three tracks is surpassed by the stereo version found on the Kind of Blue "Legacy edition" 2-CD set (2009) . The latter was remixed by Wilder from the 3-track tapes. All of the instruments sound stunning on the Legacy edition and the sound stage is much more natural than on the Mono. The Legacy edition mix and master is in turn better than the Evans-Coltrane 2000 box.
The Mono box does have the original stylish cover in the mini-LP format cover - nice!
Porgy and Bess
This sounds very fine. The Mono master tape was used with for this issue with some EQ. I prefer listening to the stereo version in the 1996 Evans-Davis box, which also sounds very fine. In stereo it's easier to appreciate features like the tutti sections for double bass and tuba in the first two tracks, and more fun to listen to. Of course, if I am wandering around the house listening to this, it doesn't matter whether it is in mono or stereo.
Kind of Blue
It sounds good. Of course - it's "Kind of Blue", one of the supreme recordings of all time! The liner notes explain that this mono version was created by mixing from the original 3-track tapes, as there was no extant mono master tape.
Recent stereo editions of this wonderful album started with the same 3-track tapes. I really prefer the stereo 2009 Legacy edition of Kind of Blue, the sound is even better and you can really experience and better appreciate the band in stereo. (The Legacy edition sounds significantly better than the same tracks in the 2000 Columbia box, which had noticeable dynamic compression).
Sketches of Spain
The mono version sounds good with excellent EQ (better than the 1996 Columbia box stereo version, which suffers from some stridency in high brass sections). However, one of the great pleasures of listening closely to Sketches of Spain is hearing the interplay between percussionists positioned on two sides of the orchestra, and other subtleties of the arrangements that become apparent in stereo. This mono master tape is also a bit noisy, with a hiss and a low frequency hum- quiet, but noticeable with headphones at the beginning of tracks. The best version is the 2009 50th anniversary Legacy edition also mastered by Wilder. On the Legacy edition, but not the Mono CD, the quiet cymbal is audible at the very beginning of "Concierto de Aranjuez". The EQ of the 2009 is beautiful throughout. (There is also a recent 2012 SACD from Mobile Fidelity, but I don't recommend it. This seems to employ the aged stereo master tapes. Despite (or because of) efforts to keep noise down, there are strange anomalies on the SACD as on "Concierto de Aranjuez", where the track fades in at the beginning, and a "spliced-in" dropout effect when the winds first enter).
Someday My Prince Will Come
This Mono master tape version sounds good and focused. However, the stereo version in the 1990 Columbia/CBS "Jazz Masterpieces" edition (engineer Tim Geelan) really surpasses the mono, with fantastic sound on all the instruments and a beautiful stereo image for the band. The cover of the Mono edition jacket (photo of Frances Davis) is, however, quite a lot better than the cover of the Jazz Masterpieces edition (Miles smoking a cigarette).
Miles & Monk at Newport
This is a worthwhile variant listening experience. The 2000 Columbia box is in subtle stereo and includes material from the festival set that is not on the mono version - two extra tracks plus an introduction. The mono box version sounds good however, and the bass is better-defined here, especially noticeable on "Fran-Dance". This was quite a Coltrane-heavy set and his tenor sax also sounds better in this mono version (as on "Two-Bass Hit") than it does on the stereo version. On the other hand, the ride cymbals sound less in control (tape bias?) on the mono version. Miles Davis' count-offs to the tunes (by foot tapping , vocal cues, and finger snapping) are way louder on the mono version, which is surprising and interesting. The two extra Monk band tracks from Newport 1963 are good fun (with Pee Wee Russell guesting)
Booklet and covers
The booklet has some fine supplementary photos, and the mini-LP covers reproduce the originals of Jazz Track and Miles Ahead. Because the covers are reproductions from original LPs, they retain a few errors, such as the mix-up in descriptions of "Flamenco Sketches" and "All Blues" in the back cover liner notes of "Kind of Blue" and mis-attribution of the pianist on "Newport" (it is Bill Evans, not Wynton Kelly, and this is correctly noted in the mono box booklet). However, the mono box booklet erroneously credits Red Garland as pianist for the B side of "Jazz Track"; it's Bill Evans again.
As far as the sound... spectacular. Instruments are much more crisp, clear, and easier to discern than they were in the old stereo mixes. This is the case with both the small group albums and the Gil Evans larger ensemble arrangements. I thought these mono mixes would sound more primitive or dated, but it's actually the exact opposite. Old favorites sound brand new. Even if you have had these (or even several previous versions of these) recordings, this set is more than worth the investment.
The mono should not be a reason to skip these recordings. The sound is excellent. I went back through my collections and listened side by side with the stereo versions of Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue, as well as a MasterSound mono version of Milestones. I came away preferring the mono versions. Compared to the mono, the stereo seemed artificial in the instrument placement. For example, I had never noticed how far off Cannonball Adderley's saxophone was in the stereo version of So What but in the mono it is more front and center.
The MasterSound version was mono and very close to this version of Milestones. I found the MasterSound to be a bit clearer and somewhat preferable. However, I don't know if these are even available any longer.
These will replace my stereo versions for frequent listening.
It is a very fine set. But the truth is: differences with the stereo versions are, in most cases, quite subtle.
And this is, because the stereo mixes were done with great care and taste and attention in the first place.
It's not like we're talking of the stereo mix of "Please Please Me" here.
Let's take "Porgy and Bess" for example. In the stereo version, Miles' trumpet is always firmly in the front and center. So (right in the center) are drums and bass. The sections which are slightly moved off center are the saxes, flutes and french horns on one channel, and the remaining brass on the other. But it's never a strained sonic image, and the resulting sound always feels natural.
The stereo image, far from turning out to be an "audio trickery" or "audio distractions", or preventing the listener from "hearing the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians" (as Mr. Avakian misrepresents the stereo mixes in his liner notes to this mono box), actually allows for a better perception and understanding of the richness and subtlety of the arrangements, without subtracting a thing from Miles' lead.
So if they tell you that mono is the "true" way to listen to these records, or that it's "better" than the stereo... just don't swear by it.