March 2024

Craft Recordings / Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds Series CR00706
Format: LP

Musical Performance

Sound Quality

Overall Enjoyment

Jazz saxophonist Art Pepper’s recording and performing life was often interrupted by periods of incarceration for drug offences. Pepper was a heroin addict; he finished recording Smack Up in October 1960, and soon after was arrested for trying to score the drug. It was his third offense, so he was sentenced to 20 years at California’s notorious San Quentin prison. He would record one more session in November (Intensity, released in 1963) before starting his jail term. He was out within four years, but was in and out of prison for most of the ’60s for parole violations. He didn’t record again as a leader until 1975.

Smack Up was Pepper’s fourth LP for Lester Koenig’s label, Contemporary Records, and was released in 1962. Contemporary’s catalog is now held by Craft Recordings, and this new vinyl reissue of Smack Up is part of Craft’s Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds series. Bernie Grundman mastered the LP from the original analog tapes, and Quality Records Pressings manufactured the vinyl.

Smack Up

Pepper leads the session for Smack Up on alto sax, accompanied by Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Pete Jolly on piano, Jimmy Bond on bass, and Frank Butler on drums. I have a 1984 vinyl reissue of the album, which is part of the Original Jazz Classics series produced by Fantasy Records after taking ownership of various smaller labels.

The 1984 pressing does not list a mastering engineer. I saw the initials “SLM” etched into the lead-out groove, but a little research revealed that those initials refer to Sheffield Lab Matrix, a firm that produced stampers but did not cut lacquers. It’s possible that the 1984 pressing was a repress of the 1962 lacquer cut supervised by Koenig himself.

All the compositions on Smack Up were by saxophone players, and Harold Land penned the title track. When I switched from the 1984 pressing to the new release, I thought the new one sounded a bit reserved. It’s been cut at a slightly lower output, so I rolled the volume up a bit and the instruments came into better focus. Bond’s bass sounded more assertive on the new pressing; it was rounder-toned and had more presence, which held on more consistently in the spots where it seemed to retreat on the earlier pressing.

Pepper’s sax had a sharper edge on the earlier pressing, but solos on the title track flowed more easily on the new release. Sheldon’s solos were brighter on the 1984 edition of the LP, but warmer and more natural on the new pressing. Butler’s drums had more snap on the OJC, but were more dynamic on this reissue—snare hits came at me more forcefully and sustained longer. Pepper and Sheldon blended effortlessly during ensemble sections on the new pressing, and Jolly’s solo unfolded more easily.

Pepper does an interpretation of “Maybe Next Year,” a tune Duane Tatro wrote for his 1956 release on Contemporary Records, Duane Tatro’s Jazz for Moderns. Pepper had few peers in jazz as a ballad player, and this unique song, with its beautiful melody and rich chord progression, gives him a chance to show his sensitivity and melodic skills.

On my system, Pepper’s alto on “Maybe Next Year” was forward and more textured in the mix on the 1984 pressing of Smack Up. Grundman has given it a warmer but more expansive tone on the new reissue, and better dynamics. The moments when Pepper reaches for a higher, more forceful note were more dramatic on the new pressing, but more relaxed passages felt effortless. Butler’s drums came through more strongly, and Bond’s bass, here and throughout the album, sounded larger and punchier.

The quintet bravely tackles Ornette Coleman’s “Tears Inside,” and while their take on the song lacks the freshness and fire of the version Coleman recorded the previous year for Contemporary, it’s a game attempt that comes across well. Sheldon plays confidently, and his solo, shot through with the blues, had a burnished, liquid tone on the new pressing. Jolly’s solo also has a strong blues undercurrent, and his piano sounded fuller and more harmonically satisfying on the new reissue. It also sounded more confident—for some reason, it felt more tentative on the earlier pressing.

Smack Up

Pepper is the most eager of the five musicians to try out Coleman’s ideas, and he edges into new territory here. His later recordings would show the influence of Coleman and, especially, John Coltrane. As on the other tracks, his horn sounded less edgy and his playing more relaxed during “Tears Inside” on the new pressing.

My copy of Smack Up was quiet, flat, and perfectly centered. The cover is heavy cardboard, with tipped-on artwork that follows the design of the original release. The photo reproduction looked good to me—a little cleaner and more focused than on the 1984 release.

I’ve been pleased with my copy of the 1984 pressing of Smack Up, but this new reissue sounds more natural to me; after a few plays, I found myself thinking the earlier master was a bit too aggressively bright. As I noted, Grundman’s new lacquer appears to have been cut at a lower output. Pull the volume up just a bit, though, and you’ll hear a very good Art Pepper session that sounds terrific.

. . . Joseph Taylor