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[Note: This is Gene Ammons’ second appearance in JFASN. See JFASN #18 from December 11, 2011.

Gene Ammons was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 14, 1925 and on August 6, 1974 he succumbed to cancer in the city of his birth. He was the son of Albert Ammons, a hugely popular pianist (boogie-woogie and other genres) in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

For most of his career his was a solo act, but the younger Ammons (nicknamed “Jug”) often appeared with friend and fellow tenor sax giant Sonny Stitt. Their “battles of the saxes” are legendary, and Ammons is one of a handful of blowers whose names are synonymous with “tenor sax”: The aforementioned Sonny Stitt; Coleman Hawkins; Dexter Gordon; Johnny Griffin; Lester Young; Sonny Rollins; and Gerry Mulligan. (And yes, I do know that technically speaking, a handful is five. Thanks.)

Gene Ammons had an astounding career, all the more remarkable for the fact that he was thoroughly hooked on heroin and spent most of the 1960’s in prison for heroin use. He recorded a enormous number of albums in his lifetime, and the one I want to tell you about this time around is, I believe, one of his best: The 1961 release titled simply “Jug”.

The album “Jug” teamed Ammons with a group of musicians that included several names that, frankly, caused me to say “Who?” Don’t be fooled by their relative obscurity!

Gene Ammons, tenor sax
Richard Wyands, piano
Clarence “Sleepy” Anderson, piano (track 4 only) and organ (track 7 only)
Dough Watkins, bass
Ray Barretto, conga drum
J.C. Heard, drums

There are eight songs on “Jug,” one of which was written by Ammons and another by pianist Anderson. I’m going to hit the high points here and let you enjoy discovering the rest for yourself.

The album opens with the Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern classic ballad, “Ol’ Man River” from the hit 1930’s musical, “Showboat.” This arrangement will almost have you tapping your feet or snapping your fingers before they’re finished. In his liner notes for the original vinyl LP, Joe Goldberg wrote: “’Ol’ Man River’… is a happy swinger combined with lyrical introduction that brilliantly shows off most facets of Jug’s style.’”

Next we have the Cole Porter tune, “Easy To Love,” which he wrote for the 1936 movie “Born To Dance.” Those expecting a slow love ballad will be surprised (but not, I hope, disappointed) to find that this is another arrangement that swings from the first notes on Wyands’ piano. This is, considering the title, a surprisingly happy-go-lucky song that will leave you with a smile on your face.

The only Ammons composition on the album is up next, “Seed Shack.” This is a quiet tune with a nice contribution from Watkins and the other guys in rhythm section that makes the pace seem hotter than it really is. Ammons does some cool riffs, and Wyands gets a nice solo that enlivens the temp for a bit.

“Let It Be You,” from pianist Clarence “Sleep” Anderson, is up next. This one is another quiet little song, just right for that time of evening when you just want to kick back and relax.

“Namely You” was written by Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer, and is a nice, lively tune that gives us a rare opportunity to hear Anderson on the organ. Ammons and Anderson dominate the final minute or so of the song. You don’t get the deep emotional impact that Jimmie Smith or Jack McDuff or even “Papa” John DeFrancesco might have imparted, but Anderson does do a creditable job and the song is wonderful.

The album ends with probably the best-known song here, “Tangerine.” This is another one of those happy-go-lucky songs that Saturday nights are all about. Wyands’ piano hits the famous opening riff beautifully, followed in short order by Ammons and the rest of the crew. I’ve loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I’m sure you will too.

Just as I’m sure you will find the album “Jug” from Gene Ammons to be a wonderful addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!

To learn more about Gene Ammons and his music, visit tribute site www.geneammons.net. Another site, www.geneammons.com, appears to have been stripped of all its content. I’ve no idea if that means the site is in the process of being shut down, or if the webmaster is just having difficulties. Either way, at the moment the site is nothing but a shell. There is also interesting information to be had on NPR’s Gene Ammons page.

Thanks for reading this.

Al Evans
Wood Village, Oregon

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Copyright © 2013 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.