Gene Ammons & Sonny Stitt: God Bless Jug and Sonny
Jug and Sonny share a place near the top in the pantheon of tandem tenor teams. Their spirited, hard-charging contests, which always seem to end in amicable draws are the stuff of canonical jazz legend so the news of an previously unreleased recording of the pair is undoubtedly enough to set the countenances of their loyal fans to suffusing with expectant grins. Taped live at the Left Bank Jazz Society during Ammons’ twilight time (he would die a little over a year later) the date makes good on its promise. Three tracks clocking in at over fourteen minutes, one apiece as solo features for the individual tenors and a final track showcasing the rhythm section alone- its easy to see that this is a program custom-built to satisfy even the most demanding bop maven.
Ammon’s robust and throaty horn initiates the Gillespie classic “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” digging in deep around the theme and sounding off with sassy abandon through a ruddy stream of elongated notes. Stitt chimes in on the heels of his confrere’s solo with a lighter, less pugilistic tone, taking his time in cavorting with the rhythm section’s supportive swing. Engaging in a chain of overlapping exchanges the pair trade phrases before a final joint summation takes the tune out. “Stringin’ the Jug” affords Ammons inaugural honors a second time and the heavyweight tenor comes out swinging again. Jabbing and feinting through his series of choruses he again shows himself less light on his feet than Stitt and resorts on occasion to repetitive stock phrases. An uncharacteristic coarseness also invades his tone and its not always clear whether the change is a product of the recording fidelity or his own fading prowess. Stitt again sounds completely in control from the onset of his own protracted declaration, the speed of his unfurling lines matched by Higgins’ scampering drums.
The next two tracks provide opportunities to hear the individual horns in isolation with the rhythm section and the differences between Stitt and Ammons in these undiluted settings are particularly enlightening. Ammons’ gilded exploration of the Billie Holiday staple “God Bless the Child” balances just the right of measure of tenderness with muscular grit. Stitt hoists his alto for “Autumn in New York” working similar magic of the standard’s balladic changes. Walton’s “Ugetsu,” which first gained notoriety as an entry in the Jazz Messengers songbook gives the saxophonist’s a rest and the resulting trio shines on its own terms. Rounding out with a final burner in the form of a seventeen-minute “Bye Bye Blackbird” the tenor warhorses take one final gallop through the trenches.
As two-tenor conclaves go this one earns high marks. All the more so because unlike earlier recorded meetings between Jug and Sonny, track lengths allow for the duo to truly put each other through the paces. Listeners with a keen ear for the work of either man will find their expectations met many times over.
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Track Listing: Blue
Personnel: Gene Ammons- tenor saxophone; Sonny Stitt- tenor & alto saxophones; Cedar Walton- piano; Sam Jones- bass; Billy Higgins-drums. Recorded: June 24, 1973, Baltimore, MD.