The tapes were on a high shelf in an old storeroom, so lost that their labels were barely legible. Producer Eric Miller stumbled upon them while putting other tapes back; the faint scrawling ("JATP/SHRINE/1951") piquing his interest. With the personnel unlisted, there was nothing to do but listen.
"As soon as I heard the alto, I stopped. It took my breath away...It was his show. You could hear the crowd swell, and then you could hear him react to the crowd. It was so extraordinary, it took me a few minutes to realize that it wasn't Bird or Sonny Stitt or anyone of that school."
If the world has largely ignored Sonny Criss, it is the world's loss. He burst on the L.A. scene as a teenager, jamming with Bird and Dexter Gordon, and touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic from 1948 to 1950. JATP producer Norman Granz recorded Criss with Hampton Hawes, then helped to promote a 1951 tour of Billy Eckstine, which had criss in the backing band. Its opening date was at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, and the band's feature spot is heard on this disc.
It's a powerhouse group, a pleasing mix of the famous and the soon-to-be. The horns are Joe Newman and Lockjaw Davis, both to join Basie, and Bennie Green, between stints with Earl Hines. The rhythm has Tommy Potter and Kenny Clarke; pianist Bobby Tucker is probably the most obscure of the bunch. This is a pickup group? Their shining moment came between sets, appropriately enough, on the tune "Intermission Riff". The horns punch the solid-brass riff, then Lockjaw solos, even more raucous than normal. You hear the musicians pop figners and shout him on, and he gets more and more screechy while keeping his mid-tempo burn. Newman's solo has a similar slow start, with the horns prodding him to a sharper sound amd more intense attack. No such boost needed for Criss; he goes ever higher, shouting the whole time with crystal clarity. His is the only solo to get major applause. I can tell why.
"How High The Moon" gets a calypso opening, and a kick-start from Newman. No sluggish opening here; he comes in brassy, shouting hot, quoting "Tenderly" in a untender solo, and sounding off with one last shout. Lockjaw comes on soft like Lester Young, and then the growl comes in; his quote is "Volga Boatman"! Potter's solo is good, but is slightly hurt by fuzzy sound; this also plagues Tucker. Green's solo is solid, using bits later heard on the famous "4 Trombones" date with Jay and Kai. Criss' solo has a thousand notes and a little hint of Parker's "Ornithology", which is based on these chords. You hear someone say "Yeah, Baby!" I agree. The applause comes at mid-solo, after a quote of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"; the crowd shouts "Go! Go!" and applauds again. The band takes up Sonny's hint, and the last group chorus is "Ornithology". A good end; a good number.
"Perdido" opens with a Criss solo, a little more mellow than the others; this time the horn riff enhances his sound. After this, he goes on full-gear, spinning his rapid-fire notes as the crowd goes "Ooh!" He also does some low growls, sounding like Lockjaw. Newman's solo is also mellow at first, hard at conclusion, again benefitting from a strong riff behind him. Big applause at the end, and someone says "A good one!"
The big voice in "Body and Soul" is Lockjaw; during his big gutbucket solo a musician sing-songs his lines after he plays them. Making fun or making tribute? I can't tell. Green then gets his best solo of the date: slow, sweet, mellow, and beautiful. There's a shared chorus at the end; it contains Criss' only solo. The send-off is "High Jump", a fast cutting-contest blues. Green opens swiftly, his solo full of tasty slides. Criss responds with his fastest solo, and it's as good as the one on "How High The Moon", full of repetition and wailing. Newman's tone gets a tad mushy at this speed, but there's plenty of fire. Lockjaw stays mellow for a couple minutes, then goes mad, quoting "Wild Blue Yonder" as he takes off! Clarke gets his fours, and the audience gets their money's worth. And this was the intermission! I wish I was there.