Graded on a Curve: Contemporary Records 70th Anniversary Jazz Reissues

2022 continues to be another banner year for audiophile jazz reissues. While the Blue Note and Verve label reissues from the last few years have paved the way for bespoke jazz archival releases, the recent series from Craft Recordings of reissues of albums from the Contemporary Records jazz label to celebrate its 70th anniversary, as part of the Acoustic Sounds Series, are just as welcome.

All of the albums are mastered from the original analog tapes by Bernie Grundman. The records were pressed on 180-gram vinyl at QRP with Stoughton old-style, tip-on jackets, include the iconic black-and-gold Contemporary label of the period, and come with archival sleeves. The key to why these particular recordings sound so good is the superb original engineering of Roy DuNann. All three reissues boast the original liner notes from the legendary jazz scholar, author and journalist Nat Hentoff.

Contemporary Records was founded in 1951 in Los Angeles by Lester Koening. The label’s heyday lasted until the early 1960s. It became very identifiable with the cool school of West Coast jazz. Those artists included Chet Baker, Howard Rumsey, and several artists that are part of the Craft reissue series, including Art Pepper, Shelly Manne, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel and others. Rumsey and Manne were also integral to two key West Coast jazz clubs—The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, which Rumsey got off the ground in 1949 and which featured his All-Star’s, but which was owned by John Levine, and Shelly’s Manne-Hole, which opened in 1960 in Hollywood.

The debut stereo release of the series is Art Pepper +Eleven, originally released in 1959. The album wouldn’t be strictly classified as a West Coast jazz album. It features a long list of players, interpreting Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins, to just name four, with arrangements by Marty Paich. Some of the cream of the West Coast jazz artists of this period were at various times members of the Tonight Show band during Johnny Carson’s tenure, including three that are on this album: Russ Freeman, Pete Candoli, and Bill Perkins, a testament to how great that band was under the leadership of Doc Severinsen. While the vibe is chill, the intricate and full-bodied arrangement by Paich makes this a jazz classic with a style that is almost unclassifiable. The sound on the album is bright and smooth and overall, this is an excellent sounding reissue.

The next two reissues were originally released on the Stereo imprint of Contemporary, a label launched to show off the then very new stereo technology format.

Poll Winners, featuring Shelly Manne on drums, Barney Kessel on guitar, and Ray Brown on bass, was originally released in mono in 1957 and stereo in 1958. This is the group’s debut album and the members would record four more albums together. The name Poll Winners derives from that fact that these musicians were winners of many polls from such publications as Downbeat and Playboy as being the best at their instruments. Although the group was just a trio, this recording packs quite a wallop, with workouts on jazz warhorses like “Satin Doll” and “On Green Dolphin Street” and on Kessel’s own “Minor Mood.” Some of the tracks have a decidedly late-night vibe and the guitar work by Kessel is restrained and, as always, evolving. This reissue has a deep rhythm groove, with lots of power and punch.

Four! Is from Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, and bassist Red Mitchell, with pianist Hampton Hawes as the leader and was released in 1958. The centerpiece of the album is the opening track, a cover of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” This light, cool, yet adventurous cover, updates a bop staple in exciting, new and innovative ways. Along with the covers is a composition from Hawes, “Up Blues.” The entire set swings with a buoyant joy. When listening to the piano of Hawes, one wonders why he isn’t more well-regarded as a major player in jazz history. This really is music that belies the West Coast jazz style moniker and is a classic jazz album of the period.

The first batch of reissue releases from Contemporary are must-have albums for any jazz vinyl library and are selling-out fast. The next releases in the series include Jazz Giant from Benny Carter, My Fair Lady from Shelly Manne & His Friends, and a stereo pressing of Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section.

Art Pepper, +Eleven
A

The Poll Winners: Barney Kessel with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown
B+

Four! Hampton Hawes!!!! with Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne & Red Mitchell
B+

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