On June 24, 1973, Baltimore's Left Bank Jazz Society reunited one of the most legendary tenor teams of the bebop era: Gene "Jug" Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Like Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, Jug and Stitt were on the same team - the bop team - but loved to compete with one another and see who had the mightiest chops. That was in the late '40s and early '50s - when the saxmen were reunited at that Baltimore concert in 1973, they weren't as competitive and battle-minded as they had been in their younger days. But their chops were still in top shape, and they could still swing unapologetically hard. Thankfully, that Baltimore gig was taped, although the performances went unreleased until the early '00s, when they became the focus of two Milestone releases: God Bless Jug and Sonny in 2001 and Left Bank Encores in 2002. This solid CD finds Ammons and Stitt providing an inspired two-tenor attack on material that ranges from "Blues Up and Down" to "Autumn Leaves" and "Just in Time"; only on "They Can't Take That Away from Me" does Stitt switch to alto. Guest vocalist Etta James is in fine form on "Exactly Like You" and her signature tune "Don't Go to Strangers," and the all-star rhythm section (pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Billy Higgins) takes over on "Theme from Love Story" (which gives the saxophonists a chance to lay out). "Theme from Love Story" is a tune that most jazzmen wouldn't think to perform, but it works well for the lyrical Walton. Like God Bless Jug and Sonny, Left Bank Encores falls short of essential, but is an enjoyable disc that Ammons and Stitt's hardcore fans will appreciate.
- Alex Henderson (All Music Guide)
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For 24 years, from the time they began co-leading a quintet in 1950 until death ended it in 1974, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt had an occasional musical partnership that resulted in plenty of boppish fireworks. When the two tenors traded off with each other, they were evenly matched. Ammons had a tone as large as a stadium and could say more with one note than most saxophonists could in a night. Not to be outdone, Stitt was a master of the bebop vocabulary and knew so many licks that he could never be defeated in a battler-But then again, Ammons could also play impressive double-time lines while Stitt's tone was not exactly lightweight. They had strong mutual respect and love for each other, so their musical meetings, while competitive, were also quite complementary.
Both had rather notable careers outside of their joint encounters. Gene Ammons, the son of boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons, was born in Chicago on April 14, 1925. He was one of the solo stars with Billy Eckstine's pioneering bebop big band during 1944-46 (trading off with Dexter Gordon on the popular "Blowin' the Blues Away"), began recording as a leader in 1947, and had a stint with Woody Herman's Second Herd in 1949, being featured on "More Moon." After coleading the quintet with Stitt during 1950-52, Ammons recorded plenty of gems in the 1950s (mostly for the Prestige label) including a series of all-star jam sessions, warm ballad statements (his versions of "Canadian Sunset" and "Angel Eyes" were quite popular), and successful outings with both piano trios and organ groups. Drug problems, however, resulted in Ammons being jailed during part of 1958-60. In 1962, when he was arrested again, he was made an example of and spent seven long years in prison. Fortunately Ammons did have some opportunities to play while behind bars and he kept up with the latest musical trends. His sound became more expressive and moody (as did Art Pepper's during his jail sentence) while retaining his distinctive tone. Ammons's release from prison in 1969 was a happy event (celebrated in the title of his comeback album, The Boss Is Back), but after five years he passed away on August 6, 1974 when he was only 49. The last song that he recorded was ironically the standard "Goodbye."
Sonny Stitt, born in Boston on February 2, 1924, started out as a fulltime alto saxophonist who gained attention for his work with Dizzy Gillespie during 1945-46. His alto playing was so close to Charlie Parker's that he was often criticized as a Bird imitator even though he claimed that he had developed independently of Parker. By 1949 Stitt was playing as much tenor as alto, displaying a light tone on the tenor that was influenced by Lester Young but sounded personal. After the group with Ammons ended, Stitt mostly toured as a single, picking up local rhythm sections and always being ready to jam and slay overconfident up-and-coming horn players. He was briefly in the Miles Davis Quintet in 1960 (as John Coltrane's first replacement) and toured with the Giants of Jazz (a sextet with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk) in the early 1970s but otherwise led his own spontaneous groups, recording a ton of records along the way. Alternating between tenor and alto, Stitt never strayed far from bebop and stayed a vital force on the jazz scene until his death on July 22, 1982 at the age of 58.
Ammons and Stitt had first met up when both were with the Billy Eckstine Orchestra in 1945. Their 1950-52 quintet was most notable for their recording of "Blues Up and Down." Other recorded collaborations through the years (all for Prestige except as noted) resulted in the albums Boss Tenors (Verve, 1961), Well Be Together Again (1961), Boss Tenors in Orbit (Verve, 1962), Soul Summit (1962), You Talk That Talk (1971), Together Again For the Last Time (November-December 1973) and the two live CDs recorded June 24, 1973 at Baltimore's Famous Ballroom: Cod Bless Jug and Sonny (Prestige 11019) and this disc.
For the latter performance, sponsored by the Left Bankjazz Society and not previously released, Stitt and Ammons are joined by an unbeatable rhythm section. In a quick word-association game, pianist Cedar Walton (b. 1934) might generate Art Blakey'sjazz Messengers, bassist Sam Jones (1924-81) makes one think of Cannonball Adderley, and drummer Billy Higgins (1936-2001) brings t6 mind the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Actually all three musicians had a countless number of credits, recorded as leaders, and were perfectly at home playing a supportive role in a bebop setting.
The proceedings begin with Gene Ammons playing the melody and the first solo on "Just in Time." Ammons's tone had deepened since the 1950s and his playing was less predictable and even but still swinging. Cedar Walton keeps the momentum flowing before Sonny Stitt reprises the melody during his brief three-chorus spot. A short walking bass interlude precedes the two tenors interacting for a chorus and the type of closing tag that Stitt always loved to play. Ammons goes first again on "They Can't Take That Away from Me," growling, roaring, and distorting notes, saying a great deal with a few sounds. Stitt, who makes his only appearance here on alto, glides over the chord changes, repeats the melody (as if to start the song fresh), and then sounds quite joyful in his double time runs. Walton has a strong spot (stealing solo honors), the two saxes trade fours with Higgins for a moment, Jones takes the bridge, and the horns take it out. Stitt on the final note shows off the advantage of playing alto in this setting!
It is fair to say that the "Theme from Love Story" is not played too often these days. The song from the 1970 tearjerker serves as an opportunity for the Cedar Walton Trio to stretch out, turning a potential throwaway into creative jazz. The next two selections feature the beloved singer Etta Jones (1928-2001). Jones, who first recorded in 1944 as a teenager, had a minor hit in "Don't Go to Strangers" in 1960. But after a series of fine records for Prestige during 1960-65, she barely recorded at all during 1 966-74. Influenced by Billie Holiday but having her own sound, Jones made a comeback later in the 1970s and recorded quite a few rewarding dates during her final 25 years, often with Houston Person on tenor. Her soulful singing on "Exactly Like You" (which finds her altering the melody to fit her emotional delivery) sandwiches short solos by Ammons and Stitt, and her remake of "Don't Go to Strangers" delights the enthusiastic audience.
"Autumn Leaves" has the two tenors splitting the melody, Ammons taking nine expressive choruses, Stitt putting a lot of ideas in his eight and Walton faring well during his four. The night climaxes with a lengthy runthrough on "Blues Up and Down." Ammons is fine during his 19 choruses, sometimes just playing one repeated and distorted note for a full 1 2 bars. However it is Stitt's 47-chorus solo (the choruses zoom by quickly!) that is the highpoint of the session as he displays his ability to come up with a seemingly endless flow of ideas, before the two lifelong friends end the song and the memorable evening.
Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons together always resulted in musical magic. Their Baltimore appearance keeps their record perfect.
- Scott Yanow (april 2002)