We may have been separated at birth.
I experimented with Rodinal once and found it to be unbelievably sharp but very grainy. I have a 11x16 print on Agfa Portriga from a 6x9 negative developed in Rodinal 1:50 that is grainer than most 8x10 enlargements from 35mm negs. I guess I gave up the experiment after that. I never tried Rodinal in a jobo.
Other than that, here's where I am:
1) I used Xtol and ID11 for years, and then tried PMK for both rolls and sheets. I found that the PMK DOES give better highlight separations and the edge effects are noticeable. I found that I get more grainless rollfilm enlargements with PMK compared to Xtol or ID11. I assumed this was the stain masking the grain, as we've all heard about. Also, for me, PMK is easier to use because I get it in liquids and it's so temperature tolerant. I previously found myself stirring forever to get those last few grains of developer to dissolve because I always feared some hydroquinone or metol chunk would land on the cheek of a person's portrait as it developed.
2) I saw ABC negatives for the first time in Michael's workshop. Compared to a PMK negative there was a pretty significant difference. More detail in both highs and lows. Sharper. But MUCH grainier. I can see how you wouldn't want to enlarge an ABC negative and I wouldn't even consider doing a roll in ABC if I was going to make an enlargement of any significant magnification.
3) Azo. After hearing all the lore on this and P.N, I went to the LA County Museum Of Art to see some of Michael's prints, to get an idea of whether to spend the money on the paper, and to get a sense of what I was shooting for. And without commenting on content and composition, I was blown away by the prints technically. The level of detail apparent in both blacks and highlights, and the range in between. Just the DEPTH of the blacks, which is what my friend Per Volquartz comments on every time he sees my Azo prints.
So I bough the Azo and tried it in Neutol. Nope. Bromophen. Nope. Something from Zonal Pro. Nope. Clayton. Dektol. No way. I had been skittish about mixing Amidol at the kitchen sink, so I tried everything else first. Finally, I tried Amidol. Interestingly, I could not and STILL cannot get it to work with the grade 2 Azo paper. It comes out muddy and blue and untoneable. But on the grade 3 paper, it was like magic. And easy, just like I had heard. It is those first grade 3 Azo prints...practically the first time I used the stuff...that are right over there on the wall making the enlargements pale by comparison.
Like you, Tom, I wish everything could be a cool contact print but in the real world it just isn't going to happen. I like to photograph people and I like to photograph my small children, and I travel all the time and find that I just can't lug the 8x10 everywhere I go.
So that's why now that I see the huge difference between what I have enlarged and what I have printed on Azo I want to re-think everything about enlarging. My technique, my vision, my chemistry, my paper, everything. I have a new standard.
And, like you, I saw that Smith print of the woman in the doorway in New Orleans and was stopped cold in my tracks. Her dress was brilliant white yet you could see the detail of the fabric. And the store behind her was dark yet you could see everything in it. And her face did not look burned or dodged or too dark or too light. And the highlights on her wrinkles and in the whites of her eyes popped.
One More Thing...
Take this for what it's worth. It is my experience in photography that there is very little significant difference between materials and tools, that most of the differences are nuances. You can't tell a Rodenstock from a Schneider just by looking at a print. You can't usually tell HP5 from TXP just by looking at normal print. Even pyro versus non-pyro is more of a nuance thing: highlight detail that maybe you wouldn't notice wasn't there if you never saw the pyro print.
But in my (limited) experience I can tell Azo from any other paper I have seen, my own work or that of others. THAT is why I am approaching enlarging as a re-tool exercise, not just a fine tuning exercise. And as I said earlier, I hope I am not sounding elitist here. My own methods and limited vision are the first thing I am rethinking.