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Sonny Stitt: Just the Way It Was

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Though lauded throughout his career as a great technician who could swing his tail off, Sonny Stitt has not gotten the recognition he deserves as an innovator. People have always scoffed at his claim that he evolved his style independently of Charlie Parker, but on a couple of 1944 Tiny Bradshaw airshots he can be heard playing in an almost completely evolved bop style. This is pretty early to have been influenced by Parker. Parker influenced alto saxman John Jackson by then, but he’d played with Parker in Jay McShann’s sax section. Stitt said he’d first heard and jammed with Parker in 1943, and Bird had commented on how similar their styles were. Later Stitt probably did pick up ideas from Parker, but it’s quite possible that in 1944 they’d just been influenced by some of the same people, i.e., Lester Young and maybe Scoops Carry. Few jazzmen were as advanced on any instrument as Stitt was then; he was definitely among the first boppers to emerge.

It is legitimate to criticize Stitt for not evolving over the last 30 years or so of his career, although many jazz artists, including some great ones, such as Dizzy Gillespie, stood pat after developing their characteristic styles. At least Gillespie worked in a variety of contexts, though. Stitt made so many discs with just a rhythm section.

On Just the Way It Was organist Don Patterson backs him and drummer Billy James in 1971. As usual Stitt is brilliant, playing complex phrases at fast tempos that other saxmen dream about doing. Of course, if you’ve heard a lot of Stitt, some of these licks will be familiar to you; his vocabulary stayed pretty much the same over the years. The main beef I have with Stitt here, though, is his use of an electric attachment that muddies his sound something awful.

Patterson plays very well with Stitt. The annotator comments that he was underrated. That’s true, and it’s partly because he was an inventive soloist with a relatively light touch at a time when B-3 organ fans wanted to be hit over the head with soul-jazz cliches. Patterson tries to accommodate them with some funky work over pedal points, but it’s doubtful he won over any Jimmy McGriff fans who may have been there. James kicks things along strongly, playing with crispness and getting a nice bright sound from his cymbals. It’s a shame he didn’t record with more top jazz artists.