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. For the latest episode, we’re taking a look at a piece of essential South African jazz history: Batsumi’s 1974 self titled debut.
The most intriguing musical movements are often born from some form of turmoil or upheaval. It’s perhaps the volatile nature of 20th century South Africa that, at least in part, allowed it to birth such a compelling music scene. In particular, it’s a country well-respected for its jazz bands; long-time objects of collector worship, many South African jazz LPs are as rare as they are sought-after. Batsumi’s self titled debut is one such release. Originally hitting shelves in 1974, the album was innovative and idiosyncratic in its combination of an array of varying strands into a cohesive – but undeniably strange – whole. While the overall flavour is distinctly jazz, there’s elements of folk rock, funk and even psychedelia here; the instrumental palette is varied and although long stretches of the album are sans voice, there’s also plenty of impassioned lead vocal to lead the charge. It’s a deeply unique record, but one also admiral for its quality. There’s the classically-inflected piano opening of the 16 minute epic ‘Itumeleng’, the utterly satisfying album closer ‘Anishilabi’, and the soaring, panoramic jazz of ‘Lishonile’. It’s compelling stuff throughout, and an album well worthy of its cult status.
First reissued by the UK’s Matsuli Music back in 2011, their rerelease of ‘Batsumi’ has proved popular enough to warrant a number of represses over the subsequent years. The album has been issued in a few colour variants, but today we’re looking at the most recent pressing of the album on black vinyl. We were pleasantly surprised upon inspecting the LP to find that it was pressed at France’s MPO. While the factory do not get as much work as Optimal Media or GZ, they’re considerably better than both, and we’re almost always very impressed by their output. This reissue of ‘Batsumi’ is no exception to that rule and scores major points in every regard. The record sits flat on the platter during playback and feels very solid in hand, with a good amount of weight behind it. Playback is very clean throughout. While we did hear a slight rumbling noise floor on the run-ins, this was nothing that the music wasn’t able to completely drown out and sound is otherwise spectacular throughout. Our copy was free of major defects such as pops or clicks – all well and good, but rather more impressive is the fact that it’s even almost completely clear of minor flaws, such as light crackles. While the music is usually loud enough to mask any potential imperfections, there are considerable portions that are quiet enough for any noise to considerably mar the listening experience. Therefore, it’s even more of a relief than usual to report just how exceptionally clean this pressing is. In terms of overall fidelity, the sound here is about as polished as it could ever be. An innately lo-fi album to begin with, the remastering process has rung every last drop of quality out of the album, and it sounds great throughout. While there’s a definite graininess to some of the instrumental parts here, it’s the kind of desirable distortion that can be described as atmosphere-enhancing. Although the run-out grooves/deadwax are slim on both sides, there’s not even a hint of inner groove distortion at any point during the LP, making this a pleasure to play throughout.
Packaging and presentation is really well executed on this reissue. The sleeve replicates that of the original pressing, which means that it’s a single-pocket, normal-width jacket. It’s well constructed and is made from good quality cardstock, which has also been textured to add an extra layer of sensory tactility. Print quality is highly finessed here; the wonderful cover art is reproduced faithfully, with great colourisation and good clarity. The back cover keeps up the good show, with sharply printed typography and tasteful layout. The classy art direction has thankfully not been marred by a barcode, which is a big plus in our books. The spine text is simple and easy to make out; perhaps not eye-catching, but it certainly does the job. The labels here do not reproduce those of the original, instead opting for a new, artsy direction. If they’re a little unremarkable, then that’s no great issue as they’re pretty enough and they do make it abundantly clear which side is which – a simple touch, but one that makes things a whole lot easier. The best addition to the original presentation is that of a high quality cardboard inner sleeve. While it is not polylined, as far as printed inners go, it’s one of the very highest quality we’ve seen; we would still advise storing the LP in a polylined inner for general use, though. The inner sleeve boasts brand new and high quality liner notes on one side, and an image of the original master tapes on the other, in addition to a few credits and technical notes on the remastering process. The inner is a very welcome addition to the release and one which excellently rounds off this reissue’s presentation.
We don’t bandy words like “essential” around often at Vinyl Corner, but we’re tempted here. This is a reissue done correctly. The pressing, the presentation and, of course, the music itself are all of the highest quality on this Matsuli Music reissue. Those looking to acquire ‘Batsumi’ on vinyl have little choice otherwise, considering the price of an original, so it’s a good thing that this reissue simply drips quality.
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!