Date of Release Jan 22, 2002
John Hicks' fourth CD in a series honoring pianists and composers who were from the greater Pittsburgh area salutes Sonny Clark, whose contributions have been somewhat overlooked since his premature death in 1963. Joined by bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Cecil Brooks III, Hicks adds several originals - which complement but don't attempt to mimic Clark's style - in addition to his interpretations of Clark's compositions. He adds a lovely introductory original solo piano prelude to precede the easygoing waltz treatment of Clark's "My Conception," while his take of "Cable Car" gives it a Latin flavor. Hicks slows the tempo of Clark's "Minor Meeting" considerably and also winds the piece much tighter, giving it a much darker, bluesy sound than the composer's recordings for Time and Blue Note. Hicks' solo version of "Sonny's Mood" is lush and reflective, while the hard swinging "Sonny's Crib" reveals its roots in gospel music. Hicks, who hung out with Clark, dedicates "Angel With a Briefcase" to the late pianist because of his habit of always carrying one stuffed with manuscripts in progress; this warm solo portrait is followed by Hicks' whimsically titled "Clark Bar Blues," which hard bop fans will no doubt discover to be very tasty. Overall, the desired effect of such a brilliant release is to make one want to obtain earlier CDs by John Hicks and also to look for the original versions by Sonny Clark, if they aren't already in the listener's possession.
- Ken Dryden (All Music Guide)
========= from the cover ==========
If you're not sure exactly who Sonny Clark is, or was, don't feel too out of it. Despite playing on over 60 albums by others and releasing 12 under his own name in one remarkable decade, nonetheless he never became a household name among jazz fans as did Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Kelly, Ray Bryant, Gene Harris or Red Garland.
He died young, at age 31, and tragically, due to complications of a drug overdose. But not even that earned him cult hero status, as it somewhat has for Charlie Parker, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce and other young artistic figures.
Thank goodness, for us and for Clark's legacy, that John Hicks knows and cares who Sonny Clark was and about the fine music he left for us.
Clark was born July 21,1931 in Herminie, a small coal town a half-hour southeast of Pittsburgh. His family moved up river to the big Steel City just as Clark was about to enter his teens. And that's where his interest in and fire for jazz was born. He would stay up late listening to many of the network radio big band broadcasts during World War-ll, especially taking delight in those featuring Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He also began savoring recordings by Fats Waller and Art Tatum.
A year or so after high school, Clark's older brother, also a pianist, took him out to California to stay with an aunt for a few months. That "few months" turned into five years gigging, touring and recording with Wardell Gray, Art Pepper, Teddy Charles, Jimmy Raney, Cal Tjader, Sonny Criss and, most notably nearly three years with Buddy DeFranco. Sonny left DeFranco in '56-and the West Coast a year later. He toured with Dinah Washington after that. Then, basing himself in New York, he recorded and/or performed with Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, Charlie Mingus, Lee Morgan and Stan Getz among others.
During a remarkably prolific and creative period from '57-'59, Clark performed on nearly 30 albums, mostly on Blue Note. Seven were under his own name plus dates with Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan, Clifford Jordan, Hank Mobley, Curtis Fuller, Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, (trombonist) Bennie Green and Babs Gonzalez.
Interestingly enough it wasn't Clark's tunes, or even his crisp elegant soloing that caught Hicks' ear initially John remembers that he "first heard him playing with Buddy (DeFranco) back before I had even left St. Louis." What attracted him to Clark was "the way he comped behind those horn players. He was somethin'."
And as I think about it, it's actually Clark's sensitive and evocative piano that I have loved so much accompanying Lee Morgan on his touching "Since I Fell For You" from 1957 and behind Dexter Gordon on his 1962 masterpiece "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry".
Hicks acknowledges that "this whole recording brought back a lot of memories of hanging with Sonny when I first came to New York in '62. I first saw him at Birdland. Later on he had a trio at Cafe Wah? which was just up the street from where I was playing. We use to see each other a lot, just hanging out, especially late, after the gigs. That's where 'Angel With a Briefcase' comes from. We'd go to these all-night parties at these lofts that were all around what's known as Soho now. It'd be some hot summer night, 3-am or somethin', and you'd see him carrying around this briefcase full of music he was writing. He was always writing music. It was somethin' seeing him cartin' all this music around with him from place to place."
Though Hicks was at least familiar with most of the Clark originals, he used input from from both Cecil and Dwyane to recast them. However, "Sonny's Crib" had been in John's playbook "for years, man. That was probably the first tune of Sonny's I played."
As if reaching a sudden and surprising conclusion, Hicks informs you that "you know, he has some great tunes" He lets out a hearty chuckle as he admits that "after going through some of these songs I started to think I should've been playing these tunes a long time ago."
This is the fourth in a loosely connected series of High Note albums dedicated to the compositions of Pittsburgh pianists: Billy Strayhorn ("Something to Live For" HCD 7019), Erroll Garner ("Nightwind" HCD 7035), Mary Lou Williams ("Impressions of Mary Lou" HCD 7046) and now this. Series producer and drummer (as well as Pittsburgh native himself) Cecil Brooks-Ill is especially pleased with how well the record turned out. "I think this album is at the top of the entire series.
"There's probably two main reasons for how well this particular session went. The first is that this was, at the time, a working group. This trio, John and Dwayne and I, had already been playing for a week behind Arthur Blythe at the Jazz Standard. So we were really hummin' already. And then, once in the studio, we just went with what worked. If it felt right we used it." Brooks' producing approach is evident as he explains that they "weren't trying to control the music, we tried to just let the music control us."
What seems as remarkable as anything else about this particular record is how current and fresh and enduring Clark's tunes sound. And how seamless the blend of Clark's compositions and Hicks own tunes. Timeless music played by contemporary yet timeless musicians.
It's likely that most of today's jazz fans have rarely, if ever, heard such Clark treats as "My Conception", "Cable Car", "Sonny's Crib", "Minor Meeting" or the playful "I Deal". But having heard them you'll most likely want to hear them again and again and not just done by Mr. Hicks & Co. "And that's another point of this series, too," says Cecil. "These compositions can be played in a contemporary context as much as they were played in the '50s or '60s in that way. They're still very much alive."
Once again it would appear that John Hicks has hit another long ball. He's been busier than ever and gaining some of his long-deserved respect as one of the great contemporary masters of jazz piano. Not only would Sonny have approved, but he'd probably show John a bunch o' new tunes he'd scribbled down on a handful of lead sheets hangin' outta that well-worn briefcase.
The unfamiliar becomes familiar. The familiar becomes the favored. Write on, Sonny, wherever you are. Play on, John, wherever you go. We like it.
- David Jaye, "The Jazz Place "(WSHR & jazz columnist, McKeesport Daily News)