Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Charles Mingus recorded three albums for Impulse! Records, and one of them, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), is among his masterpieces. It stands with two other Mingus albums, Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956) and Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959), as essential jazz recordings that belong in any collection of American music. Mingus went so far as to write, in the liner notes for Black Saint, “I feel no need to explain any further the music herewith other than to say throw all other records of mine away except maybe one other.” He doesn’t name the other record.
That liner note is long, and that’s not all -- Mingus also asked his psychologist, Edmund Pollock, Ph.D., to contribute his own note. Both notes, printed on the inner gatefold of the original vinyl release, are included on the inner sleeve of this new edition, which is part of Verve and Impulse!’s Vital Vinyl reissues series. Kevin Reeves of Capitol Records cut the Vital Vinyl masters from 24-bit/192kHz digital files, and the LPs are pressed in the Czech Republic.
My points of comparison for this new pressing are an LP from Speakers Corner (2001) and an Analogue Productions SACD/CD (2011). Although some forums assert that Kevin Gray mastered the Speakers Corner LP, I found no definitive evidence of that, and his initials aren’t etched in the dead wax. Gray did master the SACD, however.
The sound of the SACD/CD has always struck me as inexplicably bland, which surprised me -- I’m rarely disappointed by Gray’s work. In fact, of the several Analogue Productions SACD/CDs I own, all mastered by Gray, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is the only one that hasn’t impressed me. In the first track, “Solo Dancer,” instruments come across clearly, timbral qualities are presented well enough, and I can get a feel for the space where the music was recorded. But everything feels flat and uninvolving.
As became emphatically clear when I turned to the Speakers Corner pressing. The drums at the beginning of “Solo Dancer” rise in volume more resolutely, and I can hear the music growing in force, conviction, and complexity as it develops. Dannie Richmond’s ride cymbal is easy to visualize on the soundstage, and it sizzles. The lower-pitched instruments in the right channel -- trombone, tuba, baritone sax -- sound grittier and more forceful. As other instruments enter, the layers of sound are easier to follow.
The new Impulse! pressing doesn’t quite meet that standard, but it’s very good. It put me a tiny bit farther from the players than the Speakers Corner, but still conveyed a strong sense of the proportions of the 11 players, and I could easily follow individual instruments. Jerome Richardson’s baritone-sax solo has plenty of texture and low-end impact, and Charlie Mariano’s alto-sax solo is projected from the speakers with vigor and conviction.
The piano is full and resonant at the start of the second track, “Duet Solo Dancers,” on the Speakers Corner, and as other instruments enter the depth of tonal colors is cohesive and focused, even when the tempo shifts and the music becomes denser and more complicated. The new pressing is very good at presenting Mingus’s shifting tempos and complex tonal experiments, even in the busiest portions of this chart. On the SACD/CD, it was more difficult to locate the different sections of the orchestra, and the lower-pitched instruments weren’t as aggressive or emotionally powerful.
Jay Berliner’s classical guitar rings out fully in “Trio and Group Dancers” on the Speakers Corner pressing, and the ensemble sections in the left and right channels are deep and harmonically layered. The flutes in “Single Solos and Group Dance” sound open and brightly colored. Berliner’s guitar sounds more natural on the new pressing than on SACD, his strummed chords and individual notes cleaner, and the flutes on the latter track are light and airy.
On balance, I found the new Impulse! pressing to be close in many ways to the Speakers Corner, especially given its digital source, and much better than the SACD. The solos by Mariano, Richardson, and trumpeter Rolf Ericson had presence and definition, Jaki Byard’s piano was assertive when the arrangement demanded it, softer and more subtle when that was needed. Richmond’s cymbals cut through brightly and his snare snapped sharply, and Mingus’s double bass had more bottom-end slam and greater impact.
The Speakers Corner has the edge over the Vital Vinyl in terms of space around instruments, immediacy, and the apparent size of the recording venue -- its soundstage is slightly larger and deeper. But the Speakers Corner is out of print, and used copies on eBay are often pricey -- though not as pricey as original Impulse! pressings. Even the later Impulse! editions are costly.
An Analogue Productions edition of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is still in print on two 45rpm LPs for $50. The Vital Vinyl costs $25, and is easy to find for less. Given the quality of the mastering and vinyl, along with the more-than-acceptable reproduction of the cover art, I encourage jazz lovers who don’t have a copy of this album on vinyl to pick up this affordable, well-done reissue.
. . . Joseph Taylor