Contemporary Records / Craft Recordings / Acoustic Sounds CR00601
Format: LP

Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****½
Overall Enjoyment: ****½

I’ve reviewed quite a few of the Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds vinyl reissues by Craft Recordings. It would be easy to just say, “Buy them. They sound great.” That would be true, but Craft has made it a point to reissue Contemporary Records LPs that deserve more recognition. Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section is well known, but André Previn’s take on West Side Story is perhaps less so. Craft has done jazz lovers a service by casting a wide net.

In 1960, Contemporary released At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1 by Shelly Manne & His Men, which included performances from the quintet’s three-night stand in September 1959 at the venerable San Francisco nightclub. That same year, the label would release an additional three volumes from those shows. Fantasy Records took ownership of Contemporary in 1984 and when it released the Live at the Black Hawk series on CD in 1991 as part of its Original Jazz Classics series, it added a fifth volume.

At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1

As with all of the Craft Records / Contemporary Records reissues on vinyl, Bernie Grundman cut the lacquer for At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1, and Quality Records Pressing manufactured the LP. My CD copy of the album is the 1991 release, mastered by Phil De Lancie.

Manne, one of the greatest drummers in jazz, was joined on the 1959 Black Hawk dates by Joe Gordon on trumpet, Richie Kamuca on tenor sax, Victor Feldman on piano, and Monty Budwig on bass. Budwig commences the group’s interpretation of “Summertime” by playing an interval in A and sliding up to B, with Manne accompanying him by tapping the bell of the ride and crash cymbals with what sounds like his fingers. Budwig is in the left channel and Manne in the right. The sound of Feldman shifting his weight on the piano seat is also heard faintly in the left channel.

When I moved from the CD to the LP, I heard more fullness and depth on the soundstage, and a firmer attack when Manne taps the cymbals. When Joe Gordon enters, playing the familiar melody on trumpet using a Harmon mute, the notes were warmer-toned and somewhat less aggressive on the LP. Budwig plays a line behind him as Feldman starts to fill in with chords, and the bass notes hit with more impressive force on the LP as well. Feldman’s chords were richer and more harmonically satisfying, and Manne’s drum accents and use of dynamics were more clearly presented. Kamuca’s tenor sounded more nuanced and more subtle in its shading.

Kamuca is featured at length on “Poinciana,” a favorite of many jazz musicians. The arrangement on this album moves at a quick pace, which the quintet handles with ease. Kamuca’s tenor has a slightly grittier tone on the CD, while it sounds a bit fuller on the vinyl reissue. Manne’s hi-hat in the left channel is more audible on the CD, but his kick-drum accents are firmer and more emphatic on the new pressing. Feldman’s piano chords are richer-sounding on this vinyl reissue, and Grundman has given his solo more room by moving Budwig a bit towards the center. On the CD, he’s panned more to the left.

The group moves into a more leisurely tempo with Frank Rosolino’s “Blue Daniel.” The horns were more clearly separated on the new LP during the ensemble sections, and Budwig’s bass attack was more focused. Gordon’s beautifully developed solo was brighter and perhaps more exciting on the CD, but unfolded with less effort on the LP. As on the other songs on this vinyl reissue, Feldman’s solos echoed more soundly on “Blue Daniel” and sustained a little longer than they did on the CD.

At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1

Phil De Lancie’s CD mastering on At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1 is very good, consistent with the quality he established during his work for Fantasy Records. Bernie Grundman’s new vinyl cut has a deeper soundstage, with more warmth and nuance, while De Lancie’s CD master has a little more spark and drive. Discogs lists some vinyl reissues without a release date that were probably pressed in the late 1970s or ’80s, but they run at least as much as this reissue—and often more. Originals, cut by Roy DuNann, the original recording and mastering engineer for the sessions, will set you back something closer to $100 if they’re in VG+ condition. DuNann was one of the greats, right up there with Rudy Van Gelder, and $100 is a steal when you consider the prices RVG’s Blue Notes fetch.

If you are a jazz fan and don’t own a copy of At the Black Hawk, Vol. 1, I encourage you to pick it up in any format. Shelly Manne and his group display a telepathic level of interplay and an exciting spontaneity. I think it’s an essential album by a great jazz drummer and bandleader. There’s a digital version in 24-bit/192kHz stereo, also mastered by Grundman, but this vinyl edition is the way to go. It’s affordable and, at this point, the only physical-format version in print. My copy was quiet and flat, packaged in a heavyweight cover with tipped-on artwork. I was pleased to see that Craft switched from shrink-wrap to a loose-fitting, reusable plastic outer sleeve.

. . . Joseph Taylor