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March 2002

Sonny Stitt
The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions
Mosaic Records

Sonny Stitt was consigned to the shadow of Charlie Parker before Bird died. It was something the saxophonist, and champions like Kenny Clarke, thought was a bad rap and protested for decades. As 20/20 hindsight suggests this was the wrong issue for measuring Stitt's legacy, for it is largely irrelevant to the core of his art. Clearly, Stitt had the virtuosity on both alto and tenor to be an era-shaping innovator and, just as clearly, lacked the temperament. Stitt didn't have to push the envelope, because everything he needed was to be found in blues, ballads and bebop. Stitt used these basic materials not just to create a discography that is as durable as it is prolific, but also to create one of the more endearing personas in jazz history. Barely a chorus, let alone a track, goes by on The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions without Stitt making you grin or sigh. Given that nine of the 14 studio albums Stitt recorded for Roost between 1952 and '65 were with just a conventional rhythm section, his abilities to carry session after session is remarkable.

The collection opens with a CD of large group sessions arranged by Johnny Richards and Quincy Jones. On the '53 septet and octet dates, Richards was a credible collaborator, who co-penned tunes like the poignant "Pink Satin" and the Latin-spiced "Opus 202," deftly offset Stitt's solos with flourishes of brass and flute or piccolo, and heard, like Stitt, the jazz viability of schmaltz like "Shine on Harvest Moon." The two Jones-charted '55 tentet dates have a little more of a hit-and-run feel, but the hits, including two midtempo Stitt blowing vehicles-the "Rhythm"-based "Sonny's Bunny" and "Quince," a blues-are noteworthy for their punch. The Jones sessions also feature a larger contingent of complementary soloists, including Oscar Pettiford and Hank and Thad Jones.

The Jones figure prominently on the two remaining nonquartet sessions. Hank Jones' erudite bounce and Freddie Green's earthy rhythm-guitar grooves prove to be a potent combination on a five-track quintet session from '55, whether the issue at hand is Stitt's briskly paced blues "Biscuit Mix" or the heart-on-the-sleeve take on "Yesterdays." The pianist is also all over a '57 quartet date that produced minor gems like a quicksilver "Cherokee," a buoyant "The Best Things in Life Are Free" and hard-swinging heads like "Bird's Eye," a revamping of Parker's "Steeplechase." Thad Jones is an unexpectedly great front-line partner on Stitt's '63 Latin album, which also featured Chick Corea and three percussionists, including Willie Bobo and Potato Valdes. Their banter on Stitt's soulful, "Wade In The Water"-inspired "I Told You So" and the puckish "My Little Suede Shoes" begs the question of why Stitt-led sessions so infrequently employed a second horn.

Technically, four musicians perform on Stitt's lone Roost session featuring an organ trio; but Don Patterson's facility in providing a solid bass line, along with guitarist Paul Weeden's smart embellishments and solos, results in a plusher sound than even the Jones-Green session, setting it apart from the collection's other quartet dates. On tunes like "Goodnight Ladies," perhaps the collection's best example of Stitt turning corn into jazz, the saxophonist cogently employs a more easygoing brand of swing than on the remaining sessions, where he is supported by piano, bass and drums, four of which are shrouded in mystery with unknown bass players.

What's truly curious about these sessions is Stitt's consistency in the face of frequently ordinary rhythm-section play. Despite the presence of drummers as stellar as Charlie Persip and Roy Haynes, the six sessions featuring pianist Jimmy Jones don't have the staying power of Stitt's last Roost, a simmering '65 workout pairing the flinty Haynes with pianist Harold Mabern and bassist Ben Tucker. Jimmy Jones is primarily known as an accompanist for good reason; when he does solo, and he doesn't on a lot of the tracks clocking in less than four minutes, the results are pedestrian. Still, Stitt soars as much as does when the brawnier Mabern is backing him or the more sophisticated Hank Jones. Given that he spent much of his career trundling from city to city to front often-lackluster local rhythm sections, it's no surprise that Stitt was so automatic in delivering the goods.

Originally published in March 2002
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