The pantheon of jazz greats has included many great saxophone players. So many that it would be nearly impossible to choose any one player as “the best” without having half a dozen or more other players thrown in your face as being equally good.
So I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Sonny Stitt was the greatest saxophone player ever. But anyone who does not include him among the top five has serious problems. J
Sonny Stitt was born February 2, 1924 and died July 22, 1982. While still in grade school he studied piano, and eventually settled on the saxophone. During his lengthy career, he played with virtually all of the cream of the jazz crop, so to speak. Beginning with Thad Jones, Tiny Bradshaw, Billy Eckstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and others. Among his more memorable collaborations were a series of tenor sax “battles” with fellow blower Gene Ammons. [See JFASN #18 for more about Ammons.]
Stitt recorded extensively, and picking one album to represent that enormous output has not been easy. The one I settled on for now (there will be others in future columns) is “New York Jazz”, which was recorded in September of 1956.
The personnel for this outing were:
Sonny Stitt, alto and tenor saxophone
Jo Jones, drums
Ray Brown, bass
Jimmy Jones, piano
“New York Jazz” consists of ten songs, three of which were written by Stitt and one of which was co-written by him. That includes track one, “Norman’s Blues”, in which Stitt jumps out of the starting gate at a blistering pace and continues in that vein all the way to the end.
At the beginning of “I Know That You Know” this song from Anne Caldwell and Vincent Youmans sounds as though it’s going to be a mellow ballad, suitable for late nights. That misperception is blown away after a mere thirty seconds, which is when Stitt kicks into high gear and begins spewing a literal barrage of notes that fly so fast that you’d think he was playing a trumpet instead of a sax. Even bassist Brown, when he takes his solo towards the end of the song, blazes through it so fast the notes almost blend into one another.
Track 3, “If I Had You”, actually IS a ballad, and Stitt’s restrained blowing gives the song an appropriate sense of melancholy and longing. This is a beautiful song, beautifully rendered.
“Alone Together” is another ballad, and the first opportunity for Brown, Jones and Jones to shine. Rather than waste a lot of wordage telling you about it, I’m going to let you hear it for yourself.
“Twelfth Street Rag”, up next, is a slightly faster number than “Alone Together”. It is actually slower than you might expect for a song with the word “rag” in the title. The guys do a nice job on it, however. I love Jimmy Jones’ brushwork, and both Brown and Jo Jones add their masterful touches and make this song a delight.
The next song is “Down Home Blues (Funky Blues)” and was written by Stitt along with prolific songwriter George Jackson. This is another great Stitt piece, once again a bit less frenetic than the two openers but still an attention-grabber. Brown was one of the greatest bass players ever, and that skill is nowhere more visible than on this song.
That next track is another of Stitt’s originals, “Sonny’s Tune”. As you might expect, he’s off and running right away, scarcely giving the rhythm section time to catch up. Stitt plays so many notes and throws them at you so fast, it’s truly a wonder to listen to.
The rest of the album is just as pleasant, and I am fully confident that you will agree. Sonny Stitt is one of my favorite musicians, and I think you’ll find “New York Jazz” by the Sonny Stitt Quartet to be a fantastic addition to your personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other, night!
You can learn more about Sonny Stitt and his music by visiting sonnystitt.com, which is run by jazz musician L.T. Sullivan. Note that Sullivan is not trying to cash in on Stitt’s name, but rather pay homage. There is nothing for sale on that web site.
You can buy Sonny Stitt’s CD’s and legal downloads at all the usual places.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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