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November 2006

Sonny Stitt
Stitt’s Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952
Prestige

Charles Mingus once said that the full title of his tune “Gunslinging Bird” was “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” I doubt that Mingus had Sonny Stitt in mind, but who knows? Maybe he did. Stitt sounded a lot like Bird, and he was a few years younger. I can’t believe Parker’s playing didn’t impact Stitt at some point. Certainly it had by 1949, when the first of these sides were recorded.

Ultimately, it matters little. However he came by his style, Stitt was his own kind of monster. As annotator Harvey Pekar writes in the booklet accompanying this set: “At the very worst Stitt was one of the first musicians to be influenced by Bird.” True enough. A lot of musicians have been in thrall of Charlie Parker. Relatively few have played with one-tenth the skill and conviction of Stitt.

This three-disc box set compiles Stitt’s recordings for Prestige from the years 1949–1952. It presents Stitt in elite company: with a quintet led by trombonist J.J. Johnson (who also wears a Bird influence on his sleeve); a quartet with pianist Bud Powell; groups with fellow tenorist Gene Ammons; and various small bands that included other leading lights of the bop era.

Highlights are many. The tracks with Powell are especially fine, as are some of the septet and quintet performances with Ammons. The saxophonist’s thirst for combat was legendary, and Ammons was more than a match. Stitt’s ability on all his horns is evident throughout. Not many saxophonists play alto, tenor and baritone equally well: Stitt did. Alto may have been his main ax, but he was never more himself than when he picked up the tenor or bari. On the lower-pitched horns, the Bird connotation fades. What we hear is a gifted, determined stylist whose best work surpasses that of all but a select few.

That said, there’s something a tiny bit generic about Stitt’s playing. Compared to Bird’s inspired asymmetry, for example, Stitt’s manner of phrasing and sense of rhythm is conventional. A heightened sense of drive and intensity compensates, but not enough to fully capture my fancy. Still, Sonny Stitt played on a higher level than 99 percent of all jazz saxophonists who’ve ever lived. That’s a big deal—enough to make this an essential, even fascinating, document.

Originally published in November 2006
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