Vinyl Spotlight: Sonny Rollins, Volume 2 (Liberty Mono Pressing)

  • Liberty mono pressing circa 1966-1970
  • RVG etched in dead wax

Personnel:

  • Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone
  • J.J. Johnson, trombone (all but “Reflections”)
  • Horace Silver, piano (all but “Reflections”)
  • Thelonious Monk, piano (“Reflections” and “Misterioso” only)
  • Paul Chambers, bass
  • Art Blakey, drums

Recorded April 14, 1957 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally released in September 1957

As a jazz lover and record collector, I am very fortunate to live near New York and its dusty record stores, as well as fellow collectors like the namesake of this blog, Mr. Mono himself. If we can’t hunt for LPs together in person, he will sometimes send me pictures of any records I might be interested in from the stores in the city — and sometimes be so kind as to snag some for me to be mailed later. A few months ago, he was in a store that has a very serious reputation for jazz sales when he sent me a few shots of some early pressing Blue Notes at pretty fair prices. One of the pics was of a glossy early pressing of Sonny Rollins Volume 2. The copy was not the first pressing but still had all the things that make collectors warm inside: a West 63rd Street label, Rudy Van Gelder’s initials in the dead wax, and the famous cursive ‘P’ indicative of a copy made in the company’s heyday. Best of all, the dealer did not want an arm and a leg for the copy, and it was payday Friday.

I was very tempted. Sonny Rollins is hands down my favorite artist in the entire genre, and in my quest to own the best possible copies of his LPs that I can afford, Volume 2 is a record I did not have an original of. I did own a copy of this album on Capitol and it had never made an impression on me. Despite its critical acclaim and my liking every artist on the date, it had never caused me to want to listen to it frequently. I do not attribute this to the record I had; the purpose of this post is not to downplay or argue the fidelity of other copies of an LP, but my Capitol copy certainly didn’t do anything to elevate the music of this album higher than A Night at the Village Vanguard or Way Out West, my two favorite Sonny records. So I texted Rich back a dismissive reply: “Nah, forget it — it’s never been my favorite Rollins LP,” to which he replied, “Mine either.” This made me feel two ways: pleased because a fellow collector had validated my opinion, but upset that one of the most celebrated records by my favorite musician was somehow dismissed by two knowledgeable jazz lovers.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I had just run into a nice string of luck with my favorite saxophonist on Blue Note. Within a two-week span, I had lucked out on copies of Volume One and the LP that has eluded me most in recent years, Newk’s Time. A few days after buying Newk’s, I was browsing eBay and a seller was selling Volume 2 as a Buy It Now. I usually avoid the Buy It Now sellers for rare records. However, this was a Liberty copy with some wear on the cover, and it was a later cover with the Division of Liberty lettering on the cover. In other words, this copy was not one that a high stakes collector or dealer would value.

However, as a listener of Sonny Rollins, it had some very good things going for it. For one, it was a monaural copy, which I’m not terribly picky over, except for these very early Blue Note recordings where the focus, at least for sales purposes and sound quality, was mono over the primitive stereo of the day. Secondly, it had the initials of Rudy Van Gelder in the dead wax which, without going into too many details, usually results in a high quality sound regardless of year of issue. Lastly, this thing was cheap! Relatively so, but at less than half the price of the copy that Mr. Mono showed me. I felt that if I was ever going to enjoy this record in its somewhat original form, this was going to be the most affordable way to do so.

After a busy few days of package receiving because of the other Rollins LPs I had just purchased, Volume 2 arrived almost as if it matched my opinion of it, as an afterthought. It was the last in a string of records that I had just purchased, and the two records that preceded it (Volume 1 and Newk’s Time) were two of my favorites. Well imagine my surprise when I dropped the needle. The opening riff of “Why Don’t I?” leapt out of the speaker with great urgency. To me it could have been an outtake from Volume 1 with its loud, honking Rollins riff announcing his unmistakable tone in a similar manner to the Volume 1 jams “Decision” and “Bluesnote”. Despite the presence of a piano here, Rollins hints at the legendary style of pianoless strolling he would perfect the following year, all while trading loud, fast riffs with Art Blakey in a conversation punctuated by the drummer’s own Elvin Jones-esque grunts and patented press roll. It all makes for an exciting conclusion to the take.

Another surprising highlight of the album that mirrored my expectations is the song “Wail March”. I am not usually a fan of marches, from the traditional bop march of “Blues March” by Blakey’s Messengers to the almost avant garde style of march found on Bobby Hutcherson’s “Les Noires Marchant”, but “Wail March” changed that quickly. Normally turned off by their corny, almost antiquated style of beat, “Wail March” is a freewheeling song with the driving snare of any classic march but also wild, reckless improvisation by Rollins and trombonist J.J. Johnson and an admittedly catchy chorus. I could not picture any of the stereotypically bland members of a T.V. sitcom marching band playing such a swinging tune at all. It is one of the myriad example of Rollins taking a theme or tune that was considered ‘corny’ or ‘overdone’ and using his dominating tone and knack for off-the-cuff improvisation to make it into something fresh and revolutionary.

The track on this record that most critics laud is the rendition of the Thelonious Monk standard “Misterioso”, instantly memorable because of a repeating, haunting piano riff played by Monk with a sporadic stabbing motion. It has been recorded on many other albums, but this version instantly became my favorite. Every member of the band plays to their strengths on this song. J.J. Johnson has a memorable solo where he fluidly recreates the opening riff while Rollins finds yet another way to insert “Camptown Races” into a song. Horace Silver and Monk appear on the track — a rarity — and they do a remarkable job of playing their own styles. So many musicians have tried to play Monk’s songs just like he did and failed. These guys all knew how to play with Monk. They all retain their own unique sounds all while paying respect to the song’s original theme.

A few weeks ago, Rich and I had one of our many conversations about our respective collections. We discussed what we believed in our opinion to be the best pressings of Blue Note records in terms of collectability, sound quality, condition, lack of wear, and value. The Division of Liberty Blue Notes, especially reissues of earlier Blue Note material in mono, continued to come up in our talks. When I mentioned to Rich that I had quite a few of these, he asked me to review and write about them for his blog, and in the next few posts I hope to demonstrate that these pressings are not just a mere runner-up to original pressings. They have the potential to provide collectors with a high-quality, affordable listening experience while maintaining many of the hallmarks that make originals so collectable.

Many people think that there is a mystique to the Blue Note sound captured by engineer Rudy Van Gelder. That, of course, is an unscientific way of saying that there is an unexplainable and unique sound to these records. The fact that a Liberty pressing purchased at a discount price can project the classic Blue Note sound so well speaks volumes. It essentially changed my opinion of the recording and also provides evidence that Blue Note’s new parent label was capable of preserving the sound of the original LPs to a tee.