Craft Recordings / Contemporary Records / Stereo Records CR00391
Musical Performance: ***½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
In the 1950s, Contemporary Records released a number of Broadway-themed LPs by trios led by pianist André Previn or drummer Shelly Manne. The sessions fronted by Previn featured Manne on drums and Red Mitchell on bass; Manne’s featured Previn and bassist Leroy Vinnegar. In my June 2023 review of the Craft Recordings / Contemporary Records reissue of West Side Story, the 1959 album by André Previn and His Pals, I wrote: “I’m already anticipating the Craft Recordings reissue of Manne’s My Fair Lady this fall.” Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from My Fair Lady was a 1956 mono release by Shelly Manne & His Friends, and its popularity led Contemporary to ask Previn and Manne to record more albums in the same vein.
Craft has reissued the stereo version of My Fair Lady on vinyl as part of its Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds reissue series. As with other releases in the series, Bernie Grundman remastered the recording for vinyl and Quality Record Pressings manufactured the LPs. Legendary recording engineer Roy DuNann handled many of Contemporary’s early recordings, and Grundman had trained with DuNann in the mid-1960s, when Grundman was just starting work in recording.
I’ve had several copies of My Fair Lady, which sold so well that it often shows up in used-record shops and thrift stores. After picking up some that were pretty worn, I settled on a 1958 stereo version of the album for my collection, released two years after the original mono LP. There’s some noise on the lead-in groove, but it’s mostly far in the background during playback. When I dropped the needle on the new pressing, I was greeted with silence.
“Get Me to the Church on Time” gets the album off to a rousing start. While the original LP and the new pressing sounded very similar, there were some small differences. The drums and cymbals on the 1958 pressing were a little crisper; Manne’s snare roll at the beginning built to a slightly more forceful crescendo; and the attack on Mitchell’s bass had a sharper edge.
Previn’s piano on “Get Me to the Church on Time” also sounded somewhat more forward on the original pressing. Yet, by the third play of each pressing, I found myself leaning toward Grundman’s new cut of the LP. It presented a wider soundstage on my system, allowing the instruments more room to register. Previn’s piano sounded more fleshed out on the new pressing, revealing more harmonic overtones and resonating more expansively.
Previn plays the opening of “On the Street Where You Live” solo, and the chords had a fuller tone and warmer sustain on the new pressing. When Manne and Vinnegar enter, Manne’s drums were set off in the right channel on the remastered cut, and his hi-hat and ride cymbal were much easier to hear. Vinnegar’s bass had a slightly more solid attack on the earlier pressing, but stronger and more impressive low-end fullness on the new release.
The trio does a sensitive reading of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” with Previn playing the intro before Vinnegar and Manne enter to fill out the arrangement. Manne uses mallets on the drums for a softer effect, and switches to brushes for his cymbal accents. Manne’s cymbals had more top end on the older pressing, but Grundman has moved them further right and pulled them back a little to give Previn and Vinnegar more room. Manne’s cymbal work sounded less immediate on the new LP, but subtler.
“Ascot Gavotte” moves at breakneck speed, but all three musicians stay on track and deliver impressive variations on the main theme. Manne’s brushwork during solos rang out more brightly on the earlier pressing but had a rounder, more solid tone on the Craft reissue. Vinnegar’s solo also had more satisfying low-end slam on the new LP.
Previn’s piano notes on the ballad “With a Little Bit of Luck” unfolded more naturally in Grundman’s wider soundstage, which allowed the overtones in chords to fold easily into each other. Manne’s brushwork on the snare and his light touch on cymbals, which add wit and color to Previn’s improvisations, sounded more radiant on the original pressing, but more understated and nuanced on the new LP. His mallet work on cymbals rolled out dynamically without overwhelming the music on the new pressing.
My copy of the Craft LP arrived quiet, flat, and well centered. The pink-toned cover photo appeared more softly focused than the original, but the black-and-white portraits on the back cover looked fine. The cover, with tipped-on cover art on heavyweight cardboard, is consistent in quality with the other Craft Recordings reissues in this series.
When I looked on Discogs, I couldn’t find mint copies of the 1958 stereo release of My Fair Lady, but copies listed in Very Good Plus condition were fetching an average of $20 (in USD). In my experience, sellers are overgenerous in their condition ratings. This reissue will run you $30, and it’s beautifully pressed on quiet vinyl.
It’s also wonderfully enjoyable music. Previn was a fine pianist, but Manne was one of the great drummers in jazz and brought out some of Previn’s best jazz performances. Vinnegar’s unerring sense of swing completes the elegance of the trio and locks things down solidly. There’s a deceptive ease to Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from My Fair Lady, but it rewards close attention, especially in Grundman’s careful remaster.
. . . Joseph Taylor