"Sonny Rollins Way Out West" Deluxe Edition From Craft Recordings—What Was, What Is, What Could Have Been

In March of 1957 during his first trip to the west coast, 26 year old Sonny Rollins, then a member of The Max Roach Quintet, booked a session at Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Studios. With Ray Brown also in Los Angeles starring in Oscar Peterson’s Trio, and Contemporary Records regular and Los Angeles based Shelly Manne also available, Rollins could fulfill a long running desire to record sans piano.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately as it turned out) all had evening gigs and Brown and Manne also had afternoon studio gigs booked, so the Rollins session was called for 3 A.M. Rollins at the time was pretty much on fire. He’d recorded Saxophone Collosus and Tenor Madness the previous year and played on Monk’s masterpiece Brilliant Corners.

The three musicians had never before played together but by 7 A.M. they’d recorded half the album and by then Rollins had, he said, “warmed up”. By then Manne had been up for 24 hours and Brown had an afternoon studio call, but they were eager to play and within a half hour they’d recorded both the title tune and “Wagon Wheels”.

The other tunes are Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”, the Rollins original “Come, Gone” (which Rollins originally wanted to call “After You’ve Come”—“It doesn’t have to be suggestive if you don’t think that way” he’s heard saying in the studio “chatter” included in disc 2 of this set) and the oft-covered ballad “There Is No Greater Love” (covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse to Nat King Cole to Miles Davis).

Hearing the rising tenor star Rollins “stripped” and so well recorded in the early days of hi-fi must have created a sensation among the jazz cognoscenti as must have the somewhat unusual William Claxton cover of Rollins dressed like a cowboy, captured at what appears to be Joshua Tree National Park. A safer shot of Rollins in suit and tie framed by a Joshua Tree was used for the bonus album of alternate versions included in this box. No doubt Koenig agonized for some time before choosing the cowpoke shot, which at the time might have appeared cartoonish or demeaning. Either way, Rollins, unlike Bono, found what he was looking for—especially since he grew up a fan of “two-reeler” cowboy matinee movies and was “all in” with the cowboy regalia.

Combine the young Rollins with Brown and Manne in their primes and atop the nation’s jazz polls and you have a magical moment frozen in time and as much fun to listen to now as it was when originally released more than 60 years ago.

Stereo was then new and Contemporary started its own “Stereo Records” label to release this (and eventually some 30 additional titles) in “stereo”.

It’s important to remember that the “stereo” was more like the left/right early Beatles albums that were recorded that way more to help with the mono fold down balance than to produce a ‘stereo’ version, so Sonny occupies the left channel, while Brown and Manne are on the right, with occasional leakage and movement in between. For fans it was a chance to hear Rollins in near isolation so his every breath and micro-intonation could be enjoyed and studied.

So while the stereo effect is less than ideal, the sonic star is the purity, clarity and tonal verisimilitude of Roy DuNann’s engineering, which is basic and free of studio tricks. You hear Rollins’ textures and tonality unadorned (the only better Sonny recording I know of is 1962’s Our Man In Jazz [RCA Victor “Living Stereo” LSP-2612] with Bob Cranshaw on bass, Don Cherry on cornet and Billy Higgins on drums).

So I Compared

I compared an original pressing to the Analogue Productions reissue from way back in 1992 (APJ008) cut by Doug Sax, to the double 45rpm Analogue Productions reissue from 2002 (AJAZ 7530-45) cut by Kevin Gray with Steve Hoffman at AcousTech, to the unreleased version Analogue Productions was supposed to reissue cut by Bernie Grundman late summer, 2015 (ACTJ-7017) that was part of a planned Contemporary jazz series from Analogue Productions and to the just released Craft Recordings Concord imprint. That’s a whole lotta Way Out West !

I also got to hear the original master tape compared directly to an original pressing.

The tape and original pressing sound very different from one another but that’s not surprising: engineer Roy DuNann purposely boosted the top end during the recording and it was to be rolled off during playback as lacquers were cut. This put the top end above the tape hiss and so when the top was cut during playback, the hiss was also dropped in level. Du Nann’s system was in some ways a primitive Dolby precursor.

If you are skeptical about this, read Thomas Conrad's Roy DuNann Stereophile interview that includes this: "Another step that Roy took during mastering was to roll back the 6dB high-frequency wide-curve boost that he had tweaked into the Ampex during recording. Long before Dolby, Roy was figuring out his own methods for reducing tape hiss."

As I recall the Grundman session, we compared the tape with treble attenuation applied to the original pressing and it was clear that the original had been further rolled off on top compared to the “adjusted” tape. The Grundman 2015 cut is with the roll-off applied.

Both Analogue Productions' earlier reissues (Sax at 33 1/3, Gray at 45rpm) have the top end attenuation applied. This new reissue was cut from high resolution digital files instead of from tape for reasons I can’t imagine. The tape is in good enough condition so it’s either that the producer felt digitizing makes it “better” or it was a matter of cost cutting.

What I also don’t know is if the mastering engineer Joe Tarantino knew about and applied the necessary attenuation to the signal during the digitization process or whether George Horn and Anne-Marie Seunram, who cut lacquers applied it there (doubtful).

Why don’t you listen for yourself to a short “fair use” snippet of the aborted Analogue Productions 2015 test pressing and the new reissue and draw your own conclusions?

Mine is that the top end “lift” has not been attenuated and therefore the cymbals are far too bright and out of proportion to the rest of the kit. Worse, it also lifts the high frequency components of Rollins’s horn, making it sound less organic and more “crunchy” than it should—especially compared to the aborted AAA version. Depending on your system's top end, listener fatigue may quickly set in even if you're not aware that something's not right.

So what originally was, was the original early stereo pressing, still collectible, because it is the original and sounding sweet and pure, though somewhat dull on top. What came next was the first Doug Sax AP reissue that’s somewhat bright (but not because attenuation wasn't applied), and after that came the double 45 cut by Kevin Gray with Steve Hoffman, attenuation applied. That version sounds very good, but keep in mind that when Gray moved to his current headquarters and re-wired and re-did his electronics chain, the sound he got greatly improved. If you need proof, compare the double 45 he cut at AcousTech of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue with the 33 1/3 version he later cut at Cohearant for Music Matters. The 33 1/3 version destroys the double 45 in every way!

Now we have this Craft Records box set, which costs $79.99, containing a bright, somewhat “crunchy” edition of Way Out West cut from digital (for no good reason) and well-pressed, plus a second bonus disc that’s really useful for fans and not at all a “throwaway” as some bonus discs tend to be.

The bonus disc contains a few minutes of interesting studio chatter, and alternate versions of “I’m an Old Cowhand”, “Come Gone”, “There is No Greater Love”, the first take of “Way Out West” and an alternate version—some of which was previously released on CD and some of which has never before been released (the studio chatter plus the alternate versions of “There is No Greater Love” and take 1 of “Way Out West”).

The box also includes Neil Tesser’s excellent historical and musical notes and some memorabilia including a Contemporary Records advertisement for the album, Rollins’ AFofM union contract for the gig and a letter from Lester Koenig to Rollins.

What we don’t have is Analogue Productions’ all-analogue, far better sounding, more organically “whole” version cut by Bernie Grundman from the master tapes, nor do we have the Stoughton Press Tip-On gatefold jacket containing unreleased photos plus an essay by Lester Koenig’s son John. That unreleased set did not include the bonus disc.

So that’s what was, what is and what might have been. Pulling the floor out from under Analogue Productions after it had invested a considerable amount of money mastering, plating, pressing and producing the packaging for its authorized version of this set was, in my opinion a truly shitty thing to do (also pulled was a Riverside and Pablo series, some of which had also been cut, plated and test-pressed along with jacked art work that had been produced).

The policy change by Concord management that pulled back the catalog from Analogue Productions was certainly within their rights to do, but don't you think the titles that had already been produced should have been allowed to go into production? I do. At least this one should have, that's for sure, both because it would have been the right thing to do, and because Analogue Productions has been a long time, reliable Concord licensee—starting back when no few others were licensing titles for vinyl release. If writing this cuts me off from future Concord or Craft releases, so be it. As for what is, here are the two snippets, the identities of which are not hidden. It’s such a good recording to begin with, neither version sounds “bad” and it’s likely that buyers of the new box set will be delighted—some may even prefer the high frequency boost. This isn’t a guessing game. Choose which you prefer:

File "1"

File "2"

Music Direct Buy It Now

fetuso's picture

The version of this album that I have that I bought used says "Remastered 1988 by Phil De Lancie. Fantasy Studios, Berkely." It also has a serial number of OJC-337. I have no idea if it was mastered from the tapes, but I think it sounds quite good.

Martin's picture

I have it.
It's digital.

It sounds good because the recording is so fantastic good to start with. Plus apparently when the transfers were done, they were done pretty flat. I haven't played it in a long time, because..... If I remember right, I thought it sounded harsh or shrill on the top end. Which, reading this incredibly informative stuff on top end extension on the tape then reduce in the lacquer cutting to reduce tape hiss makes a lot of sense.

To get the alternate takes, well some of them, there is
Sonny Rollins ‎– Contemporary Alternate Takes

Contemporary Records ‎– C-7651

Which IS so far as I know and can tell, in fact analog. Not digital.
And it's pretty good. I doubt it was done from masters, but it sounds pretty damn good.

Michael Fremer's picture
I forgot I did until after I wrote the review....
Martin's picture

Turns out it's all analogue.....
the OJC reissue of Way Out West.
According to the guy who mastered it, Philip de Lancie.

my new username's picture

... that the early '80s OJC reissues were often very good values, and necessarily analog cuts given the timeframe. I have a few myself. And cheap on the used market, as well as cheap when new.

But it was a different ethos back then. Reissues were about extending the audience for old music in economical ways that still had basic quality. Today, reissues are An Event filled with Marketing Hyperbole such as Re-Mastered From the Original Master Tapes ... which doesn't mean anything.

Martin's picture

Those '80's era OJCs sound great. I have bunch of them, maybe 20 or 30. I think in most cases they actually sound - the sonics - better than the originals.
I think they did an outstanding job.

Today, reissues are a dime a dozen, most of them are digital. And many do not sound good at all. That statement written on the front of most of them "Remastered from the original master tapes" usually means, "we made digital transfers and resolution which we will not tell you because we don't want to admit it's CD resolution, then we squashed the music, compressed it nicely so it's nice and loud and "aggressive" and then cut lacquers with the digital files".
when I go into a music shop here selling vinyl, 90% or more of that vinyl is digitally sourced.
This model cannot last. It is not possible to pass shit off as gold indefinitely.

Razorball's picture

It should have been mastered from the tapes as per Steve Hoffman. Have you heard it Michael how does it sound?

Michael Fremer's picture
Heard what?
Razorball's picture

The OJC reissue from the 80s. Wonder what you think of it.

AnalogJ's picture
AnalogJ's picture

How is the scarf? This $200(!) set comes with a scarf, does it not?

Michael Fremer's picture
You are confusing the Blue Note box with this? Or was that a "joke"?
AnalogJ's picture

Did I confuse the Blue Note box?

Michael Fremer's picture
That's the one with the Varvatos scarf!
volvic's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

Martin's picture

I would buy the Analogue Productions, Bernie Grundman reissue immediately. On release. A real shame that "new management" stopped this. Dicks. Quite frankly, Dicks!

I will not be buying this reissue.
Digital. With a crunchy top end.
No thanks.

john75's picture

Hopefully this premium box with turn out to be a financial fiasco for Craft because of poor sales and then we can get the AP reissues of the Contemporary, Pablo's and Riversides. But even when it sells well, the non-audiophile market will be saturated at one point and then reissues through boutique labels is the way to make money from vinyl for these 'new managements'. Just like in the late '90's. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I think we will have Chad's reissues eventually, after these pointless digital sourced versions.

Martin's picture

there is a stereo up on discogs at the moment, NM for 690 Euro :-)

I think this makes the analogue productions reissue a bargain :-)

saxman73's picture

I love this record for the music (I am a huge Sonny fan) and I happen to own the Doug Sax mastered version, which I think sounds fantastic. Admittedly, I haven't heard the other ones. I did hear an original pressing in mono and I liked the stereo Doug Sax stereo remaster better. It's a bit bright, that's true, but in a good way, I would say (and this is coming from someone who doesn't like bright records in general). It feels really present and you get the "in the room" feeling. I would like to hear the Bernie Grundman version for comparison. The Doug Sax version was actually instrumental in my wanting to work with him on my own record. It's actually one of my test records when I change anything in my stereo equipment. I think it's really great.

Rashers's picture

I am completely baffled as to why large record companies insist on releasing these expensive "deluxe" packages and selling the enthusiasts digital-on-vinyl product. You would think that any record executive that is a fan of music has listened to the extraordinary quality difference between the AAA vinyl reissues by Music Matters, Analogue Productions (particularly the Prestige reissues), Mobile Fidelity etc. and the second rate material that is digitally sourced (in particular the 75th anniversary Blue Note reissues). If they own the master tapes, how much more expensive is it for them to pay Kevin Gray to master the records properly versus emailing the high res (or godforbid CD files) to some other mastering engineer? While I understand that virtually all new recordings are digitally sourced, and usually sound great on vinyl, there really is no excuse for not staying in the analog domain for reissues prior to 1982.

richiep's picture

That's the new management style of big company wannabe's. (How can we save .02 cents on that pencil) What Craft did to Analogue was disgraceful and I will never buy any of their new products, they are just in for a money grab while the action is hot, once they need Chad I hope he sticks it to them. Have the AP - 45 and it sounds just great, find some fresh AAA titles not continually redoing same stuff that's been done well, or choosing one's that really need improvement!

freejazz00's picture

Respectfully, I'm a little confused. How can the sound be rated a 9 if it is a little crunchy? I understand overlooking the hard left-right channel separation, but if the top end is too bright because of the recording and mastering techniques shouldn't the rating be lower? Is is it that the sound is soooo good that only AAA and a 6 db cut at the top would have been better? Thanks,

evancent's picture

I love this LP,
I have an Original first pressing mono that sounds amazing but I am curious to know is it a fold down or was there a dedicated mono and stereo recording done at the same time?

Any thoughts on which is a preferable way to enjoy this mono or stereo?
Thanks Heaps

Michael Fremer's picture
Many "true mono" records were mixed from two channels once that became available. That allows for a better balance (here between the sax and rhythm section). So even early Beatles monos were "fold downs". Where "fold downs" become useless is when a 16 or 24 track recording is mixed for stereo and then "folded down" for mono.
my new username's picture

It's 2018 and I'm astonished virtually no one ELSE still tries to dig into where what came from.

Yeah no I have zero interest in anything Craft puts out. They've made plain they are in it solely for the money ($80? Are you effing kidding me?) aimed at an audience of vinyl collectors who are both uneducated and unconcerned about sound quality.

I can think of no more cynicism possible as a marketing endeavor. These sorts of execs will always remain tone-deaf, and safely ensconced in the "good enough" philosophy.

Fuck "good enough," ESPECIALLY when as you say, a better product was already produced.

sandyu's picture

I bought this album back when it was new, (late-50s/very early-60s) and still have it. Still one of my favorites. And as I recall there was also a follow-up album, a "way out west vol.II," though that wasn't the title. Anybody else remember that one?

sandyu's picture

Since I was there at the time, I should probably comment on: "...the somewhat unusual William Claxton cover of Rollins dressed like a cowboy.... A safer shot of Rollins in suit and tie framed by a Joshua Tree was used for the bonus album of alternate versions included in this box. No doubt Koenig agonized for some time before choosing the cowpoke shot, which at the time might have appeared cartoonish or demeaning..." Actually, it didn't seem "cartoonish or demeaning" at all... but remember, back in those days there were still lots of real cowboys on real horses around (unlike today, in the 1950s everybody ate plenty of dry-aged steak because it was considered healthy, good protein for you!!). Nowadays the cowboys you see around drive pickups, but back in those days all a cowboy owned was his saddle and a good pair of boots. I spent a few nights myself listening to the older guys sitting around the bunkhouse, talking shit. So, Michael, cartoonish? Demeaning? No more so than a job playing saxophone in a jazz band!!

miniguy's picture

So was this mastered with the treble cut applied or not?