One of the true child prodigies of the ‘60s, saxophonist Eric Kloss holds the distinction of having a record contract with Prestige Records at the ripe young age of 15. Blind, smart as a whip, and technically proficient at even this early stage in his career, Kloss went on to make some remarkable albums up through the early ‘70s and then disappeared into academia. While his first two records featured him with organ combos and have been paired on a compact disc reissue, it was his third album as a leader that truly solidified his stature. Despite its hokey title, Grits and Gravy spoke to Kloss’ merits as a distinctive jazz artist, as opposed to a gimmick concocted to take advantage of some youthful charm.
Composed of two 1966 sessions, Grits and Gravy has its more commercial moments in the three cuts featuring female background vocalists and a larger ensemble. Even still, “A Slow Hot Wind” and “A Day In the Life Of a Fool” manage to include some magical moments where Kloss makes the most of his limited solo space. The real meat here though comes in the five selections that find Kloss and his alto horn going head to head with the legendary rhythm team of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson. Let’s face it; this threesome would scare off many a musician double Kloss’ age at the time, making his showing here even all the more remarkable.
Clocking in at just a tad over ten minutes, Kloss leaves us a true tour-de-force in the guise of “Milestones.” Taken at breakneck speed, the alto man delivers phrase after phrase with fluidity and dazzling technique. His tonal manipulations and the way he ventures into the upper register suggest that men like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp had left their influence on Kloss. Byard is equally inspired in his message, with Dawson and Davis providing the glue to hold it all together. Often cited as a test for any jazzman is his way with a ballad and in that department Kloss exhibits maturity beyond his years, a take on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” providing the proof.
While many of Kloss’ Prestige sides have made their way to compact disc, Grits and Gravy remains inexplicably out-of-print. This is a shame considering that it just might be among his best-recorded works. Years before Wynton Marsalis would be ushering in a new era of youthful exuberance, Kloss demonstrated that earlier decades had their own ‘young lions’ as part of the jazz landscape.