Few musicians have sustained as many physical and mental shocks throughout the course of a nomadic, non-stop and frequently solitary career as Sonny Stitt. More often than not, the peripatetic saxophonist would arrive in town, call up the best local rhythm section and try to keep his spirits up for a five-night stand, finding time during the day to cut a couple of quick sides at a nearby recording studio before heading for the next town or overseas flight.
The life and substances required to fuel it took their toll, and by the mid-sixties Stitt was having as many bad days as good days. His return to form in the early 1970s is one of jazz's more inspiring stories. Far from a swan song, Work Done, recorded at San Francisco's Keystone Korner in 1976, serves as a reminder of how a virtuoso performer leaves no unfinished business.
The key to both Stitt's life and music was control, and his extraordinary discipline is on abundant display throughout this set. By 1976 Stitt had learned how to pace himself, making his statements in a couple of choruses yet doing so with head-spinning technical command, satisfying emotional expressiveness, and willful structural wholeness. As for the program, if you've ever heard Stitt play a Bb blues, skip the first track. It's too much of more of the same, with Stitt's addiction to the tonic especially pronounced. But by the second tune, "Indiana," the featured soloist is feeling it, feeding off of the crowd's enthusiasm and a surprisingly close-knit, responsive rhythm section, anchored by Ray Drummond's potent bass.
"Constellation," an "I Got Rhythm" tune pushed to the speed limit, offers up more B flats, but the alternate tonguings, rhythmic displacements, and crisp articulations make them sound fresh and inspired. "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "Stardust" both conclude with dazzling, unaccompanied cadenzas, the first played on tenor, the second on alto (a recording of "Stardust," incidentally, that probably deserves a place alongside storied ones by Armstrong, Shaw, Hampton and Desmond). The closer, "Loose Walk," is another Bb blues, but again Stitt infuses each Bb with energy and surprise for what proves to be an exhilarating finale to the set.
The audio and mix, though sub-par, are light years beyond some other currently available on-location Stitt recordings (steer clear of any Stitt session with "Ronnie Scott" or "Left Bank" in the title). And Sonny's glorious soundso pure yet so full-throated, "embodied" and soulfulis not to be denied. Curiously, Stitt looks older and more haggard in the 1976 photos for Work Done than he does for the photos taken for Last Sessions, the 32 Jazz CD recorded days before his death in 1982all the more evidence that in 1976 Stitt was playing through pain while renewing a commitment to a muse that was his alone. Stitt followers should take no small amount of consolation from the dedication and professional pride that led this dominating player back to the top of his game, even as a rapid, virulent cancer was about to take it away from him.