Exclusive Interview - Joe Harley

Friday, July 26, 2019




As part of their 80th birthday celebration in 2019, Blue Note Records presents the Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series, a batch of classic, remastered vinyl titles from its catalog. The series will ultimately feature 18 titles released throughout 2019, mastered by noted sound guru and "tone poet" Joe Harley from the original tapes. ArkivJazz recently spoke with Harley about the new series, and the process of reexamining these classic Blue Note titles.



ArkivJazz: This whole series you've done just looks tremendous. How long ago were you contacted by Don for this project?  

Joe Harley: We had been aware of each other for a while. Who doesn't know Don? You know him or you’re at least aware of him. I was working on a Charles Lloyd record that eventually became known as Vanished Gardens over at East-West Studios. We took a break one day and Don, as he had done a few times over the years, was telling me how much he loved the Music Matters Blue Note Vinyl Reissues. He said, “I just don't know how you do it. You know, it just blows my mind.” I thanked him and explained a little bit about what we do, and then we went on with recording that day. So, the next day we went in to do to do some more recording and during the break he said, “Hey, I'm really serious. I want you to do that for us. You know, same jacket, same mastering, everything. I want to do it exactly like you guys are doing it. Would you consider doing that?” And I agreed. If every detail is done the same way, then how could I say no? And that's that's how it started 

AJ: Let's back up a second. For us in the business of mastering and taping, we all tend to take it for granted, but a lot of people don't really know what mastering is. It's a term people figure they maybe know; but, from someone like you, what is it truly like when you go to a vault, preferably one that's fireproof, and take out a tape and remaster it? What are you doing? If it's been mastered before, what does a remaster do? 

JH: When I first heard Blue Note Masters back in 2007, I was in a mastering studio with Kevin Gray and we were doing our first two titles for the Music Matters Series. So, I put up the first tape and we were just stunned by what we were hearing because I have lived, like so many other people, with my records for years and you start to think that's the sound. Then I put up the tape and it was dynamic as hell. It had such clarity and ease and you really felt like a fly on the wall in the studio. So, our goal at that time changed. To me there are two ways to do reissues or remastering. One is to hold up the original LP pressing as your ideal and do what you can to to emulate that. The other is to try to, as best you can, emulate what's on the master tape. So, we chose the latter because, once we had put up a few of the Blue Note Masters and realized how amazing some of these tapes sound, we changed our philosophy and decided to try to convey what the actual master tapes sound like, which is a different thing. I thought what Rudy van Gelder did in the 50’s and 60’s, during the Classic Blue Note heyday, was genius. It was incredibly clever because the bane of little Blue Note’s existence in those days was returns. So, why do people return records? They return records because they skip. Why do they skip? Well, there's probably too much bass energy and the turntables of that time ranged from kitty turntables to turntables that we consider pretty substandard these days. 

AJ:  All you have to do is look at the needles that people used back then.  

JH: Exactly. So what he did, and we know this by looking at his notes, I thought was incredibly clever. He would roll off the extreme low end. By that I mean he would reduce frequencies from 30Hz up to maybe 80Hz, and then he put a bump in around 90Hz or a 100Hz. So, what you hear on those records is a sense of bass. You think you're hearing the bass notes and you are to a degree, but you're not hearing full low-end extension. 

AJ: Are you then getting the harmonics from above that bass note?  

JH: Yeah, you get that. You get a sense of the low end.  You know I'm 67, and I was around in those days and with the systems we had back then, the top end extension wasn't so great. Most speakers and electronics tended to be droopy in the top end, meaning that treble extension was hard to come by with that gear. So Rudy, ingeniously, puts a bump in the presence region where horns, cymbals, and those sort of things exist which resulted in original LPs having a lively and direct sound on the turntables and rigs of that day, which was revelatory to most listeners. There was a clarity that was unparalleled in that time. Fast forward to what we were dealing with in 2007, where we make the assumption that the gear and the turntables for most people is going to be more extended in the low end and top end since the whole setup is capable of more dynamic contrast. So that's why we made the decision to emulate the actual master tape and convey as much as we could of what was on the recording. It was a definite aesthetic decision that was made at that time which we've held to ever since.  

AJ: Was there any kind of restoration process in dealing with the tapes again, or were they in pretty good shape?  

JH: So, that's a great question. The older tapes, so tapes from the 50’s up to about ‘63, were mostly on Scotch 111 which is incredibly tough. You put those tapes up and they sound like they were made yesterday. You just don't hear the degradation at all. God knows what's in those things. We joke about the whale oil or whatever was in those things, but they are incredibly tough and, ironically, the newer tapes with the formulations that came later are much more fragile. So with the old tapes you never have to bake them, the most I've run into is fixing splices that come loose.   

AJ: So the actual sound and everything on the tape holds up really well?  

JH: Astonishingly well. Especially since that Scotch 111 is a time capsule. People worry about degradation, but with that stuff you really don't run into it. As you get into the more modern formulations, you have to frequently bake the tape, as they say, because the adhesives and the tape itself begins to dry out.  

AJ: When you say ‘bake’ you're talking about taking a reel of tape and putting it in the oven? 

JH: Yeah. It's a nerve-racking process, though. Thankfully the folks over at Capitol do that for us. I'm actually going tomorrow to do some mastering, so they've already baked those tapes if needed. One of the tapes were doing tomorrow is an old Hank Mobley title so that wouldn’t need to be baked because that'll be on Scotch 111.  

AJ: So when they’re baking a tape, does the heat allow the tapes to loosen to transfer the audio?  

JH: Well, the tapes get sticky when they're stored, so when you put a tape up, it starts to adhere to the heads and you can tell right away. You wouldn't want to play anything very long. You can tell that's going on right in the leader tape and when you run into that you take it off, bake it, and then the tape dries and performs great. If you run it without it, then it tends to get very sticky which is not good for the tape and certainly not good for the sound.  

AJ: And you can play it more than once after its baked?  

JH:  Yes. You're probably good for a few days, but after that you'd need to bake it again. On those tape formulations, you'll see little notes that will say “baked on such and such date.” You can tell when it was checked out because you'll see the notes that tell you this tape was baked in 2004, so somebody checked it out to do something in 2004. Yeah, it's fascinating. I hear people talk about how the old tapes must be losing their fidelity and the response is ‘it depends.’ Rudy was a gear head  and into all kinds of new technologies as they came out. He became a big fan of Scotch 111, thankfully, because those tapes are in great shape.  

AJ: I've never talked to anyone who's actually baked a tape before I've been reading about it for many years. Actually, I always just cringe and wonder how it works. But thank you for that.     

JH: Well, it's very low temperature. It's not like baking a loaf of bread or anything. It's low temperature for a given period of time. It's just enough to cause the stickiness to go away and then you're good to go. 

AJ: Wow. Well, let's let's talk for a minute about the actual music on some of these tapes coming out because you were these are said is these aren't all Blue Note. I mean the first one that came out was Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs  which was actually a Solid State Recording, a catalog that could use quite a few reissues because it's extraordinary. 

JH: Yeah, we’ll be dipping into it again for the series next year. The two remasters I'm doing tomorrow are the last two in this cycle of releases, which was 18 titles. When this thing was conceived, I thought rather than just focusing exclusively on Blue Note titles, we wanted to think more in terms of the Blue Note family of labels. So that includes Solid State, Pacific Jazz, World Pacific, and United Artists. I didn't want to reissue the same titles I'd done before because those were out recently enough that I didn't see the point in doing what had been done five years before. So, we specifically looked for titles that we really love and have musical merit, that are not as well known. We’ve remastered some of the hidden gems, some titles that were released in the 80’s in a very limited fashion, some titles only released on LP in Japan in the 80’s. So, for all practical purposes those titles had been forgotten. 

AJ: Well, for example, the Gil Evans’ New Bottle Old Wine on World Pacific, has not been around for a while. It's has an unbelievable band with Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Julius Watkins. How did that one sound?   

JH: So that's an interesting story. There were questions about whether the master existed, and I had acquired several copies of it that sounded okay, but I had this feeling that I wasn’t hearing what was really on the [master] tape. So we sent somebody into the vault. At first it was an intern and he said, “So Bill Evans, right?” And I said, “No no, Gil. G-I-L.” He goes “Well, okay.” After he’d gone to look, he told me, “There’s some stuff here, but I have to tell you it's really old.” I said, “Well, that's good because we're talking about a session from ‘57 or ‘58.” The box he found simply said “RCA” on the top but I asked him to turn the box over, take a picture, and send it to me. It turns out it was the master. We get it, we put it up, and Kevin Gray and I had these big grins on our faces. It was like one of those “holy crap” moments where the band came to life. It was like Miles Ahead or something, except the lead instrument is Cannonball [Adderley] instead of Miles Davis. That was a wonderful experience. Right from the moment when I heard the test pressings, I got emotional because it just sounded so great.  

AJ: Yeah. Well, let's fast-forward to Joe Henderson’s State of the Tenor. That was one of his late career triumphs.  

JH: Absolutely yeah. That session was a digital recording.  

AJ: Oh, really?

JH: Yeah, that was not analog. They went in there with a Mitsubishi X-80 machine and, while most of what’s being put out on the Tone Poet Series is analog, there are some cases where I'm fine with putting a digital one out here and there if it has musical merit. You have to be really careful with digital, though. It's as susceptible to issues as analog. The first thing we had to do to start the mastering process on that record was getting a Mitsubishi X-80 machine to play it back correctly. It took some doing, but some of the people at Capitol Tower were able to locate the machine we used in the mastering and the result is really good. People online who are analog purists will say, “I'm not going to buy that one because I see no point in putting digital music on vinyl. I don't see the point when you can just buy it on CD.” For that section of people, I have to ask them to hang in there and try it to see what they think. Bottom line, the record is selling incredibly well and people are amazed at how much better it sounds on vinyl than it did on CD. That just has to do with the process we undertook in remastering the work. There’s a lot to be  optimized when you're working with digital, but [State of the Tenor] is doing so well that it became really clear what work we needed to do. 

AJ: Are there any unissued tapes that you could put together for a Volume 3 or do the current volumes pretty much capture everything? 

JH: I think there are, so a third volume is a possibility for 2021. Now, whether those tapes feature different takes of the same songs or not I don’t know. I need to do some research and find out.    

AJ: I'm also I'm very happy to see that Cassandra Wilson’s Glamoured disc is on there because New Moon Daughter was a huge record for her. It's a marvelous record but it didn't get quite the attention that the first two did simply, I think, because people got used to her making fantastic discs. It's very nice to see that you chose to include this one.  

JH: When I looked through to see what the assets were, it turned out there were seven boxes of analog tapes. I assumed that Glamoured was going to be on digital, but they had recorded it analog. The tapes had never been assembled before, so we took the time to assemble it into a side A, side B, side C, and side D. So Glamoured is a full analog release and it sounds incredible.   

AJ: Well, are there any challenges in doing a remastering like this, given that it is jazz music? Is there anything extra that you have to do for jazz that you might not have to do for other genres? 

JH: When we run into a tape it depends on the time period, because Rudy moved his studio in ‘58 or ‘59 from his parents living room in Hackensack, New Jersey to his own custom studio in Englewood Cliffs, which was a much bigger room and acoustically very different. At that point, he began to change some of his microphones as well. You run into different sorts of things depending on the time. At this point, we've done hundreds of them. So when Kevin Gray and I get together we know by looking at the date which problems we’re likely to run into. The thing that tends to make it easier is by and large, Blue Note sessions were all done on a single day. So you never run into a situation where one track is recorded in one studio and another track is recorded in a different studio. It tends to be very consistent.    

AJ: Well, with Rudy you're dealing with one man, one genius, in his room that he had built. He essentially set the rules for what went on there and that was it which maintains a certain continuity no matter if he's recording for Prestige or Blue Note or Vox Classical Records. If you don't mind, I'll just throw out some stuff that I think you should work on next… like Bill Evans and Jim Hall. Some of that Solid State stuff like Money Jungle or The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn  just seem lost and they were wonderful recordings. 

JH: Money Jungle I have set for next year. The Jim Hall and Bill Evans’ title has been done relatively recently so we probably won't do that just because it's available in a Premium Edition now.  

AJ: Absolutely. Well Joe, this has been great. I have a feeling I could probably talk about this for hours and then it just makes me want to start pulling out the records. It's just great talking to you, we really appreciate it.


Check out the current selection of Tone Poets  Audiophile Vinyl titles available at ArkivJazz




The full 2019 Tone Poet release schedule is: 

February 8, 2019
Wayne Shorter: Etcetera (Blue Note, 1965)
Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968)


 March 15, 2019
Sam Rivers: Contours (Blue Note, 1965)


April 26, 2019
Gil Evans: New Bottle Old Wine (World Pacific, 1958)
Joe Henderson: The State Of The Tenor: Live At The Village Vanguard, Volume 2 (Blue Note, 1985)
Cassandra Wilson: Glamoured (Blue Note, 2003)


 May 31, 2019
Lou Donaldson: Mr Shing-A-Ling (Blue Note, 1967)
Lee Morgan: Cornbread (Blue Note, 1965)


 June 28. 2019
Baby Face Willette: Face To Face (Blue Note, 1961)
Dexter Gordon: Clubhouse (Blue Note, 1965)


 July 26, 2019
Kenny Burrell: Introducing Kenny Burrell (Blue Note, 1956)
Andrew Hill: Black Fire (Blue Note, 1963)


September 6, 2019
Donald Byrd: Chant (Blue Note, 1961)
Stanley Turrentine: Hustlin’ (Blue Note, 1964)


October 25, 2019
Grant Green: Born To Be Blue (Blue Note, 1962)
Tina Brooks: Minor Move (Blue Note, 1958)


 November 15, 2019
Hank Mobley: Poppin’ (Blue Note, 1957)
Stanley Turrentine: Comin’ Your Way (Blue Note, 1961)