From ‘meh’ to ‘masterpiece’: Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um from Hemiolia Records on 15ips 2-track tape

Did you ever have an album that you really wanted to like – say, because it’s held in high esteem and seen as a great example of a genre you love and know a thing or two – and yet, you just can’t get into it? You have a nagging suspicion that ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ so you keep on trying, but the thing just doesn’t ring your bell and this kind of bugs you… what aren’t you understanding or appreciating something that’s so widely revered?

This is how it was for me with Charles Mingus’ 1959 album Mingus Ah Um, which is widely considered to be one of the pivotal jazz albums of its age. What’s more, the album was one of fifty recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2003. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2020, it was ranked number 380 of the Top 500 Albums of All-Time by Rolling Stone magazine. Meanwhile, its appeal continued to elude me. Clearly, the problem was mine. But what was my problem, and why was I having it?

A breakthrough edition

A couple of years ago, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I got hold of the Mobile Fidelity Ultra Disc release which, for me, made all the difference. I finally grasped something of the album’s rhythmic, dynamic and musical essence, and actually began to enjoy and appreciate it for the first time. The clarity of the MoFi version was enough to open up the album to me in an entirely new way.

However (he says, clearing his throat…) when the MoFi was released, I was unaware that there was a DSD (ie. digital) stage within its making. So there I was waxing lyrical about how this version’s ‘analogue credentials’ had given me a whole new perspective on the album… boy, did I feel like a fool when I found out! I also felt pretty miffed, since the notion that something with a digital stage had opened up my listening over and above the original version on vinyl just didn’t fit with my whole narrative around musical recording. It sure can hurt to be very wrong about something, eh!

Anyway, I chowed down the humble pie and came to accept that this was (and has since remained) the best version of this music I’d heard. And, since hearing it, the album had permanently shifted from being a contender for my record collection’s ‘out pile’ to being fondly filed as a definite keeper.

And then came the tape

If the MoFi disc was such a game-changer, I found myself wondering what might happen if the album ever came out on tape. But then I put it to the back of my mind, since it didn’t seem very likely… until November last year when Hemiolia Records announced that they had signed an agreement with Anglo-French company Ermitage Distribution, allowing them access to an important archive of first generation production master tapes – including this one.

I’ve written fairly extensively about Hemiolia’s processes in a couple of other reviews so I won’t repeat myself again here, but if you missed them and would live to dive into more detail, you’ll find it in these recent blog posts:

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

John Coltrane’s Blue Train: Hemiolia’s new master tape copy vs. Blue Note Tone Poet’s vinyl release.

I’d recommend taking a look, as there’s some interesting detail about the lengths to which Hemiolia go to ensure a superb quality product important, and also some unpacking of the subject of remastering versus remixing – a subject on which I found myself having to re-examine some long-cherished beliefs and ultimately swallow another mouthful of humble pie when it turned out that some of those beliefs were plain misguided! Or, if you just want to cut to the chase, the conclusion is this: “The result, thanks to the incredible skill and artistry of Hemiolia’s Mastering Engineer, Pietro Benini, is that it sounds just like the original – only better. Much, much better.”

Now to the listening….

I started off my listening session by spending some time attempting to equalise the playback levels between vinyl and tape, as I wanted to use the MoFi disc as my point of reference. This was actually really tricky to do, due to the differing dynamic envelopes. But I got there in the end, and sat down in the ‘hot seat’ (in the middle of my living / listening room couch) full of anticipation. First came the MoFi disc, to reaffirm my reference point.

It still sounded as amazing as I remembered, so I was really excited to fire up the tape and hear even more! Cards on the table folks, my first reaction was to feel very slightly underwhelmed. On the ‘wow’ side, the sense of natural space and timbre of the instruments were clearly superior on the tape. But there was something about the MoFi version that just seemed ‘cleaner’. Why was that? A bit more listening suggested that perhaps it was more reverb that was making for a slightly more open and spacious sound and, on closer inspection I had to admit that perhaps the ‘cleaner’ sound was actually somewhat unnaturally clean. Still, by contrast the tape seemed a touch more opaque and marginally less vibrant. It was then that I began to realise my mistake…

I started again, but this time I abandoned my attempted ‘level-matching’ between vinyl and tape, and instead just turned the volume to whatever level sounded right.

As I turned up the vinyl, it went louder but nothing about it improved. However, when I repeated this process with the tape, turning it up a similar amount (which was about 4db louder than before) I reached an undeniable ‘road to Damascus’ moment. Suddenly I discovered how much more the tape had to offer.

With the vinyl album, we’d clearly hit its performance ceiling and could go no further. But with the tape, things just got better. Much better. I could clearly hear the recording space opening up, and that space was so very much more realistic. It was filled with the air, the energy and the presence of the players and with the real essence of their performance. Everything snapped into pin-sharp focus and my experience of listening entered a different state of consciousness. From here forward, throughout the whole album, I felt a palpable sense of utter joy. Listening became utterly effortless as, track after track, the melodies interplayed intuitively with one other above the underpinning groove of the rhythm section. This was Mingus-in-the-room like nothing I’d ever heard. Tape was doing it again, trumping everything else hands down (which, frankly, was something of a relief since I’d already eaten more than enough humble pie over this album!).

The multiple brass instruments – trombones, tenor sax, alto sax – together with the clarinet, piano and bass became truly three dimensional, viscerally so (in my notes I wrote ‘there are brass instruments coming at you from everywhere!’). The tape really gives you the ability to really hear each musician individually and to pick out precisely which instruments are playing at any given time, while simultaneously experiencing a totally cohesive whole (the ‘whole’ appearing almost visually as being made up from all of the various contributing performance elements). I could virtually see Mingus’ fingers and what they were doing – plucking the strings, slapping the instrument (‘the great man is in the room’ say my notes). At the same time, I could hear each artist responding to the whole, each member playing with, and sparring off, the others, and all of them adding their own individual dimension. All of this was so clearly delineated, such that the overall effect was almost cinematographic.

Going back to the earlier-mentioned groove of the rhythm section, the sound of the drums was utterly real and the bass immensely powerful – so clean and expressive that it felt ‘alive’.

As a listening experience, it was exciting, fun and hugely entertaining. It was also transporting, as the sound created a kind of three dimensional world in my head which I inhabited for the entire duration of the album. I came out of it feeling overwhelmed with joy and, in stark contrast to my earlier frustrations at struggling to understand an album that I couldn’t seem to appreciate, this has now become an album that I love, cherish and can’t wait to play again.

In the meantime, here are a few of my track-by-track notes, which will hopefully give you a flavour of the sheer joy of the moment, the thrill of the ride….

Side 1 / Tape 1

  1. Better Git It in Your Soul opens with some incredibly vivid plucked bass joined by the piano, drums and a laid-back trombone. Then the massed saxes leap in with startling dynamism. It’s electrifyingly up-tempo. As the song flows along its path, the addition of gospel chanting creates an ecstatic feel.
  2. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is much more sedate, I’d even say haunting – and a real contrast to the opener. It’s beautifully moody, laid back, chilled. There’s a vivid sense of presence, I can hear the sound of the players’ breath, of the mouthpiece, the reeds, the spit, the microphones – it’s all so real.
  3. Boogie Stop Shuffle is one of the album’s highlights for me! Fast and furious, it drips with the flavour of a 1960s / 70s TV show theme tune, but still harks back to that 20s / 30s big band style (actually it reminds me of the Batman theme for some reason, though it’s not the same tune at all). The piano work is awesome, it’s joyously nostalgic.
  4. Self-Portrait in Three Colors continues in a similar feel. It’s intriguing and seems to offer differing perspectives with its complex, overlaid and entwining melodies.
  5. Open Letter to Duke sports a superb rhythm with bass, piano and drumming overlaid with wonderfully noodling reeds. It’s terrific fun and, again (like Boogie Stop Shuffle), it plays around with that whole 30s big band sound.

Side 2 / Tape 2

  1. Bird Calls, as its name suggests, features multiple brass instruments echoing a cacophony of bird calls, with flat-out bass running underneath, creating a frenetic backdrop for all the ‘birds’ to sing upon.
  2. Fables of Faubus is a deeply powerful comment on racism. It has such a strong cinematographic quality, it’s like watching a vintage movie or animation. It’s also full of fabulous catchy tunes (think The Pink Panther) with a main melody that sticks in your head like an earworm. The passages where Mingus plucks then slaps his bass (stopping each note dead) are utterly captivating: he’s standing just in front of my right speaker, I’m staring right at him, mesmerised by his fingers. The resolution seems infinite.
  3. Pussy Cat Dues is another terrific contrast with its beautifully lazy, drunken, swirling, bluesy melody – like some kind of Louis Armstrong / Benny Goodman / Tom Waits mash up!
  4. Jelly Roll brings us back to that fabulous slap-bass technique in a real ‘clippetty clop’ style that reminds me of both Sonny Rollins’ ‘Way Out West’ and a trombone playing cowboy on a cartoon horse! The saxes join the party (around the camp fire) in joyous mood, and the musicianship feels both superbly free yet razor sharp – it’s an absolute joy and leaves me with a smile from ear to ear. The perfect conclusion to a perfect album.

Last words

In summing up, I still have to give a nod to the MoFi version which first opened this album up to me. And yet, this Hemiolia tape is an altogether different dimension. Writing this up, I’m already hungry to listen to it again. This is no longer an album that challenges or mystifies me, instead it’s an absolute joy. I finally see the masterpiece. Seriously, I’m not kidding you when I say that it’s even risen above and beyond being on my ‘absolute favourite jazz albums’ list… Right now I’m pretty convinced it could earn a spot amongst my favourite albums of all genres and of all time. I literally can’t stop playing it, it’s my favourite album of the moment, and is quite possibly the best sounding recorded music experience I’ve ever had. To go from ‘meh’ to ‘masterpiece’ like that – well, it’s an eye-opening and humbling experience.

To finish, I’ll just quickly add that hardware-wise, what you’re buying here are two full reels of Recording the Masters SM900 tape: their highest specified tape available. The reels are elegantly machined in orange anodised aluminium, and each one is engraved and painted with the text. They’re 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 go as far as including the original Recording the Masters tape serial number labels.

In short, quality inside and out. Don’t hesitate. Here’s where you’ll find it: