Pianist Sonny Clark was a consummate hard-bopper who made only a handful of recordings as a leader, but appears on literally dozens of albums as a sideman. His impressive list of credits includes sessions with Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, Grant Green, Stanley Turrentine, Lee Morgan, and Jackie McLean. His style was largely informed by that of Bud Powell, yet showed a great deal of originality. Clark was a close friend of fellow pianist Bill Evans, who dedicated a composition (“NYC’s No Lark”) to him following Clark’s sudden, unexpected drug related death at the age of thirty-one. Clark’s death, like the passing of trumpeters Clifford Brown and Booker Little, and that of alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy, left a void in the jazz scene that was difficult to fill. His playing, which was both lyrical and complex, had been much in demand. Clark was a remarkably adaptable musician, able to work in any number of settings. During his short career, which lasted less than a decade, Clark made a significant contribution to the New York City jazz scene. And although he was not recognized outside of a small circle of knowledgeable jazz listeners at the time, his fame and his influence have spread considerably in the CD era.
Most of Clark’s recordings as a leader were made for the Blue Note label, and all of them were solidly within the hard-bop tradition established by label-mates Art Blakey and Horace Silver. Beginning with his debut as a leader, Dial “S” for Sonny, Clark betrayed a preference for large ensembles and displayed considerable talent as both composer and arranger. Most of his best known work (especially the classic Cool Struttin’, which has deservedly earned a place as one of the greatest Blue Notes of all time) features horns, although this hardly diminishes Clark’s solo space. Clark’s albums are generally upbeat affairs. His solos crackle with electricity, while he lends solid support to the horns (Clark stated in interviews that he enjoyed comping almost as much as he enjoyed soloing). On only a few occasions did Clark record in a trio setting, the most notable of which was the Sonny Clark Trio album.
It is on The Sonny Clark Trio that Clark makes one of his most powerful statements as a jazz artist. For the most part, the album – which features the ubiquitous bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones – is a collection of bop standards which Clark tackles at a brisk pace. “Be-Bop,” “Tadd’s Delight,” and “Two Bass Hit,” not to mention the Rodgers and Hart chestnut “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” all show off Clark’s manual dexterity, as well has his considerable skill as a soloist. But it is the last album’s last track, a solo reading of “I Remember April,” that captures the listener’s attention. Here is a side of Clark that we have not heard before. Revealed in this performance is a vulnerability that is lacking in even Clark’s strongest work. There is a sense of loss, a sense of regret that exposes the darkness at the core of Clark’s being. As in Charlie Parker’s legendary recording of “Lover Man,” we see the mask slip for just a moment, revealing the humanity behind the art; the pain that gives life to the most beautiful expression. It is a sublime moment.
Sonny Clark’s meditative reading of “I Remember April” is reminiscent of another great work of introspection. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a man journey’s into the interior of Africa in search of a missing military man, only to come face to face with mankind’s primal impulses. In listening to Clark’s revealing journey into himself, one cannot help but recall the words of Conrad’s mariner: “And this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth.”