Labels We Love – Contemporary

Barney Kessel / Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By

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More Jazz Featuring the Guitar

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  • Music To Listen To Barney Kessel By finally returns to the site with KILLER Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) Contemporary Stereo sound on both sides
  • Their stuff just doesn’t get any better than this. Tubey Magic, richness, sweetness, dead-on timbres from top to bottom — this is a textbook example of Contemporary sound at its best
  • For those of you who appreciate what Roy DuNann (and Howard Holzer on other sessions) were able to achieve in the ’50s at Contemporary Records, this LP is a Must-Own
  • Unless you already have it, which is doubtful considering how hard it is to find a copy in clean condition
  • Barney Kessel and his five reed players take these standards and make magic with them — for fun, relaxing jazz it’s hard not to love this one

This vintage Black Label Contemporary Stereo LP from has DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND. No other copy we played was in a class with this bad boy — it does it ALL.

How can you beat a Roy DuNann recording of five reeds, piano, guitar and a rhythm section that includes Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell? The timbre of the instruments is so spot-on it makes all the hard work and money you’ve put into your stereo more than pay off.

The Demo Disc sound on this copy is really something to hear – all tube, live-to-two-track direct from the Contemporary studio. It’s pretty much everything you want in a recording from this era. I’d love to keep it but when would I have time to play it? I can assure you I will sleep very well knowing that it’s going to a good home. (more…)

Art Pepper – Meets The Rhythm Section

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  • You’ll find very good Hot Stamper sound on both sides of this wonderful pressing – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Forget whatever dead-as-a-doornail Heavy Vinyl record they’re making these days – if you want to hear this wonderful album sound the way it is supposed to, a Hot Stamper pressing like this one is the way to go
  • Widely considered Art Pepper’s masterpiece and we couldn’t agree more
  • 5 stars: “… this recording convinced [Pepper] that emotion was the paramount impulse of jazz performance… a diamond of recorded jazz history.”

Many consider this to be the best record Art Pepper ever made, along with Art Pepper + Eleven, and I agree completely. Recorded in 1957 (the same year Way Out West was recorded) by the legendary Roy DuNann, the sound is absolutely wonderful.

The best pressings have all the Tubey Magic of the best black label originals, without their even worse vinyl and bloated bass. We get black label original Contemporary pressings in from time to time, but few of them are mastered right and most never make it to the site.

Some are pure muck. Some have bloated bass that is hard to believe. Don’t buy into that record collecting slash audiophile canard that Original Equals Better. That’s pure BS. It just doesn’t work that way, and anyone with two good ears, two good speakers and a decent-sized record collection should know better. (more…)

Art Pepper / Meets The Rhythm Section

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  • This outstanding pressing boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound or close to it from start to finish
  • The Contemporary stereo sound here is completely natural in all respects – rich, warm and smooth, the sound we love
  • Recorded in 1957 (the same year as Way Out West) by the legendary Roy DuNann, the sound is absolutely wonderful
  • 5 stars: “… this recording convinced [Pepper] that emotion was the paramount impulse of jazz performance… a diamond of recorded jazz history.”

Many consider this to be the best record Art Pepper ever made, along with Art Pepper + Eleven, and I agree completely.

This one has all the Tubey Magic of the best black label originals, without their bad vinyl and bloated bass. We get black label original Contemporary pressings in from time to time, but few of them are mastered right and most never make it to the site.

Some are pure muck. Some have bloated bass that is hard to believe. Don’t buy into that record collecting slash audiophile canard that Original Equals Better. That’s pure BS. It just doesn’t work that way, and anyone with two good ears, two good speakers and a decent-sized record collection should know better. (more…)

Art Pepper / Intensity – Thoughts on One of the Most Dynamic Contemporary Recordings

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A Classic Case of Audio Progress

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[This commentary was written in 2008.]

Intensity is right — this is some SERIOUSLY GOOD SOUNDING alto saxophone led quartet jazz. AMG was right to give this one 4 1/2 stars — the musicianship is top notch and Pepper’s playing is INSPIRED throughout. 

The real surprise was how well recorded this album from 1963 is. I can’t recall a more DYNAMIC Contemporary. Pepper’s sax gets seriously LOUD in some passages. This is very much a good thing. Not only is he totally committed to the music, but the engineers are getting that energy onto the record so that we at home can feel the moment to moment raw power of his playing.

(Pepper was famous for saying that his playing is best when he just plays whatever he feels in the moment, and this record is the best kind of evidence for the truth of that claim.)

Of course, since this is a Roy Dunann recording, all the tubey magical richness and sweetness are here as well, but what is surprising is how transparent, spacious and clear the sound is. Some of Roy’s recordings can sound a bit dead (recording in your stockroom is not always the best for spaciousness) and sometimes are a bit thick as well. Not so here. But it should be pointed out that we liked what we heard from a previous shootout too.

Last time around we wrote:

This record has superb sound: you can actually hear the keys clacking on the man’s alto. And that sort of detail does not come at the expense of phony brightness as it would with your typical audiophile recording. The tonality of the sax, drums, and bass are right on the money, exactly the way we expect Roy DuNann’s recording to be.

This time around we got more extension out of the cymbals. Either these copies are better, were cleaned better, or were helped quite a bit by our new Townshend SuperTweeters. (Probably the last two more than the first one.) (more…)

Art Pepper – Intensity

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  • Outstanding sound throughout for this Contemporary pressing with solid Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER on both sides
  • Intensity is right — this is some seriously good sounding alto saxophone led quartet jazz, thanks to Roy DuNann and Lester Koenig
  • The musicianship here is top notch and Pepper’s playing is inspired throughout.
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Pepper was just starting to show the influence of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in his style, freeing up his playing and displaying a greater intensity during his improvisations.”

An outstanding copy that reminded us just how great this album can be when you have a copy like this one!

I can’t recall a more DYNAMIC Contemporary. Pepper’s sax gets seriously LOUD in some passages. This is very much a good thing. Not only is he totally committed to the music, but the engineers are getting that energy onto the record so that we at home can feel the moment to moment raw power of his expression. (Pepper was famous for saying that his playing is best when he just plays whatever he feels in the moment, and this record is the best kind of evidence for the truth of that statement.) (more…)

Benny Carter and Tube Versus Transistor Tradeoffs

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More Thoughts on Tubes in Audio

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Here’s how we weighed the tradeoffs in the sound of the originals versus that of the reissues, with VTA advice to follow. 

This superb sounding ORIGINAL Black Label Contemporary pressing of Benny Carter’s swingin’ jazz quartet is the very definition of a top jazz stereo recording from the late ’50s mastered through an all tube chain.

There’s good extension on the top end for an early pressing, with TONS of what you would most expect: Tubey Magic and Richness. If that’s what you’re looking for, this copy has got it!

We prefer the later pressings in most ways, but this record does something that no later pressing we have ever played can do — get Benny’s trumpet to sound uncannily REAL. If you want to demonstrate to your skeptical audiophile friends what no CD (or modern remastered record) can begin to do, play side two of this copy for them. They may be in for quite a shock. (more…)

Art Pepper – …The Way It Was

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  • This outstanding pressing boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • It’s airy, open, and spacious with superb clarity and an extended top end – the beautiful reading of Autumn Leaves on side two has demo disc quality sound
  • Included are three tracks left off some of Pepper’s best albums on Contemporary – Meets the Rhythm Section, Intensity and Gettin’ Together
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Despite his very erratic lifestyle, altoist Art Pepper never made a bad record. The first four titles team together Pepper with tenor-saxophonist Warne Marsh for generally intriguing explorations of four standards… this album finds Art Pepper in top form.”

(more…)

What the Hell Happened to Bernie Grundman and Doug Sax?

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This Contemporary pressing has wonderful sound. This should not be too surprising as it was recorded by one of our favorite engineers, Allen Sides, working out of his Oceanway studios. (Supposedly he is a big fan of vintage mics and the like, with many superb and valuable examples.)

In addition the album was mastered by Bernie Grundman, who was at the time still cutting very good sounding records, this being 1980. Since then he has gone precipitously downhill, as we have noted on the site often.

This is the man who cut some of the best sounding records I have ever played, including many of the best Contemporary recordings, but his work in recent decades has left much to be desired.

He sure has fooled a lot of audiophile record reviewers, but not us I venture to say. We never jumped on the Classic Records bandwagon, and to this day we cannot understand how any critical listener could be fooled by the countless Heavy Vinyl mediocrities that awful label put out.

You can say the same thing for Doug Sax, a man whose work took a turn for the worse long ago. The sad reality is that the dull, thick, lifeless, veiled, ambience-free records he cut for Acoustic Sounds and Klavier in the ’90s were no worse than the dreck being made today.

The more things change… (more…)

Benny Carter – Swingin’ the ’20s

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  • With superb sides rating Double Plus (A++) or BETTER, this Contemporary pressing was one of the best we played in our shootout
  • These excellent sides are so much bigger and more open, with more bass and energy – the saxes and trumpets are immediate and lively
  • Mr. Earl Hines himself showed up, a man who knows this music like nobody’s business – Leroy Vinnegar and Shelly Manne round out the quartet
  • “Great musicians produce great results, and most of the LP’s tracks were done in one or two takes. The result is ‘a spontaneous, swinging record of what happened’ when Carter met Hines ‘for the first time. . . .'”

For us audiophiles both the sound and the music here are enchanting. If you’re looking to demonstrate just how good a 1959 All Tube Analog recording can sound, this killer copy will do the trick. (more…)

Shelly Manne & His Friends – Bells Are Ringing

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  • Incredible Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on vinyl that’s about as quiet as these Black Label originals 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
  • “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, dating back close to twenty years. 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, all of which I simply attributed at the time to Old School 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 the pressing I owned.

To be fair, this is of course a different pressing. I sold the old one off years ago, but I have to think that much of the change in the sound was a change in cleaning approach, 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 are should be knocked out by the sound of this record. I sure was. (more…)