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Gene Ammons took the stage countless times during a career that spanned well over three decades. On a significant number of those dates, Jug found himself in the company of other horns, but sparks were often most plentiful when his foil in the frontline was a single tenor saxophone. Sonny Stitt abetted as his most common accomplice in this capacity and the pair solidified a place as one of the preeminent tandems in jazz. But Jug also found the opportunity to lock horns with others. This entertaining set, taped live at the North Park Hotel in Jug’s hometown in 1971, preserves one such encounter with James Moody, who trades up his usual alto for a facsimile of Ammons’ heavier caliber horn.
The blue-chip rhythm section enlisted to support the heavyweights distinguishes itself from the start by keeping things loose and spontaneous with true after hours' flair. Another venerable Chicagoan, Jodie Christian supplies stalwart comping and soloing skills while Cleveland Eaton and Marshall Thompson accept their supportive roles amicably and without protest. The pieces are obviously edited and several of the splices are quite coarse, as on “Just In Time,” where Ammons’ lusty, roughshod improvisation curtails abruptly into Moody’s smoother and swifter style of phrasing. Fortunately the blemishes remain mainly cosmetic and the vigor of the music largely subsumes them. “Work Song” offers another example of the suspect production values, fading in from its start with the quintet already hitting mid-stride. Ammons basks in the bluesy theme at length, tugging legato lines from his tenor’s bell and tapering his tone with peculiar pitch variations. The latter tricks are the influence of the then flourishing avant-garde and it’s exciting to hear Jug incorporate them so enthusiastically into his aesthetic. Moody follows in a more ‘inside’ mood, but still manages to inject urgency through trilling cries.
“Jim-Jam-Jug” opens with a quick unison riff before spreading wing on a blustery statement from Moody. Thompson’s galloping sticks keep the rhythm moving at a fast clip while the saxophonist revels in a high-speed slalom through the changes. Jug’s statement starts slow, almost lethargic, but rapidly gathers interia until he too is rocketing along on a soaring trajectory. Through it all Eaton’s slightly amplified strings shore up a bubbling momentum that pushes everyone along. Thrifty, but thoughtful readings of two more standards close the original album out with Jug annexing “I’ll Close My Eyes” and Moody calling the shots on the majority of Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues.” The disc’s crowning acheivement takes shape in a burning bonus track version of “Yardbird Suite” that sprawls out over nearly a quarter of an hour. The two tenors trade off powerfully on the Charlie Parker classic, but it's also an opportunity to hear the rhythm section at length and Christian indulges in a sparkling solo that nearly steals the show.
It was a twilight time for Ammons; in three more years he’d be gone. This concert, like others of its vintage, shows the Chicago tenor savoring his final years with a maturity and focus that fed directly into the iconic status his memory holds today.
Prestige on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: Just In Time/ Work Song/ Have You Meet Miss Jones?/ Jim-Jam-Jug/ I
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.