Once More Into the Catalog, with Concord Music Group (part 1)

Concord Music Group was founded in 2004, the combination of two labels: Concord and Fantasy. The group subsequently added to its stable Telarc International (jazz) and Stax (soul/r&b). Their catalog also includes a vast list of titles from smaller jazz labels including Riverside, Prestige and Stretch. The group quickly earned a well-deserved reputation for exercising care and thought in the repackaging and reissuing of catalog items: large chunks of the back catalogs of Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra — two of the world’s greatest-selling artists – are now administered by Concord. I asked Chris Clough, Concord’s Manager of Catalog Development, if there is a guiding philosophy for reissue projects.

“Well, obviously we want it to be something of quality,” Clough says. “Something that’s probably not already been done. We’re always looking for titles that haven’t been reissued, or that maybe weren’t done as thoroughly as they could be.”

Concord recently acquired rights to a sizable portion of the Ray Charles catalog, and quickly set about a schedule of compilations and reissues. In most cases the label added bonus material. “I’ve been looking at it as, ‘What hasn’t been done?’” says Clough. “A lot of the Ray catalog has not even been on CD. We did a few things that had already been out; it’s kind of like, ‘Well, you’ve got to do Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music because that was a huge record.’”

“Then,” he continues, “after that, we started looking around. I was a big fan of the LP Ray Charles Live in Concert, and I figured since it was a live show, there might be some unreleased material. And sure enough, there was. So after digging around in the vault, we turned up seven bonus tracks. And some of them – most of them — were really good. I don’t think there’s one where I could say, ‘Well, I can understand why that wasn’t used.’”

Clough has his own theories as to why some tracks were originally left off. “I think Ray probably left ‘Georgia’ off because he didn’t want it to compete with the [studio] version.” But he believes that some of the decisions went beyond commercial considerations.

“I think,” Clough opines, “on a couple of the tracks, Ray might have thought he gave a little more than he wanted to. I’ve listened to a lot of Ray’s live recordings. [On this one] he didn’t know he was being recorded, and I think he gave a little more on these performances; more than he might have been comfortable sharing with the wider world.”

Another Ray Charles reissue of note was 2010’s version of the 1961 classic Genius + Soul = Jazz.  The Concord repackaging expanded the album to a 2CD set, with the thematic addition of three other Charles albums: 1970’s My Kind of Jazz, Jazz Number II (1972) and My Kind of Jazz Part 3 from 1975. The project connected the dots between four albums spread over a long span of time.

“A lot of people don’t know that side of Ray,” notes Clough. “He was an incredible player. He was a great songwriter, singer and performer, but he could really play, too.” Clough points out that on these albums, Charles “wanted to flex a little, and show the world he could [compete] with the best.”

When a label such as Concord approaches a reissue project, they are – almost without exception – dealing with old analog tapes. Sometimes they have access to multitrack masters, but more often they have only a “final mix” that has been in some sort of storage for half century.

For a title like Ray Charles Live in Concert, there never were multitrack masters. That live album was recorded by Wally Heider, a master of that kind of work. Clough believes that Heider “kept it simple, got his mix, and recorded it on the fly.”

When they do have the option of working with multiple tracks, Concord’s reissue team does carefully consider that an option. “Sometimes it does make sense,” Clough argues. “Sometimes you can go back in and clean up some things that happened when it was originally recorded.” He refers to occasional buzzes and hiss, pointing out that “Some things take away from a recording, so you want to minimize those.”

The condition of the master tapes varies widely. “They’re all different,” Clough says. “Sometimes they’re pretty ratty.” He makes the point that stewardship of these historic tapes has been under the control of various people over the years. Some exercised more care than others. “Some show signs of…less than optimal storage situations,” Clough says, taking pains to be diplomatic.

At the time many of these recordings were made – especially in the jazz genre – the idea that anyone would be interested in hearing them ten, twenty, fifty years down the line probably didn’t even receive serious consideration. “I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus,” says Clough, choosing his words carefully, “but Bob Weinstock at Prestige was notoriously thrifty. He would reuse tape, and as far as outtakes, his approach was, ‘Well, if it’s not going on the album, who cares about it?’” That may account for the dearth of unreleased material from that label, but Clough allows for another possibility: “Those guys were incredible players, so they maybe did it in one or two takes.”

Luckily, in many cases, someone along the way decided that many of these recordings were important, and made sure they were preserved. Clough mentions George Horn (Chief Mastering Engineer at Fantasy) making sure that the Creedence Clearwater Revival masters were preserved.

 In part two we’ll look at some of the challenges associated with releasing archival reissues: technological, aesthetic and financial. And we’ll also give a tantalizing preview of a possible future project from the people at Concord Music Group.

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