Sonny Criss: Catching The Sun

Nic Jones By

Sign in to view read count
Criss's alto sax playing carries that rare and faintly eerie impression of being an extension of his speaking voice
There have sometimes been itinerant qualities to the jazz musician's life, not only in terms of where they've lived, but also where and when they recorded. Sonny Criss spent the best part of his life in Los Angeles, and the sad fact is that the devotion he showed not only to the city and its people but also to his music brought him little reward, a fact only compounded by what posthumous acclaim he has been afforded.

The albums he cut for Prestige in the mid- to late 1960s amount to the most significant strand of his recorded legacy, and the only one outside of the three albums he cut for the Imperial label, all in 1956, and the one or two album deals with small independent companies that make up the balance of his recorded legacy under his own name.

The peculiar twist of fortune that led to Criss cutting the seven Prestige albums is subtle comment on his musical life. Don Schlitten, the man who was in the producer's chair for the entire series, was also responsible for getting Criss from Los Angeles to New York, the story of which is related by Ira Gitler -complete with a wry comment from Criss himself- in his sleeve notes for the first album in the series1. Without Schlitten's initiative there can be little doubt that the recordings wouldn't have happened, and of the seven albums only one, a date featuring compositions by pianist Horace Tapscott, was recorded in Criss's home city.

Criss's music wasn't as well documented on recorded as it deserved to be, and the pensive-looking Criss on the cover of The Beat Goes On! might be seen as an individual who has hardly been swamped by good fortune. But his music, here as elsewhere, suggests otherwise. Throughout these albums there runs a remarkable consistency of the qualities that a working jazz musician objectively needs to have -heart, invention, fertility of imagination, and above all a compelling individual voice; Criss's alto sax playing carries that rare and faintly eerie impression of being an extension of his speaking voice, as if it's as essential to his well-being as food and drink.

A question this raises, however, lies in the choice of material covered, and despite its range -from Jimmy Webb to Lennon and McCartney- Criss brings his skills to bear in a kind of positive affirmation of strong song writing. Webb's Up, Up And Away is given such a thorough reading that any self-absorbed debate about the primacy of the Great American Song Book as it might be defined in highly proscriptive terms is simply irrelevant, and whilst the cloying likes of Maurice Jarre's Somewhere My Love are hardly of a stirring order, it's the primacy of Criss's artistry that makes them so on this occasion.

Since Criss's death in 1977 the term "working musician" has arguably become devalued. He was a working musician whose commitment to his vocation was hardly repaid in kind. This simple fact ensures that the albums discussed here encapsulate a moment in time, a late flowering of a musician who first drew public attention over twenty years before. As a body they represent an occasion when individual enterprise triumphed over the haphazard qualities of the jazz musician's life.

1. This Is Criss! - sleeve note by Ira Gitler (November 1966)

This Is Criss, Portrait Of Sonny, Up, Up And Away, The Beat Goes On!, Sonny's Dream (Birth Of The New Cool), Rockin' In Rhythm and I'll Catch The Sun are all currently available on the OJC label, through Fantasy Jazz.


comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Ned Kelly's Last Stand, Hong Kong Roads Less Travelled Ned Kelly's Last Stand, Hong Kong
by Hrayr Attarian
Published: April 28, 2016
Read The Cotton Club, Shanghai Roads Less Travelled The Cotton Club, Shanghai
by Hrayr Attarian
Published: April 27, 2016
Read Club Jazzda: Seoul's Hidden Gem Roads Less Travelled Club Jazzda: Seoul's Hidden Gem
by Hrayr Attarian
Published: April 1, 2015
Read Rio de Janeiro’s shrine to Brazil’s fabled Bossa Nova Roads Less Travelled Rio de Janeiro’s shrine to Brazil’s fabled...
by Mark Holston
Published: March 26, 2014
Read Eric Dolphy: A Deeply Dedicated Musician Roads Less Travelled Eric Dolphy: A Deeply Dedicated Musician
by Nic Jones
Published: December 21, 2004
Read Art Pepper: West Coastin' Roads Less Travelled Art Pepper: West Coastin'
by Nic Jones
Published: October 28, 2004
Read "The Tom & Jamie Show at the College Street Congregational Church" Live Reviews The Tom & Jamie Show at the College Street...
by Doug Collette
Published: March 29, 2017
Read "Shirlee Temper At The Empress Theatre" Live Reviews Shirlee Temper At The Empress Theatre
by Walter Atkins
Published: April 30, 2017
Read "Monty Alexander Trio at Longwood Gardens" Live Reviews Monty Alexander Trio at Longwood Gardens
by Geno Thackara
Published: February 15, 2017
Read "Steve Winwood at the Space at Westbury" Live Reviews Steve Winwood at the Space at Westbury
by Mike Perciaccante
Published: May 6, 2017
Read "Harvey Mandel: Snake Pit" Extended Analysis Harvey Mandel: Snake Pit
by Doug Collette
Published: November 19, 2016

Join the staff. Writers Wanted!

Develop a column, write album reviews, cover live shows, or conduct interviews.