Positive Feedback Logo

Classic Contemporary Label Jazz Reissues from Craft Recordings in Combination with Acoustic Sounds

04-14-2024 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 132

Craft Recordings has announced the latest group of reissues from their Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds series, which features twelve LP reissues along with high-resolution digital files that will be released periodically throughout 2024. The exciting roster of Contemporary Records artists chosen for the current installment of the series includes classic titles from Art Pepper, Shelly Manne & His Men, Harold Land, Hampton Hawes, Howard McGhee, Prince Lasha Quintet, Ben Webster, Helen Humes, and Sonny Rollins. Contemporary Records was founded in 1951 by Lester Koenig, and his label and artist roster became synonymous with the classic subgenre that came to be known as West Coast Jazz. The Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds series pays homage to the label's heritage with scrupulously remastered reissues of both classic albums and underappreciated rarities. The first two albums released in the series are "Smack Up" from the Art Pepper Quintet and At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1 by Shelly Manne & His Men.

New lacquers for the series were cut from the original analog tapes by Bernie Grundman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, and the all analog, AAA LPs were pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Quality Record Pressing. The LPs are housed in near-perfect replicas of the originals, and feature Stoughton old-style, tip-on outer jackets; the crisp album art was sourced directly from Contemporary and Craft's vaults. The LPs arrive inserted into rice paper inner sleeves, which keeps them free from static build-up and paper dust accumulation, and helps guard against scratching. The meticulous nature of the pressings and packaging will add significantly to their desirability to collectors. High resolution digital downloads are also available for purchase in a variety of formats, and can be streamed on most major online services. All albums can be ordered or pre-ordered HERE, and can also be found at online retailers or your local independent record store. If any particular title shows to be sold out at Craft's web store, it very likely will still be available from multiple retailers.

Art Pepper Quintet,  "Smack Up" 180 Gram Contemporary LP, $30 MSRP

"Smack Up" proved to be eerily prophetic for Art Pepper, whose continuing heroin addiction would soon spiral out of control. A month after the recording sessions for "Smack Up" in October, 1960, Pepper entered the studio to record a follow-up album, Intensity. Which would mark the last time Pepper would enter a studio for almost fifteen years; he did three different drug-related prison stints and numerous incarcerations in rehab in the time in between. It's really a shame that his musical life was essentially put on hold for so many years, because his playing was becoming more lyrically free as he continued to fall heavily under the influence of John Coltrane. Jazz historian Leonard Feather wrote the album's liner notes, where he describes Art Pepper as a "musician of passionate eloquence, one who speaks clearly and unfalteringly in his own voice." Feather also stated that upon hearing him, "nobody…could mistake him for anyone else."

The sessions for "Smack Up" were held over two days in October, 1960, and the recordings were made at Contemporary Records' studio in Los Angeles. The legendary Roy DuNann engineered the album, and of course, Lester Koenig served as producer. In addition to Art Pepper's alto saxophone, Jack Sheldon played trumpet, Pete Jolly played piano, Jimmy Bond handled the upright bass, and Frank Butler sat behind the drum kit. Art Pepper chose only songs written by saxophonists for the album, which opens with Harold Land's classic title track, "Smack Up." The only Pepper original, "Las Cuevas De Mario" follows, and side one closes with Buddy Collette's "A Bit of Basie." Art Pepper played with Benny Carter early in his career, and side two opens with Carter's "How Can You Lose." Duane Tatro's "Maybe Next Year" follows, and the album closes with Ornette Coleman's classic "Tears Inside." Despite the fact that none of the supporting players here are really household names, the unit plays with the kind of unbridled synergy that lifts "Smack Up" above the ordinary. And Art Pepper solos with a lyrical intensity that propels the album, making it perhaps among the most appealing of his entire catalog. 


Shelly Manne & His Men, At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1. 180 Gram Contemporary LP, $30 MSRP

Drummer Shelly Manne was a native New Yorker who over the years played with many East Coast greats, including Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges; he eventually embraced bebop and soon found himself performing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He broadened his musical horizons and also found stardom playing in the bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, but soon left for California, where he became one of the stalwarts of the emerging West Coast Jazz scene. Playing with many of the new sound's most notable practitioners, including Andre Previn, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Leroy Vinnegar, and Sonny Criss, among others. He soon became a regular for Lester Koenig's Contemporary Records, where he recorded over 25 albums as a leader. Manne is widely considered to be the quintessential drummer of the West Coast Jazz subgenre.

Shelly Manne put together a quintet in 1959 that he called Shelly Manne & His Men, which consisted of Manne on drums, Joe Gordon on trumpet, Richie Kamuca on tenor sax, Victor Feldman on piano, and Monty Budwig on upright bass. The band booked a series of concerts at San Francisco's famous Black Hawk nightclub for September 22-24, 1959, and Contemporary's Lester Koenig arranged for Howard Holzer to record the live shows for a possible album release. The concerts were very well-received, the quality of the recordings was superb, and enough great material was available for four complete albums. The first of which became this one, At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1, which was released in 1960, with the remaining three volumes following that same year. The album consists of only four tunes; the lengthy nature of each allowed all the musicians to really stretch out with liberal solos. Side one consists of an uptempo rendering of George Gershwin's classic "Summertime" which is followed by Tad Dameron's "Our Delight." Side two opens with the Simon/Bernier chestnut "Poinciana," and the album closes with Frank Rosalino's clever waltz take, "Blue Daniel." The level of musicianship on this album is nothing short of stellar, and as great as the performances are here, I'm hoping Craft will eventually reissue volumes two through four! 

The Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds series is not to be missed!

By clicking on my name in the header above, you can see the equipment I used to evaluate these classic LPs, as well as all the equipment in my dual systems. Both LPs were played on my tube-based, all analog system that features a twin turntable setup with playback available for stereo as well as mono LPs. As the current releases were both stereo recordings, I used my ProJect Classic turntable that's fitted with an Ortofon Quintet Bronze MC cartridge, and that played into the PS Audio Stellar phono preamp. The combination tracked the perfect pressings effortlessly, with nearly silent backgrounds and no appreciable groove noise. Unfortunately, I didn't have any original pressings on hand for comparison, but it's been my observation that Craft's dedication to the quality of these reissues is one of their top priorities, and neither of these titles disappoint!

Both LPs were beyond superb in terms of their execution; QRP's pressings were perfectly flat, had pristine, glossy surfaces, and displayed no noise of any kind during playback. The recordings date from not long after the dawn of stereo, and both offer a broad stereo spread in terms of the soundstage they present. Art Pepper's "Smack Up" is a studio recording, and displays a solid center fill, with Pepper's alto sax front and center in the mix. Shelly Manne's At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1—which is a live recording—is much more left/right in nature, and while no soloists appear in the center of the soundstage, the recording still offers a very natural level of realism. Other than the spoken intros and applause, you'd never know it was a live recording, it's so very well done! 

Other than a handful of limited edition reissues, "Smack Up" has been out of print domestically as an LP for forty years; At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1 had one Analogue Productions LP reissue in 1996, otherwise, it's been out of print domestically as an LP since 1961. The relative scarcity of minty pressings should make getting both of these superb reissues pretty much a no-brainer! Bernie Grundman did a superb job with the AAA remastering process, imbuing these classic reissues with the kind of sound quality the originals could likely never touch. And the excellent LP pressings from QRP get much of the credit—both albums are textbook examples of reissues done right. Once the word gets out, these LPs are very likely to sell quickly, so don't hesitate! Both come very highly recommended!

Craft Recordings


All images courtesy of Craft Recordings and the author.