Labels We Love – Contemporary

Helen Humes – A Forgotten Jazz Vocal Classic

More Pop and Jazz Vocal Albums

Reviews of Some of Our Favorite Albums by Female Vocalists

  • This vintage Contemporary pressing is close to the best we have ever heard, with stunning Nearly Master Tape sound from start to finish, just shy of our Shootout Winner – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Both of these sides are amazingly Tubey Magical, yet incredibly clean and clear — something you can’t get from the tube-mastered originals
  • Helen’s voice is PERFECTION — breathy, full, and sweet; and the orchestra sounds JUST RIGHT — just listen to the nice bite of the brass
  • 5 stars: “One of the high points of Helen Humes’ career, this Contemporary set features superior songs, superb backup, and very suitable and swinging arrangements by Marty Paich. Humes’ versions of ‘If I Could Be With You,’ ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy,’ and ‘Million Dollar Secret,’ in particular, are definitive… This classic release is essential and shows just how appealing a singer Helen Humes could be.”

This vintage Contemporary pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What The Best Sides Of Songs I Like To Sing! Have To Offer Is Not Hard To Hear

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1961
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

Later Pressings Have The Real Sound

We prefer later pressings of this album to the Black Label originals, which sound tube mastered and have a bit of echo added to them. The later pressings offer superior clarity and resolution. I wouldn’t say one is necessarily better than the other, but this seems to be the more accurate reproduction of what happened in the recording session, and I know this is the one I would rather listen to.

Without a doubt it’s one of my all time favorite jazz albums. The amazing Marty Paich (Art Pepper Plus Eleven) did the arrangements for this group of top musicians, which includes Art PepperBen WebsterBarney KesselShelly ManneJack Sheldon and Leroy Vinnegar, just to name the ones whose work I know well. Does it get any better?

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Shelly Manne & His Friends – Bells Are Ringing

Contemporary Jazz Records Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Contemporary Jazz

  • Outstanding solid Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER throughout this Black Label original on vinyl that’s about as quiet as they ever play
  • The piano sounds lifelike right from the start, a beautiful instrument in a natural space, tonally correct from top to bottom
  • This copy makes it clear that this is a Demo Disc Quality Recording for Contemporary, and that’s saying a lot
  • It’s also our favorite jazz piano performance by Andre Previn on record
  • Only a handful of copies of this title have made it on the site in the last few years – finding them in audiophile condition is getting harder (and more expensive) than ever these days
  • “Previn’s piano is the lead voice and his virtuosity, good taste, melodic improvising, and solid sense of swing are chiefly responsible for the music’s success.”

I have a very long history with this album, going back decades. My friend Robert Pincus first turned me on to the CD, which, happily for all concerned, was mastered beautifully. We used it to test and tweak all the stereos in my friends’ systems.

Playing the original stereo record, which I assumed must never have been reissued due to its rarity (I have since learned otherwise), all I could hear on my ’90s all tube system was blurred mids, lack of transient attack, sloppy bass, lack of space and transparency, and other shortcomings too numerous to mention that I simply attributed at the time to vintage jazz vinyl.

Well, things have certainly changed. I have virtually none of the equipment I had back then, and I hear none of the problems with this copy that I heard back then on pressing I owned. This is clearly a different LP (I sold off the old one years ago) but I have to think that much of the change in the sound was a change in cleaning, equipment, tweaks and room treatments, all the stuff we prattle on about endlessly on the site.

In other words, if you have a highly-resolving modern system and a good room, you should be knocked out by the sound of this record. I sure was.

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Phineas Newborn, Jr. – A World of Piano!

More Phineas Newborn, Jr.

More Contemporary Label Jazz Recordings

  • This copy of Newborn’s first album for Contemporary boasts seriously good Double Plus (A++) sound throughout – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • One of the most musically impressive jazz piano recordings we’ve played in years – Newborn’s improvisational skills are operating at a very high level
  • The team of Roy DuNann and Howard Holzer insure that everything you want in an Audiophile Quality piano trio recording is here
  • If you don’t have any Phineas Newborn albums in your collection, this is definitely the place to start
  • 5 stars: “Phineas Newborn’s Contemporary debut (he would record six albums over a 15-year period for the label) was made just before physical problems began to interrupt his career…. He performs five jazz standards and three obscurities by jazz composers on this superb recital…”

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Hampton Hawes / At The Piano

  • A huge, rich and natural Contemporary pressing boasting excellent Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER from first note to last
  • This is the last record Hawes made, and it’s one of the most deeply emotional and satisfying albums of his entire career – it may even be his best, and for a man of his talents, that’s really saying something
  • “Hampton Hawes’ final recording found him returning not only to the acoustic piano after having dabbled in electric keyboards from 1972-74, but to producer Lester Koenig and his Contemporary label, where Hawes recorded most of his classic gems of the 1950s… Teamed up with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, Hawes shows that he was still in prime form.”
  • We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” but with less of an accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life. Hampton Hawes last album is a good example of a record many audiophiles may not know well but should.

This is my favorite Hampton Hawes record of all time. He died less than a year after these sessions. Looking at the cover, you can almost see in his face his acceptance of the end he knew was coming. He plays with deep emotion here.

Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, the same rhythm section who back Joe Sample on my all-time favorite piano trio album, The Three, accompany Hawes beautifully here.
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Benny Carter – Jazz Giant

More of the Music of Benny Carter

Contemporary Jazz Records Available Now

  • Both sides of this superb Contemporary reissue earned excellent Double Plus (A++) sonic grades
  • If you still think that Analogue Productions is remastering records properly, you have definitely never heard a real Contemporary that sounds as good as this one does
  • The music of this Jazz Giant comes alive on this copy, with space, size, clarity and richness that few other pressings can match
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Benny Carter had already been a major jazz musician for nearly 30 years when he recorded this particularly strong septet session for Contemporary … This timeless music is beyond the simple categories of ‘swing’ or ‘bop’ and should just be called ‘classic.'”

If you like the sound of Contemporary Records, you won’t find a better example than this. Midrange magic doesn’t get anymore magical.

It’s been several years since our last shootout, but we hope the lucky buyer of this copy realizes it was more than worth it. To find a copy of Jazz Giant that sounds as good as this one is a very special event indeed.

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Art Pepper – Smack Up

More Art Pepper

More Contemporary Label Jazz

  • This is a classic from Pepper – all the songs were written by saxophonists and he tears into them with gusto and naked emotion, hallmarks of his style of play
  • This is some seriously good-sounding saxophone-led jazz, thanks to Roy DuNann and Lester Koenig
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Pepper is very much on top of his game throughout, ably demonstrating a capacity for precision and intimidating passion. Nowhere is proof more readily available than on these sides, which project Pepper at the peak of his craft.”
  • If you’re a fan of classic jazz from the ’50s and ’60s, this Contemporary from 1960 undoubtedly belongs in your collection
  • The complete list of titles from 1960 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

The horns are really jumpin’ out of the speakers here, but they never get hard or squawky like they do on some pressings. This combination of clarity and fullness is not easy to come by, but it lets the music flow in glorious waves of All Tube 1960 analog. With the always wonderful Jack Sheldon on trumpet, this is a great date from the Golden Age of Jazz Recordings. (more…)

Hampton Hawes in 1964 – The Green Leaves of Summer

  • This ’70s pressing was our Shootout Winner on side two for its clean, clear and lively sound, with lovely space around all of the instruments 
  • Not an easy title to find, and this one is quieter than most of what we played – Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus
  • “Hawes had lost nothing of his swinging style while in prison, as can be heard on such numbers as “Vierd Blues,” “St. Thomas” and “Secret Love,” and he was just starting to hint at moving beyond bop. Recommended.” – All Music

This Contemporary Yellow Label LP has wonderful Contemporary All Tube sound, courtesy of the amazing engineering of Howard Holzer. The piano is right — weighty and percussive with a full-bodied tone. The bass definition is superb. The clarity and transparency here are nothing short of breathtaking.

Steve Ellington’s brush work on the snare is very clear on this copy, helping to push the music to the next level. On the great Sonny Rollins track, St. Thomas, Steve Ellington is doing some fancy playing on the rims of his drums — the ambience bouncing off the studio walls is amazing.

A major highlight here is the completely original interpretation of Blue Skies. Hawes gets going with some really complicated two-handed playing. With the superb clarity of this copy you won’t miss a note. (more…)

Barney Kessel – Vol. 3: To Swing Or Not To Swing

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More Contemporary Label Jazz Recordings

  • Vol. 3, To Swing Or Not To Swing finally returns to the site with outstanding Double Plus (A++) grades throughout this early Contemporary MONO pressing – reasonably quiet vinyl too
  • Tubey Magic, richness, sweetness, dead-on timbres from top to bottom – this is a textbook example of Contemporary sound at its best
  • For some reason, the guitar sound from this era of All Tube Chain Recording seems to have died out with the times – it can only be found on the best of these vintage pressings, like this one
  • 5 stars: “The unusual repertoire on this set … would by itself make this bop/cool set noteworthy. Add to that a very interesting lineup of players (trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, Georgie Auld or Bill Perkins on tenor, pianist Jimmy Rowles, the rhythm guitar of Al Hendrickson, bassist Red Mitchell, and Shelly Manne or Irv Cottler on drums) … and the overall result is a recording highly recommended to fans of straight-ahead jazz.”

Man, this music is a blast when it sounds this good. I don’t think there’s a whole lot you could do to make this music sound any better! It’s one of the best early mono Contemporary LPs we’ve ever played. It’s so Tubey Magical. Kessel’s guitar sound is out of this world.

The music here matches the sound for excellence. The whole band just swings. There’s a real old rag-timey feel to the songs. Look at this list of all-star players: Harry Edison, Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne — this is some serious jazz talent.

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Shelly Manne and his Friends – The D4/D5 Stereo Pressings Are Just Awful

More of the Music of Shelly Manne

More Stamper and Pressing Information

In our experience, the Black Label stereo originals with D4/D5 stampers are terrible sounding.

With those stampers, My Fair Lady is undoubtedly a Hall of Shame pressing, as well as another early pressing we’ve reviewed and found wanting.

Both sides graded “No,” our not-especially-technical term for a record that sounds really bad.

Notes for Side One:

Track one is bright and unnatural up top. Track two is not very musical.

Notes for Side Two:

Track one is very weird sounding, thin and small.

(Obviously there was no need to play a second track.)

As you may have read elsewhere on the site, some Contemporary Label originals are very poorly mastered, which should put paid to the idea that Hot Stampers are only, or even usually, original pressings.

In our most recent shootout, the second-best sounding pressing was on the early Black Label. We would love to give out the stampers for that one, but we don’t do that.

Here is the description of our current Shootout Winning Pressing. We didn’t even give out the label of that one because it seems that copies with that label do very well and we want to be able to find more of them.

Click here to read about the various labels that Contemporary used over the years.

Some people like to search for relationships between the sound of the pressing and the label it has, but in our experience that is more often than not a fool’s game once you take into account the confirmation biases and other kinds of bad audiophile thinking that go along with that approach.


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Hampton Hawes – Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes, Vol. 3: The Trio

More Hampton Hawes

More Contemporary Label Jazz Recordings

  • We have been big fans of Hawes for many years – it’s records like this that impressed the hell out of us back in the day and they only get better with age
  • These sides are rich, clear, undistorted, open, spacious, and have jazz trio energy to rival the best recordings you may have heard
  • This is a textbook example of Contemporary sound at its best, thanks to the engineering brilliance of Roy DuNann and producer Lester Keonig
  • “The third of three Hampton Hawes trio dates with bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Chuck Thompson is on the same high level as his first two…. [Hawes] comes up with consistently creative ideas throughout this swinging bop date.”

We don’t run into Hawes’ LPs the way we used to, so it was indeed a delight to find enough copies of this album to do a shootout recently.

Note how correct the sound of the instruments is on both sides. This is the unquestionably the hallmark of any Contemporary recording: correct instrumental timbres.

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