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Sonny Clark: Dial "S" for Sonny

C. Michael Bailey By

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Pianist Sonny Clark was culturally marginalized in much the same way as his contemporary Elmo Hope—both heroin-addicted jazz musicians in the 1950s: at the time, and romantically, a cliche. Both pianists have been sorely lumped into the "Bud Powell school of bop piano" which superficially may seem accurate until one considers the evolutionary continuum of jazz piano that places both Clark and Hope conceptually and stylistically beyond Powell.

Clark was born in Georgia and raised outside of Pittsburgh. His professional career began on the West Coast while visiting his Aunt where Clark met and began working with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. From southern California, Clark went to San Francisco with bassist Oscar Pettiford. The pianist joined clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in 1953, touring with him until 1956, when he joined The Lighthouse All-Stars, led by bassist Howard Rumsey. Wishing to return East, in 1957, Clark signed on to accompany singer Dinah Washington ensuring a move to New York City in February of that year. In July, Clark entered Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio to begin cutting sides for what would become his debut recording for Blue Note Records, Dial "S" for Sonny.

Dial "S" for Sonny was a sextet recording featuring trumpeter Art Farmer, trombonist Curtis Fuller and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. Bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Louis Hayes rounded out the rhythm section. The repertoire consisted of four Clark originals and two standards ("It Could Happen to You" and "Love Walked In"). Like hope, Clark was a full-service jazz composer. His performance informed the hard bop genre of which he was a powerful proponent.

Clark alternates between hard bop cookers and ballads: the title tune, "Bootin' It" and "Sonny's Mood" being upbeat definitive hard bop. 'The two standards offer the more meditative mood, with "Love Walked In" performed in a trio format. The breadth of Clark's capabilities are displayed in his tempo and rhythm switches on the Gershwin classic. "Shoutin' on a Riff" is Clark's all-out nod to bebop, with the pianist showing off his technical wares at speed. The ensemble playing is sprite and fresh with Farmer and Fuller hitting notes right on the nose, while Mobley kept things rounded up in that loose, fun way he had when he performed. Dial "S" for Sonny serves well as an example of hard bop when the subgenre was evolving.

Track Listing

Dial “S” for Sonny; Bootin’ It; It Could Happen to You; Sonny’s Mood; Shoutin’ on a Riff; Love Walked In; Bootin’ It (alternate take)

Personnel

Sonny Clark: piano; Wilbur Ware: bass, acoustic; Louis Hayes: drums; Hank Mobley: saxophone, tenor; Art Farmer: flugelhorn; Curtis Fuller: trombone.

Album information

Title: Dial "S" for Sonny | Year Released: 1957 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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