Sonny Criss was never a musical innovator. He was however a stylist of exceptional originality whose music on record is a working definition of soul in the best sense of that term. An abiding aspect of his work is the feeling that he played each and every note as though it were his last, and that intensity of expression was always riveting. Born in Memphis, he was for long periods of his life a resident of Los Angeles, and like the pianist Hampton Hawes his mode of musical communication was a lot more heated than the archetypal West Coast sound that's associated with that city; to be sure, not all the jazz that emerged from L.A. in the 1950s was of that frequently polite idiom.
Ted Gioia has discussed the lengths to which Criss went to meet Charlie Parker during the latter's stint at Billy Bergs' in L.A. in December of 1945 (1). This was an engagement destined to enter the realms of legend mostly for the wrong reasons. Whilst Parker was at the top of his game musically speaking, he was far from being on an even keel in the personal sense. Despite this, Criss was deeply touched by his music, and for the rest of his musical life he was indebted to him.
In contrast with Parker's sound, Criss's was more precisely articulated, though underscored by an equally firm grasp of the blues idiom. He served notice of these qualities throughout his recorded output in the 1940s, and two sides cut for Clef under the leadership of Flip Phillips find the 21-year old Criss in enviable form for one so young. His solo on the aptly titled “Swingin' For Brownie And Julie” exemplifies how he never, even at this early stage in his career, overstated his musical case. Unlike the leader on these sides, whose playing with 'Jazz At The Philharmonic' frequently entered the realm of the lowest common denominator, Criss displays a far better understanding of the happy restriction inherent in a time limit, and his 31-second solo on 'Put That Back' is a model of construction.
The basic facets of Criss's style were already in place at this time, and as time went on his instrumental voice did not significantly alter. Neither did he feel any need to undergo chameleon-like changes in musical setting. This in itself is not a course free of problems. If an instrumentalist is anonymous then the listener feels less compulsion to pay attention, and is likely to seek stimulating listening elsewhere. The two albums discussed here are evidence of how Criss's playing evolved and deepened within the confines laid down early in his playing life, and show how compelling a musician he became.
In the 1950s the three LPs he cut for the Imperial label are the fruits of his only prolonged recording association in that decade. Go Man! was recorded in the company of a rhythm section headed by the pianist Sonny Clark for a program of originals and standards from the pen of Irving Berlin and others. Criss's playing is rhythmically secure, and tonally he has already arrived at the point where he could not be mistaken for anyone else. The extemporizations on melodies that became a part of his work are already in place, as is the sense of urgency in his musical communication. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Summertime", the Gershwin warhorse so memorably recorded by Sidney Bechet for Blue Note. Criss takes the song at a loping medium tempo that's not only in marked contrast to Bechet's reading, but also tailor-made for him to expound his musical philosophy. Despite idiomatic differences both musicians succeed in making the song entirely their own, and the comparison with Bechet raises an interesting issue. Both men had the kind of tonal projection that meant amplification was unnecessary, and whilst Bechet may have cut his musical teeth in the joints of New Orleans, Criss ostensibly cut his in the hot house of Jazz At The Philharmonic. Music was an essential part of the entertainment in both settings, and in both musicians had to compete with the noise of their audience.
The assured music that Criss was producing in February of 1956 was still the order of the day in 1975, when he cut Out Of Nowhere for the Muse label. By this stage in his life his instrumental skills had not only ripened and deepened, now they were also the product not only of maturity, but also the ups-and-downs that are an integral part of everyone's life, and which are especially pertinent to any jazz musician wanting to turn them into something aspiring to art. That Criss so concisely achieves that end is indication of how these basic issues were pertinent to his life and music, and again the music he produces is so beautifully tailored that there isn't a surplus note to be found.
In the company of a rhythm section headed by Dolo Coker, his first-choice pianist at the time, Criss works his way through a program of standards and blues. "The Dreamer", a blues from his own pen, is simply functional at the same time as it features some of his most effective playing. By comparison with his work in earlier decades, which was scarcely anything less than heated, his incendiary playing here panders to nothing, and retains a fierce integrity.
Sonny Criss was one of countless musicians who didn't learn much of his craft in a formal educational setting. Instead he experienced the vagaries of the Afro-American musician's life, and through the paradoxically simple yet complex act of putting that life out through a saxophone he left us with a body of work both personal and profound.
1. West Coast Jazz. Modern Jazz In California, 1945-1960. p.122 -Ted Gioia (1992)