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Hard Bop Extravaganza

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Personal Appearance
Sonny Stitt
1957

Few artists recorded as prolifically as Stitt; over the course over 100+ albums, he seemed to play with anybody willing to pick up an instrument and join him in the studio. Inevitably, there was a lot of mediocre material released, and it can be a little tricky finding Stitt's best stuff.

Personal Appearance is one of the better ones, an outing which finds the saxophonist playing in a Parker-influenced style over a selection of bebop favorites like "Easy To Love" and "Autumn In New York". Stitt's most famous and highly regarded recordings are those in which he is paired with another horn (most notably Gene Ammons or Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis), yet as the sole lead instrument he proves that he has more than enough ideas to hold his own and doesn't require the interplay the extra horn provides.

On this relatively early date, Stitt shows an uncanny able to run changes and stitch together solos that venture into unexpected corners, and play dizzying series of notes without sounding showy. He has clearly mastered the vocabulary of the bebop solo and he displays the same isosceles passages Bird favored, yet tinged with a bit of soulfulness that the more famous altoist never quite had. In fact, Stitt handles tricky chord progressions so effortlessly that the token blues (one wittily titled "Original?") don't challenge him enough and come off sounding pat. The rhythm section does what good sidemen do: provide sturdy backing and play a respectable solo when given the opportunity.

Later on Stitt joined Prestige in a successful partnership: an artist who wanted to record every chance he got found a label that was eager to saturate the market with soul jazz. Before he headed down that road, though, he recorded this fine album.

Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1956

Johnny Griffin was a bop-influenced player who was capable of handling the rigors of both Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and a stint with Thelonious Monk. Often given credit as the world's fastest tenor player (at least for a time), Griffin enjoyed a good tenor battle as much as the next guy, but also could deliver a solid quartet album such as this one.

Johnny Griffin is pretty typical mid-fifties fare: a few standards, a couple of originals, and a blues or two, comparable to albums by Dexter Gordon or Hank Mobley from the same era. There's nothing here that Griffin can't handle, from the bouncy "I Cried For You" to the tricky "Riff Raff", to the catchy original blues "Satin Wrap", which is a great almost-standard. The rhythm section, which features Junior Mance and Wilbur Ware, are veterans who know how to give a player like Griffin the support he needs to really take off, and Mance really gives it all he has when given the chance to play over blues changes.

However, Griffin still gets the most solo time. He is indeed a fast player, yet each note is distinct and clear in the endless runs he creates, but never giving the impression of rushing things. The only drawback is the ballads, where Griffin starts out letting the notes hang, but soon falls back to flooding the line with notes where a delicate approach would have been more appropriate.

Be that as it may, Griffin has created a fine album that, along with Stitt's, is a good example of the bread and butter of many saxophonists from the mid-fifties.

'S Make It
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
1964

The Blue Note Jazz Messengers recordings are so highly regarded that those done for other labels at around the same time tend to fall by the wayside. This shouldn't be the case; Blakey was such a determined taskmaster that he was able to get great performances out of the other players on just about every occasion.

'S Make It features a transitional Messenger line-up with Morgan returning to fold and John Gilmore as the wild card in his only appearance with the band. They join current member Curtis Fuller in the front line on the expected tight playing over the gospel-tinged romps that were par for the course in the early days of Blakey's groups. John Hicks infuses the title track with a soulful groove that Bobby Timmons would be proud to call his own while Morgan fires up solos of flatted fifths and smears that he perfected on his Blue Note albums. Fuller, of course, follows along nicely and Gilmore may surprise those who only know him from Sun Ra's Arkestra with his ability to match the other two in the front line with a robust, bar-walking style.

The first part of the album is pretty typical fare, but the last two songs are a different beast altogether. Both are smoky ballads that are essentially showcases for Morgan, who plays with a tenderness and subtlety that he often isn't given credit for. Blakey, as always, provides leadership by not being a showman but by giving his sidemen the support they need to shine.

'S Make It is a fine Messenger album and a good example of the drummer's consistently satisfying work.

Kirk In Copenhagen
Roland Kirk
1963

To fully appreciate his artistry, Kirk truly needed to be experienced live. Sure, playing three instruments at once is an incredible feat, but wouldn't it be great to have seen it? Unfortunately for most of us, we can only be satisfied with recordings such as this one from Club Montmarte, Denmark's famous jazz club.

Live, Kirk barrels through tunes with an almost reckless abandon, making judicious use of the noisemaking possibilities of his various instruments and firing out long, squalling passages made possible by the circular breathing he mastered. Kirk was a performer who was very sympathetic to his audience, injecting humor through bawdy lyrics and the occasional nose flute licks and, this being an earlier recording, little of the politicizing that became his passion later on.

Overall this is a prime example of Kirk's gifts as a musician. He was often criticized for being a carnival act, and certainly his ability to multitask brought out the showman in him in front of interested parties. But he was also a crafty improviser as well, and tunes like "Mingus-Griff Song" show his dedication to preserving the legacy of jazz by stitching all its manifestations into a patchwork quilt of influences.

This is a good representation of Kirk's work, but there are a couple of drawbacks. First, the sidemen seem under rehearsed, not having fully absorbed Kirk's method and hanging on by their fingernails whenever he solos, seeming to breathe a sigh of relief when he takes a break. Also, the levels aren't balanced: the drums are overmiked and the piano lacks the presence it requires.

But one of the joys of jazz is bringing together musicians from different backgrounds - different countries, even - and watching the interplay that follows no matter what occurs. When it comes right down to it, all musicians speak the same language and in the end this was the message that Kirk was preaching all along.

Sonny Stitt - Personal Appearance
Tracks: 1. Easy To Love 2. Easy Living 3. Autumn In New York 4. You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To 5. For Some Friends 6. I Never Knew 7. Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea 8. East of the Sun (and West of the Moon) 9. Original? 10. Avalon 11. Blues Greasy.
Personnel: Sonny Stitt - alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Bobby Timmons - piano; Edgar Willis - bass; Kenny Dennis - drums.

Johnny Griffin - Johnny Griffin
Tracks: 1. I Cried For You 2. Satin Wrap 3. Yesterdays 4. Riff-Raff 5. Bee-Ees 6. The Boy Next Door 7. These Foolish Things 8. Lollypop.
Personnel: Johnny Griffin - tenor saxophone; Junior Mance - piano; Wilbur Ware - bass; Buddy Smith -drums.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - 'S Make It
Tracks: 1. Faith 2. 'S Make It 3. Waltz For Ruth 4. One For Gamal 5. Little Hughie 6. Olympia 7. Lament for Stacy.
Personnel: Art Blakey - drums; Lee Morgan - trumpet; Curtis Fuller -trombone; John Gilmore - tenor sax; John Hicks - piano; Victor Sproles - bass.

Roland Kirk - Kirk In Copenhagen
Tracks: 1. Narrow Bolero 2. Mingus-Griff Song 3. The Monkey Thing 4. Mood Indigo 5. Cabin in the Sky 6. On the Corner of King and Scott Streets.
Personnel: Roland Kirk - tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, flute, nose flute, and/or siren whistle; Tete Montoliu - piano; Niels-Henning Ørsted Pesersen - bass; J.C. Moses - drums.


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