Gene Ammons: Fine and Mellow (2003)
Gene “Jug” Ammons was a sucker for finely wrought pop songs. He was also unapologetic slave to melody, putting his sturdy saxophone into the service of countless hummable themes. But his improvisations were never slavish and even with material of papish pedigree he always seemed to find something worthwhile to say.
Perfect case in point is this new Prestige two-fer, which combines material from a pair of early '70s platters, Got My Own and Big Bad Jug. The first set has a lounge vibe so viscous you can virtually smell the Aqua Velva aftershave, Pall Mall smoke and Mohair fibers in the air. How a string section crammed into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio alongside Jug’s core sextet is a mystery, and it’s more than likely that the label overdubbed the orchestrations after the fact. Largely superfluous to the action, they also thankfully don’t get in the way.
The ensemble line-up includes some impressive talent in the personages of Jones, Beck, Carter and Muhammad, but the ringers are the presence of heavy production and predilection for plugging in. The songbook is just as capricious; balancing a trio of Billie Holiday numbers (the film eponymous with the first track was a big hit contemporaneous to the session) with pop and funk fare. If the idea of Jug tackling Neil Diamond’s “Play Me” and the Michael Jackson signature “Ben” signals skeptical impulses, don’t be alarmed.
Ammons treats each tune with sober respect and the gravity in his playing accentuates the sometimes hidden strengths in the song craft. And while he rarely strays far from the melody, the muscle and surety in his phrasings further dispel any traces of triteness from the tracks. The oddest of the clutch is the reading of “Strange Fruit,” a duet with Jones’ electric piano that finds Jug in an uncustomary somber mood, sketching breathy lines across a watercolor wash of keyboard hues and trailing a luminous studio echo.
The second session enlists a different, more streamlined studio band with only Carter returning for the party. Phillips’ organ and, on “Tin Shack Out Back,” electric piano plant the mood firmly in funk and soul territory. Parker’s wah-wah slathered guitar adds fleshy chordal support to Jug’s wailing lead, and the band sounds off here as purely and proudly a product of their era. The leader’s closing unaccompanied cadenza is a killer. Even the rendering of “God Bless the Child” is laced with a palpable backbeat. Carter revels in the weighty sponginess of his amplified strings while Cobham carves out propulsive, if at times simplistic, rhythms. A laidback attitude seems to be the primary sentiment of the moment.
Closing with a trance-inducing version of the Temps’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Jug soars over a stuttering bass-heavy groove that steamrolls everything in its path. Check your prejudices at the coat rack and this set will likely fulfill the same purpose it did back in the day. An enjoyable diversion devoid of pretense by a man who earned the right to play and do things the way he wanted to. (An added extra: the new liner notes scribed by Ted Panken, which contain some insightful anecdotes voiced by none other than fellow Chicagoan Von Freeman.)
Track Listing: Lady Sings the Blues/ Play Me/ Ben/ Fly Me/ Fuzz/ Fine and Mellow/ Strange Fruit/ Big Bad Jug/ God Bless the Child/ Tin Shack Out Back/ Lady Mama/ I Can
Personnel: Gene Ammons- tenor saxophone; Ernie Hayes- organ; Hank Jones- electric piano; Joe Beck- guitar; Ron Carter- acoustic & electric bass; Idris Muhammad- drums; Mickey Roker- drums; Sonny Phillips- electric piano, organ; Maynard Parker- guitar; Billy Cobham- drums. Recorded: October 28 & 30 and November 1, 1972, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.