Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 41: Sonny Stitt - Gene Ammons

Prestige must have gotten a lot of jukebox play out of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons to keep bringing them back into the studio, and why not? They had the bebop chops, and they had the popular touch. Nowadays, bebop and its offspring are mainstream jazz, the sounds we know and love. Back then, it was still new, still controversial, still associated with shades and berets and goatees and jokes about the square who walks up to a hipster and says "Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" It was right around this time that Nancy,as she washed the dishes, was muttering to herself that Sluggo was driving her crazy listening to beep-bop. Just then, she dropped a huge armload of dishes on the floor, and Sluggo called out from the next room, "Hey! Play some more of that beep-bop!"

 So you had to be hip to love beep-bop, but maybe you needed a little help, too, and these guys were as hip as they come, and as good as they come, but also user-friendly. Stitt started out the end of January with his quartet, cutting three tunes, then joined Ammons and the septet for three more. He was back the next day with the quartet (Teddy Stewart replacing Blakey on drums). The first quarter session featured three ballads, one slow ("Can't We Be Friends?") and two medium tempo. "Liza" utilizes the upper register of the tenor sax,* "Friends" the middle, and "Can't Be Love" the lower register.

All are beautiful. "Can't We Be Friends," a 1929 song by Paul James and Kay Swift, is an especially beautiful melody. Kay Swift was the first woman ever to write the entire score for a Broadway musical. She was George Gershwin's protege and lover, and after his death she was chosen to complete and arrange some of his unpublished works. She also composed music for George Balanchine's first American ballet.. The lyrics to "Can't We Be Friends" were written by her husband, James Warburg, using a pseudonym so as not to embarrass his very proper banking family, and they contain one of my favorite unintentionally risque lyrics: "I thought I'd found a girl I could trust...what a bust..."

But the rich, deep tones of Stitt's saxophone on "This Can't Be Love" may the the best of a very good lot.

The second session that day, the septet session, adds weight to the speculation that these were jukebox favorites. You don't release "New Up and Down Blues" so soon after "Up and Down Blues" unless you've gotten some solid play on the first one.

The septet is essentially the same. The one new face is Chippy Outcalt on trombone, another guy about whom I can find out nothing except that he also did a stint in Dizzy Gillespie's big band. And again, goes to show that there have always been a hell of a lot of good musicians in New York who don't make the record dates, and aren't well known, but other musicians know them, and know they can call on them in a pinch. When I lived in Manhattan in the '70s, I would often walk home down Broadway from the upper West Side to my apartment on East 23rd Street, and when I passed through Times Square at two in the morning, there was always a guy playing saxophone under the marquee of of the movie theaters -- always the same one, though I forget now which one it was. And I would always stop and listen, because he was that good. And if one waited there long enough, musicians from the Broadway shows or the supper clubs or wherever there were paying gigs would stop on their way home to jam with him, because he was that good.

Larry Townsend is back on vocals again, so there must still have been a demand on the jukeboxes for Mr. B. acolytes. He's not bad, although it's a style that hasn't lasted, and he's singing two songs that didn't quite become standards. If "The Thrill of Your Kiss" was recorded by anyone else, I can't find it. The song was written by Richard Carpenter -- not the 60s songwriter with the sister, but, according to the jazz blog Jazz Portraits, " the OTHER Richard Carpenter, a noted jazz shyster, who according to James Gavin, ripped off Chet Baker so badly that Chet literally wanted to kill the man."

The next day's session is Stitt with quartet again, this time with Teddy Stewart on drums, redoing "This Can't Be Love," and one other tune. I only knew ".P.S. I Love You" from the syrupy Jimmy  Sacca and the Hilltoppers version from the mid-50s, and I confess I couldn't imagine it as the basis for a great jazz improvisation. Stitt proves me wrong.

Oddly, no luck with these on YouTube, although they have a lot of Stitt. You can find all these selections on Spotify. All of these were released on 78 by Prestige, some with songs from different sessions on the flip sides.As near as I can make out, there were two alternate pressings of Prestige 831, each using a different version of "This Can't Be Love." I have no idea which one I was listening to.

* Hold everything. The Jazzdisco information on this session may have been wrong. Ebay has the 78
of "Liza" for sale, and it's possible that the upper register of the tenor sax was in fact an alto sax -- that's the information on the label of the 78, which also lists Teddy Stewart as the drummer. On the other hand, the label from Prestige 739, also offered for sale on Ebay, has Stitt listed as playing alto on "Can't We Be Friends," where he's certainly playing tenor -- and it misspells Charles Bateman's name, so maybe there was some carelessness on the part of whoever designed the labels for Prestige.

No comments: