Poll Winners Win Again: Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, and Ray Brown Score on Craft Recordings' QRP-Pressed, Grundman-Mastered 180g Vinyl Reissue

There’s a striking new reissue from Craft Recordings I’m sure many jazz fans and collectors are as excited about as I am: 1957’s The Poll Winners. This LP features three of the greatest jazz musicians of their time (as well as the immediate future) — Barney Kessel on guitar backed by Shelly Manne on drums and Ray Brown on bass. From the liner notes, we learn all three of these fine musicians won the three major American jazz popularity polls in 1956 in Down Beat, Metronome, and Playboy magazines.

Understand the album title better now? Long before the Internet was even a glimmer of an idea, reading print publications — a.k.a., physical newspapers and magazines — was how people learned about new music they might have heard on the radio or in a record store. In the 1950s, there were some significant publications tracking the world of jazz that had a lot of influence on the music world. (Times have changed.)

At any rate, getting these artists together for a recording session was an obvious stroke of opportunistic genius. So popular was this trio, in fact, that they went on to record four more albums in this series. First, some background. The central focus here is, of course, Barney Kessel, one of the all-time great guitarists in jazz history, a fantastic player who crossed many cultural/societal and musical boundaries in his career. He recorded with everyone from Chico Marx and Charlie Parker to Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum. But Kessel’s career did not end there, and by the early 1960s, he was a much in-demand session player, one of the first-call musicians in that now-beloved aggregation known as The Wrecking Crew. You can hear his work on many pop and rock hits by the likes of Sonny & Cher, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Coasters, and Sam Cooke.

Shelly Manne was also one of the go-to session and live players in his day, a regular on the West Coast Jazz scene and a prominent figure at Contemporary Records. They issued many albums with him backing others as well as by his own band (Shelly Manne & His Men). You can hear Shelly on recordings with Stan Getz, Hampton Hawes, Benny Carter, and even on the first Ornette Coleman album. He also worked on many film soundtracks.

Bassist Ray Brown is often remembered for his work with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, but if you poke around in your collection, you’ll probably see his name on many other sessions and liners. He’s played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Steely Dan. (He’s on their second album, July 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy.) And Brown also put out many albums as a bandleader himself.


So now you have some understanding of who these players are, why they were hot in 1957, and — hopefully, with this perspective — why they’re still popular enough today to warrant a premium reissue like this new QRP pressing from Craft Recordings.

Before I get to how this sparking new reissue of The Poll Winners sounds compared to my original pressing, I must point out that simply finding a fairly clean original stereo (or mono) copy of this particular album is not an easy task. For example, at the time of this writing, there were six mono and five stereo copies (at best, in VG+ condition) on Discogs selling for upwards of $50. It took me many years — and several upgrades along the way — to find a fairly decent copy, and even that has its moments of click, ticks, and pops. But I don’t really mind, as the recording is excellent and timeless.

This is probably a good time to mention a bit about Contemporary Records, a label many newer collectors seem to overlook in favoring releases on Blue Note, Impulse, and Prestige. That said, many audiophiles and jazz collectors know Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records is home to some of the best-sounding recordings of the times, equal to — if not exceeding — the best platters from Blue Note and Prestige. One of the label’s “secret sauce” ingredients setting them apart was engineer Roy DuNann, who brought a great sense of musicality and fidelity to his work (and I can’t always say this about every Prestige and Blue Note title, as great as the music may be). But pretty much every album on this label I’ve heard sounds great. (Just sayin’. . .)

Another interesting detail about The Poll Winners is it was originally released at the dawn of stereo recordings. Initially issued in 1957 in mono on the Contemporary Records branded label (which was bright yellow), it was issued in stereo in 1958 on a new — and short-lived — subsidiary label non-ironically titled “Stereo Records.” Eventually, the Stereo Records label went away and just became a black label Contemporary Records variation, but for that year or so, it was a thing. They issued quite a number of well-recorded albums, mostly in the jazz realm. However, they did issue some classical albums, and I see on Discogs they even issued some 45rpm singles. Talk about being ahead of their time, issuing stereo singles. . .


But now, back to the reviewing. I’m sure by now, you’re wondering how The Poll Winners album sounds and compares to my original. In short, it is pretty fantastic. The Poll Winners is generally a great-sounding recording to begin with, and some of you might even want to consider using this as a demo disc with its simple but sweet stereo soundstage. This recording is a classic West Coast jazz trio setting, with these sensitive players performing swinging versions of now-classics like “Satin Doll,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Mean to Me.”

However, some of that dynamic might have been pulled back on the low end a bit, so as to not cause mistracking on average turntables of the period. Thus, the new edition is much bigger-sounding in many ways, notably on the low end. Ray Brown’s bass here is richer and rounder than on my original. The high end on my original is a wee bit better, but that isn’t surprising if you understand the nature of magnetic tape — it deteriorates over time, losing bits of information with every pass of the tape. I’m no doubt splitting hairs as the new edition sounds excellent, all things considered. And I think that, at the end of the day, I’d rather have richer, rounder lows and mids than worry about a slightly brighter high end.


Kudos to Bernie Grundman for his fine finesse on this all-analog mastering from the master tapes. The 180g black vinyl Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds Series pressing from QRP is well-centered, dead-quiet, and, ultimately, musically invisible. All these factors are easily checked off my list.

In fact, I was so pleased with the reissue that I was almost prepared to purge my original. But then I noticed one little physical incongruity that makes the completist collector in me want to hold onto my old copy — namely, the cover and the label designs are a smidge different!


The album designs are pretty much identical, but if you look closely, you’ll see they had to invoke some production alchemy on the title text over in order to make room for the longer album ID number there. It’s really quite clever what they did, as it is easy to overlook. The label design is period-accurate and similar to my original “deep groove” version, but it too shows some variance. If you care about that sort of “OG” minutiae [I do! —MM], do take note.

I’m more than happy to keep my original as a reference copy, but will likely play the new Craft Recordings issue from here out for regular listening. And that’s the best compliment I can offer: I’ve enjoyed listening to this fine reissue of The Poll Winners featuring Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, and Ray Brown. I suspect you will too.

Music Direct Buy It Now

brednjam1's picture

Have you heard the 45 RPM Analogue Productions reissue? I’d love to hear how it compares to this pRedding.

bkelley3rd's picture

I was shocked how much better the Kevin Gray/Steve Hoffman mastering two-LP 45 rpm was compared to this new 33 1/3 edition. The bass response is much fuller on the 45rpm, which gives Manne's percussions more life. If the two had been similar in sound I would've sold my 45 rpm copy, but I decided to keep both.

Happy Will's picture

Well, I sold my 45 rpm AP copy a couple of years ago because the sound didn't grab me at all, so I can't directly compare. However what I can say is, as soon as I put the new 33.33 issue on my TT the music grabbed my attention is a great way, and turned what I had considered a boring album into a very enjoyable listen. I was also able to do a comparison with an original Stereo records copy, that was factory scratched (sealed copy opened to show serious handling damage) and I prefer the sonics of the new version.

Jazz listener's picture

It’s refreshing to be able to read this kind of review again now that Fremer’s kids have vacated the premises. Keep ‘em coming.

ChrisS's picture
Glotz's picture

talking to yourself... nothing new.

Anton D's picture

Malachi is living in your head and not paying rent. How much longer will you be obsessing over him, Humbert?

Isn’t there a teen digital music forum you could go troll?

arcman67's picture

These new contemporary releases are grade A.

jazz's picture

I didn’t buy this one for musical reasons (so I agree with your 9 rating), just have it as hires, but severeal others of Craft on vinyl (ordered or received) and got the Ornette Coleman set already. I also agree with the sound rating of 9 for the Ornette. They are really great, but due to partly quite left/right panned channels and other reasons, I’d also rate them as 9. I also agree with most of the message of your comparison with the originals. Did so for the Ornette set and the result is similar, the cymbal difference a bit different. But you compared the Poll winners and I the Ornette, so no wonder that’s not the same. Keep on posting such reviews and compare with as many reissue versions as you know.

I just saw in a video of Fremer, that he”ll maybe be working and publishing another 3 years or so and within this time completely hand over to Malachi Lui. So I think you have a good chance in future to keep part of the crowd here if you continue like that.

MalachiLui's picture

i'd like to clarify that fremer has never definitively said anything along the lines of "i'm handing over everything in x many years." whatever his thoughts are, that's an issue and a conversation for a much later time. for now, he's still going strong and hasn't slowed down, and it seems that he's focusing on the immediate future of trackingangle and his new position at TAS.

jazz's picture

that he said this already in 2020. From 14:14 minutes on he says he’d like to hand over the site to you in about 5 years (if you want). He might have forgotten meanwhile, but on the other hand, preparations seem to be on their way. Great interview by the way!


MalachiLui's picture

key words were "if he wants it." again, if those discussions come up, they will be discussed then. no one's deciding anything quite yet.

jazz's picture

but I suspect, if you don’t want, he’d retire not much later. My focus wasn’t if you want, but what he aims for.

arcman67's picture

After watching how MF acted in the various videos on "Laquers", there is simply something wrong there. In a way, it's kind of sad. Michael should contribute sparingly and let Malachi do the bulk of the work. Eventually riding off into the sunset with a positive legacy. Analog Planet seems to be in good hands and will keep producing great content.

Mile High Audio's picture

Thank you so much for your refreshingly adult thoughts on the different pressings of this album. And no 'hip' swearing. Never heard of it but I'm buying a copy. I look forward to reading more of your critical positive/negative record reviews. Cheers!

Tasingegade's picture

Take this for what its worth but my advice is, skip reading the comments on this site. You are on to new things. Focus on the tracking angle, or whatever exciting things you have going on in your young life. Don't waste your time arguing with dusty audiophiles who sit alone in their basement and bicker with teenagers.

Though I can't say I share your taste in music, I respect your good writing and eager interest in music. Keep on keeping on. And one more thought.. I hope you pick up on Fremer's love for vinyl, LP playing systems, excellent analysis of sound quality and objectivism. BUT, SKIP his argumentation / engagement with trolls on the internet and defensive posture. Just read past it. If you are confident in your knowledge or analysis, they won't get you upset in the first place. And if you end up arguing with a manufacturer... you will bite off more than you can chew legally and probably financially.

kind regards

arcman67's picture

using his normal screenname.

Tasingegade's picture

it is as advertised

Fawzy Issa's picture

I really enjoyed this review & read it all , without being bored in the middle and skipping parts of the review
Well done

NewVinyl's picture

At first glance, I thought this was going to be the winner of The Story of Vanguard Vinyl LP Box Set Sweepstakes. Was there ever a winner announced?


Trevor_Bartram's picture

I clued into Contemporary Records and Roy DuNann just around the time the OJC CDs started appearing in the cutout bins (at either $4 or $6 each) at Newbury Comics in the Boston area. I soon learnt to pick up whatever they had and over a ten year period amassed a great collection. Those were the days!

patrice.g.dubois@gmail.com's picture

Here a few questions I have regarding the current flow of both mono and stereo reprints of same titles.
1- Is a dedicated mono cartridge needed for a mono playback or the stereo one will do fine? 2- How about preamp and integrated amp that have a mono selector button (especially present on the late 1970's integrated monster amps? What is the contribution of each of these and are they critical or gimmicky? Thanks

Steve Edwards's picture

of this recording, I think it warrants mentioning: the guitar is in the left channel, drums & bass in right; no sound in center. I know this was a popular technique (Van Gelder?), but at times, I find it a little distracting.