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Extended Analysis

Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952

By Published: September 15, 2006
Sonny Stitt

Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952



There are two stories detractors tell about saxophonist Sonny Stitt (1924-82). Actually, his detractors tell many stories, but these two are chiefly musical. The first says that Stitt's musical inventiveness amounted to no more than being a reasonably good Charlie Parker clone when he began playing alto in the mid-1940s. The second says that Stitt frittered away his talent over the subsequent decades, taking dates and gigs indiscriminately without attending adequately to his musical development.

Stitt is nevertheless regarded by many, maybe even most, listeners as a heavyweight figure in the history of the music, and this handsomely-produced three-CD box set seems intent on rescuing the saxophonist from unfair opprobrium. From the exhaustively- documented session information, to Harvey Pekar's characteristically grand liner notes, right down to the portentous sub-title, this is a compilation that tries hard to confer artistic weight upon its subject.

That sub-title—The Bebop Recordings—seems a bit off for two reasons, even if there is no room for doubt regarding the massive bop component of Stitt's style. First, by the time these recordings were made, bebop was a mature, if not a passé style. (Unfortunately, Stitt had sat out the peak of the bop era behind bars on a narcotics offense). Second, as we'll see below, a lot of these records are arguably better classified as various schools of post-bop, including a lot of rhythm and blues.

With the exception of a fine January 1950 alternate take of "Strike Up The Band," which has languished without reissue since it was a 78rpm single, everything here has been previously available on CD, and the new package does not appear to have included any remastering. All this is more evidence that the principal objective of the release is to affirm Stitt's greatness.

How well does the new package dispel the negative stories surrounding Stitt? The first disc features an embarrassment of riches, notably a 1949 session led by trombonist J.J. Johnson featuring drummer Max Roach and pianist John Lewis, whose "Afternoon In Paris" is premiered in two gorgeous takes. Close on the heels of the Johnson date are two fine quartet dates with Roach and pianist Bud Powell. A final date with Kenny Drew and Art Blakey replacing Powell and Roach is generally good, too, especially Stitt's low, tremulous delivery (more Lester Young than Parker any day) of "Stairway To The Stars."

Stitt, who started out on alto (giving rise to the invidious Parker comparisons) before his prison stint, had switched to tenor by the time of these sessions. He certainly sounds Parker- influenced, soloing off of the top of the chord and all. But it would have been hard then not to respond to Bird's towering influence. It is moreover entirely possible (as the tenor man's defenders will claim) that Stitt had independently arrived at these innovations. After all, there are those who say that Parker's breakthrough was an inevitable outgrowth of what had gone before in jazz improvisation. It should therefore not surprise us that more than one soloist might have hit upon it.

The second and third discs are dominated by a series of bands co-led by Stitt and fellow tenor Gene Ammons, whose gruffer style complements Stitt's. There are some very nice moments in these recordings: an easygoing April 1950 reading of Richard Carpenter's "Gravy," a tune that would definitively enter the jazz pantheon when Miles Davis recorded it under its alternate title, "Walkin,'" four years later; and lovely alto and baritone turns on respectively "Imagination" and "P.S. I Love You." Ammons and the other musicians often sound fine, too, though the creeping influence of Ammons' more honking, rhythm and blues style, attractive at first, becomes increasingly mannered and grating as the sessions wear on.

The quality of Stitt's playing, and the top-drawer caliber of the line-ups on the 1949 and 1950 sessions featured on the first discs, should be enough to remind the jazz world that the saxophonist, as Pekar concludes, "did plenty." No mere Parker clone, this one. Still, one cannot help but feel that the later material fails to measure up, and in some cases is almost desultory. And in that sense, Stitt's Bits fails to dispel the second critique of Stitt, that he lent his talents to undertakings of dubious musical value. (It's curious that Chet Baker kind of wandered from session to session during the 1970s in the same way, but managed nevertheless to spark genuine magic from time to time.) This package suggests that Stitt had already started down this errant path barely months after the truly great post-bop recordings on the first disc.

Stitt would go on to make some genuinely great discs, and his inventive solos would redeem many a mediocre recording. The cumulative impact of so much good playing on the early recordings featured here, however, lends weight to the feeling that his potential was never fully realized.


CD1: Afternoon In Paris [take 1]; Afternoon In Paris [take 2]; Elora [take 1]; Elora [take 2]; Teapot [take 1]; Teapot [take 2]; Blue Mode [take 1]; Blue Mode [take 2]; All God's Chillun Got Rhythm; Sonny Side; Bud's Blues; Sunset; Strike Up The Band; Strike Up The Band [Alternate Take]; I Want To Be Happy; Taking A Chance On Love; Fine And Dandy [Take 1]; Fine And Dandy [Take 2]; Avalon; Later; Ain't Misbehavin'; Mean To Me; Stairway To The Stars; Bye Bye; Let It Be.

CD2: Blues Up And Down [Take 1]; Blues Up And Down [Take 2]; Blues Up And Down [Take 3]; You Can Depend On Me [Take 1]; You Can Depend On Me [Take 2]; Touch Of The Blues; Dumb Woman Blues; Chabootie; Who Threw The Sleeping Pills In Rip Van Winkle's Coffee?; Gravy (Aka Walkin'); Easy Glide; Count Every Star; Nice Work If You Can Get It; There Will Never Be Another You; Blazin'; Back In Your Own Back Yard; Sweet Jennie Lou; Vie En Rose; Seven Eleven; Think You've Chosen Me; After You've Gone; Our Very Own; 'S Wonderful; Stringin' The Jug; Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You).

CD3: Jeepers Creepers; Imagination; Cherokee; 'Round About One A.M.; Jug; Wow; Blue And Sentimental; Liza (All The Clouds'll Roll Away); Can't We Be Friends; New Blues Up And Down; Thrill Of Your Kiss; If The Moon Turns Green; P.S. I Love You; This Can't Be Love; Down With It; For The Fat Man; Splinter; Confession'; Undecided; (It Will Have To Do) Until The Real Thing Comes Along; Because Of Rain; Charmine; Cool Mambo; Sonny Sounds; Blue Mambo; Stitt's It.


Sonny Stitt: alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; John Hunt, Bill Massey, Joe Newman: trumpet; Eli Dabney, Matthew Gee, Bennie Green, J.J. Johnson, Alfred Chippy Outcalt: trombone; Gene Ammons: tenor saxophone; Clarence Anderson, Charles Bateman, Kenny Drew, John Houston, Duke Jordan, John Lewis, Junior Mance, Bud Powell: piano; Nelson Boyd, Earl May, Tommy Potter, Curly Russell, Ernie Shepard, Gene Wright: bass; Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Wesley Landers, Max Roach, Teddy Stewart, Shadow Wilson: drums; Humberto Morales: timbales; Larry Townsend, Ted Williams: vocals.

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