Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. Following on from our feature on Batsumi, we’re taking another trip to South Africa for this instalment of Vinyl Corner.
Depending on who you ask, the golden age of international jazz would generally be pinpointed to somewhere between the ’50s and ’70s. With such a varied wealth of jazz from those just those few decades, it’s tempting at times to not look past this most fruitful of eras. However, there’s many an album released outside of that time period that would prove to be a mistake to miss. Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Celebration’ is an album that comfortably proves the best of ’90s jazz to be capable of trading punches with work produced two or three decades beforehand. Released in 1992, ‘Celebration’ was Mseleku’s debut album as a bandleader, and it marked a string of acclaimed long players throughout the course of the ’90s and into the ’00s. Unfortunately not a single one of these saw vinyl release at the time, making the new Matsuli Music release of ‘Celebration’ the first time any of Mseleku’s work has been released on wax. Even a cursory spin of the LPs prove exactly what jazz-loving vinyl purists have been missing out on, up until now. Alice Coltrane once called Mseleku “a kindred spirit to John Coltrane” – and the spiritual, searching beauty of ‘Celebration’ illustrates exactly why she said this. Not only does Mseleku make for a charismatic, intuitive bandleader capable of getting the best from his band, but he also proves himself a great composer. The pieces here are almost all fairly lengthy – usually ranging somewhere between 6 and 10 minutes – and they retain a keen sense of melody and focus, without stifling the soul-stirring improvisation on display throughout.
‘Celebration’ was originally crafted with the CD and cassette formats in mind, meaning that the album is far longer than most vintage jazz LPs – clocking in at the far side of 70 minutes rather than the more common 40 or so. Such a length has necessitated a double LP format for this vinyl release. In terms of track listing, ‘Celebration’ is actually surprisingly well suited to vinyl and its inherent limitations. Matsuli have managed to maintain the original running order of the songs, whilst still keeping evenly lengthy LP sides. The sonics and fidelity here are stunning throughout, and there’s no trace of distortion or compression in the sound. Instruments are rich and recorded as sensitively as they are voiced. The album is newly remastered for vinyl and, while we haven’t heard the original CD version to compare this to, we can’t imagine it sounding any better than the excellent clarity of this version. The pressing is equally impressive here, and we’d go so far as to call this one of the very cleanest new releases we’ve heard in quite some time. Pressed by French company MPO, they have done commendable work on this title. Both LPs are solid in weight – by our estimates they’re not quite 180g but are certainly substantial enough to feel like a premium product. More importantly, that same sense of quality is abundant during playback of the discs; the noise floor is minimal and playback is very clean throughout. Over the course of all four sides, we did not hear a single pop or click, nor could we find more than a few extremely rare and minor crackles here and there. We haven’t heard a whole lot of records cleaner than this one, so kudos both to MPO and to Matsuli for what must have been a stringent test-pressing process.
We’ve established that both the music and pressing excel, then, but what of the packaging? Clearly eager to make a lasting and positive impression, Matsuli score top marks here, as well. The album is presented in a chunky and really high quality gatefold sleeve, and looks fantastic throughout. We often find that first-time vinyl pressings of initially CD-only albums (especially less well-known ones) tend to feature blurred or pixilated art, as the original masters have been lost and a cover has had to be scanned from a CD insert and expanded to fit the 12″x12″ format of an LP sleeve. Not so here – image fidelity is superb across both the front and back covers, with lovely, accurate colours and sharp print quality. The sleeve is a chunky, solidly-constructed gatefold and the inner gatefold spread is a new addition to this vinyl release, boasting very well-written, informative liner notes exclusive to this rerelease. Also present are high quality images of Mseleku and his band. The spine is thick and looks great, with bold, decisive font text making the title an easy one to pick out on a busy shelf. The records are sleeved from new in high quality black polylined inners, which earn further points from us, as the records are guaranteed to stay safe this way. Also of note is the fact that the labels are well executed here; one side of each LP features a shot of Mseleku in the midst of playing, while the other gives the album title and track side. The labels manage to retain simple functionality, as well as a stylish appearance, so that’s another of the many areas where the presentation succeeds here.
The Matsuli Music vinyl release of Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Celebration’ is a title we wholeheartedly recommend. The release has been handled impeccably, from the pressing through to the mastering and on to the presentation and packaging.
Enjoyed this feature? We’re always looking for further albums to highlight on Vinyl Corner – and if you have a vinyl release that you’d love to see written about here, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – it would be great to hear from you!