Sweet Tooth: Harry 'Sweets' Edison

Derek Taylor By

Sign in to view read count
Sharing his surname with another famous American inventor, Harry “Sweets” Edison perfected a style of swing that cut directly to the core of the idiom. Schooled on the Basie bandstand, his classroom the clubs of Kansas City, Edison’s horn was the epitome of measured, almost methodical frugality. Certain fans of the more bombastic styles of Maynard Ferguson and Harry James pigeon-holed his approach as simplistic. Such summary judgments missed the beauty of nuance and placement in his playing. Basie’s brand of swing avoided the clichés of over-orchestration and Edison learned to say more with one note than most of his contemporaries could communicate with a string of choruses.

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, another Basie alum, internalized a different less-is-more credo. His singular tenor phrasing arose out of a pugilistic vernacular, one that emphasized visceral articulation over blatant virtuosity. His gruff tone was equally unique, a coarse blend of bar-walking bravado and wide bore vibrato that could turn emotionally effusive on the right ballad. Edison and Davis had common ground to spare and as such made an inspired and instantly gratifying pairing. Their first recording session, organized for the Jazzland label, evolved out of a mutual realization of their compatibility. Davis, a savvy A&R man in his own right who would later hang up his horn for a stretch and work in that capacity for Riverside, no doubt had a role in wrangling the record deal. Edison put out the call to his regular rhythm section of Lawson, Isaac and Johnston, and gave Jimmy Forrest, his regular tenor, the day off. Considering the R&B musical roots shared by Jaws and Forrest it’s tempting to speculate on how the session would have differed had the saxophonist been on board. But the two-horn frontline works solidly as it stands.

In true Basie tradition Jawbreakers places the emphasis squarely on the blues. Edison contributes three riff-driven compositions and hedges the remainder of the program with a handful of standards. Nearly all of the tracks allow generous space for solos starting with Edison’s gospel-tinged “Oo-ee!” After a loping unison head, the trumpeter strolls sweetly, peeling off sugary notes that sprinkle the obliging rhythm section. Davis’ hits next with a string of pungent, snaking phrases lined by a lushly textured tone. Lawson and company keeps the beat moving beneath and the pianist breaks ranks for a finely wrought statement of his own. Finishing the final stretch at a casual stride the band indulges in one final bout of laconic riffing.

The Basie favorite “Broadway” builds from a brisk theme bolstered by Isaac’s stout walking line and Johnston’s cantering cymbals. Davis’ sounds more vigorous in this setting, spinning off gutsy phrases in quick succession and sprinting swiftly over the beat. Out of nowhere Edison punctuates the saxophonist’s solo with a single muted blast of pure brilliance. It’s a note perfectly placed and cunningly effective in its abbreviation. His own ensuing solo carries over that thriftiness, staying terse and to the point. A series of seesawing exchanges between the horns and a fast drum break from Johnston close the tune out to a thrilling finale. Call and response colloquy factors heavily into the title track where Davis, Lawson and Edison all trade off taking the lead while Isaac and Johnston supply rock steady support.

Edison and Davis reference more modern material with the Miles Davis standby “Four” and both through the changes at an accelerated tempo that still retains laidback amiability. Edison’s “Moolah” is all cerulean hues and easy swaying swing. Muted and profoundly blue, the trumpeter trades in legato tones and curt accents as Isaac’s sparse bass line builds up a bottom end. Lawson matches Edison for economy and his note choices are refreshingly spartan, particularly so during Davis’ gradually evolving solo, which moves from smooth melodic sailing into the more feverish straits of emotive wailing.

“A Gal in Calico” returns the band to a more playful mood. Isaac enjoys a crucial role as harmonic fulcrum on this one, moving up and down his fingerboard with a muscular flair. First Edison and then Davis expound enthusiastically against the backdrop, the latter loosing a coarse solo that harkens back to the ebullience of his youthful speakeasy days. Isaac’s arco work on the closer isn’t quite so assured, but the spaciousness of the ballad arrangement eclipses the reticence of his bowed lines. Edison’s splendid muted interplay with Lawson makes for a late coming highlight of the session. Following suit, Davis’ flips the figurative romance switches on his horn and reclines on the plush support of partners.

Fourteen years later Sweets and Jaws found themselves back in the studio, this time recording for Norman Granz’s Pablo label on the West Coast. On the surface Edison’s Lights seems to fit right in line with the formula Granz first forwarded through his lucrative Jazz at the Philharmonic franchise. Pairing aging, but still virile players with younger ones in the hopes of igniting fresh sparks through friendly competition. Granz’s premeditations proved superfluous. As the music bears out, Jaws and Sweets weren’t much in the mood to spar adversarially and instead revisit a level of respectful repartee akin to their 62’ debut. Adding almost immeasurably to the package is the presence of their former employer on the first half of the session. Basie was in his waning years, but his sparing style remains intact and he aligns beautifully with his more youthful partners in the rhythm section. Heard suffers a slightly muffled sound on the first few tracks, but the horns are clearly preserved.

Edison blows crisp staccato notes against Basie’s equally terse comping on the title track opener. Heard and Smith supply sidebar rhythmic commentary, opening a path for the pianist to stab out a sparse deconstruction of the theme. Davis’ enters low and stormy with a thick throaty vibrato in tow. Economy flavors his solo as well, with the emphasis squarely on brusque emoting over flashy technique. “Ain’t Misbehavin” harkens back to Basie’s heyday and the pianist has a ball conjuring up the playful swing of days gone by. Davis and Edison swirl around him, the latter gorgeously muted and the former imbued with full bloom rasp. Stretching out with gauzy ribbons of melody the saxophonist once again shows his ability to cater to a sentimental side without relinquishing his tough tenor edge.

“Avalon” allows Basie another trip in the time machine and this time the Count comes up with a splendid stride interlude atop of Heard and Smith’s stable up-tempo backing. Edison’s epigrammatic “E” annexes the most album space and is once again brimming with an ambience of elegance. Basie’s at once plush and canny chords carry the action early on as the horns riff loosely around him. Heard is better served by the acoustics on this one and his foot-tapping throb fits soothingly behind Davis’ more florid phrasings born out of the simple blues theme. Edision’s turn finds the trumpeter muted and sassy, reeling out tart smears laced with a sheen of candied sweetness that play cleverly with the throbbing beat.

Dolo Coker takes over the ivories beginning with “Helena’s Theme” and the pianist’s more loquacious style fits snugly into the band’s conception. Davis’ wastes no space in a spate of blustery blowing and Edison, once again muted, picks up the melodic trail where his partner leaves off. Smith leans a bit to heavily on his cymbals creating a cloud of rhythmic static, but otherwise the tune comes off without a hitch. Heard even has a chance to solo. Easygoing riffing dominates Edison’s “Homegrown,” but after the fireworks of previous tracks the bout of laurel resting is almost welcome. Two more standards round the album out. “Spring is Here,” takes low altitude flight under the power of Smith’s swishing brushes and the Coker’s rather pedestrian chords. While Edison shows no qualms about the snail-paced slightly saccharine surroundings, Davis sounds less at ease. “On the Trail” closes shop with the jaunty bounce of unison riffs and prancing rhythm and even finds Edison puckishly quoting Monk, before a thrilling chase section opens up between the horns

The final entry in the Sweets-Jaws Fantasy labels trilogy adopts the utilitarian title of Simply Sweets. Coker and Smith are back in the ranks, but session bassist Newmark stands in place of Heard. While the template is basically the same focus on swinging readings of blues-based standards, the session wears the era of its waxing prominently in the details. One indication of the Seventies pedigree, is Coker’s switch to electric piano on several numbers, a move that works in the laidback context of the program.

From a titular standpoint “Dirty Butt Blues” doesn’t leave much (or perhaps leaves too much) to the imagination, but the players inject plenty of spontaneity into its musical incarnation. Reeling off a solo of clarion quality Edison is on his game from the get go. Coker shows similar confidence as he uses clever suspensions of silence to add to the swinging mood. Davis’ lines are sparse on notes, but rich in feeling tapered with his usual tonal textures. Newmark lays down fat, functional support from amplified strings that holds the tune together. The Seventies pop standard “Feelings” unfurls on the lazy sway of Edison’s diluted mute while Davis sits out. The rhythm section lays back on an easy rolling groove, allowing the trumpeter to ponder at length on the simple theme in a curiously Milesean mode and for once seem a shade longwinded.

The spirit of Basie is once again divined in the steady beat of “One for the Count,” but strangely the band sounds like it’s holding back a bit at the start. Davis’ initial solo is fairly rote without much in the way of fireworks and Edison seems to choose the path of least resistance as well, blowing solid, but largely undistinguished streams of notes. Newmark’s nearly metronomic walking throb once again shores up the harmonic end and Coker basically sticks to comping. The ballad scope of “My Ideal” proves better suited to the band’s languid stance and both of the leaders distinguish themselves with solos suffused with romance and restraint. Coker debuts his electric ivories in tandem with Edison’s gently smeared notes on the title track and the blend sounds decidedly church-like in cast. Smith’s whisper soft brushes add to a soporific feel. With the lengthy “Opus Funk” the band tries valiantly to escape the rut. Davis’ solo has a veneer of strength, but still rings hollow compared to his efforts on earlier dates. Edison fares better, negotiating the simple changes with signature flair before sliding into a string of exchanges with his saxophone confrere.

“Lax,” coincidentally a good signifier for the date as a whole, shirks the connotations of its title and delivers the lone up-tempo cooker of the disc. Edison jockeys jubilantly through the changes and Davis matches him for speed and ardor after a nimble turn from Coker. The pianist, in amplified guise dominates the slow motion lope of “Miz Kitty’s Blues” in close conference with each of the horns in succession. This third entry is the weakest of the three, but even they seem to be coasting a bit Edison, Davis and crew still serve up a program worth hearing.

Edison and Davis would record several other times for various labels, a live date for the Storyville imprint arguably being the best of the bunch. Still, this three-album studio run now under the Fantasy corporate umbrella stands steadfast as the finest and most detailed distillation of their partnership. Sweets and Jaws are examples of a breed of jazz musician comparatively rare these days- one who balances a signature sound with original technique to create something wholly his own. They are also prime proponents of the virtues of prudence in improvisation as a means of saying more with less. Like the hard candy referenced in the title of their debut session their records reveal a pleasurable and pervasive sweetness that endures over the long haul .


Tracks: Oo-Ee! (5:12)/ Broadway (5:12)/ Jawbreakers (6:34)/ Four (3:31)/ Moolah (4:38)/ A Gal in Calico (4:40)/ I’ve Got a Crush on You (5:54)/ Close Your Eyes (5:33).

Players: Harry “Sweets” Edison- trumpet; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis- tenor saxophone; Hugh Lawson- piano; Ike Isaac- bass; Clarence Johnson- drums. Recorded: April 18, 1962, New York.

Edison’s Lights

Tracks: Edison’s Lights (6:36)/ Ain’t Misbehavin’ (6:00)/ Avalon (5:40)/ “E” (8:49)/ Helena’s Theme (3:22)/ Homegrown (6:48)/ Spring is Here (6:27)/ On the Trail (7:10).

Players: Harry “Sweets” Edison- trumpet; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis- tenor saxophone; Count Basie or Dolo Coker- piano; John Heard- bass; Jimmie Smith- drums. Recorded: May 5, 1976, Los Angeles.

Simply Sweets

Tracks: Dirty Butt Blues (6:49)/ Feelings (5:24)/ One for the Count (5:38)/ My Ideal (5:55)/ Simply Sweets (4:27)/ Opus Funk (7:06)/ Lax (3:25)/ Miz Kitty’s Blues (8:00).

Players: Harry “Sweets” Edison- trumpet; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis- tenor saxophone; Dolo Coker- piano; Harvey Newmark- bass; Jimmie Smith- drums. Recorded: September 22, 1977, Hollywood.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and through our retail affiliations you'll support us in the process.


Rare vinyl LPs and CDs from over 1,000 independent sellers


CDs, Vinyl, Blu-Ray DVDS, Prime membership, Alexa, SONOS and more


Specializing in high resolution and CD-quality downloads


Specializing in music, movies and video games


Marketplace for new, used, and vintage instruments and gear