It’s the time of year for saving money!
By Mark Smotroff
In the world of jazz music, there is a sort of unwritten snobbery toward certain labels, particularly when it comes to collectors of vintage vinyl, which has been propagated, likely for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this review. Bottom line: there is a lot of great and important jazz music to be heard and enjoyed on labels other than Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside Records. And, there are great engineers other than Rudy Van Gelder (aka RVG) who many consider the last word when it comes to jazz of a certain vintage.
Some years back I was hepped to the sonic glories of West Coast jazz recordings made by engineer Roy Dunann for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records label. A noted audiophile expert and journalist friend had emphasized how the recordings DuNann made were generally of a higher fidelity than many made by Van Gelder. Coupled with strong performances by outstanding players, the Contemporary catalog is ripe for re-appraisal and reconsideration.
Craft Recordings has been pursuing a fine series of reissues from this label’s archives in conjunction with Acoustic Sounds. I have reviewed many of them here on Audiophile Review and on Analog Planet.
The official press release spells out the crucial specifications clearly in these fine Acoustic Sounds series reissues: “Each title, originally engineered by Roy DuNann and/or Howard Holzer, boasts lacquers cut from the original master tapes (AAA) by the GRAMMY®-winning engineer (and former Contemporary Records employee) Bernie Grundman, while all LPs are pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Quality Record Pressings (QRP) and presented in Stoughton old style tip-on jackets.”
Each of the 1LP albums sell for approximately $30 (you can find them via links to Amazon in the subtitles which follow). All three of the LPs I have reviewed here have been well centered, dead quiet and perfectly flat. The records come housed in plastic lined audiophile grade inner sleeves. Overall I am extremely pleased with these editions, especially given the price, the generally outstanding fidelity and faced with the real world challenges of finding pristine original copies of these albums. If you enjoy this music by these artists, I don’t see how you can really go wrong here. Lets jump into the play by play for each album.
My Fair Lady, Shelly Manne and his Friends
A name often seen on Contemporary Records releases — including many with great West Coast jazz drummer / band leader Shelly Manne — is an artist whom some may not immediately associate with fine jazz: André Previn. With a career spanning decades, Mr. Previn crossed boundaries many musicians only dreamed of, creating for film and in classical as well as jazz genres.
Consider this fellow’s background (details following culled from online sources): He crafted music for more than fifty films, won four Academy Awards and ten Grammy Awards for recordings across all three areas of his career (and then one more, for lifetime achievement). He has served as music director for major symphony’s from LA to London.
For jazz fans, the bottom line factor beyond his technical facility is that the guy had good feel and could swing and that is why he shows up on so many recordings from the 1950s in particular with Shelly Manne.
First up is his work interpreting music from the incredibly popular Broadway show and film, My Fair Lady. [Actually, the album’s official title is extraordinarily long: Shelly Manne & his Friends* modern jazz performances of songs from My Fair Lady, with the asterisk pointing to a continuation of band-member names printed lower on the cover: André Previn and Leroy Vinnegar. For our purposes, we’ll just call it Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady!]
Shelly Manne championed Previn early on featuring him on this outstanding 1956 album which was “the” first full collection of jazz music dedicated to one Broadway production. The album was a huge hit and pretty much set the bar very high for others to follow. There were many jazz interpretations of this music by other artists and I prefer this version over even Oscar Peterson’s (which is saying something as I’m a pretty deep Peterson fanboy) and even Manne’s own re-visitation recorded for Capitol Records in the mid-1960s.
This first version just works so very well, start to finish, with a great sense of swing and musicality. What I’m about to say is meant in the best possible way: this album was probably one of the ultimate mid-‘50s cocktail jazz album which must have been played at many parties over the years. Accordingly, most used copies of this album which you come across “out in the wilds” of record collecting tend to show a lot of wear.
Recorded in August 1956, Contemporary Records’ studios being based in LA no doubt made the producers privy to early Stereo recording systems years before commercial playback systems were generally available to the public. Initially released in Mono, the 1958 stereo edition was issued under the short-lived-but-confusing pre-cursor label “Stereo Records” (later pressings were re-branded and issued on Contemporary).
Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady sounds great as a listening experience, delivering a lovely sense of the individual instrument personalities coming through warmly across a natural-feeling soundstage. Thankfully, Mr. DuNann wisely spread Manne’s drums across the stereo spread, placing the Vinnegar’s bass and Previn’s piano in either channel (discrete left-right for sure, but not super hard-panned)
With this album being so common and not especially valuable — it is a bonafide staple found on most every thrift shop shelf and flea market crate you might go digging in — you might wonder why would you as an “audiophile” want to spend about $30 (SRP) for this reissue?
The answer is simple as I hinted at earlier: this version of My Fair Lady was enormously popular — often considered one of the most successful jazz albums released up to that point — and no doubt enjoyed by many so it is actually very hard to find really clean copies! This is especially true for the somewhat more elusive Stereo edition! There have been reissues along the way — including the popular Original Jazz Classics series from the 1980s — but this new edition feels fairly definitive and authentic on many levels.
For a handy point of reference, of the 19 original Stereo Records editions up on Discogs, only one is listed as in “Near Mint” condition. I have personally gone through many many copies to get the almost perfect copy I have at present. The new version is mastered a wee bit more quietly, so its not identical. And, inevitably the master tape has aged a bit which can bring its own anomalies which are not fixable in an all analog mastering process. For example, I heard a bit of tape speed variance on “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” (Side 1, Track 3) which is not on my original pressing. But overall this new reissue of Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady sounds very close to the original LP presentation even working off a 67 year old tape!
Tape-stretch anomaly aside, overall this is so nice sounding that you might just want to save yourself the hassle of searching and just go for one of the new Craft Recordings editions. The performances are exemplary, the arrangements very musical and the sound on this new pressing is overall pretty wonderful. And they even faithfully reproduce the design of the original “Stereo Records” branded label, so unless you are an absolute purist about having first pressings, this new edition is a fine option to consider.
Leroy Walks, Leroy Vinnegar Sextet
My Fair Lady bassist Leroy Vinnegar steps out on his own in this much sought after 1958 rarity. There are only 10 original Stereo copies listed on Discogs at the time of this writing and only one is in “near mint” condition, asking upwards of $200. So, in contrast, $30 seems like a very square fair deal, especially given that it is nicely remastered from the original tapes and pressed on top quality vinyl.
Ultimately, of course it comes down to the music and this album — Vinnegar’s only sextet release as a leader — is a very enjoyable, straight forward, swinging modern West Coast jazz excursion which has been growing on me with each listen. There is some very nice playing throughout happening here.
No doubt referencing his sweet “walking” bass lines in the album’s title, here Mr. Vinnegar locks in with drummer Tony Bazley from the get go with his Side 1, Track 1’s appropriately-titled original composition title “Walk On.”
Hearing this, I wish iconic bassist-composer Charles Mingus had recorded with Roy DuNann at some point in his career as the engineer really captures the sweet rich round sound of Mr. Vinnegar’s playing; there are points where you can hear his strings resonating against the acoustic instrument’s woody-ness.
Steely Dan aficionados will also notice the presence of Victor Feldman on vibes (who played on all seven of their initial run of albums) so that is a sweet bonus. Recording the vibraphone is never an easy task and Feldman’s vibes sound super sweet here, notably on his solo during Harry Warren’s “Would You Like To Take A Walk.”
This is a solid album. If you like the sound of a big stand up acoustic bass and a sweet easy jazz swing, Leroy Walks may be your jam.
West Side Story, André Previn and his Pals
West Side Story features almost the same line up as My Fair Lady (reviewed above) swapping out Mr. Vinnegar for bassist Red Mitchell who grooves and walks his rich rhythms in fine form. Released in 1960, this time, Previn takes the lead role in the group and the results are quite excellent as they work their way through Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim’s classic score.
In general, the whole of Previn’s West Side Story sounds great and in general the music swings, especially on the kickin’ album opening (Side1, Track 1) “Something’s Coming.”
The sound is pretty outstanding on this release with a real nice sense of studio air around Manne’s drums and Previn’s piano. I greatly enjoyed the stereo presentation vs. the mono original copy I have in my collection.
Listening to this recording makes me wish Rudy Van Gelder could have captured as natural a piano sound as well as Roy DuNann does on these Contemporary Records releases (just sayin’!). The instrument resonances captured on the solo piano intro to “Tonight” (Side 1, Track 3) is just spellbinding and beautiful. Listen for the resonant boom of Manne’s kick drum on the opening to “Gee, Officer Krupke” as well as his tasty (close-mic’d) brush work.
The more I listen to this Stereo recording of West Side Story the moreI realize it could be a demo disc for some audiophile folks.
Still, as much as I like it, the album is not quite as perfect an interpretation as on Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady. One song, “I Feel Pretty,” (Side 1, Track 4) doesn’t quite work for me overall arrangements-wise. That said, I realize that some might argue it as one of the more innovative interpretations of the album with its unusual, quirky, almost stretched-time verse sections which feel borderline Monk-inspired. Honestly, I go back and forth on this track so, as they say, “your milage may vary.”
Overall, André Previn and his Pals’ West Side Story is an excellent listen and if you like the music from that show and movie, this would be a fine addition to your collection.
[Mark Smotroff has been reviewing music at AudiophileReview for many years but can also be found at AnalogPlanet.com. In the past he has written for Sound & Vision, DISCoveries, EQ, Mix and many more. An avid vinyl collector and music enthusiast who has also worked in marketing communications for decades you can learn more about his background at LinkedIn.]