The pairing of this dynamic duo had a long history, going back to the late 1940’s. Individually, each was a master of his craft. Put them on a stage together, and the results were never less than dramatic.
Both Ammons and Stitt have been featured on this blog twice before, and for biographical information I will refer you to those previous articles. You will find a lot of information about Gene Ammons here and here, and Sonny Stitt here and here.
The album is the classic “Left Bank Encores” which was recorded live at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland on June 24, 1973. Unfortunately, it then sat locked away in a vault until long after both leads and most of the rest of the performers had died. Only Cedar Walton lived to see its release on July 30, 2002.
When this album was recorded, both Ammons and Stitt were well established and had long, successful careers behind them. Such was their reputation that they could have had their pick of the best sidemen in the business, and it’s hard to imagine they could have come up with a better line up at the time.
The personnel for this wonderful recording are:
Gene Ammons, tenor sax (tracks 1 & 2, 4 – 7)
Sonny Stitt, tenor sax (tracks 1, 4 – 7) and alto sax (track 2)
Cedar Walton, piano
Sam Jones, bass
Billy Higgins, drums
Etta Jones, vocals (tracks 4 & 5)
The show opens with a stimulating version of “Just In Time,” written by Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Jule Styne. This one has long been a jazz classic, and leading off with it was a surefire way to catch the audience’s attention from the start. As you listen, it quickly becomes obvious from the audience’s reaction that no one was disappointed. About four minutes into this nine minute plus extravaganza, Walton takes the lead for a brief time before turning it back over to Ammons.
“Just In Time” is followed by another classic, George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Stitt sets aside his big tenor in favor of the alto sax on this one, and I have to say, it fits well. This is one of the longer songs on the album, running a bit over eleven and a half minutes. The danger with long, stretched out versions of songs it that they can outstay their welcome, so to speak. There is none of that here! Walton is almost never relegated to the background, but here he once again takes a nice solo, giving us ample evidence of the wonderful talent that he had.
Next we have what certainly has to be one of the most-recorded songs in history, “Theme From Love Story” from Francis Lai and Carl Sigman. This certainly never has been one of my favorite songs, but I have to admit that this group gives us a nice version that moves right along.
I’m also not a real big fan of most jazz vocals. However, this is Etta Jones we are talking about, and her renditions of “Exactly Like You” and “Don’t Go To Strangers” are both delightful.
Here is Etta Jones performing “Exactly Like You”:
And, of course, “Don’t Go To Strangers”:
“Autumn Leaves” is another classic, written by Joseph Kosma, Johnny Mercer and Jacques Prevert. The group takes this one and really stretches out with it, both musically and literally. “Autumn Leaves” runs a little under sixteen minutes and is the longest song on the album. There aren’t much in the way of solos in this one, just the two leads doing what they do best.
Ammons and Stitt may not have created the concept of dueling saxes, but they definitely did their part to perpetuate it. No performance including these two gentlemen would be complete without “Blues Up And Down,” the quintessential song they wrote for sax duels.
This is the second-longest song on the album at just over fourteen minutes, and if this performance lacks a little of the fire and brimstone that sax duels are famous for, “Blues Up And Down” is still a great song for those of us who enjoy this sort of thing.
Overall, I have to say that “Left Bank Encores” from Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt would make a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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