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Craft Recordings' OJC Reboot Continues with a Trio of Classic LPs from Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, The Cats, and Yusef Lateef

01-28-2024 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 131

Craft Recordings continues their Original Jazz Classics relaunch with three superb new reissues, featuring Tony Bennett and Bill Evans together on The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975, Fantasy); Tommy Flanagan and John Coltrane on The Cats (1957, New Jazz), and Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds (1961, Moodsville). The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album was the first of two recordings the pair would make together, and captures two iconic figures of jazz at their finest. Tony Bennett was equally adept at imbuing his vocal artistry on pop tunes and jazz standards alike; pianist Bill Evans had always admired Bennett's work, and this album was a dream session for the duo. The 1959 recording sessions for The Cats found jazz artists that were on the edge of celebrity, including Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and of course, John Coltrane. While the sessions featured pianist Flanagan as its de facto leader—he wrote four of the album's five tunes—the rising stars of Coltrane and Burrell ensured that the focus remained on what turned out to be a truly superb group effort. Finally, there's Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds, which was a multicultural session of Mideastern and Asian influences that set the template for what would become known as "world music." It was unique among jazz records at that point, and is perhaps the most enjoyably entertaining of this new group of OJC reissues.

Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio cut new lacquers for The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, The Cats, and Eastern Sounds from the original master tapes. The LPs are all analog, AAA releases and were pressed on 180-gram vinyl at RTI; all the OJC reissues are housed in near-perfect replicas of the original tip-on jackets. I didn't have originals or vintage OJCs for comparison, but I'm sure the intent was to closely match the appearance of the originals. The jacket for The Cats really stood out, featuring a high-gloss coating that gives it a really vintage and distinctive look. Crisp artwork for all three were sourced from Fantasy's vaults, and each album jacket also features a really cool custom OBI strip. The LPs arrived inserted into rice paper inner sleeves, which is a really nice touch that keeps them free from paper dust and guards against scratches. Craft's commitment to excellence definitely continues through to the packaging of all their reissues, which adds significantly to their desirability to collectors. High resolution 24-bit/192kHz digital downloads are also available, and have already been rolled out for streaming on most major online services. The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album can be ordered HERE, The Cats can be ordered HERE, and Eastern Sounds can be pre-ordered HERE. Any albums that might show as being sold out on Craft's webstore can be found at online retailers and at your local independent record store.

Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, The Tony Bennet/Bill Evans Album. 180 Gram Craft Recordings LP, $39.00 MSRP

While The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album is technically a Bill Evans catalog album, Evans' personal admiration for Tony Bennett found him insisting that Bennett receive top billing for the album's release. No one really seems to know how the album came about; Evans had expressed his admiration for Tony Bennett's work in a 1968 Billboard piece. And the two apparently agreed to a two album deal, which finally took place over four days in June, 1975 in Fantasy Records' Berkeley studios. Only Bill Evans, Tony Bennett, Evans' longtime producer Helen Keane, and recording engineer Don Cody were present at what turned out to be very intimate sessions. With Bennett's voice backed only by Evans' piano; Tony Bennett was 46 at the time, and that placed him on the outer reaches of continued pop chart success. Despite having disparate musical approaches, Bennett saw the session with Evans as a real chance for him to return to his jazz roots. Bill Evans' highly improvisational style was capable of melding with songs from just about any genre, and he relished his part in the collaboration with Bennett. 

For those of us used to mostly hearing Tony Bennett in the context of his post-MTV Unplugged resurgence of popularity, these album sides are a revelation. Tony Bennett is still at the height of his powers here, and his voice is lyrically pristine, without any of the raspiness his later albums would display so clearly. His singing here is passionate, his phrasing and intonation are articulate, and these songs display an eloquence in his delivery and levels of vocal color in abundance that are, unfortunately, sadly missing from his later work. Bill Evans' playing is magnificent, and he masters the mix of songs that range from more pop-influenced fare that Bennett popularized, like "Days of Wine and Roses," "The Touch of Your Lips," and "When In Rome." Bennett is completely at ease with standards more closely associated with Evans, like "Young and Foolish," "Some Other Time," and "My Foolish Heart." There's also an incredible rendition of Evans' original, "Waltz for Debby," which features lyrics written by Gene Lees. 

The popularity of this album had the LP remaining in print for nearly a decade following its original release; the only other domestically available LPs for this album came from Mobile Fidelity (1984), OJC (1990), and Analog Productions (2006). Other than those three, limited run LP releases, the LP has been out of print for 34 years. Don Cody's recording of this album is superb, and the intimacy of the setting really allows you to hear very deeply into the performances—both Bill Evans' piano and Tony Bennett are live and in the room with you! Evans and Bennett would meet two years later to record a follow up, 1977's Together Again, with Helen Keane again in the production chair.

The Cats. 180 Gram Craft Recordings LP, $39.00 MSRP

The Cats is technically listed as a catalog album for each of the four principal players, Tommy Flanagan (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Kenny Burrell (guitar), and Idrees Sulieman (trumpet). Save for one song—the Gershwin Brothers standard "How Long Has This Been Going On?"—Flanagan wrote and arranged all the music, but the record label obviously chose to downplay that because of the upward arcs of most everyone involved. Both Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Burrell hailed from Detroit, and had met John Coltrane while he was touring there. When both of them relocated to New York, they caught up with Trane and made arrangements with Rudy Van Gelder to record them at his Hackensack, New Jersey studio. For the album sessions, they chose another rising star, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman; two other Detroit connections, bassist Doug Watkins and drummer Louis Hayes, rounded out the sessions, which were recorded in April, 1957. The album was set to be issued on the New Jazz imprint of Prestige Records, but wasn't released until Coltrane's contract at Prestige had expired in 1959.

The four Flanagan originals, "Minor Mishap," "Eclypso," "Solacium," and the nearly 12-minute "Tommy's Time" allow all the players to really stretch out with liberal solos. And the trio setting of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" serves as a showcase for Tommy Flanagan's excellence as a top-rank pianist. The Cats may not contain the most impressively inventive examples of any of these artists' work, but it's an incredibly entertaining album. That's been out of print domestically as an LP since the original OJC reissue of the album in 1983—that's over forty years! Minty 1983 OJC LPs go for $60-$80 on Discogs, with only VG+ originals going for $600-$800(!)—that makes this new reissue even more of a bargain. Craft's reissue sounds magnificent, with the kind of wide mono that's to die for, and the realism of the individual players in the soundfield is off the charts great!

Yusef Lateef, Eastern Sounds. 180 Gram Craft Recordings LP, $39.00 MSRP

William Emanuel Huddleston was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1920, but his family moved a few years following his birth, eventually settling in Detroit, Michigan. He played the tenor saxophone in high school, but eventually made the transition to alto sax, as well as becoming proficient on a number of other instruments, including the piano, flute, oboe, and bassoon, along with several Asian instruments such as the bamboo flute and the Japanese koto. He immersed himself as a young man in the burgeoning Detroit jazz scene, and played with or came in contact with a diverse group of artists featuring Milt Jackson, Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell, and Elvin Jones. Around 1950, he converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef, and began to explore a range of Mideastern and Asian musical styles.

Eastern Sounds was Yusef Lateef's sixteenth catalog album, and was issued in 1961 on the Moodsville imprint of Prestige Records. It was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at his new studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on September 5, 1961. Lateef played the flute, oboe, tenor saxophone, and the xun, which is referred to in the liner notes as the "Chinese globular flute"; the sessions also featured Barry Harris on piano, Ernie Farrow on double bass and rabaab (an Asian, lute-like stringed instrument); Lex Humphries sat behind the drum kit and also provided percussion. The album is a mix of Asian and Mideastern-inspired Lateef originals like "The Plum Blossom," "Blues for the Orient," "Chinq Miau," and "Purple Flower." The album also featured contemplative, but more straight-ahead versions of "Love Theme from Spartacus," and "Love Theme from The Robe" (both featuring Lateef on flute), as well as Jimmy McHugh's "Don't Blame Me," where Lateef offers a beautifully lyrical tenor sax solo. Cat Stevens was so taken by "The Plum Blossom" that he borrowed the theme for his first single, crediting Yusef Lateef and paying him royalties.

Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds is definitely the gem among these three new Craft Recordings reissues. I'd been wanting a copy of this album for years, but for whatever reason, never got one, and upon first hearing Craft's new LP, sat and absolutely marveled that I'd waffled for so long on hearing this magnificent album. It's an astonishing record—the vinyl that RTI used for this pressing of Eastern Sounds has a remarkable level of quiet that allows you to experience these intimate and highly nuanced performances with you-are-there clarity. This LP has been in-and-out of print over the years, but the new reissue from Craft may be its finest incarnation ever.

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Click on my name in the header and you can see the equipment I used to evaluate these classic LPs. Both were played on my all analog system that features a twin turntable setup: one for playback of stereo LPs, and another that's dedicated to playback of mono LPs. My system now includes a new PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier that has inputs for two turntables and a wide range of customizable features. Its inclusion has definitely resulted in an uptick in the sound quality of my LP playback. The stereo setup was used to evaluate The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Eastern Sounds, and features the ProJect Classic EVO turntable that's mounted with an Ortofon Quintet Bronze moving coil cartridge. The Cats LP was cut in the original mono, so I played it on my heavily modified Rega Planar 2 turntable that's fitted with an Ortofon 2M Mono cartridge. The signals for both were then fed to my PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier that plays into my KLH Model Five loudspeakers. Listening to all these albums in the playback format they were originally designed for yielded nothing less than superb sound.

Craft Recordings continues to hold the bar high with these excellent reissues; the RTI pressings had beautiful, glossy surfaces and were literally noise-free. Kevin Gray and his team at Cohearent Audio did a sterling job with the remastering process, giving us AAA albums that exceed the sound quality of the originals as well as the OJC LPs from the Nineties. Don't hesitate to grab these classic LPs, because they're very likely to sell out quickly—all come very highly recommended!

Craft Recordings


All images courtesy of Craft Recordings and the author.