Saturday, September 13, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 31: Sonny Stitt -Gene Ammons

Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, three-piece rhythm section...a quartet? Is this one of those odd numerical quirks, like the great R&B/Doowop group the "5" Royales, who rarely had five guys in their lineup? No, as it turns out, the June 28 session was a quartet, though not always the same quartet -- Jug on two cuts, Sonny on the rest.

Stitt's tunes: "Count Every Star," "Nice Work if You Can Get It," "There Will Never Be Another You," and "Blazin'." Ammons had two: "I Wanna Be Loved" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," but only the latter is included on Spotify.

Why? Lost to history. Maybe they couldn't both show up at the same time. Maybe they weren't talking to each other that day. Maybe Weinstock was only paying for four musicians at a time. Maybe each of them wanted the full length solo space. Not unlikely, listening to the tunes. Each of them solos all the way through. Stitt barely gives Duke Jordan a vamp at the beginning -- no vamp at all on "Count Every Star."

And he's quite sufficient to satisfy. Generally the bebop paradigm is play the melody for one or two choruses, then take off on improvisatory flights. As Ronny Graham says in his comedy routine about a commencement address to a school for progressive jazz musicians, "When you cats came here, all you could play was the melody. Now you wouldn't know a melody if it hit you in the mouthpiece." But Stitt stays around the melody in his improv, especially on "Count Every Star

I would have thought of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" as more of a 1920s vo-de-o-do kind of song, more suited for a raccoon coat and ukulele (or for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to sing to a leopard) than a gutbucket, blues-based bebopper like Gene Ammons. In fact, it was written in 1928, by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, for their Broadway hit musical Blackbirds of 1928. McHugh and Fields had already made their major contribution to Prestige Records history -- they wrote the original "I'm in the Mood for Love." At any rate, Ammons takes it over and does what he wants with it -- jaunty and rakish, but in the style of 52nd Street, not Broadway.
They gathered the septet again a week later for another session -- Bill Massey again on trumpet, this time Matthew Gee on trombone.

It's hard to find much about Bill Massey, who anchored all of these septet recordings. "Bill Massey Jazz" on Google mostly brings up references to the classic Jazz at Massey Hall album, but adding to the confusion, there's another jazz musician named Bill Massey,who gets the Google hits because he's more contemporary and has a website. 

Replacing Duke Jordan on piano is Charlie Bateman. There's not much on him, either, but a 2004 obituary from the Orlando Sentinel tells us that he played with Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall in 1947, moved to Orlando to play bridge, and moved there permanently after the World Trade Center bombing. More on Charlie here. He does get some solo space with the septet, and the cat can play.

Stitt is listed on baritone again for this session, but we're told that both Stitt and Ammons would double on baritone in larger ensemble settings, while the other was soloing, and I think that may be happening here.

There's another vocal -- on "Sweet Jennie Lou." On this one, there's a lead vocalist, uncredited, and I can only guess as to who it is, so I'll guess Gene Ammons. The rest of them sound not so much like drunken Irishmen as like drunken Irishmen trying to imitate the Modernaires. Actually, they sound a little like Dooley Wilson's band doing the call-and-response with him in "Knock on Wood" at Rick's Cafe Americain.

Their "Seven-Eleven" is not the same as Buddy Lucas' R&B classic "7-11," with the Gone All-Stars, but it rocks. Charlie Bateman is hot on this one, as is drummer Wes Landers (another two-generation drum family -- his son was jazz/soul drummer Wally "Gator" Watson).

They did "La Vie en Rose" on this session, and I'd love to hear it, but I can't find it on Spotify. A Google search for "Gene Ammons la Vie en Rose" says that it is on Spotify, but clicking through leads to a dead end.

Songs from all these Stitt/Ammons sessions were mixed and matched on various 78s, and on several different 10-inch LPs, Surprisingly, no 45s, though you'd have thought many of these cuts would have been naturals.

There's really no such thing as a representative track from these sessions, so I'll use "Count Every Star," because I love it.

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