Yes, that’s right, my friends. I have gone to absurd lengths to find you the finest (stereo) pressing of this very very fine record. Actually, I’ve gone a little further than even the title suggests. Time for the Best Pressing Shootout I’ve been planning the longest…
Some time in the winter of 2018, when I was still in the throes of not-quite-loving-jazz-but-really-wanting-to, I was desperately seeking the next Black Saint or Shape of Jazz to Come — a jazz record I could get extremely excited about. After a few months of delirium induced by those two classics, I was in a lull, back to listening to my old standards like the Beatles and the Go-Betweens.
I decided, one day, to Google best-of jazz lists that placed Black Saint at the top, figuring that might indicate some parallel sympathies. I finally came across a list by someone — the drummer of a black metal band, I think? — who had Black Saint #1 and Dolphy’s Out There #2. Eric Dolphy wasn’t someone my friend Jared had mentioned to me in his original lists of things to check out. But a few things intrigued me about the probably-black-metal-drummer’s description of this record. First, that it featured bowed cello, an instrument and a sound that I love and something I’d never heard on a jazz record before. Second, that it had a song called “Sketch of Melba” — the name of my PhD supervisor. (When I mentioned the song to her, she began an earnest investigation of whether she’d seen Dolphy play in the 60s, figuring that if she had, that it must have been about her.)
Well, I really liked it. I didn’t Black-Saint-like it or anything, but it’s really good. The bowed cello — by Ron Carter, someone I’ve come to really like in various contexts subsequently — is excellent, and “Sketch of Melba” has a lovely tender vibe. It was definitely nothing like Ornette or later Coltrane, despite Dolphy’s reputation as a “free jazzer” (indeed, he does play on Free Jazz!). It may be called Out There, but I personally don’t find it very “difficult” at all. It’s pleasure music, with beautiful textures, unfamiliar instruments, and fun melodies. I don’t like it as much as other Dolphy stuff I came across later (my favourite Dolphy-associated discs are Mal Waldon’s The Quest, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, and Dolphy’s own Iron Man and Out to Lunch), but I like it enough to, well, get four copies of it.
I’ve actually owned five copies of this disc.
Some time in early 2019, I came across an eBay listing for a Dolphy lot that included a first pressing New Jazz mono copy of this disc. The whole lot was $200, and a purple-label first pressing of Out There is worth a good $600 on its own, so I was interested. I asked about the condition, and was told it was a strong VG+ with no surface scratches and no audible clicks, pops, or hiss. I ordered it.
Of course, when it arrived, it was a whole other story. Sure, the vinyl looked pretty clean, but the background hiss was horrible. This was my introduction to the notorious New Jazz “recycled vinyl.” It’s exactly what it sounds like, and because recycled vinyl includes mushed-up bits of paper (they left the labels on), it’s incredibly noisy. The record was totally unlistenable. Eventually I convinced the seller to give me my money back.
Aaaanyway. In addition to not liking the horrible recycled vinyl, I wasn’t fond of the mono-ness of that first pressing. As I’ve written elsewhere, as a headphone listener, I don’t like mono. Even on a loudspeaker setup, I don’t get the mono thing. Give me soundstage, please. So I started looking for stereo copies of this fine record.
That, right there, is the first US stereo pressing of Out There, released in 1969 by Prestige with their “blue trident” labels. It has a different cover from the Dali-esque “Prophet” cover from the original ’61 pressing (which both of my Japanese pressings reproduce). The Prestige cover is far left in the main photo; my least favourite of the bunch. Various resources, including LJC, assured me that blue-trident Prestige would be free of recycled vinyl. The fact that Rudy Van Gelder did the stereo mastering — his famous initials appear stamped in the dead wax — added to the appeal. It was for sale for $40 on Discogs when I was on vacation in Los Angeles in December (hmm, will that ever happen again?), and shipping was $5 with no tax, so I ordered it.
When I got it home, what do you think I heard? Yes, noisy vinyl. It wasn’t anywhere near the dreadful noise of the ’61, but it was pretty annoying. The music sounded much, much better than that ’61 — both for the improved vinyl quality and the stereo presentation — but I was miffed. Back to Discogs!
Now although the 1969 pressing was the first US stereo pressing, that up there is the first ever worldwide stereo pressing: a 1968 copy on the UK label Xtra. This one was not mastered by Rudy Van Gelder — but what it had going for it, in my eyes, was that Xtra was a subsidiary of the the Transatlantic label, which produced two of the best-sounding discs I own: the first two Pentangle records, released right around this time. I figured the same mastering engineers, equipment, and pressing plants were likely involved. And I found this one on Discogs in NM condition for something ridiculous like £5. I snapped it up and, when it arrived, found it everything I’d been hoping for: beautiful dynamic music, dead quiet vinyl. It also has the coolest of the covers (top centre). If I were sane, I would stopped there.
Of course, when making a big order of Japanese jazz pressings, who can resist adding a 1977 Victor reissue in NM condition for a very reasonable price — even when it’s mono and you know you won’t like the presentation? Especially when you’re beginning to think about a series of posts called “Best Pressing Shootouts”?
And then, after you’ve already done a few Best Pressing Shootouts, and you’re getting ready to do the long-awaited Out There edition — say you see on Instagram that your favourite local shop, Cosmos, is struggling during the lockdown, and has started doing home deliveries… and has a NM copy of the 1975 Toshiba-EMI stereo pressing! — and you love Japanese pressings and almost always prefer them? How could you not?
My digital comparator is the CD-quality “Van Gelder Remaster” on Tidal — the only one they’ve got, and the transfer that introduced me to the record.
Well, I’ve been waiting for this one for some time — and boy, was it fun to do!
I mean, I was pretty sure what I was going to find, because I’ve listened to these discs a lot. There were a few little surprises in there, but not too many.
Main takeaway: the Xtra is the best pressing. It’s crazy-cheap, it was pressed in the 60s, it has the coolest cover (though the cardboard is flimsy and the liner notes are lame— can’t win ’em all). Go and buy one before they get incredibly expensive. The instrument textures on this pressing are stunning — which, on a disc filled with bowed cello and bowed bass, is a good thing. (If you want one of my best bits of audio journalism, read the part below where I say that its presentation of the bowed cello texture was like being licked by a cat’s tongue, versus the human’s-tongue presentation of digital. This pressing was definitely the most catlike of the vinyl bunch.) There is a “liquid” quality to its presentation of the bass clarinet that I just loved. I think all I mean by this is that it sounded exactly like a bass clarinet, which has that lovely voluble, liquid tone.
The 1975 Japanese pressing is a close second. It gets all the tones and textures exactly right — but something’s up with the soundstage. For one thing, it’s got the left and right channel reversed; only a problem when you’re comparing a million pressings, but weird and annoying. And then the instruments seem much more hard-panned on this pressing than the Prestige or the Xtra. I don’t know if they would have done a remix, or worked from different tapes, or whatever, but the stereo mix is not very pleasant to listen to.
The 1969 Prestige is extremely good, too, and in my current vinyl setup the surface noise is much less annoying than previously. But it doesn’t have the dynamics, the textures, or the “liquidity” of the Xtra or the 1975 Japanese pressings.
All of these stereo pressings sound way better than the digital comparator, but the ’69 and ’75 were a good 30% or more better, whereas the ’69 was only about 15 or 20% better.
The 1977 Japanese mono is, well, a mono pressing, so I don’t like it. If you’re into mono, I bet you’ll really like this one, because I have other late-70s Victor Prestige (stereo) pressings, and they’re amazing. But mono just isn’t for me…
Current setup: LP12 (Mober DC motor and PSU, Cirkus bearing, SSP12 subplatter, Mober subchassis, Linn Ekos 2 w/ stock cable, ESC-retipped Linn Troika), Dynavector P75 MkI, Linn Silver RCA, Schiit Mjolnir w/ Telefunken E88CC, Hifiman HE1000v2 w/ stock balanced cable. (See here for my digital setup.)
1969 Prestige US. Some surface noise, definitely. Though when the music kicks in on “Eclipse,” it’s gorgeous, liquid, super-present. The clarinet in particular is stunningly good and clear. But the bowed cello is terrific, too, with palpable texture, and lot of depth on the low notes and plenty of “snap” on the higher ones. “17 West” loses some clarity and definition on the flute — just a recording issue, I think. The bass and cello sound good, though the drums are a little distant. During the bass solo, just missing a bit of definition and clarity, though the cello leads out of it with nice textures. “Sketch of Melba,” which I love, sounds as good as “Eclipse.” The conversation between flute and cello is very nicely rendered in stereo space, the bass is full and palpable, the soft drums clear and fine. The cello solo is really beautiful with great textures and really “thick” low notes. Ooh, “Feathers” might sound the best of the bunch: bowed bass this time, with pizzicato cello, and sharp alto sax. Definite texture fest. I haven’t listened to this pressing in a while, and the Mober/Ekos/Troika are getting the best out of it, no doubt! Ooh, the conclusion is a real audio thrill. (And then I hear the surface noise again, which hasn’t been bothering me much.)
1969 Xtra UK. Minimal surface noise. Really nice from the first notes. A bit softer than the Prestige, maybe? When the clarinet kicks in, I’d say yes, maybe just a touch less treble (RVG — famous for his treble-boosting — is not mastering this!), but the cello and the clarinet are both super-present with amazing detail and lovely textures. I think I like this presentation a little better. I’m getting that tickle in my tummy from the clarinet sounds especially. Less of a drop-off into “17 West” — yes, the flute is a little less sharply recorded, but the drums are really nice and crisp here as are bass (well, some echo on there, it is distant-sounding) and cello. Clearly better on this pressing. “Sketch of Melba” is again beautiful, very much like on the Prestige pressing but with less high end. All the textures and detail, though. The bass is particularly nice on this pressing: soft, clearly placed in space, with a nice tone you can feel as much as hear. Wow, “Feathers” is stunning. I love the the plucked/strummed cello, which has really cool attack, balanced against the steady texture of the bowed bass and the soaring (but not piercing) alto sax. This again has to be better than the Prestige. The clarity of the alto and the cymbals are stunning.
1975 Japan Stereo. Quietest vinyl of the bunch. A bit of pre-echo to start things off. Amazing sense of space on the drums in the left channel on “Eclipse”: haven’t been getting that at all on the other pressings. Hmm, yes, very wide soundstage — though I think the L/R are reversed here, so maybe my brain is just responding to difference? This feels balanced like the Xtra (not as bright as the Prestige) but with a wider soundstage. I’m 90% sure they’re got the channels reversed. But I really don’t hear any flatness on the flute as I had on the other two pressings. Maybe a little too hard-panned left and right here: the flute is all the way right and the drums and cello all the way left, with the bass centred. More definition than either pressing, but maybe the stereo mix is a little annoying… I can hear reverb and space on the fade-out that I haven’t heard on the other pressings. “Sketch of Melba”: similar impressions of excellent clarity and detail, but a stereo mix that places things too far outward. As on the others, “Feathers” is the best sounding of the individual tracks, especially the pizzicato cello. But the channels are definitely reversed here 🙂 Really nice and clear on this pressing, but I think I like the Xtra just a bit better overall…
1977 Japan Mono. Totally silent vinyl. But… mono! I just don’t like it. Even bad, hard-panned stereo is more exciting and dynamic to be than mono pressings. On headphones, the “depth” that apparently comes through on speakers just isn’t there. It’s not just that it’s mushed together, it’s that it sounds worse. None of the clarity or texture I like here. Sounds fuzzy and woolly, the bass a little boomy. I’m going to leave this pressing here — no S-2-s for you!
Digital. I’ve taken a few hours between sessions, so my audio memory isn’t absolutely fresh — but this does sound good. Definitely softer on the clarinet than I think was coming out of any of the vinyl. I wonder if the texture on the cello isn’t a bit behind the vinyl pressings.
S-2-s digital vs. 1969 Prestige US. Whew, that puts things in context. Far more dynamic with WAY better textures on vinyl here. The “liquidity” of the clarinet is totally absent on digital. Texture of the cello is decent on digital but superb, so much richer, stronger on vinyl. Like the difference between a human’s and a cat’s tongue, you know what I mean? Cymbals also really clearly differentiate things. 15-20% better on vinyl.
S-2-s digital vs. 1968 Xtra UK. Liquidity and texture are the differentiators, and here the difference is clearly greater. 30% at least. Just superb. (This disc is pressed much quieter than the ’69 — RVG loved to crank things.) Width of soundstage — and “purity of tone” — really astounding on vinyl vs digital.
S-2-s digital vs. 1975 Japan Stereo. The tone of the instruments is totally different. So much richer, more “right” on vinyl. At last 30% better than digital. But yes, soundstage is reversed, and more extreme. I think the tone of the instruments is a little better, more accurate. But either the mix is actually somehow different, or my brain is just rebelling against the L-R channel reversal, because the soundstage seems off, too hard-panned, to me. Give me the Xtra!