The 1960s were a very productive time for Willis "Gator" Jackson, whose Prestige output of 1959-1971 was impressively consistent. At the label the big-toned tenor saxman didn't try to be something he wasn't - Gator liked his soul-jazz / hard bop accessible, hard-swinging, and straight-forward, and he excelled by being honest with himself and his audience. Spanning 1962-1968, At Large paints an attractive picture of Jackson's Prestige years. The CD, which Fantasy assembled in 2000, draws on five of Gator's Prestige albums (Shuckin', Swivel Hips, Neapolitan Nights, In My Solitude and Really Groovin') and finds him turning his attention to a variety of material. On this album, one hears Jackson successfully interpreting everything from Italian songs ("Arrivederci Roma") to spirituals ("Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen") to funky boogaloos ("Florence of Arabia"). The saxman also puts his spin on pop ballads that include "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (the tune that became Tony Bennett's signature song) and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (which was a major hit for both country-pop singer Glen Campbell and soul innovator Isaac Hayes). At Large isn't the last word on Jackson's Prestige period, although it's easily recommended to anyone who is interested in 1960s soul-jazz.
All Music Guide
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Within the labyrinth of the jazz world there is marked confusion among the critics, pseudo-critics, and writers in their search for a definitive description of jazz. Within the realm of this constant mental exercise there is determination to reject those performers of the jazz arts who seek simply and only to express themselves musically.
This group of musicians are not particularly interested in attempting to create new directions nor to establish new frontiers of music. If anything they are in love with their horns, love to communicate their feelings to an appreciative audience, and strive for perfection within their valued limitations.
Such a performer is Willis Jackson.
It alarms me to read the writers who persist in writing about the times. Willis was more of a physical player who used muscle and brawn to ply his art. He was however, no different than hundreds of others who were able to entertain as well as thoroughly move the audience through a brand of hard, soulful, exciting blowing.
Unfortunately at the time, when the hollow voices of the critics began to rise in protest, they decried the method employed by the Jacksons and others. Critics found some receptive ears and helped to pave the way for jazz to move to the cool and barren period of inanimate objects, stand like statues on the stage, communing with some unknown forces as their eyes searched the ceilings, ignoring the audience.
When the cool players took the ball and tried to run with it, they fumbled badly. This coolness just about placed jazz in a state of bankruptcy creatively as well as economically.
Fortunately a handful of jazz performers like Jackson ignored these demagogues and continued to play for people and are still proving today to be the most consistently rewarding players to watch as well as enjoy.
There has also been a great deal of discussion about the new Jackson's ability to interpret a ballad. His recent Prestige LPs have merely substantiated what most of us have known for years; that his big, full tone gives new life to the most limpid ballad. However, at the time when it was necessary to pull a few physical exercises to satisfy the audience, a groovy ballad was always necessary to allow the dancers to snuggle closer. Therefore, we should not be really surprised.
Perhaps through his new series of albums a new audience can begin appreciating Willis's big talent Whatever theatrics of the past Willis Jackson participated in... let us close the book on that era and reveal the new chapter.
Gargantuan in strength... for how many performers can pull the Club Harlem gig each summer, seven days a week to a combined tourist audience and old professional Atlantic City vacationers and give out nightly with the high degree of musicianship that he does? Very few, I might add.
If jazz has become pure entertainment or a "performing art" as Leroi Jones states, then I feel that Willis has successfully bridged both approaches.
He can entertain and he can perform. In addition, he has been able to surround himself with new talent whose approach to music is based on reaching the people.
A product of Miami, Florida where he first began on piano, Willis soon turned to the tenor saxophone. He earned his early musical letters with Cootie Williams before branching out and assuming the responsibility of leadership of his own band.
Willis has played the circuit. Up and down the East Coast, throughout the South... the one-nighters... theaters... beaches... tents; all have heard his big sounds. This experience has helped to hone the sharpness of his sounds and has afforded him rich experience in knowing what the people want when it comes to their music.
For us, we are happy that Jackson's sense of humor has not been dimmed by the long period of "woodshedding." If anything, as you listen to Jackson you recognize he has a way of laughing at life. His style is far from the bitter approach of most of the musicians plying their art in jazz today.
Shuckin', this new musical thesis of Jackson's, is another good, happy romp of the backbone of the jazz field. Willis is somehow in a setting of prominent members. These performers may not be well known outside the periphery of the jazz world, but as you review the lineup and recall the numerous times you have seen or heard them on records, you will discover they have rarely offered a bad performance.
Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Eddie Calhoun, Roy Haynes, Jose Paulo, Montego Joe, Juan Amalbert, and Willis simply offer "Let's play one." This "one," of course, being a real good one.
the present record was done with piano. "The organ's such a dominating instrument, that if the player's any good at all, he can get overpowering, and you tend to go with him, instead of playing yourself. And another thing. So many organ players copy Jimmy Smith, they set up their stops the way he does and everything. I say to them, There's bound to be another style, why don't you get something going for yourself?' But they still keep playing like Jimmy Smith..."
Willis Jackson loves his instrument, the tenor saxophone, and has very definite opinions on its history and the men who play it. "We all know about Hawkins," he says, "and we all know about Lester Young. They're masters. But I think one of the most underrated saxophonists is Illinois Jacquet. He really revolutionized the instrument, brought a new excitement to the music it hadn't had before. He used to honk and scream, the way I did, and he was looked down on because of that, the same as me. But he was always playing, and he really can play whenever he wants to. I was at a session with him not too long ago, with nobody around, where he didn't have to put on any showmanship, and he just sat down in a chair, and he played.
"So many of these saxophonists playing today, they have what I call a 'peashooter' sound. They sound like an alto, they're playing alto on the tenor. They're wonderfui technicians, they all have a good execution, but they don't make the instrument sound like they should. A lot of people say that if you have a big sound, you have to sacrifice execution, because if you're playing from down in your stomach, the way you have to to get that kind of a sound, it slows up your fingering. But that's not true. They ought to remember Don Byas. He was fast as lightning, and he had that big sound.
"I think the perfect saxophonist would be a combination. He'd have the execution of Sonny Stitt and the sound of Gene Ammons. Now Sonny can play faster than any saxophonist in the world, but when he and Jug used to be together, he'd play all those notes, and then Jug would come in and play just two or three notes with that big sound and beautiful soul of his, and ail these notes of Sonny's didn't mean too much.
"Gene Ammons is my favorite musician for ballads. I'd rather hear him play a ballad than anyone in the world. He has a lovely soul. That's all you can say about him."
Then he looked up as though he had forgotten something. "But to take the saxophone as a whole, not just the tenor, the greatest saxophonist there ever was was Charlie Parker. He played more music than anybody. The alto was my first instrument, you know. I switched to tenor later."
At present, Willis Jackson is making plans to return to the Club Harlem, the Atlantic City club that is his summer home. Sometimes, the crowd gets so wild that he is forced to play until seven in the morning, but he loves it, just the same. At the close of that engagement, he hopes to be booked into rooms more suited to his new style than those he has played in the past. This record... should be a great help to him in achieving that goal.
-Joe Goldberg (Excerpted from the original notes for Prestige 7196.)
This album presents Willis in three different musical settings. He has a chance to display his technique in now accepted and no longer novel bossa nova vein. There is no pretension in playing the South American rhythms. His approach is simple and despite the title of this album, he is really not "shuckin'."
His ballad artistry is a masterful weaving of beautiful portraits painted in "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" These tunes, now standards of most vocalists, have now become a part of the repertoire of most instrumentalists, thanks to the interpretations offered here by Willis.
"Shuckin'," the title tune, will follow in the tradition of such Jackson imprints as "Thunderbird" and "Cool Grits." It is light and moving with a blues carpet laid down by the rhythm section before Willis steps on the carpet and struts briskly along.
Willis Jackson may well help to return us to the sound of pure, happy, swinging jazz. For if there is freedom displayed in jazz at all, Willis proves that a man can "shuck" once in a while with tongue in cheek and need not apologize.
- Del Shields (These notes appeared on the original album liner of Prestige 7260.)
Sometimes, the Moodsville series has a surprising way of bringing out unexpected facets of very well-known musicians. The series is generally intended as small-group, after-hours ballad dates, and there are several musicians who would seem at first glance to be a natural for this kind of setting. Coleman Hawkins, for one, Red Garland, for another, and for a third, Gene Ammons. Others, such as Arnett Cobb, might not be immediately thought of in such a situation, but they often come through with a surprising record.
One such performer in the latter category is Willis Jackson. There was a time, as by now most everyone knows, when "performer" was by far the most accurate word to describe him. He put on a performance, and did the whole bit expected by the "honking" tenorman of a few years back: lying on his back, stamping his feet, holding one note interminably, and perhaps even marching around the stage. But there was a time when Ornette Coleman did that too, so maybe such fragments of the past will no longer serve as sufficient reason for condemnation.
At any rate, even in those days, Jackson maintains that he was attempting to present good music within the limitations of his particular context. And the time came when he stopped playing that way altogether, except for an occasional number by popular request in the Atlantic City club where he spends every summer. He has since produced a number of straight, if somewhat "soulful," albums in the modern jazz vein for Prestige since that time, and may soon be completely rid of whatever vestiges of his former reputation still remain.
Under these circumstances, it is logical that he should want to do a ballad date. In the hierarchy of jazz, the ballad still remains, with the blues, one of the two irrefutable ways for a man to establish himself. The old cliche about separating the men from the boys was never more applicable than to the new musician who must by one or both of those methods, prove to himself and his associates that he is a worthy member of the fraternity. And, in a certain sense, Willis Jackson is a new musician. By now, he has no need to prove to himself or anyone else his skill with blues. For that matter, a few isolated tracks on previous Prestige sets have shown what he can do with a ballad. But an entire set of ballads is something else again, something that quite a few musicians would not be able to pull off with any kind of distinction at all.
Perhaps these remarks give the impression of a kind of clown-attempting-to-play-Hamlet situation: that is by no means intended. Many of the places Jackson has worked throughout his long career have required him to play ballad after ballad for the edification of dreamy-eyed couples all night long (there is something quite openly sexual about a saxophone that some psychologist should attempt to explain). But Jackson, having embarked on a new career, so to speak, is aware of the importance of the record audience, and this is his opportunity to present that talent to them.
He has said that his favorite musician for ballads is Gene Ammons; an excellent choice. When he speaks of Ammons, he uses the word "soul." That word, although well on its way to becoming the exclusive property of musicians who display little but anger, does serve as a quick description of Ammons. And it does as well for Jackson himself. Soul, really, is only a synonym for the ability to express emotion when used in this way, and Jackson certainly does that. There is no use of technique for its own sake; he seems more concerned with presenting the merits of the song, and what he finds in it, than showing off any kind of technical virtuosity. It is almost a vocal approach; not in the manner of the previously mentioned Ornette Coleman, who sometimes attempts to reproduce the inflections of speech on his horn, but more in the manner of what a good singer might do. In that sense, it is a virtuoso performance, in the same way that many of our finest singers, having chosen melodies they are personally fond of, present those melodies simply, so that you only think later of the artistry it took to do them that way.
Which leads us to the music itself. The selections come from several different sources, and represents a much wider range of material than one might expect from Willis Jackson. There is no playing of "hip" tunes in an attempt to get easy and immediate recognition that way; as a matter of fact, some of them might even be thought of as definitely "square." But it has been the mark of many fine musicians that they choose music one would not expect from them, and afterwards, one always wonders why no one ever thought to play that tune before.
The first two tracks, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," are spirituals. To bring up the word "soul" again, it has, in popular usage, come to connote a feeling of gospel song in contemporary playing. But no one before, to my knowledge, has attempted to play music like this, and play it relatively straight, without all the currently in favor frills that one might expect to accompany such a performance. Except for Richard Wyands's discreet hint of gospel triplets on "Trouble," there is none of this on these performances. They are simply, again, as a good singer might do, presentations of the music, and for that reason, might have a good deal more "soul" than if that quality had been intentionally tried for...
Jackson, with the sensitive support of a fine rhythm section has... gone one step further along his road to recognition in his new role as a fine, vital performer.
-Sidney Falco (Excerpted from the original notes for Moodsville 17.)