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Sonny Buxton: Strayhorn’s Last Drummer, A Radio Master Class Mid-Day Saturdays

Arthur R George By

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He'll play a particularly delicate rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" from the 1965 album Lucky Strikes by saxophonist Lucky Thompson, a mostly-forgotten player but remembered by Buxton, with sidemen the well-known figures Hank Jones on piano, Richard Davis on bass, Connie Kay on drums. Buxton reveals the names of each of the musicians after the track with enhanced specificity, as if encouraging further research for further enjoyment. "Go check that out" is the implied homework assignment.

Lucky Thompson got another play a few weeks later in a pairing with bassist Oscar Pettiford, on an album compiled across four dates in 1956 with four different combination of musicians, some overlapping, and with a history so abstruse it was issued under four different titles as it passed through various record companies, now simply titled Lucky Thompson Meets Oscar Pettiford. Hank Jones is a side man on several tracks here as well. Without Buxton as sherpa, one might never have encountered the piece.

After that earlier Thompson play Buxton would be off spinning the next of a series which on that day ranged from Australian saxophonist Andrew Speight now local to the Bay Area; Roy Haynes' and Joe Henderson's second albums as leaders, Out of the Afternoon and Our Thing; Arthur Prysock with Basie; more big band with Patrick Williams; and then concluding with Pepper Adams on baritone in a rare 1969 pairing with Zoot Sims on tenor, backed by Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

Another Saturday will yield Flanagan and Elvin Jones together again, in a trio setting. Elvin is best known of course for his dynamic work with John Coltrane, but settles in with Flanagan in much more sedate presentations. They had recorded numerous ballad-type sides together; Buxton knows that Flanagan had been the pianist on the initial recording of Coltrane's "Giant Steps," and later was Ella Fitzgerald's music director and accompanist.

Reviewing different combinations is the signature texture of Buxton's programming. He would follow that Flanagan selection with saxophonist Sonny Stitt sitting in with pianist Oscar Peterson. Later, on the same show, Wayne Shorter is presented in a 1966 Lee Morgan big band aggregation "Delightfulee" that also includes Phil Woods, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, and Philly Joe Jones; Oliver Nelson as arranger; and other players on trombone, French horn, tuba, flute, and baritone saxophone and bass clarinet. Shorter was with Miles Davis in this period, had already come through Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and released a series of Blue Note albums as small group leader; here he is tucked in with eleven other musicians.

Playlist as Syllabus

Through Buxton, the unknown becomes merely esoteric. He calls up another orchestra, from 1959 under the leadership of pianist, arranger, and music theorist George Russell containing John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Phil Woods, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and trumpeter Doc Severinsen who eight years later would lead the Johnny Carson Tonight Show band. 1959 also was the year Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Miles Davis' modal Kind of Blue with Coltrane were both recorded. Russell's keynote book from 1953 on the Lydian scale laid the foundation for modal jazz. John Coltrane and Doc Severinsen would not typically be considered fellow travelers, yet here they are in an album titled New York, N.Y., not by Sinatra. One could drown in the cross-currents without a navigator.

Still another Saturday will include Ray Charles' "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" from Genius + Soul = Jazz, with Buxton adding the notation that the piece was arranged by Quincy Jones for a supporting orchestra drawn from Ellington and Basie alumni. Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, and Ron Carter return in still another combination, adding Frank Foster on tenor and Billy Hart on drums, in The Adams Effect recorded in 1985, Adams' last album as a leader.

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