It was eventually bound to happen. Surveying the vinyl boom of the last few years, large record companies have decided that there is money to be made from their back catalogs. So instead of licensing their material to companies like Music Matters and Analogue Productions, they have started issuing their own vinyl reissues. Hence the impetus for the formation of Concord's Craft Recordings. As owner of the Fantasy vault stash that includes Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, Stax, and many other smaller labels, Concord has always been poised to benefit from these holdings. But with Craft, they finally seem to be taking some action on the reissue front.
Among their first releases, the two-disc Deluxe Edition of Sonny Rollins
' Way Out West
is an ambitious package that has already stirred up some controversy among the audiophile community. For one thing, it is unknown if this set was actually mastered from analog tapes or from some sort of digital copy. (The original album was prepared from an original 2-track tape recorded with a tube AKG-C12 microphone on a tube Ampex 350.) We do know that the lacquers were cut by George Horn and the vinyl pressed at QRP. Add to that the heavy tip-on jackets, a cloth-covered box, and perceptive essay by writer Neil Tesser and you have a lofty set that goes for a lofty price, with that price tag being another sticking point for many.
Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the stereo release of this iconic set, there is no denying the importance of this session. From the clickety-clack of Shelly Manne
's woodblock, the opening track "I'm an Old Cowhand" avoids any degree of schmaltz due to the musical integrity of the trio, which also includes the great Ray Brown
. With a sound field as expansive as the big sky country alluded to in the choice of tunes and the cover photo, the Craft pressings provide a superb rendering of this stellar music. While things proved to be a bit top heavy in the treble range, the overall sense of space and detail was one of the best renditions heard by this reviewer.
The second disc included here includes some studio banter and a few alternate takes, most of which are available elsewhere. Nonetheless, it is indeed interesting to hear Sonny speak about the importance of a song's lyrics and the innuendo associated with one of his originals. The two previously unheard tracks include an alternate of "No Greater Love" and yet another version of "Way Out West." While some might consider the additional material superfluous, there is value in comparing the way Rollins approaches these pieces over the course of this early morning session. For instance, the alternate of "I'm an Old Cowhand" is looser and more spirited overall than the originally issued version, encouraging a longer and better drum solo from Manne. In hindsight, it might be the better take overall.
Although several other audiophile pressings exist of this masterpiece, most notably a highly-touted 45 rpm version from Analogue Productions, the only other version available to this reviewer was an XRCD edition from 1997. In comparing the two executions, the vinyl was infinitely more detailed, especially when it came to Manne's ride cymbal. The CD edition surprisingly exhibited less weight in the bass department as well, although the overall rendering of Sonny's saxophone was silkier and less bright than on this vinyl edition. When push came to shove, the vinyl set easily trumped the XRCD for overall listenability.
As fine a compendium as this set is in terms of sound quality, there were issues with the first box that was received. Under bright lighting, both discs exhibited faint concentric striations that manifested as a repeated "crunch" sound. Due to this being a trio recording with open spaces between notes, this defect became quite annoying. After touching base with Acoustic Sounds, a replacement set of discs was sent and they proved to be nearly flawless.
So, the question still remains-is it really worth it to plunk down close to eighty bucks on this deluxe set? That depends on the individual. For the diehard collector though, this will be a no-brainer purchase as it offers several extras, a handsome package to sit on the shelf, and outstanding sound execution of this vintage classic.
Associated equipment used for evaluation
VPI Scout 1.1 turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso V.2 Ebony cartridge
Musical Fidelity A3CR amplifier and preamp
Sutherland Insight phono preamp
Bryston BCD-1 CD player
Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 805 loudspeakers
Cardas cable and interconnects, Chang Lightspeed power conditioner
DISC ONE: I'm an Old Cowhand; In My Solitude; Come, Gone; Wagon Wheels; There Is Not
Greater Love; Way Out West. DISC TWO: Monologue- You Gotta Dig the Lyrics (previously
unreleased); I'm An Old Cowhand (alternate version); Dialogue- Titling "Come, Gone"
(previously unreleased); Come Gone (alternate version); There Is No Greater Love (alternate
version, previously unreleased); Way Out West (take 1, previously unreleased); Way Out West
Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone; Ray Brown: bass; Shelly Manne: drums.