Sonny Criss: Catching The Sun

Nic Jones By

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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.

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