Sunday at the Village Vanguard

The Evans’ Vanguard sessions were recorded by David Jones. If your reaction is “David who?” don’t worry, it’s not that you are hopelessly uninformed. Jones worked as chief engineer at Elektra and then recorded sessions for Riverside, mostly blues, jazz, classical and international. His discography is heavy on Manitas de Plata, Ivan Moravec and Akbar Khan. These are all well recorded, but they did not launch Jones into the company of the best-known recording engineers and he has never become a household name – even in audiophile homes. The Evans Vanguard sessions are the exception, yet his name is rarely mentioned when the recordings are discussed.

The Vanguard is famous as sponsor of some of the greatest residencies in jazz history. Many of the great Vanguard recordings also have great sound, but not because it is an easy recording venue. The physical challenges of the Vanguard—a small triangular shaped basement room, frequently with little separation between the musicians and the audience, would seem to present engineers with huge challenges. Yet the venue has punched way above its weight when it comes to producing great sounding recordings. On the face of it and, given the almost anonymous recording engineer and the inauspicious looking recording space, it is a marvel that SAVV sounds so good.

Despite these obvious challenges and as I’ve already noted, both SAVV and Waltz For Debby have always enjoyed a reputation for amongst the best examples of well recorded jazz. In retrospect, and in comparison to the better reissues, early pressings sound a bit compressed and lacking focus. Part of this can be attributed to mastering decisions and part to pressing problems. While you’ll occasionally find off center spindle holes on modern pressings, Riverside made an art form of drilling eccentric spindle holes during the 1950s and ‘60s.

I have owned numerous copies of the original Riverside release, both stereo and mono, on the original labels, the turquoise label reissue, and the original OJC label, as well as the Analogue Production and Mobile Fidelity sets. How does this new SAVV stack up sonically against those original pressings and the out-of-print and in most cases unobtainable antecedent reissues?

Despite Riverside’s spotty production record, at least their tapes were well cared for. After Fantasy purchased the catalog in 1972, and until sometime after it was sold to Concord Records in 2004, the tapes were stored in a bespoke temperature and humidity-controlled, on-site record vault, tended by a full-time archivist. Later, the tapes were transferred to a temperature and humidity-controlled storage facility run by Iron Mountain, a large company specializing in storage of paper and other records. At first, this move suggested the death knell for the Concord catalog, but more than 15 years later, all is well

The condition of the tapes is so good that this new mastering, performed with the original tapes recorded 62 years ago, stands at or near the top of the heap from a sonic point of view. The three instruments occupy a space all their own with plenty of “air” around each instrument. The soundstage spacing is not perfect, but it is as close as any other version I have heard. The MoFi version does seem to have a bit more texture, a bit more dimension around the three players, but it has the higher 45 RPM speed, the one step pressing and the super vinyl formulation to give it a slight leg up. Additionally, the MoFi version sounds like it may have been given a slight low frequency boost that I do not hear from other versions. The Craft pressing certainly stands comparison with both the MoFi and Analogue Productions reissues, while all three easily better the originals. That makes this outstanding Craft mastering a smashing success. But at the end of the day, the best thing about it (apart of course from the music) is that it is readily available and you don’t need to take out a loan against your yacht to pay for it. Unwelcome news for record collecting speculators: Good news for audiophiles and music lovers.