MILES DAVIS -- Kind of Blue (Classic Records / Columbia)

Kind of Blue has been called the most famous and influential jazz recording of all time. It's been reissued countless times, with varying degrees of success. The earliest CD versions had no liner notes at all, and the sound quality was less than spectacular. As technology improved over the years, they achieved much better sound. Sony/Legacy recently released a newly remixed and remastered edition of this landmark album with rare photos, calling it 'the definitive version.' I'll comment on that claim later.

One problem that always plagued the original album (and you probably wouldn't notice it unless you're a musician and tried to play along with the record) was that the first side was slightly off-pitch. Here is what happened. Most of Columbia's recording sessions during the 50's and 60's were recorded simultaneously on two machines. At the first session for the album (which produced the first three songs), the machine used for the master tapes was running slightly slower than it should have. As a result, those three songs have always appeared in sharp pitch.

Classic Records released a vinyl collector's edition of Kind of Blue, spread over two 180-gram LPs. The first album is Kind of Blue as you remember it, at the original speed. The second album contains the first three songs at the corrected speed, plus a previously unreleased alternate version of "Flamenco Sketches" (which also appears on the new Sony CD), cut at 45 r.p.m. for optimum sound quality. In an A-B comparison, the vinyl pressing blew away the new Sony CD. There was literally no contest. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

From the moment the needle settled into the groove on Classic Records' stunningly quiet vinyl pressing, I knew the CD was soon to be retired. The channel separation was consistently better than the CD, as was the bass response and dynamic range. On the album's leadoff track, "So What," the overall sound was much warmer than the CD. John Coltrane's solo has a fuller, more vibrant tone on the vinyl. The CDs bass response on all the tracks seems nonexistent when compared to the Classic Records pressing.

"Freddie Freeloader" is another standout track. The dynamic range heard on Wyn Kelly's piano is far superior to the Sony CD. Miles' muted trumpet on "Blue in Green" sounds much more natural on the album, and Bill Evans' piano sounds like it could be in the same room with you. Like "So What," "All Blues" sounds noticeably warmer and fuller than its CD counterpart, as does "Flamenco Sketches." The alternate version has better dynamics and less noise than on the CD, although the difference isn't quite as dramatic.

One thing that longtime fans of this album will notice is that the running time on "So What" is 17 seconds shorter on the vinyl pressing than it is on the Sony CD. This is because the 'corrected speed' master tape contained a longer fade on the track. Classic Records, in keeping with the label's standards of authenticity, decided to keep the song's running time the same as originally released.

Another difference between the two is in the packaging. Sony added new session photos that do not appear in the Classic Records pressing. Still, there is something to be said for the vinyl. The sheer bulk of it is something special. One thing that is really great about Classic Records is the use of the original labels for their vinyl releases. That, plus the way they add the smooth rounded edges to the vinyl, adds another touch of class to what is already a release of the highest standards.

So which one is "the definitive version"? If you're interested in a few additional session photos, go for the Sony CD. If you want to enjoy Kind of Blue for the great music, the obvious choice is the vinyl pressing from Classic Records.

© 1997 Steve Marshall