August 23, 2008

From Nowhere to Everywhere

Harold Floyd "Tina" Brooks had only one album released during his brief recording career, but what a debut it was. True Blue was mature and fully formed, and here, nearly 50 years after its release, it is one of the most revered Blue Note recordings. Brooks had already established his own unique keening sound on the tenor sax by the time he started his recording career. At the time True Blue hit the streets, Blue Note had used him as a sideman on a number of sessions headed by the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell, and Jimmy Smith, where he contributed not only his sax but his writing skills as well. Yet somehow he slipped quickly and quietly into oblivion. That's what happens to a tenor saxophonist whose demeanor was so reserved that he barely pushed his label to get his albums out and whose drug habit often made him unavailable for recording. If you’d asked about Brooks just ten years ago, only jazz cognoscenti could have told you who he was and what he’d done.

In 1985 Mosaic Records released The Complete Blue Note Recordings of the Tina Brooks Quintet [Mosaic Box Set MR4-106], which is now out of print but cost $90 when available. This four-stereo-LP box set included everything Brooks had recorded under his own name for Blue Note. All of a sudden people began to discover the extraordinary music that Tina Brooks was capable of producing. Beginning in 1998, Blue Note released all four albums worth of material on four stereo CDs: Minor Move, True Blue, Back to the Tracks, and The Waiting Game. Blue Note also had a short-lived vinyl-reissue program about that same time that included a stereo version of True Blue. Finally, Classic Records -- in its ongoing Blue Note reissue series -- released True Blue in mono and Back to the Tracks in stereo. Whew! For an artist who had not been in the public eye during his lifetime this is a surfeit of riches.

Now a new addition has come along to swell the ranks of Tina Brooks recordings. We have the Music Matters release of True Blue, a 45rpm double-LP set. Back to the Tracks is scheduled for release in the coming year or so. With original mono copies of True Blue selling in the four-figure range and the Mosaic set commanding three to four times its original selling price, any new release of this music on vinyl is worth considering. I have every release except the original (I may be a jazz completist, but I'm not Warren Buffett), including the new Music Matters set, so I’m in a position to examine each of them and give you a nudge toward the best.

While I’m sure the original sounds very good, its mono and all but unobtainable, so I’ll focus on the reissues. The pick for the best overall package should be easy -- the Mosaic box contains all of the Tina Brooks Quintet Blue Note recordings. It’s one-stop shopping on 120-gram vinyl, and the music sounds pretty darned good. Plus, the set includes a very informative booklet about Brooks himself and his music discography. But it's out of print, and there's the time required to find it and the cost of purchasing it to consider.

In contrast to the Mosaic set, the CDs are readily available, are cheap, and come with informative booklets. But while they are OK sonically, allowing you to get the gist of what Brooks was about, they don't equal the sound of the Mosaic vinyl, or come close.

I’d stay away -- far, far away -- from the Blue Note-issued True Blue. Yes, it’s on 180-gram vinyl and can still be found inexpensively, and it’s OK for finding out if you like the music, but even the CD version beats it sonically -- and not by a small margin. The Classic Records versions of True Blue and Back to the Tracks are also still around and can be picked up for the price of any good audiophile reissue. These sound worlds better than the Blue Note reissue, nudge out the Mosaic box, and easily beat the CD versions too. Until recently they would have been my choice for hearing this music at its sonic best.

But I can no longer recommend the Classic reissues as the albums to buy now that I've seen and heard the Music Matters LPs. So this is how Tina Brooks sounded in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio! All the life, air, and realness are here. Yes, the Music Matters LPs are mastered at 45rpm, and that contributes to some of the sonic differences, but I give the credit here to the people who had a hand in the remastering. The work of Joe Harley, Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray make all the difference in the world, and they strut their stuff on these Music Matters LPs. Brooks never sounded as fully realistic as he does here -- there’s space in abundance. A truly stunning reissue.

Suddenly Tina Brooks, who couldn’t seem to buy a date during his all-too-brief recording career, is all around us. His music is available on both vinyl and CD for prices that aren't exorbitant, allowing more and more people to hear how significant he really was. While it has taken 47 years since his final recording session for Tina Brooks to go from nowhere to seemingly everywhere, it’s been worth the wait.

...John Crossett

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