Here is the thought I had while listening to this unbelievable album in three versions last night, a somewhat guilty pleasure in the midst of a worldwide crisis:
A species that can create something this beautiful — the musical forms that endure across generations, the individual artists who interpret and distort them; the instruments, the musicians to play them; the technology, techniques, and expertise to record them; the businesspeople to found the companies to distribute and sell them, the commercial system that drives the enterprise, the artistic spirit that resists it; the machines to encode the music into physical forms of media and to decode it for the listener; the human impulses for pleasure and connection and expression that motivate the entire chain of events — is worth saving.
That’s how good this record is.
So it’s worth having it in its best incarnation. Time for my second Best Pressing Shootout!
As with so many of my favourite jazz records, I heard about The Cry from my friend Jared. It is one of my very favourite records, and it is the single best-sounding record I’ve ever heard. Lester Koening, label boss at Contemporary, first guy to sign Ornette Coleman, is credited as the producer, and is thus doubly or trebly a genius. Howard Holzer is credited as the engineer, and it is his particular genius that I’m celebrating here.
In a revealing typo in Lester Koenig’s liner notes, he mentions an article by Willis James published in 1995 — more than thirty years after this record came out. Well, this album is at least thirty years ahead of its time. I discovered it in 2019 and it felt to me totally brand new and completely alive. So maybe more like sixty.
Musically, it is absolutely everything I love about jazz. As every review you’ll ever read of The Cry! will point out, Prince Lasha was childhood friends with Ornette Coleman, and he and Sonny Simmons were both inspired by Ornette’s Atlantic records in the late 50s and early 60s. The Ornette influence here is very palpable — the freer forms, the riff-based songs, the sense of humour — but they absolutely add something of their own. This album is much more even than anything by Ornette — almost every song is amazing — and every single track manages to balance experimentation with accessibility. These are fun, fresh, funky songs that hook you on first listen and never become boring. As I note below, they both avant-garde and hummable. I challenge you to listen to “Congo Call” and not become totally obsessed. I think that song alone could turn someone onto jazz.
Instrument-wise, I’m a sucker for bands that switch up the usual combinations — and this record does that in droves. Well, Prince Lasha is a flautist, so already you’re off to a good start. Simmons plays an Ornette-style plastic alto sax, also fun. Drums are drums, I guess, but the relatively unheralded Gene Stone is an effing genius at the things — the only jazz drummer besides Anthony Williams who has personally made me sit up and say, “Who the hell is that?”
The coolest thing instrumentally, though, is the double-bass setup, with Gary Peacock on the left channel and Mark Proctor on the right. They’re usually both doing something distinct: one plucking, the owing using a bow. On “Juanita,” as you’ll see below, Proctor appears to be slapping the strings with his bow as Peacock bows in the more conventional manner. (I bet there’s a technical term for that!)
I have two copies of this incredible record. The first, on loan from Jared, is a yellow-label Contemporary from 1963. Discogs suggests this is a second pressing, following the black label first pressing from the same year. It’s got the “D3” stampers, which I believe means it from the third “mother stamper.” (You’ll have to read what London Jazz Collector has to say about this if you’re curious to know more.)
It’s a very good pressing. It’s the pressing that turned me onto this record. I distinctly recall the first time I heard it — a thrilling “what is that??” experience. “Congo Calls” is such a jubilant track, with so much going on — and it is so absolutely masterfully recorded. My first experience of it was here.
The disc is in terrific, Near Mint shape — except that it has a warp that affects the first minute or so of play. My various cartridges have been able to track it, but it really shakes the needle around, so I’m avoiding playing my fancy Dynavector XX-2 through it. Sadly, that first minute of Side 1 is the best part of the whole disc…
The second, my own, is a 1975 King Records Japanese pressing. I got this dead-mint beauty (with obi!) on Discogs and had it shipped me to from Japan. It wasn’t cheap, but it was totally worth it, as you’ll see below.
It didn’t realize that King did Contemporary pressings, knowing them primarily as reissuers of excellent quality Blue Note albums in the 1977-1983 period. Well, it seems that one of their contracts in the period right before this was with Contemporary. The labels, somewhat ineptly photographed above, are a handsome grey-on-black. The catalogue number prefix “LAX” couldn’t be much more awesome for a label based in LA. I’m not sure why Sonny Simmons is called “Huey (Sonny) Simmons” here — I mean, that is his birth name, so I guess by 1975 he preferred that appellation.
I’m comparing these vinyl pressings to the CD rip on Tidal — whose cover, as you can see from this Roon screenshot, is disgracefully ugly and bears absolutely no relation to George Kershaw’s original cover (or to anything at all, it seems).
This is my second Best Pressing Shootout, and the second to involve a King Records pressing. In my first shootout, I determined that — heresy! — a King Blue Note reissue sounded better than a Plastylite first pressing. My findings are similarly heretical here. Once again, the King is king.
As excellent as the 1963 Contemporary sounds, the King sounds better on my system. It has all the detail of the Contemporary, but has a “juicier,” better-balanced tone than the comparatively “dry” presentation of the Contemporary. As you’ll see in my listening notes below, the digital transfer was pretty terrible — EQ’d way toward brightness, coming across as harsh and nasty. On Side 2, the Contemporary was comparatively “soft” and bass-weighted — more pleasant but coming across as a little too relaxed. Side 1 sounded a bit different: less “soft focus,” quite dry, lacking some heft. The King struck a perfect balance, a bit brighter and more detailed than the Contemporary, with a fuller richness. I rated it as about 10% better than the Contemporary (which was itself about 20% better than the digital).
All my usual provisos apply, of course. My system isn’t your system, and isn’t the most resolving system on earth. A black label D1 first pressing might sound better than this yellow label D3.
But I can promise you this: the 1975 King sounds amazing.
Current setup: LP12 (Hercules II PSU, Cirkus bearing, SSP12, Kore subchassis, Ekos 2 tonearm w/ stock cable, Dynavector XX-2 MkII cartridge), Dynavector P75 MkI, Linn Silver RCA, Schiit Mjolnir w/ Telefunken E88CC, Hifiman HE1000v2 w/ stock balanced cable. (See here for my digital setup.)
All of Side 2
King. Vinyl totally silent. Just gorgeous from the first notes: huge, room-filling, especially the soft, smooth cymbals and the juicy, percussive, full bass. This is a stupendously good recording — my favourite that I’m aware of, in a hifi sense — and this King pressing is superb. If it doesn’t sound amazing from the first notes (and for the whole record), something serious is up with your system. “Juanita” is a terrific test track: the springiness of whatever that string instrument is in the right channel (I guess it’s a bass being hit with a bow? — the liner notes confirm it: Mark Proctor in the right channel, Gary Peacock in the left), the textures of the bowed bass in the left, the gorgeous cymbals, the sax of course! Again, this is a stunning audio experience. “Lost Generation” isn’t much from an audio angle until Gary Peacock’s bass goes “DONG!” in the left channel about two thirds of the way in. Incredible. It’s another clever engineering move: I’ll let you forget how much space there is in this room, and you’ll get used to the cosy experience, and then I’ll scream out to you from fifty feet away. “A. Y.” is a little less thrilling, maybe because it’s so close to the inner groove.
Contemporary. A little bit of surface noise on this copy. There’s a slight warp (probably from heat) on Jared’s copy of this disc, so I have to skip the first couple of minutes. My sense is that this is brighter, less EQ’d to bass, and probably even better sounding that the stunning King. Every instrument is just brilliantly defined in space, the bass still goes super low in a drier, cleaner way. I’m hearing more ambient sounds, more of the musicians talking among themselves. Words that spring to mind are clarity and “liquidity” (I’m honestly not even sure what I mean by that but it’s the word I’m thinking). “Juanita” starts: beautiful, but hmm, if audio memory serves, if might be even more stunning on the King — with that bit more heft? Yeah, maybe I have less of a sense of an all-enveloping space? Really nice definition on the cymbals. When the bass comes in on “Lost Generation,” it’s equally surprising and wonderful. Though I get the sense that the bass is significantly less “juicy” on this pressing than on the King. Indeed, “dry” feels like a good word for the presentation here generally. (I do recall hearing evidence in previous listening that King added reverb in mastering — which would be gross.) “A.Y.” feels about the same as on the King: not the most dynamic track on the disc by any means.
I’m not going to listen to the whole side on digital, but I will listen to all of “Juanita,” and then do some detailed comparisons. So, “Juanita” definitely doesn’t sound bad on this Tidal transfer (ugh, despite the absolutely atrocious Illustrator-for-Dummies cover design). Seems a little harsh and overly bright, and I’m not having the same spine-tingling jubilant experience, but the details and the textures (especially those bow-slapped bass strings and normally-bowed bass) are good. I expect differences will emerge more clearly in direct comparison.
S-2-s Contemporary vs. digital. Yep, a lot brighter on digital. The details are there, but they’re grating. The Contemporary is much softer — and much softer focus. In a direct comparison, it’s tempting to give the edge to digital for its greater in-your-faceness. But switching back and forth, the smoothness of vinyl is a huge win. The pleasant, smooth background-cloud of cymbals on vinyl becomes a harsh hiss on vinyl. The further I go, the more of a problem that high-end hiss on digital becomes: it becomes definitely gross. So vinyl definitely wins for presentation — but it’s almost too smooth, too relaxed. It would be nice to have those details come forward a little more. I’d say vinyl is 20% better, but largely because the digital transfer is so flawed and so skewed toward harsh treble. There’s room for a pressing to sound more than 20% better.
S-2-s King vs. digital. Hey, what do you know, the King is pretty much what I was asking for! Fuller, much fuller, than the digital, but with tons of detail. No kidding, this King also sounds quite a bit better than the Contemporary: juicier, but with all the detail and “springiness,” and indeed a little more of both. So full, so real — anything percussive, like cymbals and plucked bass strings and hand drums, really shine versus the digital. I think I do hear some mastering reverb, which is a little annoying — but there’s nonetheless much less of a “soft focus” effect than on the Contemporary. In the quieter moments the difference is even bigger. 30% better.
That sorts it. Now, as a victory lap, let’s listen to my actual favorite track on this album, just on vinyl: “Congo Call.”
King. AAAaaaaaaah! How I love this song!!! So cool and weird and percussive and full of joy and gorgeously recorded! I wish I could’ve used it as my test track, but I don’t like how my fancy MC cartridge hops around in that warp on the Contemporary. I hear too much reverb on Prince Lasha’s flute — I’ll listen closely to the Contemporary to see if that was added in mastering by King. What are those little rhythmic icicle droplets in the centre of the soundstage? Some kind of percussion thing and I love it, but they’re just barely perceptible. I truly can’t say how much I love this track or how great it sounds on this pressing.
Contemporary. That “drier” presentation, definitely, but still amazing. Doesn’t sound as “soft focus” as Side 2. This is the track and the pressing that made me fall in love with this album. There is quite a bit of reverb on Lasha’s flute — so I think it’s just that the juicier, meatier King pressing brings it out a bit more. I think the “icicle droplets” are a little clearer in the mix here. As amazing as this sounds, I definitely prefer the rounder, more powerful King.
Okay, a few seconds of digital? Very competent, but none of the excitement or the joy of vinyl. The “icicle droplets” are present but sound weird, are too forward, are delivered with a pixel-barfy quality…
Couldn’t resist finishing Side A on Contemporary and King. King continues to sound better, and “Green and Gold” is another hifi stunner. As, wow, is “Ghost of the Past.” This album is insane. Just so much texture, so much juiciness everywhere. And the music — exactly, exactly, exactly the sort of jazz I like: fun, weird, hummable.