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Contemporary Records 70th: Barney Kessel and Hampton Hawes on vinyl

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Almost a century ago, times were different and folks with the gumption to forge their own paths were more likely to make a mark on history. When you think of the documentation of jazz, names like John Hammond, Francis Wolff, and Ahmet Ertegun were integral to spreading the word of America's unique art form. Far less known is Lester Koenig and his iconic west coast endeavor, namely Contemporary Records. Founded in 1951, the label was home to such key artists as Art Pepper, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Hampton Hawes, and for a brief time Sonny Rollins.

Due to the label's catalog being sold first to Fantasy Records, which subsequently got swallowed up by Concord Music Group, much of the music has been available over the years, still very few titles have been part of the recent surge in audiophile vinyl reissues. Back in 2015 there had been rumblings about bringing catalog titles back in vinyl form and eventually a deluxe version of Sonny Rollins' Way Out West even hit the shelves. But it wouldn't be until late 2021 that Craft Recordings, the boutique label fronted by Concord, would officially announce a celebration of Contemporary's legacy coinciding with its 70th anniversary.

Following on the heels of several artist compilations would be six label classics getting the royal treatment, with new analog remasters being handled by Bernie Grundman. Pressed on 180-gram vinyl at QRP and featuring Stoughton Tip On jackets, the tiles include Art Pepper's Plus Eleven and Meets the Rhythm Section, Benny Carter's Jazz Giant, Shelly Manne's My Fair Lady, The Poll Winners, and Four!.

Barney Kessel
The Poll Winners
Craft Recordings
1957/2022

Taking their moniker from the fact that all three musicians had recently won top spots on the jazz polls of the magazines Down Beat, Metronome, and Playboy, guitarist Barney Kessel would lead a trio that would cut several excellent sides for Contemporary starting in 1957. Featuring Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, The Poll Winners is both a sonic and musical beauty. Keep in mind that engineer Roy DuNann had built his recording setup in the back warehouse space of Contemporary's Melrose Place offices. As such, reverb and the signature sound of the space are minimal, yet DuNann more than makes up for this with a finely-etched rendering of every nuance and a natural soundstage that puts you in the middle of the action.

Kessel's guitar is on the left, with the drums on the right and Brown's bass right in the middle. As such, Manne's brushes on "Satin Doll" are front and center and Kessel's single-note runs spring forth in fluid style and with an amber glow. Brown's bass lines usher in a jaunty take on "Mean to Me" and on "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" you can even hear his strings snap back on the fretboard. Kessel is the really the key to the whole thing, providing both chords and solo lines in the absence of another chordal instrument. A textbook example of how he makes it all sound so easy is the up tempo romp "Nagasaki," which closes out an album that also sports one of the label's most memorable album covers.

Hampton Hawes
Four!
Craft Recordings
1958/2022

Pianist Hampton Hawes was easily one the finest jazz musicians on the west coast, but his drug habits led to him being arrested via a federal undercover sting operation. In the prime of his career, Hawes remained behind bars from 1958 until 1963, only getting a reprieve when John F. Kennedy granted him a pardon before his own untimely demise. Before his incarceration, Hawes would cut three volumes released as All Night Session! and the amazing For Real, somewhat overshadowing the equally fine Four.

Although the quartet format involving piano and guitar can be a challenging one for all but the most gifted players, any pitfalls are easily avoided here as each musician serves a leading role in a way that is supportive of all. Another triumph sonically, pay close attention to Shelly Manne's ride cymbal on the sprightly "Sweet Sue." Red Mitchell's bowed bass solo on "Bow Jest" is rendered with such clarity that you can almost smell the rosin. Hawes is very much at the forefront here and his way with the blues is just one facet of his unique style.

Very much the case for both of these reissues, the overall quality is off the charts and one has to be duly impressed with the results, especially at such a modest price point. Both albums were quiet and flawless, with Grundman's mastering bringing further details to the forefront. Furthermore, photo reproduction was accurate in terms of both colors and font. One would be hard pressed to find better versions of these classics, barring originals, which seem to come at a premium price these days.

Associated equipment used for evaluation

VPI Scout 1.1 turntable with Soundsmith Aida Mk II cartridge
Musical Fidelity A3CR amplifier and preamp
Sutherland Insight phono preamp
Arcam SDS 50 SACD player
Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 805 loudspeakers
Cardas cable and interconnects, Chang Lightspeed power conditioner
Solidsteel S3 Series audio rack

Tracks and Personnel

The Poll Winners

Tracks: Jordu; Satin Doll; It Could Happen to You; Mean to Me; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; Green Dolphin Street; You Go to My Head; Minor Mood; Nagasaki.

Personnel: Barney Kessel: guitar; Ray Brown: bass; Shelly Manne: drums.

Four!

Tracks: Yardbird Suite; There Will Never Be Another You; Bow Jest; Sweet Sue; Up Blues; Like Someone In Love; Love is Just Around the Corner.

Personnel: Hampton Hawes: piano; Barney Kessel: guitar; Red Mitchell: bass; Shelly Manne: drums.

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