Published since 2003
Sam Chell is a champion of the composers of the American Songbook and the musicians who keep it alive.
Before the Trojan prince Aeneas ended his torrid love affair with the African queen Dido, sailing from Carthage to Italy, he certainly must have created with his companion a select gene pool that would eventually produce not only the lyric operatic tenors of the Romance countries on the northern shores of the Mediterranean but the soulful, playful Tunisian troubadours on the African southern shores.
As the distant, saxophone-playing descendants of this potent mix, America's so-called "boss tenors, along with the inner-city lounge stages on which they frequently played, came to occupy a place of no less importance than the Carusos and Pavarottis who performed at La Scala and the Met. If the African-American tenor stars lacked the support of a symphonic orchestra and a demonstrative Milan claque, they could often claim no less forceful backing from a Hammond B-3 and the devoted fans who drove hours to see their heroes take on all challengers at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, at the old Birdland in New York, or at McKie's Show Lounge in Chicago.
Besides McKie's, Chicago had Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, a migratory stage that throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s frequently found itself home to as many as four tenor giants on the same programtowering troubadours selected by Segal from among his personal favorites, beginning with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, followed closely by Dexter Gordon, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Johnny Griffin and James Moody, and then by players who might be available to fill an extra spot, whether Stanley Turrentine, Hank Mobley, Harold Land, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Clifford Jordan, Charlie Rouse, Ira Sullivan, Roland Kirk, Jimmy Forrest, Don Byas, Eddie Harris, Red Holloway, Booker Ervin, Bunky Green, or "locals Von Freeman and Prince James.
No doubt Segal had extended similar invitations to the likes of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Stan Getz, but either because of such stars' exorbitant price tags or over-extended egos (Segal wouldn't say), followers of Chicago's tenor showcases were denied the opportunity of seeing any of these latter three gird their loins for gladiatoral combat.
Soon the spectacles would be fairly predictable in terms of "winners and "losers (including the listener, who couldn't help but be a winner): Griffin would break speed records; Kirk would overwhelm; Gordon wouldn't be denied, even when reciting song lyrics from memory; Stitt would be the "most perfect player, an enhanced and accessible Charlie Parker; Moody would usually be just a step behind the other three players on the bill; Von Freeman and Bunky Green would leave you wondering if the intonation problems were theirs or yours; Mobley would be a mere shadow of his old self.
Then there were Gene "Jug" Ammons and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. "Jug, a class act and as big of heart as of physical size and tone, was greeted like a war hero on the two occasions he appeared just after doing time at Jolietthe second an especially cruel and unfair sentencing of seven years for a parole violation. Because he usually followed Stitt in the sequence of solos, he had the advantage of playing to lowered expectations and he invariably exceeded them. In fact, just being able to match Stitt was sufficient to assure a victory.
Jaws, on the other hand, was arguably the baddest player of them all. Gentlemanly in appearance, as smooth-mannered as his suits were well-pressed, when it came time to sparkle and shine, he had no equals. As the clean-up hitter in a four-tenor line-up, he could transform a mere cookin' session into a full-scale Mardi Gras, taking the entire rhythm section on his shoulders and literally willing it to swing, often going immediately to that uniquely penetrating, sensual altissimo register, using it melodically, percussively and vocallya volatile mix of exquisite melodies, mesmerizing riffs, and rapturous "testifying. Ammons was his only rival, and then but occasionally, at removing all rational defenses, bringing the most genteel crowd to their feet (or knees) in unanimous praise of that feminine musical deity (no doubt a descendant of Dido) identified in Duke Ellington's A Drum Is a Woman (Columbia, 1957) as "Madame Zajj.
Paradoxically, both soloists were helped by the public's perception of them as "lesser and more primitive players, largely because of their association with musicians whose technical facility was practically a given. Ammons at one point formed a two-tenor team with Stitt, the saxophonist most identified with Parker and reputed to have been bequeathed the "keys to the kingdom by Bird himself. And up to the end, Stitt and Ammons would play together on club dates and concerts. Davis would form a partnership with the brilliant young tenor saxophonist, Johnny Griffin, billed as 'the fastest tenor player alive and nicknamed the little Giant in recognition of a musical pedigree stemming from none other than "long tall Dexter Gordon. As a result, the expectations for both Ammons and Davis were never as high, making their solo triumphs all the more dramatic in the eyes of an audience that had at the outset miscast either soloist as an underdog.
Those listeners with longer memories had no cause for surprise. Ammons, the son of the highly regarded Kansas City boogie-woogie pianist, Albert Ammons, was still in his teens when Billy Eckstein hired him to sit next to Dexter Gordon in the same big band that at various times included Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, and Fats Navarro, not to mention Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Gray, Art Blakey and Sarah Vaughan!
At the end of his sets in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jug used to love recalling his days in the Eckstein band and running down the line-up for his audience, all of it building up to his dramatic punch- line: "And what were all of these musical geniuses doing night after night? (Pause) "Holding whole notes while Mr. B was balladeering on his hit songs, "I Apologize (Pause: "That was the least he could do."); "I Want To Talk About You (Pause: "Then why don't you?"); "I'm Just A Prisoner Of Love. (Pause: Who did you say was a prisoner? ).
Despite losing almost ten of his best years to confinement in the Joliet penitentiary, Jug was genial, charismatic, the genuine article. Not long before his death, I drove to Chicago to hear him in a "tenor battle with Hank Mobley. Mobs was so wasted and incoherent on stage that promoter Joe Segal simply didn't know where to turn until Ammons said, "I'll take care of it. Explaining to the crowd (and probably to Hank as well) that Mobley was "indisposed" for the evening, Jug introduced a trio number by pianist Duke Jordan, then gently but firmly chaperoned a suddenly quiet and compliant Mobley off stage. At the end of the trio interlude, Ammons was back on stage, tenor in hand, and the rest of the evening was a cooking set by solo tenor without further extra-musical interruptions.
Eddie Lockjaw Davis also came up in the big bands but was especially prized by Count Basie, who hired him at every opportunity, even giving him responsibilities in areas such as booking and keeping the band's working repertory up to date and in order. Of all the tenor players I heard perform "live" with the Basie bandFrank Wess, Frank Foster, Jimmy Forrest, Eric Dixonnone played with more authority, technical command, and crowd-connecting communicativeness that Lockjaw.
On the burners he "locked into Sonny Payne's or Harold Jones' hi-hat, becoming no less a rhythmic dynamo than an inventive melodic voice, never wasting a note during his partial choruses, played with such conviction and forward energy as to make a listener believe he alone was capable of carrying the entire band. On ballads his solos and fills were so expressively "vocalized and attention-getting in themselves that on the classic recording Sinatra At The Sands (Reprise, 1966) the featured entertainer, sensing he's about to be upstaged by the tenor player, directs some humorous but unmistakably disparaging remarks toward Jaws during the performance of the Gershwin ballad "I've Got A Crush On You.
The present RVG remasters of Boss Tenor and The Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Cookbook Vol. 1 capture both tenor players at optimal periods in their careers. Following his last stay at Joliet, Ammons would be greeted by a musical scene radically different from the one that he had leftJohn Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin not to mention the Beatles and Stones had reshaped the environment he was accustomed to. Unfortunately, Ammons tried to adjust with uncharacteristic altissimo shrieking and forced elocution leading to unmistakable intonation problems.
But Boss Tenor, recorded in 1960 and with the supremely gifted, exquisitely tasteful Tommy Flanagan on piano, finds Jug having to prove nothing and doing what he did bestcreating beautiful, heart-felt yet logically-constructed melodies and producing a sound that for many listeners has never been equaledhuge but never "hard ; simple and slightly raw but too lyrical and personal to be mistaken for r&b, gospel- and blues-derived popular forms; a bigger-than-life, dues-all-paid-up tone devoid of slick and urbane Motown shine and polish.
If there's any question about the difference between a Junior Walker and a Gene Ammons, go directly to "My Romance, more full-bodied and sensual but no less sensitive than Bill Evans' version on the original Vanguard sessions. Ammons takes the tune through once, entrusting Richard Rodgers' poetic melody to the breathstream of the tenor's seductive voice, as reassuring as it is alluring. The opening extended blues, "Hittin' The Jug," displays Ammons playing to another of his strengths. Although he was capable, ever since his days with Eckstein, of rising to the challenge of tenor battles with Stitt or Gordon, his true forte was playing the bluesunrushed, unafraid of open spaces or naked emotion, unashamed to state his melodic inventions with accessible clarity and then link his phrases with a universally understood logic. His signature style was one emphasizing, above all, simplicityin the musical vocabulary, grammar and rhetoric of his understated but powerful song-sermons.
At the same time, like his peers in the late '40s Ammons had learned much of the harmonic-technical language of Parker and Gillespie, as is made abundantly clear on arguably Parker's best composition, "Confirmation," which on Boss Tenor is taken at a tempo faster than the norm. But even on the session's more accessible, popular success, "Canadian Sunset," the tenor man's solo resists stasis through the use of double-timing and alternate harmonies. And because Ammons' persona was so well established in the listener's mind as one of strength, stability, and simplicity, each of his more adventurous, technically demanding constructions comes across as a kind of turbo-charged, heroic statement. From other players, the same melodic phrases would sound merely facile; from Ammons' authoritative voice they're proclamations delivered from Mount Sinai.
Not the least of Boss Tenor's strengths is the personnel. Flanagan had already recorded Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959) with Coltrane, but his was a temperament and talent ideally suited to Ammons. Never feeling the need to play lots of notes merely to fill space nor indulging in the numerous hard bop/funky clichés of the day (many stolen from Horace Silver), Flanagan alone deserves much of the credit for the unadorned, right-on-the-mark eloquence of Ammons on this occasion. Bassist Doug Watkins was an even more unflappable walker than his Detroit cousin Paul Chambers, his note choices alone worth a listener's attention on a repeated playing of the disc. The late Ray Barretto shows why, while not among the flashier Latin hand-drummers, he was always the most supportive, helping to propel the beat but always maintaining and staying within the current of the music's mainstream flow.
As for the remastering, I've come to regard these RVG editions less as "improvements" than as "reinterpretations," or "adaptations," of the original audio balance for present-day listeners' tastes. To my ears Watkins' bass has been overly boosted and brought too far forward in the mix, while Flanagan's piano has been deprived of some of its former presence. No big deal, unless your playback system is a Kloss Tivoli or some similar device without equalizing controls.
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
The Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Cookbook Vol. 1
The first tune on the RVG remastered The Cookbook Vol. 1, "Have Horn, Will Blow," is hard- charging compared to the Ammons' opener but relatively conservative by Davis' standards. Lockjaw uncharacteristically leaves patches of open space before meshing gears with the rhythm section and moving to the altissimo register. The defining quality of the tenor man's syntax is the repeated eighth-note figure initiating his phrases. He places a hard accent on the first note of each trochaic unit, a device that would sound "corny" at slow tempos, but Davis is so quick of tongue that at the up tempos he normally favors it's a propulsive, peremptory juggernaut, capable of "disposing of" practically any instrumentalist with whom he happens to be sharing the bandstand (as Stan Getz once found out).
A Jaws solo doesn't sing or flow; his musical rhetoric is all about testifying. From Ben Webster he borrows the raspy, guttural sound that the swing-era giant would employ on the last, heated-up choruses of his solos. But Jaws adapts the device in a way that comes off as more "natural," limiting it to the altissimo register.
A member of the illustrious family of B3 players from Philadelphia, Shirley Scott, as usual, relies on a bassist for the recording sessionand one of the best: George Duvivier. There's no question about her chops, but her drawbar registrations and continuous vibrato recall some of the heavier textures favored by earlier playersWild Bill Davis, Milt Buckner, Bill Doggettrather than the leaner, popular Jimmy Smith sound. Whether Scott has a stompin' gospel meeting in mind or a roaring chorus shouted by the entire Basie band is hard to say, but she's not about to deny the instrument any of its roof-raising potential. On "The Chef" she literally becomes Davis' congregation for some call-response playing that puts me in mind of the recorded sermons of Aretha's dad, Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church.
"In The Kitchen," a slow, extended blues in Eb, provides ample testimony to Scott's soul-stirring homiletics. Taking her time to develop each chorus, she pulls out all stops while emphatically pumping the pulse with the volume pedal, not giving way to Davis' tenor solo until 5-6 minutes into the song. The spirit works in mysterious ways, the blues being no exception. Scott hands the 12-bar form over to Davis at measure five, which is the IV chord (Ab) of the blues sequence. But the saxophonist treats it as measure one of a new blues in Ab, as the rhythm section continues playing in Eb for what winds up being a 16-bar bi-tonal blues chorus. By the end of the song, it's no longer Scott's but Davis' blues. Regardless of the fixin's surrounding the plate, there's never a question about who's serving up the haute cuisine when Jaws is in the kitchen.
Just as the presence of Ray Barretto invests Boss Tenor with an added measure of lightness and play, the inclusion of Jerome Richardson's flute, a seemingly outmatched instrument in this roisterous company, was an inspired decision. Not only is the sound of the instrument itself a welcome contrast from the session's sonic density but it encourages Scott to back off on the volume pedal and dilute the thickness of the stew. On "Three Deuces," a burner based on "I Got Rhythm" changes, Richardson picks up his tenor and proves a formidable sparring mate for Davis, especially during some bristling four-bar exchanges.
If there's any question about which of the two sessions is more essential, give the edge to Boss Tenor, arguably Ammons' best solo album. As for The Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Cookbook Vol. 1, it's another fine serving by the chef, rising above similar lounge fare largely due to the presence of Jerome Richardson, but the two additional tracks, including an alternate take of "But Beautiful," are anticlimactic fillers. Look instead for Very Saxy (Prestige, 1961), featuring no fewer than four tough-talking tenors: Jaws, Coleman Hawkins, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate. At the same time, as is the case with "once-in-a-lifetime" great tenors like Enrico Caruso and Jussi Björling, few if any recordings can do full justice by the commanding tenor voices of Jug and Jaws. Their best sessions represented a unique, spontaneous, largely non-replayable communal excitement that was "of" as much as "in" the moment.
I know some followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who take seriously his insistence on the possibility of attaining a levitational state known as "yogic flying." "Preposterous," I say. For starters, he would have had to play a Selmer Mark VI.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Hittin' The Jug; Close Your Eyes; My Romance; Canadian Sunset; Blue Ammons; Confirmation; Stompin' At The Savoy.
Personnel: Gene Ammons: tenor saxophone; Tommy Flanagan: piano; Doug Watkins: bass; Art Taylor: drums; Ray Barretto: congas.
Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on June 16, 1960. Originally released on Prestige (7180). Includes original liner notes by LeRoi Jones.
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Cookbook Vol. 1
Tracks: Have Horn, Will Blow; The Chef; But Beautiful; In The Kitchen; Three Deuces; But Beautiful (previously unreleased, alternate take, bonus track); Avalon (bonus track).
Personnel: Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis: tenor saxophone; Jerome Richardson: flute, tenor saxophone; Shirley Scott: organ; George Duvivier: bass; Arthur Edgehill: drums.
Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on June 20 and September 12, 1958. Includes original liner notes by Ira Gitler.
Record Label: Prestige Records
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