If you want a good example of vinyl’s healthy return as a format, take a look at Blue Note’s Tone Poet reissue series. Jazz lovers have embraced it, despite the slightly higher costs. The Tone Poet LPs are mastered to an audiophile standard and the packaging reflects the care everyone has taken in presenting the great Blue Note and Pacific Jazz titles in the series. The covers are made of heavy cardboard, with tipped-on, laminated artwork prepared by Stoughton Printing. Most of the covers are gatefolds, with photos from the original sessions. Record Technology Incorporated, one of the best vinyl plants in the world, presses the 180gm LPs.
Joe Harley is the producer for the series, and Kevin Gray handles the remastering and lacquer cutting. Both worked on the Music Matters Jazz Blue Note reissues, which established the pattern for the Tone Poet Series. Music Matters also used first-class packaging and careful mastering for the Blue Note titles it released.
Joe Harley (left) with Kevin Gray
I thought it would be fascinating to interview Harley and Gray to hear about their histories in the music industry, and learn more about the background of the Tone Poet Series. Gray also does the mastering and vinyl cutting for Blue Note’s Classic Vinyl Reissue Series, as well as many other vinyl releases, so I decided to interview them separately. Both took great care in answering my questions, as well as my follow-ups.
I began with Joe Harley. Charles Lloyd gave Harley the nickname “Tone Poet,” from which the series derives its name. Most of our exchange took place via email, and I’ve edited for clarity. The interview with Kevin Gray will appear next month.
Joseph Taylor: I thought we’d begin with some biographical info, including how your interest in music developed.
Joe Harley: I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1952. (Not exactly a hotbed of jazz at that time.) I honestly cannot recall a time when I wasn’t fascinated by music. My mother played piano and had a record player. She had some of the early contemporary albums at that time, mostly André Previn Trio recordings. Still, those opened the door, and they featured excellent sidemen like Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne.
JT: I remember reading in one article that you played the drums when you were a kid.
JH: I started banging around on pots and pans, trying to play along, and my folks eventually bought me a set of toy drums. Those didn’t last long as I would break through the heads quickly. And then one day, my dad came home with a real set of Gretsch drums in the station wagon, complete with Zildjian cymbals. I was a little kid in heaven! The only trouble was that the music I loved was hard to play.
I was trying to play along with Shelly Manne when I was nine years old, and then when I bought my first Blue Note album, Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ (1958), I was sitting there trying to play along with Philly Joe. Can you imagine how sad that must have sounded? However, in 1964, when I was 12, the Beatles hit the scene and everyone went crazy over them, me included. I could play along with their music a bit more successfully than my efforts to imitate Philly Joe, but I’m sure it still sounded sad.
JT: You also developed an interest in audio around that time, if I’m not mistaken.
JH: I have been interested in audio since I was a little kid, at least in a rudimentary way. I had a little flip-open Philips one-piece, where the lid also had a speaker and you could detach it and maybe get it three or four feet away. I discovered that I could get a bit more bass out of what I was listening to by putting that one speaker in the corner. The Philips was a total piece of crap, but I didn’t know that then. You only know what you know.
When I got into high school, I got a KLH compact system, which was better. It was incredibly modest compared to what was possible around that time, but I didn’t yet know that. By this time I was playing in various bands, getting into Jimi Hendrix and Cream. I was still into jazz, and Miles Davis was my main guy. Then, when Miles started changing his music and using electric instruments, my two worlds kind of converged. My family moved to West New York, New Jersey, around this time, which is basically on the Jersey side right by the Lincoln Tunnel. I was in heaven—going to all the jazz clubs and the Fillmore, seeing all of my heroes anytime I wanted.
JT: You worked in audio before you worked in production. In fact, your work in audio led to working as a producer. Tell us a little about that journey.
JH: Later on, after spending several years in Switzerland training to teach transcendental meditation, and several more years working in law firms in LA as a legal assistant, I went to work for AudioQuest in 1983. Bill Low was then operating AQ out of his house in Corona Del Mar [Newport Beach, California]. There were just three of us, and we were shipping out of Bill’s garage. I took the orders, made the cables, and took them to the garage for shipping, learning from the ground up.
Fast forward to 1989 and AQ was located in a business park in San Clemente, California. We decided to finance a recording session where all the cables were by AudioQuest to show how they could improve the overall sound of the recording. We had already provided cables for a recording by Strunz & Farah that Kavi Alexander had done for his label, Water Lily Acoustics.
We then proceeded to record a great blues singer named Robert Lucas. That record, Usin’ Man Blues (1990, AudioQuest Music AQ-LP1001), won numerous awards and sold better than we imagined, so we continued recording for the next six or seven years. Those sessions featured a number of high-profile musicians, including Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Mighty Sam McClain, Ronnie Earl, Grover Washington Jr., Bennie Wallace, and many, many more. We used noted studios, including Ocean Way and Capitol in LA, and Bearsville and Systems Two in New York.
JT: Your Discogs listing shows a lot of work for AudioQuest, from 1991 until 1997, and then you branched out to other labels.
JH: After we sold AudioQuest Music in 1999, I began to produce albums for Telarc, Groove Note, Enja Records, and ECM. The Telarc albums were a continuation of relationships with Mighty Sam McClain, Terry Evans, and Ronnie Earl, and there was a Grammy nomination for the Robert Lockwood Jr. album Delta Crossroads (2000, Telarc Blues CD-83509). At Groove Note, I produced a number of albums with Jacintha, Anthony Wilson, Jay McShann, and others. At Enja, I continued producing tenor-sax great Bennie Wallace for a number of albums. And at ECM I began a nearly 25-year relationship with the legendary jazz artist Charles Lloyd. That continues today at Blue Note Records, where we are very proud to feature Charles on the label.
JT: Reading about your experiences with AudioQuest and beyond leads me to ask this question: How did Joe become a producer, and what is a producer’s job?
JH: How did I become a producer? With a lifelong interest in music and sound reproduction, I just kind of fell into it, to be honest. You learn about mikes and the gear in more detail by being around it. More importantly, you learn how sessions work—when to get involved and when to stay out of the way. You learn how to keep things from bogging down.
I always have viewed my job to be to help the artist achieve their musical vision, in the studio and later in the mix and mastering process. I recall, very early on, looking out the control-room glass at Ocean Way at Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner at a Terry Evans session and thinking “shit just got very real.” Don Was once told me: never let them see you sweat. In other words, stay cool and focused. That was great advice!
JT: Does having a background in audio from the consumer hi-fi end give you a unique perspective as a producer?
JH: Without a doubt! The engineers I work with know very well that sonics are very important to me; that I don’t care for compression, that I like placement when it comes to the stereo spread in mixing, and so on. I find people I love working with, and who totally get what I’m after. Makes the whole thing go smoothly. Michael C. Ross has been one of the people I can always rely on—we go back many years and nearly 100 recordings together.
On the mastering side, I’ve worked extensively with two of the best: Bernie Grundman and Kevin Gray. I’ve worked with Kevin on all the Blue Note Tone Poet reissues, of course, and on the Music Matters Blue Notes before that. We have a real synergy in the studio—my brother from another mother!
JT: How did you end up being with Music Matters? Is that where you met Kevin Gray?
JH: I met Kevin Gray in ’96 or ’97 when he was at AcousTech Mastering. I produced an album by blues legend Hubert Sumlin for Chad Kassem’s APO label in 1998 (I Know You, APO Records APO-2004) and Kev and I just hit it off.
I’m thinking that I must have met Ron Rambach (Music Matters Jazz) around 2005 or 2006. Ron was dealing in rare records and I had rejoined AudioQuest a few years earlier. We were both huge Blue Note fans and we began to fantasize about possibly doing some reissues. I had known Michael Cuscuna for some years and had advised him a bit on analog reissues for his Mosaic label. Michael, of course, has a long and storied career with Blue Note. He became a kind of champion for Ron and me, shepherding us through the process of getting the deal done with EMI, who was then the parent company of Blue Note Records. We did our first mastering of Blue Note titles in late 2006, and those titles began showing up in 2007. We ended up doing well over 100 Blue Note titles together at MMJ.
JT: How did the Tone Poet Series develop? I know Don Was approached you, but I wondered what caused him to move from the approach of the 75th Anniversary Series, which was digitally sourced, to the all-analog Tone Poet and Blue Note Classic Vinyl series.
JH: Don and I had been aware of each other for quite some time. I remember times in the ’90s when I was recording in Studio B at Ocean Way for AudioQuest Music and he was next door in A recording Bonnie Raitt and others. Don (unbeknownst to me) had become a big fan of what Ron and I were doing at Music Matters. He would get the releases and inevitably compare them to the same versions he had done for the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Series. And one day I saw an interview with him where he started right out talking about how great the MMJ Blue Notes were. I was stunned. I had no idea he was even aware of what Ron and I were doing.
Not too long after that we were in the studio together recording Charles Lloyd & the Marvels for Blue Note. That’s when he approached me about doing the same thing for Blue Note that we had done at MMJ, including the all-analog mastering with Kevin Gray and the deluxe gatefold jackets. I said “yes” and here we are.
Joe Harley with Don Was
JT: Let’s talk about the role of a producer for a reissue project, as opposed to a new recording.
JH: Production work on reissues involves everything from choosing the titles, supervising the mastering and resultant test pressings, to directing the layout of the jacket artwork, including additional liner notes and/or photos.
JT: How do you obtain a copy of the original tape, and how to you get it ready for reissue?
JH: I can only speak to how we do it at Blue Note, but after choosing the title, the next step I take is to contact Jack Arenas, who is the senior archives coordinator at Capitol Records [Blue Note’s parent company]. I can’t say enough good things about Jack. He’s helped me find the actual master source many, many times during the course of this program. He’s been there nearly 20 years and he knows that vault from stem to stern.
Once we’ve located the actual master, I let Jack know when it has to be messengered over to Kevin’s studio, once I have the mastering date scheduled. By then I’ve listened to my “OG” version of whatever title we’re doing many times to get it in my blood again and envision how we might approach it. Then I head to the studio, and Kevin and I get down to it!
JT: What is your philosophy when producing a reissue? Can you contrast the experience of working with the Blue Note Rudy Van Gelder recordings versus the Pacific Jazz recordings?
JH: Sonically, my philosophy has remained consistent. I want, as much as possible, to give the listener the experience of hearing those master tapes. We never use any compression, so you hear the natural dynamics as Rudy Van Gelder recorded them. We assume the end user has a properly set up system with a turntable, arm, and cartridge that are far superior to what was available in the ’50s and ’60s [when Van Gelder did much of his work—Ed.], which allows us to really proceed without compromise.
The Pacific Jazz recordings, like the vintage Blue Notes, are recorded direct to two-track with no mixing. Label owner Richard Bock did much of the recording, but other engineers were also involved, depending on the recording. The sonic perspective is a bit different from Blue Note, but you get that same, basically unfiltered look into what happened that day in the studio. You do see many more tape edits and splices on Pacific Jazz masters than you do with the Van Gelder masters. Bock was definitely a fan of editing!
JT: Do you have to create a new tape, based on a new remaster, which you use as the source for cutting the lacquer?
JH: No, never. We cut direct from the actual master tape. If you’re on my Instagram page (@jazzsaraswati) you can see this, as I always put up little 40-second clips from every mastering session showing the master-tape box, the tape spinning, and the cutter head cutting. There have been three instances where we were working with albums that were recorded digitally to begin with: the two Joe Henderson Live at the Village Vanguard albums (Volume 1, Tone Poet Reissue 2020, Blue Note BT-85123/B0031578-01; and Volume 2, Tone Poet Reissue 2019, Blue Note BT-85126/B0029472-01) and the Pat Metheny / John Scofield album I Can See Your House from Here (Tone Poet Reissue 2021, Blue Note B0032260-01). Fortunately, Kevin has one of the greatest D-to-A converters ever made, the Pacific Microsonics Model Two, so we’re in good shape on those few occasions where an analog master does not exist.
JT: One of the things I’ve always wondered was if the “master tape” is, in fact, the mixdown tape.
JH: In the case of the Blue Note and Pacific Jazz sessions of the ’50s and up through the mid-to-late ’60s, these were all recorded live direct to mono, or later, to two-track stereo. The mixing happened as the musicians were playing. There was no “fixing it in the mix.” There’s only one master tape—that IS the mix. And that’s what we use. In the late ’60s, engineers, including Van Gelder, began to use multitrack for certain sessions. That’s when you start to get mixdown tapes made from multitrack masters. Interestingly, recording live to two-track became a bit popular in jazz again in the mid-1990s. I did a bunch of that for AudioQuest Music back then. And in the Tone Poet program, we recently released an album by John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, and Al Foster (Scolohofo’s Oh!, Tone Poet Reissue 2023, Blue Note B0033844-01) that was recorded direct to two-track analog.
JT: When did Charles Lloyd give you your Tone Poet moniker?
JH: I don’t recall when exactly Charles started calling me that, but it was early on in our relationship. It likely would have been sometime in the early 2000s, when we were recording albums for ECM. Charles is a very special human being, a remarkable artist, and one of my dearest friends.
. . . Joseph Taylor