The best version bar none: Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ on copy master tape from Hemiolia Records

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue from Hemiolia Records

Cards on the table: this is one of my all-time favourite albums, so I’m going to get into some fairly extensive rambling here. What can I say, I’m excited!

Yes, there have been many and varied reissues and versions of Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 masterpiece over the years. But it’s never before happened on 15ips, 2-track, master tape copy. At least, not legally, which is a key consideration – not only in terms of legitimacy and ethics, but also (importantly) the quality of what you’re getting.

Like the recently reviewed Blue Train by John Coltrane, this release is from Hemiolia Records, a niche artisan Italian label which solely offers analogue titles. The release is fully compliant with European copyright but it’s not a Sony / Columbia release, so as such it’s not available for sale direct to US customers. However, US readers don’t despair… having looked into the copyright situation, there appears to be nothing stopping a US buyer self-importing, in other words buying the tape from a non-US retailer…. (but don’t quote me on it!).

While we’re on the subject of copyright, people often ask me – why not just buy bootleg tape copies on eBay, where’s the harm, what’s the big deal? Well, apart from the obvious legal issues (and the fact that big guns like Sony / Columbia tend to come down on perpetrators like a ton of bricks), the key issue for me is quality. A bootleg copy you buy on an auction site is just that: a bootleg. Its source is probably unknown, and it’s very unlikely to be an original master / safety master / production master or similar. In the worst cases I’ve heard of things that are basically little more than a vinyl (or even digital) recording copied to tape – seriously!

Exploring this tape’s source

On that note, let’s discuss the provenance of this title. The source for this tape is a Columbia production master – moreover, it’s a flat master, hence unequalised and uncompressed – essentially a safety copy of the original stereo master. Therefore, unlike recent uber-fi vinyl reissues that were sourced from the original 3-track session tapes (which was the extent of multi-track recording at that time), this is NOT a remix. Rather, it’s a remaster. In other words, it’s more authentic to the ultimate source that we (i.e. Miles fans) all know: the source used for the original vinyl release (and also the ultra-collectable 2-track and 4-track 7.5ips tapes – which, sadly, I don’t currently have copies of).

In terms of the 3-track session tapes, the three tracks left, centre and right were initially assigned as follows: left channel: piano, tenor sax; centre channel: bass and trumpet; right channel: alto sax and drums. In the second session the two saxophones were reversed, so Coltrane appears on the right of the stage and Adderley on the left. Apparently, the only channel fed through reverb plates was the centre channel, so any reverb was on this channel only and therefore depending on how that was mixed, it would considerably affect the overall sense of ambiance. Any reverb on the piano, saxophones and drums would be bleed-picked up on the centre microphones. All of this becomes rather interesting and, when, listening to this tape, it becomes quite obvious – more on which later.

(By the way, my references for the above notes were a selection of vinyl copies: the original US Columbia 6-eye stereo and mono versions, an early 1960s US Columbia re-pressing on the 2-eye label, and the recent UHQR issues from Analogue Productions).

Getting down to the listening

I’ve opted not to do a direct comparison with other releases for this review. But I’ll just say the following, so you know what my points of reference are… I previously talked about the Analogue Productions UHQR vinyl issues on my YouTube Channel which, if you’re interested, you can check out below.

Make no mistake, these are mightily impressive. But, for me, there’s still something about the original which keeps pulling me back (which I find is often the case with ‘Audiophile’ reissues – but that’s a whole other conversation / ramble). In other words, my ‘ultimate reference’ here is still the original vinyl release, though the UHQR versions (remixed and remastered by Bernie Grundman) really do sound astonishingly impressive!

Spoiler alert: the original vinyl release was my ‘ultimate reference’ – until now. But now that I have this tape, I very much doubt that I’ll often return to any of the other versions. The simple reason being that this tape does exactly what any music lover and huge fan of an artist / album would want: it takes you closer to the original stereo release – but on tape!

Let me try to explain / unpack this, through the listening experience.

‘So What’ is the album’s opener and straight away there’s a familiarity. It doesn’t sound unlike the original stereo pressing, but it also sounds better. Way, way better. Paul Chambers’ bass is weighted beautifully, it’s absolutely spot-on…. the depth and weight, the tone and texture, the tunefulness, the attack and decay of every single note. Even the very best turntables (and I’ve had the great fortune, through 30+ years in the audio industry, to hear some of the word’s best) are left wanting in this respect compared to studio-quality tape. Similarly, Bill Evans’ piano on the left of stage and James Cobb’s drums to the right are equally weighted and have that fulsome, natural weight and body that you know they should have, but you’ve never fully heard before. In fact, this is something that this tape brings out more than any other version of the album that I’ve heard.

“so cohesive…”

There’s an ease to the listening. It doesn’t require as much (or indeed any) subconscious processing by the mind to coalesce into a unified sonic / musical experience, while also at the same time being clear and distinct in each of its parts. It has a kind of softness – no, not exactly soft – let’s say a realism, a natural tonal colour and a very natural ambiance (i.e. close to the original and the time and place in which that recording / event took place). The instruments sit in the very space that we know them to be in (which sounds obvious but is far from always being the case).

Miles Davis’ trumpet sits centre stage, John Coltrane’s tenor sax is to the left and Julian Adderley’s alto sax is to the right. The piano sits behind Coltrane, the drums behind Adderley. Compared with the audiophile UHQR issue mentioned above they’re further forward and closer to the listener, more like you’re sitting just in front of the stage rather than somewhere further back in the auditorium. Everything shimmers with a most realistic tonal colour. In comparison, the UHQR remix not only sounds farther back but also has more reverb than this and the original vinyl pressing.

The whole is so cohesive, it works supremely, the piano has a stunning presence, the timing and colour of the performance is quite simply stunning, jaw-droppingly so.

“snap and boogie”

As we move on to the next track, ‘Freddie Freeloader’, the two saxes shine with stunning colour and the piano’s presence reaches 100% (we have a different pianist on this track Wynton Kelly – all of these subtleties become apparent with this tape). Cobb’s drums have superb snap and boogie. Miles’ trumpet beautifully pierces though the mix but is soft and ambient at the same time, the reverb is spot-on, it sounds so natural: again, like the original, just far more real. When Coltrane’s solo starts he leaps into the soundstage, positioned left as we’ve already established with the reverb just as we know it. Compare this to the UHQR version and that suddenly sounds a bit odd: the sax is pushed back in the mix which leaves its reverb tail (caught in the bleed to centre channel) sounding distinctly detached in the right loudspeaker. It just doesn’t sound like the original. Impressive though it is, it taxes the mind, I find, it’s not as relaxing a listen because your subconscious is called into play to make sense of the soundstage in front of you. On the tape none of this occurs, instead I’m left in complete suspension – losing myself completely in the essence of the performance.

“suspended animation”

‘Blue in Green’ closes the first side and in this case the first tape. Before we go on I ought to explain that the album was recorded in two sessions: side one on the 2nd of March 1959 and side two on 22nd of April 1959. More on that later…

So, back to ‘Blue in Green’: again the piano (returning to the sublime touch of Bill Evans) is soft and subtle with glorious colour. The reverb tails and the decay of each note are so deliciously real, you just can’t do this on vinyl! Centre stage, the bass is richly full-bodied, its weight and tunefulness also eclipsing anything you’ll hear on vinyl, and the ever so lightly brushed drums on the right are sweetly, spine-tinglingly soft. In front of these three are the two saxophones: Coltrane’s tenor left and Adderley’s alto right, then of course we have Miles Davis’ trumpet front and centre stage. His sound is achingly spacious, bringing a familiarity with the intimate sound of his ‘Sketches of Spain’ album (which was still to come at this point). It’s not the first time I feel reminded of that album during this performance.

As the first side draws to a close I feel like I’m in suspended animation: my jaw is most definitely dropped, and everything outside my awareness of this music, this performance, this recording has been parked somewhere else. The music instils a stillness, a calm, a thoughtfulness. It’s quite simply awesome!

A question of speed

As already mentioned, Kind of Blue was recorded in two sessions. Tape 2/side 2 is from the session recorded on 22nd April 1959. There are two main ways in which this session differs notably from the first one in March. First, as is well documented, the tapes are running at correct speed – something that wasn’t noticed for several years (1992 or so I believe). I’ve heard vinyl and digital releases of the speed-corrected versions of tape 1/side 1, and I have to say that to my ears they sound a bit slow or ‘tardy’. Then again I don’t have perfect pitch so the ¼ semi-tone or whatever it was supposed to be off doesn’t register with me, but the corrected version just loses something of its impetus. However this tape sounds just right, which prompted me to ask mastering engineer Pietro Benini about it. Pietro confirmed that his source, the Ermitage production master, is in fact a first generation copy of the ‘back-up’ correct-speed original master.

But anyway, here we are on side 2, which brings me to the second notable feature: Adderley and Coltrane have swapped sides. So alto sax now sits in front of the piano on the left and tenor sax on the right in front of the drums. A small thing but worth mentioning perhaps.

Also, a slightly curious observation: the rear cover of the original vinyl release had the titles of the two tracks on side 2 swapped around (i.e. not reflecting the actual order on the record). Why the titles were swapped around on the original issue eludes me. The very earliest pressings also had the side 2 labels denoting the incorrect track order. This was rectified by the time my 2-eye edition was issued but the covers continued to be printed with the incorrect order for many years! In any case, whilst the track listing appears different on this release it is in fact correct: it was the original that got it wrong. So to clarify all of that, the first track on side two is in fact ‘All Blues’ and the album closes with ‘Flamenco Sketches’. I noticed that the official 1960 UK and Dutch vinyl issues, both on the Fontana label, have the correct track order, so I’m assuming it was purely a Colombia printing error back in the day.

“a resonant weight and depth”

Anyway, back to the listening… here, the sense of realism again shines through in spades – microdynamics, intimacy of shape and colour. Every note of the saxophones and the bass is so natural in tone and timbre. It doesn’t sound ‘hi-fi’ in any way, nor does it sound like an ‘audiophile’ recording or reissue. It just sounds natural. The trumpet almost reaches out and caresses you, it’s that soulful and aching. The bass dives down deep, each note plunging with a resonant weight and depth. The piano does too, the depth of the notes giving the piano a realistic weight and body. The timing is superb, which for me is an abiding feature of tape that cannot be eclipsed. Adderley’s sax solo sails out of the left and then Coltrane follows him on the right, the pair are mesmerising. This music lives and breathes behind and in front of my loudspeakers, and my speakers get lost somewhere in the middle of the stage.

Finally we come to the albums closer, ‘Flamenco Sketches’. The slow, spacious bass and piano and the aching trumpet again refer to the forthcoming ‘Sketches of Spain’ album. Coltrane’s tenor saxophone, now on the right channel, is deep and resonant with a gorgeous colour. The piano on the left plays with it, providing a perfect counterpoint. And then Adderley solos, on the left, his slightly smaller horn having a marginally less deeply resonant colour. This level of in-depth realism brings such a stillness to the consciousness. The pure authenticity devoid of any sonic ‘tricks’ allows one’s psyche to truly relax so you can fully immerse in the music like a hot bath. You feel as though your whole being can float into the performance, nothing is asked of you, you just ‘be’ in it.

Final words

Okay so this is not an inexpensive tape. But if you can stretch to it, it’s very, very worth what you pay, in my view. Hardware-wise it comes on two full reels of Recording the Masters SM900 tape: their highest specified tape available. Frankly it’s exactly what I would want this precious master copy to be recorded on. The reels are elegantly machined in orange anodised aluminium, each engraved and painted with the text. These are packaged in a simple but beautiful box, in which the reel centring inserts are a beautifully machined wood. All inserts are printed on high quality art board and include a track and information sheet for each reel, and a technical specification and quality control sheets for each reel, which even going as far as including the original Recording the Masters tape serial number labels.

It’s worth adding that each tape is painstakingly produced, copied with as much care as if it were the original master. The blank tapes are first checked in detail and any less than perfect tapes are discarded. Then each and every copy is hand made by mastering engineer Pietro Benini before being signed off, serial numbered and packaged for sale.

One note I would like to address before I sign off on this ramble is the subject of remastering versus remixing. This is something I’ve discussed before (and often), but I’d like to mention it here because of a response that a reader of a previous blog post sent me about these releases, which went along the lines of “remastering: no thanks”. I’ll admit, there was a time when my response would’ve been “yeah totally, I’m with you there!”, however I’ve since had the good fortune of being slightly re-educated on that position by a number of professional recording engineers whose knowledge of their art is, of course, far greater than mine.

To explain, I’m going to repeat some of what I already mentioned in a previous section, but bear with me as I think it’s worth repeating (not least because the aforementioned pros had to repeat it to me a good few times before I finally relinquished my long-cherished position on the matter!). To reiterate, the source for this tape is a Columbia ‘flat’ production master. ‘Flat’ meaning that it’s not equalised, nor is it compressed in any way. What it is, is essentially a 1:1 copy of the original stereo master – in other words, before any kind of equalisation or compression for vinyl, cassette or compact disc production. In short, if your goal is the ‘perfect’ version of the original release, then this is your best bet. If, like me before I was re-educated(!), you believe that the ‘real source’ goes back further (i.e. the ‘raw’ recording, before any mastering at all), what’s important to understand is that the ‘raw’ 3-track (aka multi-track) session tape is not yet ‘finished’ as such: the final mix to stereo completes the creative process of the team at the time. To go back to the 3-track tape would be to undo the original creative process, and all of the decisions made that created the sound and the space of the original that we know and love. To then redo that would yield a very different sounding album. In contrast, Hemiolia have merely ‘remastered for tape’, meaning that it’s simply level-matched between tracks and – maybe, just maybe -the subtlest equalisation, nothing like the extent involved in vinyl reproduction. For example, you can hear this in the tremendous body and weight of the bass, and also the mixing of the centre channel with the left and right, which has a profound (and profoundly positive) effect of the space of the recording. The result, thanks to the skill of Hemiolia’s team, sounds just like the original – only better. Much, much better.

Conclusion: this is the best Kind of Blue I’ve heard, bar none, and quite frankly the best I ever expect to hear. Period.

I’m now seriously looking forward to hearing the third of Hemiolia’s first releases from the amazing batch of recordings they’ve acquired the rights to reproduce on tape: Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um.

To find out more and get your hands on the goods:

PS. If you haven’t had your fill of my ramblings here, I also made a video of my thoughts for YouTube after writing this blog. Here it is below.