Gene Ammons: Brother Jug!


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The jazz-rock fusion movement of the late 1960s and '70s elevated electronic instruments, particularly the guitar and keyboards. But while the rock guitar, Fender Rhodes electric piano and synthesizers were front and center in many fusion bands, the saxophone experienced a rebirth in the parallel soul-jazz movement. Sidelined as a solo rock instrument since the rise of the electric guitar in the mid-'50s, the saxophone was once again featured prominently raised its visibility by covering hit songs of soul vocalists. The move was an effort by labels to win slots on FM radio playlists in urban markets. Reed players from Grover Washington Jr. and Hank Crawford to Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine had hit records in the soul-jazz era.

One saxophonist who pioneered the feel of soul-jazz without smoothing out his sound was Gene “Jug" Ammons. From 1969 and into the early '70s, Ammons retained his big bossy sound but ground in and became funkier. Albums such as The Boss Is Back! (1969), Night Lights (1969), The Black Cat (1970), My Way (1971), Got My Own (1972), You Talk That Talk! (1972) and others featured Ammons with a deep, rich wailing sound. Many other artists didn't quite get the same feel.

One of my favorite Ammons albums from this period is Brother Jug! Recorded for Prestige in November 1969, the album featured Sonny Phillips (org), Billy Butler (g), Bob Bushnell (el-b), and Bernard “Pretty" Purdie (d) on most of the tracks. The sidemen here are standouts. Of note are Sonny Phillips, a soul-jazz organist who needs a re-evaluation, and Bernard “Pretty" Purdie, one of the most in-demand pop and soul studio drummers from the 1960s and beyond.

Of all of the Ammons recordings from this period, this one is my favorite. It's a flawless recording, mixing R&B hits (Song of a Preacher Man, He's a Real Gone Guy) with pop ballads (Didn't We and Blue Velvet), and two terrific soul-jazz originals by Ammons—Jungle Strut and Ger-Ru. The latter tune was recorded for The Boss Is Back! and featured Junior Mance (p), Buster Williams (b), Frankie Jones (d) and Candido (conga).

Brother Jug! was produced by Bob Porter. Gene Ammons died in 1974.

JazzWax clip: Here's Jungle Strut (crank it up)...

Jungle Strut's rhythm-section riff seems to be an adaptation of James Brown's There Was a Time, from 1968. Here's Brown with Sammy Davis Jr. on the Hollywood Palace in 1969. Listen to the rhythm section...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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