June 2023

Contemporary Records / Craft Recordings / Acoustic Sounds CR00390
Format: LP

Musical Performance

Sound Quality

Overall Enjoyment

André Previn’s long career included well-regarded work as a pianist, composer, and conductor in classical music, film soundtracks, and jazz. Previn appeared on many recordings for Contemporary Records in the late 1950s, both as a solo pianist and in a trio setting, and recorded three Broadway-themed albums with drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Red Mitchell. Manne himself recorded albums of show tunes for Contemporary, on which he was the bandleader, with Previn on piano and Leroy Vinnegar on bass. Manne’s My Fair Lady (1956) was the first of those albums. It was so popular that Contemporary encouraged him and Previn to continue making records consisting of tunes from various shows.

West Side Story (1959) was the final Broadway album recorded by the trio comprising Previn, Manne, and Mitchell. Previn adapted eight songs from the Leonard Bernstein / Steven Sondheim musical, and the trio recorded them at a two-day session in 1959. Craft Recordings has reissued the album on vinyl as part of its Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds series; the LP was pressed at Quality Record Pressings and is housed in a heavy cardboard cover with tipped-on artwork.

West Side Story

Bernie Grundman remastered the recording and cut the lacquer for this stereo reissue. I compared it to a 1990 CD release that Phil DeLancie did for Fantasy Records, which owned the Contemporary Records catalog at the time. Concord Records is the current owner of the catalog, and Craft Recordings is one of its subsidiary labels.

Mitchell’s bass brings us into “Something’s Coming,” which opens the LP on a vigorous note. Played through my system, the bass notes on the new LP had a solid, low-end thrum and roundness of tone that made the same passage on the CD sound reserved. Previn’s piano was brighter and more assertive on the new LP, and Manne’s astonishing cymbal work was sharper and, at the same time, more nuanced. The tones of his drums were more immediate and convincing.

“Jet Song” also benefited from the increased amount of detail and immediacy Grundman has brought to the recording. Once again, Mitchell’s bass was impressively full-bodied and resonant, and Previn’s piano notes were more firmly stated, especially in the low register. The solo exchange between the two musicians sounded much more exciting on the new pressing, each note ringing out with more pronounced reverberation. Manne’s subtle and sympathetic accompaniment was also more audible than it was on DeLancie’s CD version.

Previn plays the opening of “Tonight” without accompaniment. On the new LP, I could hear more tape hiss than on the CD, but I could also hear more clearly how Previn used volume, attack, and the sustain pedal to deepen his emotional expression of the tune. Mitchell and Manne join him about a minute and a half in, and Mitchell’s bass sounded livelier and more active on the Acoustic Sounds pressing. Manne’s snare had a brighter edge, and his cymbals sustained longer than they did on the Fantasy CD. Grundman’s mastering has presented all three instruments with more realism and focus on this new vinyl version.

The trio takes “Maria” at a relaxed pace. Mitchell and Manne drop out briefly behind Previn, and Manne brings them back with a couple of taps on a cymbal with a mallet. The sound of those mallet taps was much more satisfying and effective on the LP. On the CD, they sounded to me more like an afterthought instead of a signal that the music is moving in a different direction. When I compared the sound of Mitchell’s bass on the two versions, it sounded thin and somewhat buzzy on the CD, but powerful and three-dimensional on the LP.

Manne commences “America” with a pattern on the ride cymbal, strikes on the snare and toms, and accents on the hi-hat. All these elements registered clearly on the new LP, and each drum tone was more distinct than when I played the same track on the CD. When Previn and Mitchell enter, the LP pulled me more convincingly into the recording studio.

Previn’s sense of drama and pace was much more apparent on this new pressing. When the arrangement moves to a more swinging tempo, I could follow the interactions of the three musicians more easily. The LP provided a more concrete presentation of the instruments and recording space, and I found it more involving than the CD; the enjoyment of the three players as they build on the themes of the song was more evident on the vinyl reissue.

DeLancie’s mastering was very good on most recordings from the Fantasy Records catalog in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, both on CD and vinyl. However, his CD version of West Side Story sounded underpowered and lacking in energy when I compared it with this new vinyl reissue. DeLancie arrayed the instruments across a slightly wider soundstage, but they lacked the verve and timbral accuracy I could hear from Grundman’s master on the LP.

West Side Story

I have an original pressing of the mono version of the LP, which I lucked into about 15 years ago. The great Roy DuNann was the recording engineer for Contemporary Records, and he had placed the instruments well on the stereo version of the album: Previn and Mitchell are in the left channel, with Previn appearing more toward the center, while Manne is in the right channel. The mono version is, of course, more centered and a bit more cohesive.

DuNann cut the lacquer for that 1960 mono release, and I was surprised at the amount of low-frequency energy and punch it has. It was not unusual for mastering engineers in that era to limit bass response to enable turntables to track an LP, but when I spun the album, Mitchell’s bass did not sound the least bit shy. The mono cut of West Side Story had an immediacy and potency that the CD lacked, but that Grundman has matched on the new LP.

My copy of the new release of the LP arrived quiet, flat, and centered, as I’ve come to expect from Quality Record Pressings. The cover is a first-rate reproduction of the original, right down to the color and clarity of the Ben Shahn painting, Handball, that adorns it. The LP came housed in an archive-quality inner sleeve.

I’m already anticipating the Craft Recordings reissue of Manne’s My Fair Lady this fall. Leroy Vinnegar’s bass playing adds a slightly different dynamic to the music, to which Previn and Manne respond with very satisfying results. Previn and Manne each recorded three albums of show tunes for Contemporary. Is it too much to hope that Craft Recordings will reissue them all on vinyl?

 . . . Joseph Taylor