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Stretching Boundaries: Terry Adams’ Fantastic Terrible & Sonny Rollins’ Beloved West Coast LPs On New Vinyl 

Mark Smotroff grooves on two boundary-stretching releases from two boundary-stretching musicians…

By Mark Smotroff

Two fascinating releases by two incredible, talented — and different — artists may represent significant declarations of independence beyond what their fan bases expected of them at the time of release. Making its first time vinyl release is Terry Adams’ 1995 solo debut Terrible, out now from Omnivore Recordings. And Sonny Rollins’ two late ‘50s releases Way Out West and Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders are compiled and celebrated in a luxurious 3LP super deluxe edition boxed set from Craft Recordings titled Sonny Rollins Go West!. 

Terry Adams’ Terrible.

There’s a wondrous magic moment which can happen when you get into a particular artist… and you’ve gone deep into their catalog… and then discover yet another side to them which you’ve not yet explored.

This underscores some of the joy that I have felt when hearing Terry Adams first solo album outside of his legendary, multi-talented, multi-instrumental, omni-diverse band NRBQ. Humorously titled Terrible, the 1995 album is far far far from — and anything but — that! Terrible has finally been re-issued, for the first time appearing as a 2LP vinyl collection issued from Omnivore Records with (with different cover art and track running order than the original CD edition). 

Terrible is quite wonderful on many levels. At times it feels like you’re listening to the lost love child of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and, inevitably, Sun Ra. For those not in the know, the latter was an early supporter of Terry and his band, giving them his “Rocket Number 9” to cover on their eponymous 1969 debut LP. Sun Ra had even gone on the record saying in support of Adams (from official press materials): “Terry is well known because he has true talent, not because he’s aggressive. He cares about music. He hears music. He may not speak the same language as most people, but he can reach them anyway.” 

To that, Adams has in fact recorded albums with original Ra saxophonist (and current Arkestra leader) Marshall Allen who can be heard on Terrible along with Ra saxophonist/vocalist Knoel Scott and trombonist Tryonne Hill. There are some fantastic players joining Adams here including some of his then NRBQ band mates Tom Ardolino (drums), Joey Spampinato (bass) and Donn Adams (trombone). Archie Shepp alum Roswell Rudd also contributes trombone on a track while noted NY session drummer Bobby Previte (John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz). Lovin’ Spoonful legend John Sebastian even joins in the fun on guitar on one song.

Happily, Terrible on this new first-time vinyl edition sounds quite wonderful. The standard weight (140g) dark black vinyl is quiet and well centered. Lacquers were cut by Jeff Powell of Take Out Vinyl / Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. While I’m not sure exactly how this was recorded, it is quite likely to have been made digitally given it was the mid-1990s. Nonetheless it is a nice recording that sounds real good.

To that, the sympathetic disc mastering by Mr. Powell combined with the loving remastering of the original recordings by longtime NRBQ fan, musician and esteemed audio engineer Gary Hobish of A. Hammer Mastering in San Francisco has resulted in a fine sounding vinyl release. The album sound on vinyl is clear and crisp yet without displaying any sort of harsh edges I can find off-putting on some digital projects. Its a very enjoyable listen even after multiple spins (I have played this album many times while preparing this review!)

A somber side note: I have to take a moment to honor the memory of Gary Hobish who passed away last year to the surprise and shock of everyone who knew him (click here to read a tribute which appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle).  I had the good fortune to get to know Gary over the years including his mastering of music projects I was involved in. His passing is a great loss to the music community. Rest in Peace, Gary. I’m sure you were thrilled to work on this fabulous album from one of your favorite artists.

There are some wonderful tunes here, including the opening track called “Toodlehead” which is such an endearing way to bring you into Mr. Adams’ universe. “Out Of This Windo” (no doubt a playful reference to the great Gary Windo, with whom NRBQ played in the 80s) is a tremendous swinger with a fab solos by trumpeter Dave Gordon, saxophonist Marshall Allen and trombonist Tyrone Hill. “Thinking Of You” is an instrumental which reminds me a bit of Monk’s mid-60s efforts; I could easily hear a singer like (the late great) Tony Bennett singing a lyric to this melody.  “Little One” is a gorgeous meditation with a haunting, almost far eastern quality featuring lovely lush flute trio work set against a plaintive Harmonica pattern played by Adams. 

“Distant Instant” is a fascinating solo piece by Adams on the “dulcitone,” an antique keyboard instrument which, according to the wiki produces sound “… by a range of tuning forks, which vibrate when struck by felt-covered hammers activated by the keyboard.” “Kalimba,” one of several previously unreleased tracks on the new edition of Terrible, offers more whimsy from this lovely unusual instrument.

I could go on but I think you get the idea by now that Terrible is a keeper of an album for this writer and certainly an essential for any NRBQ fan. If you love forward looking classic-flavored original jazz that is exploratory, surprising, melodic and fresh, this album may be for you as well.

Sonny Rollins Go West!

Representing another artist going outside his regular comfort zone was legendary Saxophonist Sonny Rollins who in the mid-late 50s had a vision for expanding his horizons and cross pollinating with the then hot — and so-called — West Coast Jazz scene. The epicenter of that universe in 1956-57 in many ways revolved around Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records label, frequent home to many influential California-based players including drummer Shelly Manne, guitar legend Barney Kessel, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and vibraphonist Victor Feldman (who later played with Steely Dan) and whom all can be found on these Rollins recordings. 

In mid 2023, Craft Recordings issued a loving tribute to Rollins’ late 1950s releases for Contemporary packaged in a super deluxe boxed set — titled Sonny Rollins Go West! — and including a bonus disc of alternate takes from the sessions.

From the official press release we learn some more specifics: “Newly cut from the original analog tapes by GRAMMY®-winning engineer (and former Contemporary Records studio employee) Bernie Grundman, the 20-track set presents two classic albums from the legendary saxophonist’s catalog: Way Out West (recorded in March 1957) and Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (October 1958). Adding additional context are six alternate takes, culled from both albums. Originally released in 1986 on the long-out-of-print compilation album Contemporary Alternate Takes, these tracks allow listeners to hear Rollins and his fellow musicians develop such iconic recordings as “Way Out West” and “Come, Gone.””

Something of a concept album formulated by Rollins himself, even the whimsical cover art had his imprint on it. Again, from the press release: “The memorable jacket art, photographed by Bill Claxton, was also conceived of by Rollins. The desert scene features the musician as a lone cowboy, drawing a saxophone from his gun holster. “I used to go to the movies every week in Harlem and I happened to be a big cowboy fan,” reveals Rollins. “They were my heroes and they were always the good guys. They stood for justice. In the end, good would always win over bad.”

I do have some personal caveats to insert at this point. As deep into jazz as I am, I am a relative newbie when it comes to exploring Mr. Rollins’ work as a leader. I’ve enjoyed much of his work supporting others but haven’t yet found “the one” album to turn me into a super fan. Thus, I don’t own “original” copies of these albums on vinyl to compare them to for this review. That said, these are quite rare records on the collectors marketplace with original pressings commanding fees well in the hundreds, so a high quality reissue series was certainly in order. 

Ultimately, I’m enjoying these albums. Way Out West In Stereo has taken me some time to warm up to as it does have a sort of push-pull sensibility going on, with the more East Coast, harder-edged Rollins being supported by more laid back West Coast players. That is not to say it does not generate some heat but the result is a curious combination. Once I got past the sort of corny horse-hoof rhythmic intro to “Wagon Wheels,” I grew to appreciate this effort more.  I enjoyed the sequel album more immediately, 1959’s Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, and that in turn opened my ears to appreciating Way Out West

Sound wise, these editions are totally in keeping with what we have come to expect from Craft Recordings’ reissue series. The LPs are top quality, pressed on deep dark, black, dead quiet 180-gram vinyl which was manufactured at the respected RTI facilities. Each disc comes housed in an audiophile-grade rice-paper & plastic-lined inner sleeves. Album covers are crafted in the classic style of original editions on thick sturdy cardboard with pasted-on, high quality printed graphics.

The producers of the set even made sure to reproduce the period-accurate “Stereo Records” label on Way Out West In Stereo, which was the short-lived subsidiary brand from Contemporary Records at the dawn of two-channel sound (and as seen on the 1958 editions).  The outer box is sturdy and featuring a compelling leather style textured finish. 

Sonny Rollins Go West! is a great deal for such high quality reproductions, especially compared to the price of originals on the collector’s marketplace. The set has come down in price quite a bit from its initial release (if you click on the album title anywhere here in the review it will take you to Amazon where at the time of this writing its selling for about $82!). If you are a fan of Mr. Rollins’ music and this period of his work in particular but have been daunted by the prices of original pressings, this collection might be an ideal option.  

[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.]

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