Those of you who read my columns regularly know by now that when listening to music, I hate more than anything a warbly recording — be it caused by a tape machine with inconsistent motor speed issues or a vinyl record that has been pressed off-center. The latter is the biggest insult, I feel, to the artist, because with a certain amount of TLC from the pressing plant it can be avoided. But I guess with economies of scale come some mass manufacturing compromises — and thus returns to the record store from customers like me! For some artists, where I have a deep collection of their recordings on LP, replacing and upgrading is not always an option financially, even if I have the sonic impetus to do so (ie. poorly pressed records). Fortunately, there are some decent CD bargains out there — such as the Rhino/Warner’s Original Album Series box sets — that can make the process of replacing some favorite old LPs with newer digital versions a bit more economical. And if you are a fan of larger scale album art in a physical form, they can also quite a bit more rewarding than just grabbing a download via iTunes.
In streamlining my record collection over the past several years, one of my targets has been the many wonderful and varied records by French jazz violin maestro Jean Luc Ponty. Not because I dislike his music — au contraire, mon frere, I am a fairly sizable Ponty fan, dating back to my discovery of his music when he was playing with Frank Zappa. Many of Ponty’s peak-period recordings were made for Atlantic Records and put out in the mid-1970s through the 1980s — that unfortunate time in record pressing history when vinyl quality wasn’t the greatest and the labels’ attention to detail for an artist like Ponty was not exactly on par with mainstream arena-level acts such as Genesis or Yes. No, Jean Luc’s wondrous journeys into the sonic stratosphere were given relatively limited bells and whistles — they were pressed on basic black vinyl, in single sleeves (no spiffy gatefolds), no special innersleeves or inserts, posters, no custom labels, no fancy liner notes… no nothin’! Its a shame, since some of the cover art was really nice.
To add insult to injury, some of my favorite of his LPs are annoyingly off-center, so when you hear him holding a long drawn out note on his violin, you can’t help but notice the wavering tonalities.
Oddly enough, Ponty’s catalog has not been reissued with spiffy 24-bit remastering as far as I know. Upon picking up a couple of the albums on CD, I can hear why — for the most part, they sound pretty good, actually, with a fair amount of warmth and definition. I have to say, for the most part, I do prefer listening to progressive rock and fusion jazz music like this on a digital format like a CD because it’s really nice to just put on the album and get lost in the musical twists and turns the artists take you on. Okay, I’ll also admit, its also nice to not have to get up off the couch to flip the album over!
In the recent past, a new series of CD releases have appeared on the market, sold under various titles, compiling basic original albums by a “catalogue” artist, sans bonus tracks, but packaged in miniature LP-styled cardboard sleeves. These sets seem to have three-to-five albums per set and range in price from $15-25. So when I saw a Jean Luc Ponty Original Album Series set going for $20, I took a chance on it. And so far, I am really quite pleased. The CDs sound quite lush and not overly harsh. Perhaps it’s how I listen to this music that makes a difference — I tend to be doing other things (like writing music reviews!) while listening to music like Jean Luc Ponty’s, so I can enjoy it even while it chugs away in the background. It can also be good for driving, another reason the CDs are handy.
Are they perfect? Heck no! But for the price — $4 per CD! — I’m plenty satisfied. If I had spent $10 or $20 dollars per disc, I would expect a fancier package, with a booklet and such. But for this price, just getting the music — which is what I wanted in this case — is a solid deal. And until that time when I can find Jean Luc Ponty’s music reissue on a high resolution format like SACD, DVD-A or Blu-ray — and better yet, remixed into 5.1 surround! — these CD will suffice just fine.
So with the Original Album Series, I get decent CD copies of Upon The Wings of Music, Aurora, Imaginary Voyage, Enigmatic Ocean, and Cosmic Messenger. Now, if I could find a nice high-definition release of my favorite Jean Luc Ponty albums — A Taste For Passion and Civilized Evil — I will be a happy jazz passenger. Whether you are replacing old or lost LPs or curious to explore an artists’s back catalogue, the Original Album Series may be a good way for many of you to expand your collection. You can find the Jean Luc Ponty Original Album Series on Amazon.
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Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio, and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T, and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, Sound+Vision Magazine and Audiophilereview.com, among others. He is also a musician / composer who’s songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written. www.smotroff.com