Gene Ammons (aka “Jug”) was both one of the best tenor saxophone players to draw a breath, and the stereotypical jazz druggie. The man’s recorded output was astonishing enough for a clean musician; for a man thoroughly hooked on heroin, it was simply astounding.
Ammons was born in 1925 and died from pneumonia in 1974 at the age of 49. His first professional gig was with King Kolax’s band when Ammons was 18. He would spend fully one third of his remaining 31 years in jail for heroin use. Despite that, he managed to record enough material to release more than fifty albums of his own before his death and dozens of others with such artists as Sonny Stitt, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Jack McDuff, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Ben Webster, and others.
I make no pretense at having even a significant fraction of Ammons’ massive oeuvre in my personal collection. No matter which album I choose to write about, someone out there will say, “Why on earth did he pick THAT one instead of…” The answer, of course, is “I have a copy of the one I picked and I don’t have the other one”.
So which one did I pick? It could be none other than the compilation disk, “Legends Of Acid Jazz: Gene Ammons”. This album was released by Prestige in 1997, and it consists of material that Ammons recorded in 1962, 1970 and 1971.
Writing on the allmusic.com web site, esteemed jazz writer Scott Yanow said of this album, “There are many more rewarding Gene Ammons reissues currently available.” With all due respect to Mr. Yanow, I don’t think this compilation is nearly as bad as he would have you believe.
Three recording sessions means three sets of musicians.
Tracks 1 through 6, recorded November 11, 1970:
Gene Ammons, tenor sax
George Freeman, guitar
Harold Mabern, piano, electric piano (tracks 2 and 6)
Ron Carter, bass
Idris Muhammad, drums
Tracks 7 through 12, recorded February 8, 1971:
Gene Ammons, tenor sax (except track 8)
Sonny Stitt, tenor sax (except track 11)
Leon Spencer, organ
George Freeman, guitar
Idris Muhammad, drums
Tracks 13 and 14, recorded May 1962:
Gene Ammons, tenor sax
Don Patterson, organ
Paul Weeden, guitar
Billy James, drums
All tracks recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and re-mastered in 1997 by Kirk Felton for Fantasy Studios, Berkeley.
The album opens with “The Black Cat”, written by guitarist George Freeman. This is an interesting piece of music that opens with a repetitive vamp that is borderline irritating. It is quickly relegated to the rhythm section and Ammons goes about the business of making a good if not great song out of what could have been a disaster.
“Piece To Keep Away Evil Spirits” is one of only three Ammons compositions on this album. It’s a joy to listen to Ammons here as he is clearly playing exceptionally well despite having been released from jail only months before. Idris Muhammad and the others are by no means struggling to keep up, but Ammons is obviously the leader. Muhammad and Mabern especially stand out.
The George Harrison song, “Something”, offers a nice change of pace, although for my money they could have left off the strings.
“Hi Ruth” is another Ammons composition and in the opening Mabern on piano really shines. But it’s Ammons’ show, and Muhammad’s. This is a song that manages to be upbeat and mellow at the same time, a trick not just anyone can pull off.
“You Talk That Talk” was written by organist Leon Spencer, and it’s a shame he has to take the background in this recording, especially considering his career was surely one of the shortest ever. Unfortunately for Spencer, the main conversation in this song is between the two tenor sax heavyweights in the room, Ammons and Sonny Stitt.
“The People’s Choice”, written by tenor saxophonist Harold Ousley, is a nice tune that gives everyone a chance to show their stuff. It brings to mind the image of a late night set in a smoky, dimly-lit jazz club, where you can picture the musicians battling the smoke to get a breath of air all the while each has his own death stick cigarette burning in an ashtray nearby. Okay, that’s probably not the most pleasant image I could have conjured up for this song. Jazz clubs were horrible for your (and the musician’s!) health in the “old days”. Probably still are in some places.
The Sonny Stitt tune “Katea’s Dance” is an interesting, lively exercise in bop that naturally features both blowers in lock-step for a while before evolving into a mutual give and take between the two tenor giants and the rest of the group.
Fellow saxophonist Harold Vick only wrote a handful of songs during his career, and I don’t pretend to know if “Out Of It” is one of his better efforts or not. What I do know is that, as presented here, it’s an animated, happy tune that seems to bring out the best in all involved.
The final two songs, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, written by country singer-songwriter-guitarist Don Gibson, and “My Babe”, written by the legendary Willie Dixon and Mississippi Fred McDowell, are the oldest in terms of when they were recorded and, I suppose, possibly the oldest songs on the album.
My brief love affair with country music ended in the late 1980’s, but country song or not, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is a beautiful ballad and Ammons adds the perfect touch of wistfulness to it. The pace then picks up once again for the final track, “My Babe”.
Ordinarily I hate it when a recorded song ends with the engineer fading out the music. It’s always struck me as though they’re saying the composer was too lazy to write an ending for the song. In the case of “My Babe”, however, the final fade-out provides a perfect ending for an album that, while not perfect in itself, is also not nearly as bad as Scott Yanow implied.
I think you’ll find that “Legends Of Acid Jazz: Gene Ammons” will make a wonderful addition to any jazz lover’s personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other, night.
To learn more about Gene Ammons and his music, you can check his page on the Concord Music Group web site, http://www2.concordmusicgroup.com/artists/Gene-Ammons/ or over at NPR’s web site: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19172123.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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