Thursday, August 07, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records - Part 17: Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell

Interesting exchange of notes on Jazz Collector's blog:

Something I’ve long wondered is — if an artist without a regular working band came in to record, how were the sidemen chosen? At Blue Note, for example, did Alfred and Frank assemble the players, or would a guy with some pull like Dexter Gordon say, “Hey this is who I want to play with?” Could a name artist veto a sideman? Maybe the leader would come in with a couple of guys and then Lion would fill in the holes? It’s pretty clear that a lot of artists tended to record together, but overall it’s just something I’ve always wondered about.

First response:
My understanding from numerous jazz biographies, liner notes, etc is that the choice of sidemen was a combination of who the label knew; who the leader knew; and, often most importantly, who was in town on the days set for recording. Aside from steady bands (or pre-planned dates with written material), it was just catch-as-catch-can with the limited number of top guys who lived in town (or who happened to be in town for a while). I’m sure some folks with experience in the industry can provide more color (or correct my impression).

And another:
I would also bet that the label would pick sidemen that might bring some new tunes to the session, and that the label in turn might be able to extract publishing rights from those tunes. (Not that this ever happened of course)

And a third:

The sidemen story makes a lot of the great recordings seem like a stroke of dumb luck. Similarly, could some records have achieved legendary status in jazz history if so-and-so had been in town to play bass that day?

In the sixties, when three pretty good (all right, very good) guitarists got together, they were called a supergroup, and the recording was called a super session. In the jazz of the 40s and 50s, that happened all the time.

On December 11, 1949, Sonny Stitt came into the Prestige studios to record four tunes with a quartet, and the other members of the quartet were Curly Russell, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. Why these four, on that day? Hard to say. Bob Weinstock started Prestige because he had access to a lot of jazz players, because they hung out at his record store. Were they playing gigs in town? No way to find out that I've discovered. The New Yorker's Goings on About Town listings for that week include trad jazz clubs like Eddie Condon's and Jimmy Ryan's, but no club that featured modern jazz. Snobbery?
Racism? They just didn't get it? Lord knows, modern jazz was being played in New York. Bird land opened in 1949. 52nd Street had passed its prime, but there were still clubs there besides Jimmy Ryan's. Miles Davis had his Birth of the Cool nonet at the Royal Roost. The Famous Door was still around, although the Onyx had traded in jazz for strippers.

But for whatever reason, talk about a supergroup! And yes, this sort of thing happened all the time.

The four tunes are "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm," "Sonny Side," "Bud's Blues," and "Sunset." All are available on Spotify, either as the Sonny Stitt Quartet or the Bud Powell Quartet.

Sonny Stitt was 25 in 1949. He had met Charlie Parker six years earlier, and he was considered by many to be the player stylistically closest to Bird. It would be interesting -- for someone with a better than mine, and more musical knowledge -- to compare the
styles of the beboppers who spent their formative years playing in swing or rhythm and blues bands, and those who were virtually weaned on bebop.

These are four amazing cuts. If I had to pick a favorite moment, perhaps it's the trading back and forth of riffs between Stitt and Powell at the beginning of "Bud's Blues,"and the way Stitt takes it off from there, but all of it is wonderful. The composition of "Bud's Blues" is variously attributed to Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt - probably they both had a hand in it. It's become a jazz standard.

I suppose this could be considered, to use an Internet cliche, "I listen to the Prestige catalog so you don't have to," but you do have to. Listen to at least one cut from this session. "Bud's Blues" is a good one, but they're all good.

These sides were released on 78, on a 1951 10-inch release entitled Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell, and on a couple of different 7000-series LPs. including one called Sonny Stitt with Bud Powell and J. J. Johnson, incorporating the earlier J. J. Johnson's Boppers session.

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