Contemporary Records Vol. 1
Stereo Sound SSCRS 001-005 (5 discs)
Art Pepper meets the Rhythm Section
Four!!!! Hampton Hawes with Barney Kessel, Shelley Manne & Red Mitchell
The Poll Winners: Barney Kessel with Shelley Manne & Ray Brown
Landslide: The Curtis Counce Group, Vol. 1
Sonny Rollins & the Contemporary Leaders
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Review by Mark Werlin - November 23, 2023
In the five years since this SACD set was released, Craft Recordings has issued new 24/192 transfers from original master tapes of all but one of the albums compiled in the Stereo Sound Vol. 1 set: Curtis Counce - Landslide. Assuming that tape is extant, likely Craft will add "Landslide" to its growing 24/192 reissue catalogue. "Landslide" is a hard L-R two-channel recording with Jack Sheldon's trumpet and Harold Land's tenor in the left speaker, drummer Frank Butler, pianist Carl Perkins and bassist-bandleader Curtis Counce in the right speaker. Widely-separated early (1956) stereo may be more enjoyable played through loudspeakers than headphones, especially in a larger or more "live" listening room.
Concerning the Curtis Counce group, jazz historian Ted Gioia states unequivocally, in his book “West Coast Jazz”: “The Counce Quintet is one of the great neglected jazz bands of the 1950s.” Counce, a Kansas City-born bassist, had been performing with numerous bands since resettling in Los Angeles in 1945. By the time this album was recorded, Counce had assembled a first-rate ensemble of like-minded local collaborators: tenor player Harold Land, trumpetist Jack Sheldon, pianist Carl Perkins, and drummer Frank Butler. If it weren’t for the farsightedness of Contemporary Records owner Les Koenig, this short-lived and ill-fated group might have left no traces of its creative activity.
In Gioia’s view, the New York-based jazz publications relegated West Coast jazz to second-class status and ignored the diverse musical directions being pursued in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The three albums that this edition of the Counce group recorded for Contemporary testify to the high standard of writing, arranging and soloing that West Coast groups were capable of delivering, and to the presence of a regional hard bop sound that should have enlarged the boundaries of the genre.
Highlights of “Landslide” include Perkins’ unusual comping and fluent soloing on “Mia”. The self-taught pianist had an unconventional left-hand approach that sometimes included hitting bass notes with his left elbow, a practice he’d acquired when playing in bass-less R&B groups. Fellow musicians interviewed for Gioia’s book recall that Perkins was close to Miles Davis in the early-mid 1950s (the period of Miles’ heroin addiction and critical eclipse). Perkins’ early death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1958 led to the demise of the Counce group. Drummer Frank Butler, also a favorite of Miles (he’s on the L.A. session on “Seven Steps to Heaven”) fell into obscurity by the early 1960s, and leader Counce died of a sudden heart attack at age 37 in 1963. It fell to tenor player Land, who had been a member of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Group prior to reestablishing a career in Los Angeles, to continue championing a hard bop direction in West Coast jazz in the mid-1960s and beyond.
This 5-SACD set will satisfy collectors who can't have enough reissues of their favorite classic-era jazz albums in physical disc format. Mastering engineer Steve Hoffmann was given access by the Concord organization to the original master tapes. Hoffmann preserved the discrete L-R of the original two-channel recordings and didn't add reverb, so be aware that the transfers sound different from (for example) Doug Sax's AP SACDs. That "dry" sound is not preferred by John Koenig (Contemporary Records founder Lester Koenig's son), but Hoffmann wasn't trying to recreate the original LPs.
For SACD enthusiasts, high quality reissues of old favorites will remain a first choice. But for listeners who have added hi-res file playback to their audio systems, the Craft 24/192 downloads are not only the better value for the money, but are the best-sounding versions I've heard. If you can find a reasonably-priced copy of the Contemporary Records Vol. 1 SACD set, by all means, go for it -- you won't be disappointed. If your system has hi-res playback capability and you haven't yet heard the Craft 24/192 downloads, you owe it to your ears to give them a fair audition.
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