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Willis Jackson: Bar Wars

Robert Spencer By

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The late great Gator is back in this reissue by Joel Dorn's 32 Jazz of Willis "Gator" Jackson's 1978 Muse release, Bar Wars. The title is apt: W. A. Brower states it straightforwardly in his liner notes: "His music is my idea of popular music (not to be confused with pop musics which are a wholly different species), because wherever you go — from Boston to Chicago and of course in Gator's favorite, Atlantic City — there is a Club Harlem, a Baby Grand or a Showcase or an Ebony Inn where the music on this record is the music."

Standrard R&B-flavored organ-tenor bar jazz it may be, but the late Mr. Jackson was one of its foremost exponents, and Bar Wars one of his most consistently pleasing products. His tone is gruff and grainy, in the tradition of all the booting R&B tenors in bars far and wide across this great land. He is joined here not only by the nimble Charlie Earland on organ, but by none other than Pat Martino, whose guitar is exuberant and strongly deployed. Then there’s Idris Muhammad on drums, so there's no doubt that the proceedings move along briskly from start to finish. Muhammad is propulsive without being flashy, yet on tracks like "The Breeze and I," he shows how much a jazz drummer differs from an ordinary R&B or rock and roll timekeeper (not that his timing isn't rock solid). Buddy Caldwell provides some congas for color.

Jackson adds two originals, the title track and "The Goose is Loose" to an otherwise fairly standard good-time music program. Brower observes, "He makes no pretenses and no matter the raised eyebrows of the highbrows there is nothing wrong with old favorites. With Gator what it is...is...what it is..." "What it is" is a fine lather worked up by Martino and Earland on "The Goose is Loose" before Gator steps up with his electric "a little bit louder now" routine. It's a breathy Willis (is he playing his long, straight Gator sax?) lovin you, baby, on "Blue and Sentimental." It's a sharper, brighter-toned Gator charging through Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me" in a solo bound to remind the avants that ‘Trane himself played an awful lot of this kind of music, and never really lost the feel for it. After the organ solo he returns with just the sort of keening entrance ‘Trane used to such great effect in such different surroundings on Kind of Blue. These two had some common sources.

Bar Wars is rounded out with alternate takes of "The Breeze and I" and "It's All Right with Me." It isn't as if Willis brings any radically different concept to these, but they are just as pleasant and straightforward as the masters. All in all, Bar Wars is very fine organ-tenor jazz / R&B. It's much more energetic and sincere than most of today's "smooth jazz" synthesized funk workouts. Willis Jackson is a first-rate "tennaman," surrounded here by first-rate sidemen — commendation should not escape Martino, but check out Earland on "It's All Right with Me." New (old) meaning to the word electric.


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