This tenor-saxophonist led a series of excellent all-star jam sessions for the Prestige label during the mid-'50s that took advantage of the extra time available on LPs (as opposed to the three-minute 78). This album features versions of "Jammin' with Gene" (a blues), "We'll Be Together Again" (which evolves from being an Ammons ballad feature into a group jam and then back again) and "Not Really the Blues" that clocks in between ten and over 16 minutes. With such sidemen as trumpeters Art Farmer and Donald Byrd, altoist Jackie McLean, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Doug Watkins and drummer Art Taylor, this is an excellent (and rather spontaneous) straightahead session.
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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In A. B. Spellman's Four Lives In The Be Bop Business (Pantheon Books, 1966), Ornette Coleman describes the mystique of the tenor saxophone: "The tenor is a rhythm instrument, and the best statements Negroes have made, of what their soul is, have been on tenor saxophone. Now you think about it, and you'll see I'm right. The tenor's got that thing, that honk, you can get to people with. Sometimes you can be playing tenor, and I'm telling you, the people want to jump across the rail."
"That thing, that honk," Ornette's succinct characterization of a highly emotional, blues-drenched kind of music, has never been developed to a higher level than by Gene Ammons. For memories of Ammons in action, one must go back to the Summer of 1962, shortly before the narcotics conviction that resulted in his being locked away until late 1969. The Johnny Griffin/Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Duo and Ammons were playing separate clubs in Cleveland, but the three master saxophonists were brought together for a breakfast dance billed all over town for days as "The Battle Of The Axes."
It was a joyous occasion, well and enthusiastically attended. All three men were in rare form and were warmly received. But there was something in Ammons' playing that drew the people closer together. They didn't seem to be listening more closely. No hush fell over the audience. There was no B-movie character to stand up and yell "Gawd, the man's a genius." As I recall, no one jumped across the rail. But Ammons was getting at something essential in the people and it had to do with "what their soul is." I might add that he was reaching the ladies' libidoes, but their escorts could offer the best testimony to that aspect of Jug's playing.
The same Summer, Sonny Rollins and his quartet were playing McKie's, that lamented listeners' haven in Chicago, and one evening Ammons was sitting in. If for nothing more than the fours between Ammons, Rollins, and guitarist Jim Hall on the blues, it was a memorable encounter. In the cab back to the hotel, the driver asked who had been playing. I told him, and he said, "I'll bet Ammons really put Sonny away, huh?" He hadn't really, but I recognized the tones of a dedicated Ammons partisan and offered no evaluation of the proceedings. Before we reached the Palmer House, the cabbie had compared Ammons with every tenor player in and out of Chicago, from Johnny Board to Stan Getz, and found all of them wanting. He delighted particularly, for some reason, in recalling how Jug had "cut James Moody to gravy" one night in McKie's. I said I doubted that and received a stony and sullen glare by way of the rear view mirror. The trip ended in silence, which was probably best; Ammons fans are often aggressively loyal.
During the fifties Prestige recorded Ammons as the leader of a series of jam sessions with some of the best young players of the day as sidemen. In addition to those heard on this album, Ammons used John Coltrane (on alto), Jerome Richardson, Paul Quinichette, Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Lou Donaldson, Duke Jordan, Idrees Sulieman, Addison Farmer, and Can-dido, to name a few. The sessions were relaxed affairs, with enough blowing room for each soloist to develop his ideas, and the blues was always an important part of the format.
Jammin' With Gene was also the title tune of the original release of this collection with the subtitle "Hi Fi Jam Session," a description which now seems rather quaint. But in 1956 high fidelity was still a big deal. Ammons solos first, assured and unhurried, doubling up briefly and beautifully. Byrd . . . still very much under the influence of Clifford Brown ... is a bit fluttery, but gets off some nice licks in the Brown style. Farmer, ever an individualist, is lyrical and harmonically resourceful in his solo, avoiding the obvious in his choice of notes. For a trumpet player who deprecates his technique, Farmer rips off some astonishing passages in the second chorus of his solo. McLean uses about a dozen direct quotes from Charlie Parker, but by 1956 he was well established as his own man. Like Farmer, McLean goes very well to his left harmonically. Waldron has an understated solo which in the third chorus sounds remarkably like Dave Brubeckrs blues playing in Brubeck's less bombastic moments, a similarity we may probably safely credit to mutual influences. Well Be Together Again has Ammons slow and out of tempo for the melodic statement, in the manner of My Foolish Heart and his other great ballad hits of the late forties and early fifties. The tempo moves up after the first chorus and Jug is followed by Farmer, McLean, Byrd and Waldron, then he reverts to ballad tempo for the last eight bars.
Johnny Mandel's Not Really The Blues, like The Great Lie on the first volume of this series, The Happy Blues (OJCCD-013-2), is a piece Ammons played often with Woody Herman after he had replaced Stan Getz in the Four Brothers sax section. It's an intriguing 32-bar composition which, like most of Mandel's jazz tunes, is seldom played. The success of The Shadow Of Your Smile doesn't really make up for the neglect of Pernod, Tommyhawk, Her-shey Bar or Black Nightgown. Solo order: Byrd, McLean, Farmer, Ammons, Waldron. On the first set of four-bar exchanges, Farmer and Byrd converse, in that order, then McLean and Ammons. On the second, it's Byrd, McLean, Farmer, Ammons and Waldron. That rhythmic squeak is less likely to be a hip studio mouse than the pedal on Arthur Taylor's hi-hat.
"The tenor's got that thing, that honk, that you can get to people with," Ornette Coleman says. Through these jam session recordings Gene Ammons has got to a lot of people over the years, and now that they're available again he'll get to a lot more. These days, with jazz flying off in all directions, an hour spent with Gene Ammons may help bring the basics into focus.
(This album was formerly cataloged as Prestige 7060).
- Doug Ramsey (March 1970)