Willis Jackson w/ Pat Martino: Gravy

Derek Taylor By

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A celebrity in Rhythm & Blues circles since his late teens Willis Jackson fought an uphill battle trying to earn acceptance among the jazz intelligentsia. He and many of his peers including King Curtis and Fred Jackson were saddled with the barwalker stigma from the moment they tried to establish themselves as serious improvisers. Dates like the two collected on this Prestige two-fer were often a double-edged prospect for while they afforded Jackson the chance to prove his chops they were also often formulaic in terms of material, relying on the kinds of blues based progressions that had long been his bread and butter. But while the program here is derivative Jackson and his band mates affix a fresh feeling on many of the tunes and in the process create an entertaining batch of music.

The tune titles are telling of the typecast on the first date. “Doot Dat”, the enunciated title track, and “Grease” are all ripe with grooves and raw toned tenor, but relatively interchangeable in terms of harmonic complexity. “Gra-a-a-vy” approximates its moniker both in terms of viscosity and duration, clocking in at an over baked eleven and a half minutes. Still Jackson’s lengthy and rootsy solo manages to slice away some of the surplus and Wilson’s organ fills are consistently funky against the leader’s gruff vocal encouragement. “Brother Elijah (Muhammad?)” is a finger-popping shuffle fueled by Wilson’s sorghum-sweet organ and Martino’s fat chordal support. Jackson shouts soulfully when the horn’s not in his mouth and Robinson coaxes a sanctified sound from his brass. “Stompin’ At the Savoy” isn’t much more than the familiar theme played out over an up tempo rhythm, but it must have been a perfect fit for jukebox play.

Session two, originally released as the album The Good Life switches gears to a clutch of standards and the emphasis switches from groove to romantically flavored swing. Jackson demonstrates that he can generate just as much heat smoldering slow as when he’s raising the roof and the band follows him into the amorous ballad waters feet first. Wilson’s also well-equipped on the more relaxed tempos wheeling out a full range of sustain and pedal effects on pieces like the title track to gorgeous effect. Martino’s guitar takes more of a backseat, but his solo statements retain a fluidity of purpose and execution particularly on the soothing rendition of “Angel Eyes.” Jackson even throws a few curve balls as on “As Long As She Needs Me” where after a relaxed preface the band suddenly breaks into a Latin tinged interlude replete with maracas and flamenco guitar flourishes. Overall while these dates don’t offer much in the way of originality, they do showcase Jackson’s talents both as a player and a bandleader and in the process lend more credence to his struggle toward earning respect.

Fantasy on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com

Track Listing: Brother Elijah/ Doot Dat/ Stompin

Personnel: Willis Jackson- tenor saxophone; Carl Wilson- organ; Frank Robinson- trumpet; Pat Martino- guitar; Leonard Gaskin- bass; Joe Haddick- drums. Recorded: May 23 & 24, 1963, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Title: Gravy | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Prestige Records


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