Sonny Stitt & The Hank Jones trio
This session, originally released by the Japanese Trio label, was put out domestically on LP by the now-defunct Black-Hawk company. Sonny Stitt, sticking to tenor, is joined by pianist Hank Jones, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Grady Tate for nine standards and Stitt's "Duce's Wild." Tate's occasional warm vocals give variety to what is essentially a spirited but predictable bop session.
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
========= from the cover ==========
Sonny Stitt was chatting backstage at Carnegie Hall on July 4 during the 1982 Kool Jazz Festival in an alto summit set with other bebop altoists. He had just appeared in place of Art Pepper who was scheduled to play his first George Wein mega fest as Pepper had passed away just a few weeks before the event. A cue that Stitt's well-being was in jeopardy manifested conspicuously via a huge bandage wrapped around his apple-sized swollen chin; unaffected by the cancerous condition, he swung with as much fire and inspiration as in other prime performances. Carrying this positive frame of mind, he said, "I'm cool and swingin' and diggin' it hard!11 Yet he fulfilled a performance tour commitment in Japan under severe physical duress within a few weeks of this appearance. He died in Washington, D.C at age 58 on July 22, 1982.
The Good Life (as the disc is titled) embraces a world wide span of attributes, and is a generous mix of personal values plus those meeting the consensus of many groups and facets of life kind. In jazz, one might regard The Good Life to be founded on the fundamental quality of swing manifested by those who are jazz messengers. On this record date the requisites are satisfied easily as everyone is a confirmed first order musician.
Ranking as one of the most recorded artists in his time (Stitt's discography of several hundred in four decades is among the most extensive in jazzdom), he began playing as a teenager and by age 21 in 1945 he was in the seminal bebop big band led by Billy Eckstine, in company with young beboppers who were destined to be prominently important Stitt was in the hot sax section which boasted Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, John Jackson, and Leo Parker. Except for Ammons, the others were labeled the Unholy Four. Fats Navarro and Art Blakey were also notable members. Stitt continued in the bebop frontier with Dizzy Gillespie's band and then for most of the following thirty years, he led numerous combos of his own and toured with a variety of all-star line-ups in between.
Stitt had an intransigent determination to make the very best music possible, transcending his masterful skill per se, applied to the horn. On several occasions he was adamant about the urgent importance of swinging and the values of good strong melodies, and the blues. "You then have to express your feelings and ideas in your own voice," Stitt said, "so that you are saying it in your way and your spirit. You must have a rich storehouse of ideas-like a supply house or reserve library." No question that at his instant command he had an encyclopedic repertory of riffs, cliches, and the like. Classic Stitt assuredly is an identifiable, individual style and sound serving up a personal quality stamp, always hot on the trail with a top notch performance.
While it's commonly taken for granted Stitt's alto is closely allied with Charlie Parker, his tenor work which began 1949-1951 drew more upon the dominant influence of Lester Young and a blended outgrowth of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. Stitt's deep-throated tenor is rooted in these greats of the instrument; he added, "I learned from swing era titans Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Don Byas." As he was inspired by others, in turn Stitt impacted many a young cat. John Coltrane, for one, related Barbara Gardner in the Down Beat Yearbook of 1962 said, "All the time I thought I had been looking for something and then I heard Sonny and said, 'Damn! There it is! That's it!"
Although Stitt's preference for the alto or the tenor hinged on such factors as the most compatible key for what horn, the most suitable fit for specific selections, and the like - behind his decision-making lay a large participation of his intuitiveness and just plain innate taste. As on this disc, there are echoes of his stylistic fathers vis-a-vis his quick, responsive ringing lines, filling the songs with total ease voiced in vibrant warmth, strength and elastic swing.
Stitt paid large respect for the tenor. "l love the tenor," he said to me in 1981. "It stretches my opportunities to express my ways and style of playing out certain directions and feelings. My tenor gives me approaches different from the alto. I need both horns." Stitt's opinion stands in spite of a noticeably smaller sound on the larger instrument; however, he cultivated the tenor and did indeed gradually fatten its sound over time. Correspondingly it wasn't an unpopular practice whatsoever for him to play both horns in many contexts.
A giant appetite for the American songbook is exerted in his familiarity with an amazing catalogue of songs naturally expressed in his recorded works and gigs. Writer/producer Bob Porter who produced many Stitt sessions once observed, "I doubt if any saxophonist knew more tunes than Sonny."
His keen knowledge of standard tunes is emphasized by way of a personal anecdote: during a period over three months in 1981, Stitt underwent major dental work vital to restoring his severely deteriorating front teeth, calling for a fixed bridge-essential for his embouchure. As an aside, his personal dentist was my brother Dr. Woody Wong, who said: "I don't know how on earth Sonny played with what teeth he had. It's astounding. Without professional services he wouldn't have been able to play much longer." As a house quest of Woody's for days at a time, Stitt practiced his horns religiously on songs for long hours. We would sound off the name of tune after tune-dozens of Tin Pan Alley tunes and some very obscure ones...he knew and played all of them. He couldn't be stumped! Yes, he was into a truck load of tunes. So satisfied was he with his renewed dentition, on many post-operative gigs, Stitt acknowledged brother Woody's handiwork-his improved sound and blowing facility. He loved his new chops!
The trio of seasoned, reliant stalwarts support and stimulate Stitt's imagination, prompting originality from his horn. The mere presence of Hank Jones' piano raises esthetic values of any date before the first note is played. His special touches are at times elusive, easily escaping direct notice; at other times, there are others in bold exposure. Jones ties his firm entrenchment on the 52nd Street scene, bridging swing to bebop to his older, long absorbed and then newer, amended concepts. As a warm, sympathetic, and knowledgeable accompanist with finely wrought solos, he is often extolled for his outstanding ability as a "feeder", a role so refined, his taste and finesse are presumed. Not exotic to him, Jones grew up accompanying singers in church and school events. No wonder listening is a necessary art to him.
George Duvivier was a first call bassist in New York who played in tandem with Hank Jones on countless sessions and events. Like Jones, he was a gentle, articulate and intelligent person. Jones once said, "I worked with George off and on from the early days of Birdland some forty years ago. George is excellent in everything-perfect time, perfect intonation, plays great solos and follows bass lines extremely well-even if they're not written. I may, for example, be playing Body and Soul and want to use a substitution change. George is able to follow it because he's been there before; either that or he knows instinctively." Duvivier was a powerful, flexible interpreter and was Stitt's favorite bass player.
Grady Tate is multi-talented-a fine drummer whose time conception is so honed he keeps perfect time and plays with a resilient attack. A member of the select palmful of in demand New York drummers for club and record dates, Tate has appeared on a non-stop list of recordings, surpassing any drummer of the East Coast Drummer Akira Tana shares his perceptions about Tate: "Grady's excellent control in playing different musical fields with appropriate authentic style impresses me. Playing behind him singing or playing percussion alongside him shows his abilities are adaptable quickly to different situations. Grady Tate is a man of all seasons." Ironically his career as a drummer was a spin-off of his first pursuits in acting or singing. In essence, he is surely an inherently top drawer singer whose assets as an instrumental musician provided him early heavy recognition sooner than his vocal capabilities. On this disc from 1980, Tate sings captivatingly on the ballads My Funny Valentine and Body and Soul-the latter with some creative, hang-loose quotes from lyrics and themes of other songs, tastefully accomplished in an appealing, personal style.
Throughout the program the trio demonstrates it is an invariant class act, the epitome of sensitive, tasteful restraint, bringing a continual flow of fresh air and uncluttered swing. Deuces Wild opens the flow with swinging doors, a victorious blues he previously recorded back in 1967. Stitt's predilection for the blues finds it rare when a performance is without any, for he often infused blues into his interpretations of standard songs, removing them from being funnelled into nostalgia, and lifting them into immediate currency instead.
The nine remaining tunes are from Tin Pan Alky tunesmiths. The quality is of such a consistently satisfying level that it would be duly inequitable to offer a bias. There is an abundance of examples of Stitt's well-stitched solos and the rhythm section's crisp dancing joyfulness. Perhaps the title selection caps the session, defining the elegant model of Stitt's faculties and distinctive sound, and the summary of what the good life in jazz with Sonny Stitt was like. A sanguine result of all this talent is the goodness that brightens our existence-The Good Life!
- Dr. Herb Wong