Jazz history tends to favor the great musical innovators whose stylistic leaps have formed the ever-changing vocabulary of jazz: the improvisational wonder of Louis Armstrong
, the free flight of Charlie Parker
, the chameleon-like transformations of Miles Davis
, and the singular piano world of Thelonious Monk
. For long a time, Monk, along with Bud Powell
, has been seen as one of the architects of bop piano, and while this is certainly true, it can be interesting to hear those bop pianists who in their own way glow with a personal voice, and yet have received a less prominent place in the annals of jazz. Pianists like Elmo Hope
and Herbie Nichols
. Add to this list: Sonny Clark
He was born Conrad Yeatis Clark, but became known in jazz as Sonny Clark. His life was short, but during his time on earth, 31 years in all, he made an amazing amount of music as a sideman and leader.
Clark's early musical life was formed by listening to broadcasts in the forties of Duke Ellington
and Count Basie
, but he was also influenced early on by pianists Fats Waller
and Art Tatum. Clark was in touch with the West Coast scene, playing with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco
's Quartet, but was not particularly interested in moving in the direction of third stream music whose experiments with classical music was too far away from the pure sound of jazz. Instead, Clark gained prominence as a prime bop pianist with many sessions for Blue Note as a sideman and leader.
While Clark's canon has been constructed around his Blue Note-recordings, he also released a noteworthy album on Bob Shad's Time label in 1960. It is simply called Sonny Clark Trio, but should not be confused with the Blue Note- release from 1957 where he played with bassist Paul Chambers
and Philly Joe Jones
. The 1960-version of the trio consists of bassist George Duvivier
and the drum-phenomena Max Roach
. Together they form an organic unity that allows Clark's musicality to shine in a perfect setting.
The thing that is immediately noticeable about Clark is the clarity and playfulness of his lines combined with emotional depth and a wide register of rhythms and harmonies. Clark simply makes the piano sing. This is evident from the beginning on "Minor Meeting," one of eight tunes on an album consisting of all originals, and what sparkling music it is. The possibility of hearing two alternate takes of "Minor Meeting" shows that Clark was in the zone every time. Music simply poured out of him and Roach, whether he plays with dancing sticks or shuffling brushes, follows him every step of the way in the deep pocket-groove of Duvivier.
Clark's gift as a composer is evident throughout the album from the catchy licks of the opener to the hummable melody of "Nica," an homage to jazz-baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, and "Blues Mambo" and "Blues Blue" whose titles reveal all about their musical origin. Then there is the beautiful ballad "My Conception" that surprisingly echoes Bill Evans
' "Waltz for Debby," just listen to the first minute of the tune and it is tempting to think that Evans got a solid dose of inspiration from Clark. In fact, Evans was an admirer of Clark, as stated in Ben Ratliff's liner notes, and "Waltz for Debby" was premiered on the iconic Evans album of the same name at a time when Clark's composition had been around for some time. It was already on a Blue Note-session from 1959.
No matter what, there is no doubt that Sonny Clark was highly esteemed among musicians and listeners. Time has only done Clark a favor and confirms this particular album as the jewel it is. The complete trio session is re- released on Tompkins Square as a limited edition 2LP set for Record Store Day with the album and an additional LP of alternate takes. The sound is warm, crisp and clear, just like Clark's piano and the original notes from Nat Hentoff supplemented by Ben Ratliff's eloquent and detailed notes. This is the way jazz re-releases should be done and one can only hope that Tompkins Square will do more jazz re-releases like this in the future.