Sunday, June 28, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 125: Gene Ammons

Gene Ammons is back on Prestige for the first time since his flurry of activity in 1950-51, still with the septet form that seemed to appeal to him, but with a new supporting cast -- no Sonny Stitt, and no Bill Massey, the trumpeter who had been the constant in his earlier groups. But he was back to stay: there may have been no other jazz artist who made as many recordings for Prestige as Ammons. He was one of the only musicians who was still putting out new material after Prestige had been sold to Fantasy in 1972 and become mostly a reissue label.

This session appears divided into two distinct groups. "Sock" and "What I Say" (not the Ray Charles song) are, I'm guessing, Ammons originals, and they are Ammons all the way--the rhythm and blues tone and the bebop phrasing. I'm guessing these were aimed at jukeboxes, and at the new emerging jukebox market. There's a scene in Clint Eastwood's Bird in which a strung-out Charlie Parker stumbles backstage at the Apollo and hears an old competitor out on the stage, blowing a wild, theatrical, Big Jay McNeely-type solo, to wild applause. "What's he doing playing rhythm and blues?" Parker wonders, and the other musicians backstage howl with laughter. "Where you been, Bird? That ain't rhythm and blues. That is rock and roll!"

"Sock" was released on 78 b/w a tune from an early 1955 session called "Blues Roller," and then again on 45 b/w a tune from a later 1955 session called "Rock-Roll." It still looks back to the 40s of Illinois Jacquet and the swing-to-bop purveyors of rhythm and blues, rather than ahead to the rock-and-rolling 50s of tenormen like Red Prysock and Sam "the Man" Taylor. "What I Say" is similar. Both tunes have real excitement and some solid blowing. "What I Say" came out on a 78 with a ballad, "Our Love Is Here To Stay," on the flip side, and this too was characteristic of the era, covering one's commercial bets with a honker on one side and a ballad on the other, just as the early Elvis Presley singles on Sun had an R&B tune one side and a country tune on the other, and many of the urban harmony groups would pair up a ballad and a jump tune.

The other two tunes have to have been aimed at very different jukeboxes. "Count Your Blessings" and "Cara Mia," which were released as two sides of a 78, were both pop tunes of 1954, and neither has exactly gone on to become a standard of any jazzman's repertoire, although Sonny Rollins did record "Count Your Blessings." It was written by Irving Berlin for the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie, White Christmas, the schmaltzy remake of the Crosby/Fred Astaire Holiday Inn. Irving Berlin certainly knew how to write a melody, and this version would go well for an end-of-the-evening slow dance, while still offering some worthwhile Ammons soloing. "Cara Mia" was credited to Tulio Trapani, which was a pseudonym. Actually, the song was written by Mantovani. It was a huge hit in England, and a top ten hit in the US. It's not as good a song as "Count Your Blessings," and I have to wonder if Ammons played it a whole lot in club dates.

The first album release of this session did not come until 1965, as Gene Ammons -- Sock! The album's title strongly suggests that it was aimed more at the traditional Ammons audience than the Ammons/Mantovani audience.

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