Spitting Bars with the Tone Poet

"There’s no conversion to digital anywhere in the chain." Meet Joe Harley, the producer behind Blue Note's Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series.

By Gautam Raja, content manager, Upscale Audio

Joe refers to his current Southern California hometown as “tiny” San Clemente to highlight the pleasant surprise that it has no less than three record stores. Recently, he was in one of them when a young woman came up to him with an LP. Joe guessed she was from nearby San Clemente High School, so it was a surprise to see she was holding a copy of Mingus Ah Um.

“Excuse me,” she asked. “Do you know the music of Charles Mingus?”

Let’s pause here to consider the potential weight of the answer. “Joe” is Joe Harley, the Tone Poet himself, the producer behind the celebrated series of all-analog, 180 g reissues of jazz albums from Blue Note Records and its family of labels.

“Yes,” said Joe Harley to the girl. “I know his music.”

“There’s so many here,” she said of the Mingus albums. “Is there another one that’s kind of like this one? Because I really, really like this one.”

So Joe pointed her to Mingus Dynasty telling her how it was cut at about the same time and with many of the same personnel as Ah Um. “Wow thanks,” said the girl, and ran off excitedly to buy the album.

“That’s literally a goosebump story,” I said, raising my horripilating forearm to the laptop camera during our recent video interview.

“I feel the same way,” Joe replied. “These are our future customers.”

Early Notes

Joe Harley was even younger than this girl, about 9 or 10, when he first started collecting Blue Note records. “Was yours a musical household?” I asked, thinking that you don’t run into a lot of children who collect jazz LPs. It was: Joe’s mother played piano, and he grew up in a house full of records.

Not just music, he became aware of good sound too, putting together a system with KLH speakers that made his home the gathering point for school friends. Later, he worked a long time with AudioQuest, starting in 1983 when it was just him and Bill Low, AudioQuest’s founder. “We were working out of his house and shipping out of his garage”, said Joe. That’s when they had the idea of starting a music label, mainly to see how recorded sound could be improved by using their cables in the studio.

“But I didn’t want to do what I call ‘audiophile sound-effect records,” said Joe, referring to specialist pressings that are more about fidelity than musical quality. “Let’s get some real artists.” So they started AudioQuest Music in 1989, signing Robert Lucas, the blues musician who fronted Canned Heat in the mid-90s. That album was a huge success, and soon the roster included well-known American musicians Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Ronnie Earl, and Grover Washington, Jr.

Now comfortable in a studio, Joe found himself (when not marketing cables) working with Blue Note master tapes for Music Matters, creating a set of releases that caught the ears of Don Was himself, president of Blue Note. "Don really liked what he was hearing. In fact, he liked what he was hearing more than the same titles they were putting out."

So, in 2017, Joe moved to Blue Note as the Tone Poet, starting the eponymous series whose catalog, seven years later, is 100 albums deep. (Joe's honorific of "Tone Poet" was conferred by jazz musician Charles Lloyd, with whom Joe has worked for many years. That's a resounding endorsement of someone who is entrusted with the very soul of your music, i.e. your “sound”.)

Poet Laureate

Since each release is made with so much care, the Blue Note Tone Poet series is highly sought after. Joe works closely with famous mastering engineer Kevin Gray on every title, and the LPs are pressed at RTI, the lauded plant in Camarillo, CA.

Getting your hands on the master tape, I say to Joe, must be so fraught and exciting.

“You think you know what they sound like,” he says of the Blue Note albums. “Hank Mobley’s Soul Station. I know what that’s going to be. But then you put the tape up, and you realize, oh, I don’t know it. I know some of it.”

In this way, hearing the master tape, says Joe, is like getting in a time machine and going back to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. (Rudy of course being the great engineer who recorded almost every Blue Note session from 1953 to 1967.)

“The musicians are right there,” says Joe. “It's wild. There's no barrier.” You can see he is a meticulous man when he corrects himself. “Well, there’s the barrier of a microphone and the chain, but it’s as close as you’ll get.

“It’s thrilling. It is really thrilling.”

I suspected I was about the puncture the mood with a cheap journalistic question, but I had to ask: “What is one of your favorite albums that you’ve worked on?”

“Gosh it depends. The stylistic breadth of Blue Note is huge,” said Joe, cheating by allowing himself a long answer, albeit one he frequently broke up with “There’s so many, there's so many”, almost like a plea for me to stop quizzing him on which of his children he loved the most.

Joe went sub-genre by sub-genre. B3-based: The Larry Young records, Face to Face by Baby Face Willette. Hard bop: Lee Morgan, The Cooker, the Donald Byrd records with Pepper Adams (“I've done a number of those and have got more coming”.) Post-bop: Bobby Hutcherson, Jackie McLean.

I got the sense that these “favorites” were what Joe remembered at that moment, and the real list would simply be the entire Tone Poet catalog. That’s pretty much the point: Joe has complete freedom to pick the 24 albums a year for the series, choosing works that he relates to, thinks are important, or are simply down his current rabbit hole, for example when they worked on the Ornette Coleman box set. “The whole point is to do the best version of that album that’s ever been.”

Definitive Versions

Joe Harley is aware that suggesting there’s a more definitive version “upsets the applecart” for people who chase original pressings from the 50s and 60s, often paying large sums of money for them. The truth, as he says, is that these LPs offer a “stylized sound” of the original sessions. “Rudy didn't particularly like the medium of vinyl because, especially in the 50s or 60s, he had to make so many compromises.”

Back then, with vinyl being the predominant medium, pressings had to be mastered for the most basic turntables. “You weren’t selling to audiophiles.” And so it’s a repeating theme in Rudy’s mastering notes: Cut the low end; boost around 100 Hz so you hear something in the bass (low bass is removed so that the record doesn’t get returned for skipping). Add a little bump in the upper midrange to make horns come through more, then pile on the 8:1 compression.

Fortunately, there's a ton of dynamic range on the master tapes, and, today, Blue Note is selling to audiophiles. “We don’t use any compression at all,” says Joe. “So you have to turn it up a little more, but then you get the real dynamics. I want to get what’s on the master tape as much as I can.”

In fact, Joe and Kevin do so little tweaking that sometimes they’ll play the tape and look at each other and start laughing. “Let’s cut it!” It’s part-joke as it grossly underrepresents the complexity of the rest of the process, starting with the mastering rig. Joe points out that you never see stock equipment in the rigs of the better mastering engineers such as Kevin Gray and Bernie Grundman. “It’s all custom.”

From the amps that drive the cutting lathe, to the preview head (used to create variable groove spacing to allow for more music on the vinyl), Kevin’s entire chain is class-A and analog. Joe is repeatedly asked about this, so he makes it very clear: “There’s no conversion to digital anywhere in the chain.

As we wrapped up, I asked Joe if he had anything to say to the audiophiles who might be reading this. When he replied, “I don’t feel apart from them, I am that”, I realized that Joe Harley is our “in”; a fellow audiophile who owns Basis, Audio Research, Aesthetix, and Vandersteen gear, and is able to get his hands on master tapes of some of the greatest music of all time to make himself (and us!) copies of it, exactly the way he wants to hear them. He is our best and worst friend, the person his mailman described as "kind of a drug dealer" when he learned that Joe had got all his immediate neighbors into vinyl.

It was just before T.H.E. Show in Costa Mesa, so I asked Joe if he was going. “No, I’m going to San Diego. The Tedeschi Trucks Band is playing, and a dear friend is the sound guy.” He grinned at me. “So I’ll be sitting in the sound booth with him.”

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