Introducing BBH Vinyl Night

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear – I’m no hipster. If you’re even casually acquainted with me, you know this to be true. Nor am I one to pursue passing fads and the latest trends. Whether I’m ahead of the curve or light years behind it, I typically get into things on my own time and at my own speed.

I say this in case any of you are rolling your eyes at the newest feature here on Boston BarHopper – Vinyl Night. Yes, I realize that a certain segment of society with an unconditional love for all things vintage has embraced vinyl in recent years and insisted on singing the praises of this largely obsolete medium.

And for the longest time, I watched vinyl’s resurgence with bemusement. Vinyl was part of my childhood, and while I was fortunate to get into music at an early age, I was only too happy to move from records to something more convenient. Because to be honest, records were a real pain. They skipped. They scratched. They took up a lot of space. In time they wore down, and the turntable needle required periodic replacement.

For me, post-vinyl life was a progression of much needed improvements. Cassettes certainly had their issues, but at least they had portability going for them. CDs brought better sound quality, longer life, and an end to the cumbersome act of fast-forwarding and rewinding to arrive at your song of choice.

And then came the most user-friendly medium of all. MP3s represented a sea change in the way we consumed music. Before long, the novelty of carrying around a thousand songs in your pocket gave way to the everyday practice of carrying around 10,000 songs in your pocket. Building playlists was a cinch. Entire albums appeared in your digital library with the mere push of a button. That is, if you even wanted an entire album. Because why spend $10 to $14 for the whole thing when you can just buy the two or three songs you actually want for a buck apiece?

I, for one, was ecstatic. I loved having my entire music library at my fingertips, no matter where I was. As for the argument that the sound quality of MP3s was “cold” or otherwise lacking in some respect – I never bought it. I’m not a hardcore audiophile, and all the music sounded fine to me. A lot of it sounded better, truth be told.

And yet here I am, the proud owner of a new turntable and a growing record collection, writing about vinyl in a space normally reserved for booze (don’t worry – the booze isn’t going anywhere).

Why the Change of Tune?

It started when my friend and fellow barhopper Mario purchased a used turntable and began acquiring old records. My indifference to vinyl notwithstanding, I was excited to hang out and listen, just for the sheer novelty of it. And at first, it was nothing more than that – novelty. It was neat to be listening to records again, but I remained mindful of the drawbacks.

Gradually, though, my attitude began to change. Having grown accustomed to the ease of skipping around my iTunes library, I nearly forgot what it was like to listen to an album in its entirety. Sure, you can skip songs on a record, but it’s a chore. Listening from start to finish is a journey of sorts. You experience the highs and lows – the recognizable hits, the less-heralded album tracks. An album is a full statement. A portrait of a band at a given point in their career.

Eventually, vinyl nights at Mario’s place became a regular occurrence. It was a chance to revisit old albums that we hadn’t listened to in years or discover new ones. In short, vinyl night became an event – and that’s what music should be.

It may be convenient to download an album from iTunes, but there’s nothing very satisfying about it. You can’t hold it in your hands. It’s hard to appreciate the cover art. A record requires care – you need to handle it a certain way, clean it periodically, consciously maintain it. It’s not as easy as listening to music on your phone or iPod, but there’s something much more special about it.

So I decided I would purchase my own turntable and begin collecting some of my all-time favorite albums on vinyl. The ones I’ve listened to a million times and never gotten tired of. The ones that are worth buying a second (or third) time, even in a format that’s otherwise antiquated.

Anyway, once a month or so, we’ll have a Vinyl Night here on BBH, where I’ll choose an album to focus on and share some thoughts. The occasional special guest will stop by (I hope). And what goes well with vinyl? Cocktails, obviously. So each record will get paired with a drink, and we’ll explore that as well.

The Record

We begin with an album I truly cherish. John Coltrane’s Blue Train wasn’t the first jazz album I owned, and it’s not necessarily my favorite. But it’s the first jazz album that I fell in love with, and it served as a springboard to what has since become an enduring passion for the genre as a whole.

Released in 1958, Blue Train is Coltrane’s second solo album and the only one he recorded as a band leader for Blue Note Records, widely considered the most glamorous jazz label of its era. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking album, but I consider it a must-own, if for no other reason than that it serves as an accessible, if somewhat misleading introduction to the legendary saxophonist.

Blue Train is a warm, vibrant album that finds Coltrane, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and trombonist Curtis Fuller in fine brass-blowing form. The title track opens with one of the most recognizable and hummable melodies in all of jazz. It’s a haunting blues in a minor key that always makes me think the recording session must have started at 11:30 p.m. and stretched into the small hours of the morning. “Moment’s Notice,” by contrast, is bouncy and upbeat, almost jovial.

Side 2 gets under way with “Locomotion,” a driving blues number that allows drummer Philly Joe Jones to flex his muscles a bit, then slows down with “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only song on the album not penned by Coltrane. Closing things out is “Lazy Bird,” an up-tempo tune with a big, brassy trumpet solo by Morgan and a relentless bass line by Paul Chambers.

Blue Train is one of Coltrane’s best-selling releases, and it’s easy to see why. The album is simply a joy to listen to. And while many of the songs are couched in bright, cheery melodies, the record has enough depth, nuance, and texture to stand up to countless listens.

At the same time, Blue Train is not the reason why Coltrane is so revered among musicians and scholars, and it’s understandable that the casual jazz fan might never graduate to some of his more celebrated works. Blue Train is breezy and relaxed – two words rarely associated with John Coltrane. Much of his music is characterized by its intensity, from the breathless Giant Steps to his master work, A Love Supreme.

Coltrane turned to religion in the late 1950s, and from then on he was an artist searching for a musical path to the divine. The urgency of that pursuit infuses most of his music, and often it sounds complex and chaotic. So it goes when you’re redrawing the boundaries of an instrument and helping redefine a genre. Blue Train is less weighty, but it serves as evidence that Trane had already mastered the style known as “hard bop” and was ready to embark on a more daring, more personal journey.

As this Vinyl Night experiment evolves, I’m not going to go out of my way to find a cocktail that pairs thematically with whatever the album I’m writing about. I suspect it would get a little too cute (e.g., “Ah, this Old Fashioned is smooth and complex, just like this record…”) But for this first edition, I couldn’t resist choosing a cocktail that’s as timeless as the music and the medium.

The Cocktail

Just as Blue Train was the first jazz album I fell in love with, the Manhattan was what turned me on to serious cocktails. This mix of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters has had its ups and downs in terms of popularity, but it’s a drink that never goes out of style.

I’m not sure what I can say about the Manhattan that hasn’t already been said (which is good, because I realize we’re running a little long here), so I’ll just share my current recipe:

  • 2½ ounces Bulleit rye whiskey
  • ¾ ounce Dolin sweet vermouth
  • 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir with ice, then strain into a chilled coupe glass. Pretty simple.

Now ordinarily, I’d garnish it with a Luxardo maraschino cherry. But since this is a special occasion, I’m dipping into my precious, limited supply of Barker and Mills’ bourbon-soaked vanilla cherries. These bad boys are nearly impossible to find. They’re made by a small outfit in New York in very small batches and typically only make it to the Boston area once a year. The Boston Shaker in Somerville sells them, and last I heard, you had to enter a lottery just to get a chance to buy them (I’m not kidding).

But if you do get your hands on some, you won’t be disappointed. The cherries contribute rich notes of bourbon and vanilla to a drink, all while absorbing the flavors of the whiskey and vermouth. Not a bad way to put a new spin on an enduring classic.

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