Sonny Stitt Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952 Prestige
Presented in chronological order, saxophonist Sonny Stitt's Prestige recordings, packaged here as a three-CD box set, reveal the pure tenor tone and fluid technique that Stitt always brought to a session. Most of the selections are from 1950, and many feature fellow saxophonist Gene Ammons as Stitt's musical partner.
The set comes with an informative essay by Harvey Pekar that invites questions as to why Stitt (1924-1982) never got the credit he was due as a pioneer of bebop and a champion of good jazz.
Throughout the collection, Stitt's warm tenor and animated bebop accents bring a genuine thrill. Alternate takes are included for a few of the earlier numbers. While there's not much difference from one take to the next, we benefit from the differences in the mix. One take will emphasize Stitt's tenor, for example, while an alternate take may emphasize trombone or piano in the general nature of the group's sound.
With J.J. Johnson (trombone), John Lewis (piano), Nelson Boyd (bass) and Max Roach (drums) he interprets four numbers on the October 1949 date which kicks off disc one. "Teapot, in particular, leaves a lasting impression for its energetic approach, as Johnson and his quintet sizzle with uninterrupted endurance. While both takes are similar, you can feel the spontaneity of jazz coming to the arena as each soloist gives us something different each time.
The quintet's two takes of Johnson's "Blue Mode appear as very different entities, using the song's theme merely as a framework from which Stitt and Johnson create laid- back blues descriptions. Both takes seem to close all too soon, as necessitated by the era's recording constraints: while bebop typically featured creative soloing from each member of the band, 78rpm time limitations meant solos had to brief. (Live jazz, of course, never had to face that kind of cut-off). Most of the selections on this collection run for under three minutes.
With Bud Powell (piano), Curly Russell (bass) and Roach, Stitt interprets eight selections in December 1949 and January 1950. The quartet swings lightly with a graceful, bebop attitude as tenor and piano reach out to a new audience. (It was a good time for jazz, though the world greeted bebop's innovations with mixed feelings). Powell's solo and up-tempo accompaniment on the alternate take of "Strike Up The Band drives somewhat quicker than the original, giving an impression of rushing. The quartet's second take of "Fine And Dandy, on the other hand, runs pretty much the same as take one.
In 1950, Stitt recorded with several different units. In February, his quartet included Kenny Drew (piano), Tommy Potter (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). With this quartet, his solo tenor saxophone voice took off on a voyage that emphasized the leader's expressive qualities. His slow and intimate interpretation of "Mean To Me, "Stairway To The Stars and "Ain't Misbehavin', for example, demonstrates clearly what the saxophonist stood for and how much of his performance came from the heart.
Stitt recorded often with Gene Ammons in 1950. Their twin tenors gave each of the larger units considerable depth. Together, they reveled in the jump blues that was popular at the time, and they pursued a straight-ahead manner that we can look back on and smile. Their tenor conversations provide a thrill that you can't pick up just anywhere. Here were two noted jazz cats who knew how to get their point across. They challenge each other every time out with their endless stream of original ideas.
As Teddy Williams sings "Touch Of The Blues and "Dumb Woman Blues with Ammons, Stitt, Duke Jordan (piano), Potter and Jo Jones (drums), you're transported back 56 years to a time when one microphone would catch it all in one fell swoop and balance was a tricky venture. Still, the emotion of the blues does come through loud and clear.
Together, Ammons and Stitt brought us some great music that was both popular and swinging. Stitt can be heard soloing on baritone on several occasions with the same pure tone that he exhibits on tenor.
Stitt's quartet with Jordan, Gene Wright (bass) and Wesley Landers (drums) recorded "Count Every Star, "Nice Work If You Can Get It, "There Will Never Be Another You and Stitt's "Blazin', which features quite a few bebop twists and turns. Balanced in its content, his recording sessions bring us both the sensual ballad and the hip stroll.
For the most part, the larger Gene Ammons Band recordings give us an inferior sound quality since he used seven pieces with big band arrangements. Nevertheless, both Ammons and Stitt can be heard clearly at their best. Ammons sings "Sweet Jennie Lou and "'Round About One A.M. with his deep, bass voice providing a few romantic moments. Larry Townsend sings "To Think You've Chosen Me, "If The Moon Turns Green and "The Thrill Of Your Kiss with heart aglow, while Stitt takes the tenor saxophone lead. Ammons moves to baritone for several numbers, including an up-tempo "After You've Gone, which features Stitt with an animated bebop tenor solo stretch.
One of the best selections on the album comes from a swingin' October 1950 quintet session that pairs the two tenors together for "Stringin' The Jug, which finds both Ammons and Stitt ready to converse about jazz with authority.
Stitt's alto proves his allegiance to both ends of the musical spectrum as he purrs gently on a ballad and romps fiercely through a firebrand. "Imagination draws slowly from his quartet with Junior Mance (piano), Wright and Blakey, while Stitt pours fluid cascades from all directions. Then "Cherokee finds the same quartet rompin' and stompin' to see whose version of that popular bebop tune is the all-time best.
Liza and "Can't We Be Friends feature Stitt's alto soaring atop his quartet with beautiful melodic charm: one fast and one slow. He enjoyed making pretty music that came from both slower ballad directions and from fiercely fast corners that defined bebop.
Stitt flexes his muscles on baritone with his quartet on "P.S. I Love You and "This Can't Be Love, revealing the very same flexibility and pure tone on that deeper instrument. These two tracks, with Charles Bateman (piano), Wright and Teddy Stewart (drums), are among the album's best selections.
In a way, Harvey Pekar is right. Sonny Stitt never got his due from the general public. From those of us who listen, study, collect and read about jazz, however, Sonny Stitt didn't have to use Rodney Dangerfield's famous line. He earned as much respect as any other all-star jazz legend, and we know it.
CD1: Afternoon In Paris [take 1]; Afternoon In Paris [take 2]; Elora [take 1]; Elora [take 2]; Teapot [take 1]; Teapot [take 2]; Blue Mode [take 1]; Blue Mode [take 2]; All God's Chillun Got Rhythm; Sonny Side; Bud's Blues; Sunset; Strike Up The Band; Strike Up The Band [Alternate Take]; I Want To Be Happy; Taking A Chance On Love; Fine And Dandy [Take 1]; Fine And Dandy [Take 2]; Avalon; Later; Ain't Misbehavin'; Mean To Me; Stairway To The Stars; Bye Bye; Let It Be.
CD2: Blues Up And Down [Take 1]; Blues Up And Down [Take 2]; Blues Up And Down [Take 3]; You Can Depend On Me [Take 1]; You Can Depend On Me [Take 2]; Touch Of The Blues; Dumb Woman Blues; Chabootie; Who Threw The Sleeping Pills In Rip Van Winkle's Coffee?; Gravy (Aka Walkin'); Easy Glide; Count Every Star; Nice Work If You Can Get It; There Will Never Be Another You; Blazin'; Back In Your Own Back Yard; Sweet Jennie Lou; Vie En Rose; Seven Eleven; Think You've Chosen Me; After You've Gone; Our Very Own; 'S Wonderful; Stringin' The Jug; Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You).
CD3: Jeepers Creepers; Imagination; Cherokee; 'Round About One A.M.; Jug; Wow; Blue And Sentimental; Liza (All The Clouds'll Roll Away); Can't We Be Friends; New Blues Up And Down; Thrill Of Your Kiss; If The Moon Turns Green; P.S. I Love You; This Can't Be Love; Down With It; For The Fat Man; Splinter; Confession'; Undecided; (It Will Have To Do) Until The Real Thing Comes Along; Because Of Rain; Charmine; Cool Mambo; Sonny Sounds; Blue Mambo; Stitt's It.
Sonny Stitt: tenor, baritone and alto saxophone; Gene Ammons: tenor and baritone saxophone, vocal; John Lewis, Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, Duke Jordan, Charles Bateman, Clarence Anderson, Junior Mance, John Houston: piano; Earl May, Tommy Potter, Curly Russell, Nelson Boyd, Ernie Shepard, Gene Wright: bass; Teddy Stewart, Wesley Landers, Shadow Wilson, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Jo Jones: drums; Bill Massey, Joe Newman, John Hunt: trumpet; Bennie Green, J.J. Johnson, Matthew Gee: trombone; Humberto Morales: timbales; Larry Townsend, Teddy Williams: vocals.