June 19, 2008

Patterns in Mono

A painter as well as a composer and musician, Gil Melle recorded a handful of albums for Blue Note, including 1956's Patterns in Jazz, which was one of the earliest Blue Note recordings made in Rudy Van Gelder's first studio -- his parents' living room in Hackensack, New Jersey. When I received a test pressing of the LP from Joe Harley and Ron Rambach at Music Matters, whose Tiffany-quality Blue Note 45rpm reissues have developed a rabid following, I was surprised to discover that it was in mono. Music Matters touted its use of stereo master tapes, pointing out that the mono mixes were often derived from the stereo, so a mono release seemed unusual.

Played with a stereo cartridge, as so many of us play our mono LPs, Patterns in Jazz [Blue Note/Music Matters MMBLP-1517] sounded very good. Melle's baritone sax and Eddie Bert's trombone give the music a laid-back feel, but Melle and the others paint each tune with splashes of instrumental color. This album reminded me in a broad way of Time Out: The complexity of the music is juxtaposed with some tasteful, elegant playing.

Patterns in Jazz also reminded me to track down a mono cartridge. On the subject of true mono playback -- mono recording and mono cartridge -- Joe Harley warned, "You’ll be hooked, I guarantee, once you hear a mono record played by a properly designed mono cartridge." Mike Pranka, the US distributor of Dynavector cartridges, was even more enthusiastic: "I wish all my LPs were mono now."

The advantage that a mono cartridge has in playing mono LPs boils down to the movement of the stylus. With mono, side-to-side movement is all that matters, so the cartridge can be designed to ignore up and down, often via lower vertical compliance. This helps the stylus ride the groove in the way it was cut, tracking only the lateral modulations.

With a Dynavector DRT XV-1s Mono mounted on a second Graham Phantom armwand, Patterns in Jazz positively leaped to life. The music sounded direct and pure, with overtones more finely drawn, and there was an obvious decline in noise of all kinds, a byproduct of that reduced vertical compliance. Patterns in Jazz was literally CD quiet. On sides one and two, I heard not one tick or pop. Some beat-up mono LPs I have were transformed from dross to nearly demo material. Everything I was hearing -- and not hearing -- easily justified the cost and trouble of having a second cartridge.

The Music Matters version of Patterns in Jazz won't be out until October -- giving you time to begin shopping for a mono cartridge. It will be followed in November by another mono release: Hank Mobley's Sextet [Blue Note/Music Matters MMBLP-1568], one of the most coveted Blue Note titles in existence. While I don't wish that all of my records were mono, I am hooked on 1.0 playback. Any surprise at finding out that an LP is in mono is now replaced with anticipation and delight.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

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