Craft Recordings / Contemporary Records CR00382
Format: LP

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

Art Pepper was one of the great saxophonists in jazz and among the most troubled—which is saying a lot. It’s a crowded field. Pepper struggled with drug addiction and did several stints in jail in the ’50s and ’60s. His memoir, Straight Life (1979), which he cowrote with his third wife, Laurie, is a harrowing story of his life in jazz. After reading it, I was amazed that Pepper had been able to make so many good records and be such a force in music.

Pepper recorded Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section for Contemporary Records in January 1957. Conditions were less than ideal. He was on drugs again and his saxophone needed to be repaired. According to Lester Koenig’s liner notes for the album, Pepper hadn’t played for two weeks, while Pepper wrote in Straight Life that he hadn’t played in six months—in any case, he wasn’t ready and only found out about the session on the morning it was to be recorded.

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section ended up being one of his best records. The other musicians on the session inspired some of Pepper’s strongest playing up to that point. Pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones had been with Miles Davis for two years and were in top form, both as individual players and as a unit.

Roy DuNann was the recording engineer for Contemporary Records, and his work was exemplary. The label’s recordings sound natural and immediate, even after more than 70 years. Contemporary Records is now part of the Concord Group, and Acoustic Sounds has partnered with Concord’s Craft Recordings to produce a Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds reissue series. Bernie Grundman does the all-analog mastering, Quality Record Pressings manufactures the vinyl, and Stoughton Printing produces the old-style tip-on covers.

I have a copy of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section that was mastered by Phil De Lancie and reissued on vinyl in 1988. The group begins the album with a sprightly take on Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” De Lancie’s mastering on the earlier LP is very crisp and lively. When I compared them, Grundman’s mastering on the new release of the album sounded a bit more relaxed—Jones’s hi-hat had more splash on the earlier pressing, and his snare cut a little more sharply; and Chambers’s bass had more oomph on De Lancie’s cut of the LP.

As I listened to the new pressing, I noticed that Grundman had made some adjustments that at first seemed to soften the sound of the music. Careful listening led me to appreciate this reissue. Grundman backed off some of the compression and the result gave more room to the rhythm section, which DuNann had placed solidly in the right channel in the original recording—Pepper had the left channel to himself. On the new pressing, Jones, Chambers, and Garland sounded more layered than they were on the 1988 LP. When the rhythm section takes off during Pepper’s improvisations, Chambers’s bass lines unfolded effortlessly, and Garland’s chords sounded fuller. Pepper’s sax had plenty of fire on the new pressing, but somewhat less treble edginess.

Garland cowrote “Red Pepper Blues” for the session. The song moves at a brisk tempo, with Pepper and Garland stating the opening theme in tandem. Garland’s piano lines were easier for me to follow on the new pressing. Jones’s drums were more recessed, which gave the piano more space to reverberate, especially during Garland’s solo. Chambers’s arco bass solo had more texture and grit on the earlier pressing, but more low-frequency fullness on the new one.

The quartet plays the Johnny Burke / Jimmy Van Heusen tune “Imagination” at a medium tempo that lets Pepper show his nearly peerless way with a ballad. His melodies rolled out more easily on the new pressing and the slight reverb echo around his sax was easier to discern. Jones’s cymbals were crisper and the snare brighter on the earlier pressing, but by softening them in the new master, Grundman has allowed Garland’s piano to register more fully. Garland’s piano solo was warmer and the notes sustained longer. “Tin Tin Deo,” a Latin-jazz tune by Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller, is a strong showcase for Jones. His drums sounded livelier on the earlier pressing, but they had more dynamic range on this reissue.

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

De Lancie also mastered the 1988 CD release of the album, and a quick comparison showed some similarities. No surprise, given that he did both masters at about the same time. De Lancie’s vinyl cut of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section brought me a step closer to the music; the CD sounded flatter by comparison. At that point, Contemporary’s recordings were held by Fantasy Records and reissued as part of its Original Jazz Classics series. Throughout the ’80s, the OJC vinyl releases were all-analog.

This is the third Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds release I’ve bought, and all three are cut at somewhat lower output than most LPs. Roll the volume up just a bit, and the music comes to life. Pull the earlier pressing back a little, and it becomes less aggressive. Since a slight rise in volume is called for on this new pressing, it’s a good thing my copy arrived dead quiet. It was also flat and centered. The cover photo looks a little washed out, but so does the 1988 cover and the CD insert photo—I don’t have an original as a reference. The LP comes in a nice antistatic inner sleeve.

If I had to choose between these two pressings, both of which are currently available, I’d lean toward the new one. Grundman’s mastering gives the music more nuance and space, along with a bit more dynamic range. If you love Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, this new pressing is a good purchase—even if you have the De Lancie pressing. And if you don’t already have a vinyl copy of the album, this is the one to go for.

. . . Joseph Taylor