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Willis Jackson: Livin' Large

Derek Taylor By

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In decades past making the transition from the so-called ‘bar-walking’ minor leagues to Majors of ‘legitimate’ jazz was a feat many saxophonists attempted but few accomplished. So much so that the visage of the honking, R&B tenor man is still regarded with scorn by many ‘serious’ jazz musicians and particularly critics. When the Chitlin Circuit (the dusty route through the South and Midwest that served as a gravy train for countless players) was in full swing during the 1950s and 60s the stigma attached to players who ‘soiled’ their chops on the countertops was even more widespread.

Willis “Gator” Jackson spent a good stretch of his career working the Circuit and blowing a blend of early R&B and rock & roll to rowdy, raucous crowds across the United States. By the early 60s he had ‘refined’ his approach and slipped smoothly into another easy and much maligned category, Soul Jazz. This recent Prestige two-fer samples five albums from this period and proves conclusively that Jackson could hold up in the company of jazz peers both in terms of technique and creativity. His big tone was firmly in the tradition of Gene Ammons, whom he credits copiously in the various liner notes included, and while rarely flashy his phrasing always digs enthusiastically into the meat of a tune. The program of songs serves up a potpourri of styles from Bossa Nova to Latin to heavy groove and throughout it all Jackson’s throaty tenor blows through a lusty range of ideas. The most interesting group instrumentally speaking is arguably the first, which includes Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and Roy Haynes alongside a solid Latin skins section, comprised of Amalbert, Montego Joe and José Paulo. Burrell is even joined by an uncredited acoustic guitarist (possibly Paulo?) on the Bossa-tinged tracks “Cachita” and “Mama Inez.” The rhythms and harmonies while largely basic allow Jackson to let his emotive side shine through, particularly on ballads like “What Kind of Fool Am I” where his gossamer tone threatens to dissolve in its own delicate vibrato.

The tender soul ballad “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” made famous by Isaac Hayes gets the cocktail treatment as Jackson switches to gator horn (a reed that sounds suspiciously like an alto) and Ivory’s organ spreads a syrupy sentimentality beneath. The percolating boogaloo beat of “Florence of Arabia” switches pitches again with Jackson locking into a tasty harmony with Ivory. Quartet and Quintet sessions round the disc out moving from spiritual standbys to a pair of fast-paced Johnny Griffin numbers. In each instance Jackson stays true to his sound, reveling in the unique sonorities of his horn and proving that exclusionary descriptors like ‘legitimate’ and ‘serious’ hold no credence when it comes to creative music.


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