Jazz Albums Review: Craft Recordings Reissues — Coltrane, Monk, Davis, Previn, and Vinnegar
By Michael Ullman
As usual with Craft Recordings reissues, these LPs are impeccably produced: the silence of the recording before the music starts is almost startling, but it’s the clear sound of what follows that is most impressive.
Miles Davis, Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige, Craft LP)
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Jazzland, Craft LP)
Andre Previn and His Pals Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell, West Side Story (Contemporary, Craft LP)
Leroy Vinnegar Sextet, Leroy Walks! (Contemporary, Craft LP)
It’s perhaps odd to say so, but one of the things that appeals to me about these remastered audiophile reissues on 180-gram vinyl is that I get to see the original covers at their proper size. Instead of the photo of the Jets dancing on the cover of the original cast album, André Previn’s best-selling disc West Side Story features a reproduction of Ben Shahn’s painting Handball. Its a visual of five young men in a variety of hats playing handball against a blank wall in an urban playground. Just visible in the background above this wall looms an industrial building. It’s a brilliant evocation of one gritty aspect of city life. Miles Davis’s Workin’ displays the impeccably dressed trumpeter standing on a sidewalk in front of an unfinished road. He stares quizzically at the camera: aside from the title, the cover art, Davis included, is colored a dark purplish-gray. Unlike Davis’s moody composure, Vinnegar’s cover give us the cheerful-looking bassist striding purposefully in our direction. He seems ready to pop out of the picture, in a way that fits his sunny approach to music. My favorite cover, though, is that of Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, which is mostly composed of a reproduction of a portrait of Monk by the man known as Prophet Jennings, a painter and eccentric jazz fan who seemed to have been friends with a generation of New York–based jazz players, including Sonny Rollins. Interestingly, the portrait doesn’t quite fill up the space on the cover. You see its frame below the portrait and, toward the top, the cover darkens. The image has been made to look like a photograph of a portrait, the portrait itself slightly askew.
The music is brilliantly and accurately reproduced on these LPs.The sound is precise without seeming either cold or overly resonant. It opens with an absolute masterpiece, the ballad “It Never Entered My Mind.” It’s not just Davis that sounds sublime. Pianist Red Garland’s simple introduction — accents on the beat, and eighth notes falling away from it — is in its own way unforgettable. Less striking but just as effective are Paul Chambers’s bass lines and Philly Joe Jones’s brushes. The session includes the Dave Brubeck ballad “In Your Own Sweet Way” and another favorite, “Trane’s Blues.” You hear Miles growl “blues,” to the band, and then, with that much rehearsal, they are off. This LP makes my CD version sound just a trifle bloated.
In his extensive notes to Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, Nat Hentoff laments that only three numbers by the quartet featuring those masters, accompanied by bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson, were recorded. On the bright side, they are all Monk compositions and they are all here: “Ruby, My Dear,” “Trinkle Tinkle,“ and “Nutty.” This version of “Ruby, My Dear” reminds us what a wonderful ballad player Coltrane was, and how completely unfazed he is by Monk’s percussive accompaniment, whether Monk is playing the melody along with the saxophonist or striking the keyboard in an emphatic four/four. Recorded in 1957, this album wasn’t released until 1961, presumably because they didn’t have a full LP’s worth of music. To round out the collection there are two more Monk compositions, “Off Minor” and “Epistrophy,” performed by a septet that includes both Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins. The latter was one of Monk’s first employers. The LP is rounded out by an almost 10-minute solo blues by Monk, simply called “Functional.”
West Side Story is the last of a series of popular Broadway show records by André Previn and drummer Shelly Manne, the most famous being their My Fair Lady. Featuring eight Bernstein numbers, its pleasures include a gently swaggering “Jet Song.” It helps that Red Mitchell is one of the most lyrical bassists ever, and Manne a star drummer known for his tact and swing. On “Jet Song,” Manne hits his crash cymbal sparingly but at just the right moments. Previn is typically restrained and, in these pieces, sweetly swinging. He plays the first chorus of “Tonight” solo, and as quietly as a mouse, before the rhythm section joins in what suddenly sounds like a dance.
The bassist on the Previn-Manne My Fair Lady was another mainstay of West Coast jazz in the ’50s, Leroy Vinnegar, who recorded regularly with Stan Getz and also with Art Pepper, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones, Buddy DeFranco, Terry Gibbs, Barney Kessel, and a host of others. If you were successful in the ’50s and recording in L.A., Vinnegar would be your first choice for bassist. He was known for his walking bass style: hence the title of this reissue, Leroy Walks! Six of the seven numbers, beginning with the pouncing catwalk “Walk On,” have “walk” in the title. (The last, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” only implies walking.)
I’d recommend this set just for its sidemen. The first soloist after Vinnegar himself is the estimable tenor Teddy Edwards, and he is followed by Victor Feldman on vibes. The British born Feldman is particularly notable. He was a leader as well as a formidable sideman. He had his own Contemporary album, The Arrival of Victor Feldman. Elsewhere he played vibes on Manne’s Peter Gunn and piano on Miles Davis’s L.A. sessions for Seven Steps to Heaven, whose title cut he composed. Feldman’s most notable solo on Leroy Walks! is on the little-known ballad “Would You Like to Take a Walk With Me.” Carl Perkins plays piano on the set. Gerald Wilson, who got his start with the Jimmy Lunceford band in the ’40s, is best known for his ’60s big band recordings for Pacific Jazz. On this lLP we have a rare opportunity to hear him on his original instrument, the trumpet. As usual with Craft Recording reissues, this LP is impeccably produced: the silence of the recording before the music starts is almost startling, but it’s the clear sound of what follows that is most impressive.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.