Friday, August 22, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 23: Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt

So I'm sitting in a club listening to a group led by J. R. Monterose, at a front table, and after a solo J. R. comes and sits with me, and we're talking a little -- quietly, respectfully, listening to the music -- as the other members of the group go through their solos. Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he stands up, gets back up on the bandstand, waits a couple of beats, and comes in right on cue.
But what cue? A nod of the head or a hand signal that he was watching for and I wasn't? A prearrangement that each soloist would play a certain number of bars, and while sitting and chatting with me he's also counting them out? I couldn't even do that if I were in an isolation booth, tapping it out with my feet.  A sixth sense that tells him when the soloist is going to run out of ideas? We know that John Coltrane could solo virtually forever. When Miles Davis commented on it, Coltrane said that sometimes he just didn't know how to stop. Davis's suggestion: "Try taking the horn out of your mouth."
Which conceivably could have cued J. R. - the other guy takes the horn out of his mouth, or lifts his hands up off the keyboard -- if J. R. Is standing next to him on the bandstand, not anticipating and getting out of his chair and climbing back up on the bandstand.
All of which goes to make my oft-made point that I am not writing this as a music professor, or musicologist, or musician, or musical anything but fan. Larry Audette, or some other jazz musician who might be reading this, can certainly tell me how this works.
And all of which brings me around to Sonny Stitt once again, back in the studio for two more Prestige sessions, the first with Gene Ammons -- two classic bebop tenors, playing off a loose structure that gives plenty of room for improvisation trading lines of unequal length back and forth with casual intricacy that leaves me wondering "how do they do it?" But mostly just appreciating that they're doing it.
We know it wasn't rehearsed, because Bob Weinstock didn't allow for rehearsal, and in any case, you couldn't really rehearse that sort of improvisational give and take. I guess you could write a chart -- I'll take twelve bars and then you take four and then I'll take four and then you take eight but I'll overlap the last one...but I don't think so.
I only found two selections - "Blues Up and Down" and "You Can Depend on Me" - on a Spotify, so they were my car listening, but a third, "Bye Bye," with some propulsive drumming by Jo Jones, was on a site that was new to me --  Shelf3d. I can't embed it, but i can link to it. "Blues Up and Down" and "You Can Depend on Me"are both just the quintet, Stitt, Ammons, rhythm section.
"Blues Up and Down" Is represented in three takes. Sometimes a plethora of alternate takes can be a nuisance if you're listening to a CD, but if you're doing a close and repeated listen to just a few tunes, it's fascinating. The first take of  "Blues Up and Down" is good (though incomplete - they stop halfway through), but the second take is where it really comes together. The opening chorus is now more than just a riff, and the solos take flight. The third take may be tighter, or it may just be that they needed a third because it's the only one they actually finish, but I do love the second. I don't hear a lot of difference in the two takes of "You Can Depend on Me" (and there's only a couple of seconds difference in time) but they both sound good.
On the same day, they backed up a vocalist named Teddy Williams -- essentially the same session, but it's listed as a Teddy Williams session because the 78 was issued under his name - later rereleased on LP as both a Stitt Session and an Ammons session -- and much later, as part of a box set called "Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings," although there's not much bebop in evidence on these two tracks, although lord knows they're  different enough from each other. They're both on Spotify.
On the first, "A Touch of the Blues," Williams is not particularly singing much more than a touch of the blues. It's a ballad in that Billy Eckstine style - more like Al Hibbler, really - and Stitt and Ammons play a chart that seems to have been written for a big band reed section. On the second, "Dumb Woman Blues," Williams belts out a conventional 12 bar blues in the style of Wynonie Harris or Roy Brown. And the horns play riffs that could easily be from a Wynonie Harris session, with one solo break (Ammons? I'm not good enough to be sure) that takes into that blue-gray area between bebop and rhythm and blues -- an area that's always interested me. Back in the day, the jazz tastemakers disdained rhythm and blues. Symphony Sid, if a caller requested Ray Charles, would answer scornfully, "We don't play rock and roll." But the same was not true of musicians. On Slim Gaillard's "Slim's Jam," Charlie Parker jams with "MacVoutie" - Jack McVea, best known for the R&B novelty smash "Open the Door, Richard," and another R&B bandleader, Paul Williams, had his biggest success with "The Hucklebuck," which is essentially Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." Many jazz musicians, including such pinnacles of refinement as the MJQ's Connie Kay, played R&B dates. 
Oh, and maybe I'm not the musical dunce I think I am. Well, I am, but maybe I'm not the only one. The reviewer of the Stitt-Ammons sessions on says "at times, when [Stitt] and  Gene Ammons are dueling on tenors, it's difficult to tell the difference between them," whereas the Amazon reviewer talks about "the contrast between Stitt's swift, complex phrases and Ammons's gruff passion" (how's that for bebop meets R&B?) I'm with the Amazon guy.

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