Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84195
Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment: *****
Pianist Herbie Hancock was just 24 when he recorded Maiden Voyage for Blue Note Records in 1965, and he had already appeared as the leader on four previous albums for the label. He had also appeared as a sideman on many other Blue Note recordings, as well as on LPs by musicians on other labels. But most jazz fans already knew him best as a member of Miles Davis’s second great quintet. Two other members of that quintet, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, appeared on Maiden Voyage.
Saxophonist George Coleman and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard completed the quintet for Maiden Voyage, which featured five Hancock compositions that showed the influence of the modal jazz that Davis, with help from Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, was showcasing in his band’s repertoire. Hancock also incorporated some of the hard bop that Blue Note was known for, which firmly established him as a writer and instrumentalist. It is his second best-selling album, after Head Hunters (1973).
I have two CD copies of Maiden Voyage. One is the 1986 release on Blue Note, remastered by Ron McMaster, and the other is part of the six-CD set Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, also mastered by McMaster. I also own one of the dreaded Direct Metal Mastering LPs from 1984 that Blue Note brought into the US from France when the label was revived. I have never bought an audiophile pressing of Maiden Voyage because it’s a dull recording in the three versions I have. Great music, indifferent sound.
After hearing the Music Matters 33rpm reissue of Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, I thought there was a good chance that Kevin Gray and Ron Rambach, who remastered that LP, might be able to work some magic on Hancock’s first masterpiece. The quality packaging and the outstanding pressings Music Matters is known for were certainly an enticement, but it was more important to hear this recording in a way that engaged me even more than it does in the bland copies I own.
I did a quick comparison of the title track on my previous copies and the new pressing to establish a benchmark, and McMaster’s mastering on the box set improved the sound considerably over his first attempt. The haze on the original CD is lifted somewhat and instruments are more distinct. You can hear more separation between the horns and more sizzle from the drums. To my surprise, the mid-’80s LP sounded much better than either CD -- more coherent and open, more realistic. The piano sounded larger and more resonant, and the horns had even more space to themselves and more focus.
To turn to the Music Matters LP, however, is to be closer to the music in a way I would not have thought possible before. Williams’s cymbal and hi-hat accents are stunningly vibrant, and Hancock’s piano now sounds much more regal and harmonically deep. The timbre of the horns is so much more accurate and small details, such as the breathing techniques of the players, are now audible. The textures of the horns, lost in the other releases in dull sound, are now clear and exciting.
Carter’s bass now sounds fuller, more wooden, and much more a part of the action, especially on the fast-moving “The Eye of the Hurricane,” which seems to bog down on CD. I had never before really heard the subtle interplay of the instruments on “Little One,” which on this pressing is startling. Hancock’s chords behind the players are now cleanly presented, but it is Carter’s contribution that is now, at long last, easy to hear and appreciate.
To jump back and forth between the other copies I have, even that old LP, and this new pressing is to hear a luxurious amount of space between instruments and a level of sonic detail that puts you in the moment of the music’s creation. The depth of field on the intro to “Survival of the Fittest” and the intensity of the splash on Williams’s closed hi-hat is remarkably three-dimensional. To be honest, I jumped when I heard that cymbal snap so clearly. The power of Carter’s bass solo and the clarity of Hancock’s piano on “Dolphin Dance” and so many other things on this recording are now easier to hear and enjoy.
I am not so much an audiophile that I could not appreciate Maiden Voyage in the versions I owned before. The music is too emotionally satisfying and intelligently played to be denied. But Gray and Rambach have performed a miracle and created an LP that is as sonically appealing as it is musically satisfying.
. . . Joseph Taylor