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Thank Goodness for the Rudy Van Gelder Edition Series
A love letter to the Blue Note reissue series of yore
Back in the late-nineties when I was starting to collect jazz, Blue Note was the second of the major indie jazz labels I discovered (Impulse! was the first).
Methodically, I began to pick up the major releases from the label’s golden era of the fifties and sixties. John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and Art Blakey’s Moanin’ were among the first I bought. As I dug deeper and frequented several choice message boards, there were other titles bandied about with almost breathless reverence. The one I most recall was organist Larry Young’s Unity. But good luck finding it anywhere—it had long gone out-of-print. Unless one was lucky to score a copy record shopping, pay a premium on eBay or hear a cut on the radio, how the music sounded was left to the imagination.
Streaming was a way off in the future. So was the “vinyl revival.” Napster? As much as a Canadian can, I’ll plead the fifth here.
To be a music lover and collector at the turn of the millennium was as it was for most of the previous hundred years: it meant building a physical collection. Going to record stores, thumbing through countless recordings and reconciling one’s purchases with one’s budget. In Toronto, it was still the glory days of the chains. Downtown, the flagship Sam the Record Man, HMV and Tower Records stores were all within a few city blocks on Yonge. As I purchased more Blue Note recordings, I soon noticed it was not just Larry Young’s Unity that was missing. Much of the catalogues of artists like Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and Andrew Hill, to name a few, were out-of-print after an initial issue on CD in the late-eighties and early-nineties.
By the spring of 1999, Blue Note began to rectify this problem with the first release of what it called the Rudy Van Gelder Edition series, or RVG for short. Rudy Van Gelder was the optometrist-turned-legendary-engineer who recorded a substantial portion of the Blue Note catalogue and was enlisted to remaster many of the classic sessions in which he took part.
The initial release of 24 CDs—staggered in four batches of six albums—included many of the top recordings in the Blue Note canon: the aforementioned Maiden Voyage, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and yes, Unity too.
I recall picking it up the day it was released, heading home and placing it into the CD tray and after pressing play, hearing the initial drum march by Elvin Jones heralding the beginning of Woody Shaw’s ‘Zoltan.’
The thrill of finally getting to hear Unity was equaled by the realization that it was just as good as I had read, and perhaps even more.
As the series progressed, Blue Note began to go deeper into the outer reaches of the catalogue to afford music and jazz lovers a chance to build a collection that had both breadth and depth. I use afford here not by accident. The RVG Edition series provided a model for making culture accessible: the releases were affordable, included a new set of liner notes to accompany the original notes and added sessions photos where available.
To give a sense of how the RVG Edition series opened up previous closed sections of Blue Note’s legacy, here are 20 releases that have remained available ever since and were hard-to-find before they were reissued as RVGs:
Clubhouse, Dexter Gordon
Compulsion, Andrew Hill
Goin’ West, Grant Green
Happenings, Bobby Hutcherson
Indestructible!, Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
It Might As Well Be Spring, Ike Quebec
Leeway, Lee Morgan
My Point of View, Herbie Hancock
One Step Beyond, Jackie McLean
Our Thing, Joe Henderson
Prayer Meetin’, Jimmy Smith
Six Pieces of Silver, Horace Silver
Slow Drag, Donald Byrd
Spring, Tony Williams
Symphony for Improvisers, Don Cherry
The All-Seeing Eye, Wayne Shorter
Time for Tyner, McCoy Tyner
True Blue, Tina Brooks
Undercurrent, Kenny Drew
Up and Down, Horace Parlan
The RVG series was eventually discontinued in 2009. Streaming had begun to exert its dominance in music-consumption habits. Vinyl was rising from the dead. It became a lot easier to hear music and a whole lot of it without having to buy physical product. The CD era was coming to a close.
The Blue Note Tone Poet series—all-analogue vinyl reissues—captures some of the spirit that motivated the RVG Edition series. It has dug even deeper to bring back recordings: Donald Byrd’s Chant and Tina Brooks’ The Waiting Game to name two, that were almost impossible to find. But, while the albums are beautifully packaged in (mostly) gatefold covers in heavy cardboard with a glossy finish, they are available at premium prices and consequently, far less affordable than the RVG Edition series. But, with streaming providing an opportunity to hear most of this music already, the physical product is more artefact than anything else.
I’ve picked up a few Tone Poet issues to fill in holes in my Blue Note collection but there aren’t many, in all honesty. I have the RVG Edition series to thank for that.