You either love Sonny Stitt or you're completely unfamiliar with the saxophonist. And if you're as crazy about Stitt, as I am, then you know it's almost impossible to collect his records. There are simply too many of them. When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I worked in a record store in New York and received a decent discount on LPs. After hearing Stitt's You Talk That Talk (1971) with tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, I went nuts. I'd go see Stitt at clubs in Boston and New York whenever I could in the mid-1970s. I also tried to build a Stitt collection. I assembled a pretty impressive two feet of album spines before I finally threw in the towel. At around the 30th LP, I realized I hadn't even dented the guy's catalog.
So I was overjoyed in 2001 when Mosaic Records released the Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions. Like any good complete Stitt package, quantity comes with the territory and Mosaic's box is the mother lode. It holds nine discs (148 tracks), and the set is one of Mosaic's most ambitious projects for an individual artist. Over the past year, the sheer size of the Mosaic set has resulted in many emails from JazzWax readers asking me, Nine discs? Is there enough diversity with that much material? Is the box really worth it?"
Guess what? It is. All nine discs of the 1952-1965 Roost period feature lyrical muscle and zero fat. There are quartets with pianists Jimmy Jones, Hank Jones [pictured], Dolo Coker and Harold Mabern. There are orchestras led by Johnny Richards and Quincy Jones. There's even an organ date with Don Patterson and a Latin session with Thad Jones. Not once did I say to myself, Gee, I could have done without that track" or Sonny's just coasting." This is Stitt at the top of his aggressive game in the 1950s and early 1960s--engaged, eager and with something to prove.
True, Stitt recorded so much as a leader between 1949 and 1982, the year of his death, that some albums were lesser efforts than others. I've found that this was often the case on albums where the producer played a passive role or was disengaged. The worst thing you could do as Stitt's producer was suck up to him with lines like, Yeah, sure Sonny. Whatever you want. Just blow and we'll record." Stitt had two speeds--good and great. If you weren't as passionate as he was, he treated the session like a job with one eye on the clock.
So as a juvenile collector, I was always looking for albums that had what I call the Stitt surge." When Stitt was on, the listener experiences a thrill right in the chest, similar to the rush you feel on the first dip of the roller coaster. The Stitt surge often featured the saxophonist double-timing the improvised parts and then squeezing off quadruple-time runs for an extended period. When Stitt was in the groove, there were no pauses. Those improvised sections came out in one long sheet of blues thinking, sizzling with enormous energy, clarity and enthusiasm.
Stitt was a bebop progenitor, coming up in the early 1940s in the bands of Tiny Bradshaw and Billy Eckstine. Stitt's sound was so pure, forceful and blues-soaked that he was instantly compared to alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. In the Mosaic set's rich liner notes, writer Zan Stewart quotes Stitt on the oft-told tale of his initial encounter with Parker:
I was 19 and went looking for him and saw a man coming out of a drugstore carrying an alto case and wearing a blue overcoat with six white buttons and wearing dark horn-rimmed glasses. I said, 'Are you Charlie Parker?' and he said, 'Yes, who are you?' I told him, 'Sonny Stitt' and we went to this place called the Gypsy Tea Room and jammed with a piano player for about an hour. 'Well, I'll be damned,' he told me, 'you sound just like me,' and I said, 'Well, I can't help the way I sound. It's the only way I know how to play.'
But Stitt's Bird-like sound soon drew the envy of fellow musicians and scorn of critics, who branded him a Parker wannabe. Which was completely unfair. Stitt always was his own man, with his own sound, though he rode his alto high on the register like Parker. And he often played tenor. As Stitt said in an interview quoted by Stewart:
On tenor, I take a different approach, much more like Pres [Lester Young's nick name]. I like to think like Pres, if I could. He was the master by me. On alto, it's Bird and Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter."
With the Mosaic box, you get to hear Stitt on both reeds, and he delivers on every track. There are straight-up bop sessions in 1952 with pianist Jimmy Jones, followed by an interesting orchestral date in 1953 arranged by Johnny Richards. Two years later, Stitt was in front of a Quincy Jones-led and arranged band playing uptempo pieces and ballads on alto (dig My Funny Valentine and Star Dust). Then came sessions with pianist Hank Jones, who astonishes on tracks like There Will Never Be Another You and Afterwards from 1955.
Stitt was teamed with Dolo Coker in 1957, and on Blues for Yard, you hear these two work together brilliantly. After Coker delivers a highly impressive blues run, Stitt [pictured] jumps in to show Coker how it's done--and does. These Coker sessions give you a sense of how great Stitt was, especially on Blue Moon.
Stitt is back with Hank Jones on the next session in 1957, including a searing version of Cherokee. In 1958, Jimmy Jones returns, and you get to hear how his approach by this point differed from Hank Jones' accompanist concept. Jimmy Jones is a bit lusher with the focus on chord voicings. Stitt remained with Jimmy Jones on sessions running through 1960.
In 1962, Stitt began his lengthy relationship with organist Don Patterson. This session is particularly smart, with a rendition of Sposin' that will knock you out. The final Roost recordings in 1965 featured Harold Mabern [pictured] on piano. Here again, you get a chance to hear how beautifully Mabern plays and how his rich chord-driven style affected Stitt's work, especially on ballads.
Credit must be given to Teddy Reig, who produced the original Roost sessions. Reig was a co-founder of the Roost label in 1948 with Ralph Watkins, Monte Kay and Symphony Sid" Torin. Eventually he bought out his partners and the label was absorbed by Roulette, where Reig remained for a time. Hands down, Reig was one of the great record producers of the 1950s. Perhaps it was his imposing size--he was 6-feet tall and weighed 300 pounds. Or maybe it was his passion for Stitt and a clear vision of what he wanted to record. Or likely both. At any rate, Stitt delivered for Reig, and the result was an enormous gift to jazz.
Stitt waged a life-long battle first with drugs and then with alcohol addiction, with the latter eventually claiming his life at age 58. I recall one night going backstage to see him up at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in 1975. When I inched into the small room, Stitt spied me and gruffly told me to sit down on a folding chair. We spoke for a bit, and when he was comfortable, he reached behind his chair for a gallon-sized glass bottle of Smirnoff.
Stitt didn't ask if you wanted a drink. He poured it for you, and sharing a glass with him was the price of admission in those days. Stitt reached into a bucket for a few drippy ice cubes and dropped them into a plastic cup. Then he nearly filled it to the top with vodka. Ginger ale was added for color.
What I remember most as this was going on were Stitt's hands. I couldn't take my eyes off of them. As he fixed the drink, those long, knobby, branch-like fingers were extended gracefully to hold the cup steady. When he held out the drink to me, I looked up at his face. One of his eyebrows went up slightly, as if to say, Hey, kid, you're the one who wanted to hang out back here." So I took the drink. And sipped slowly.
JazzWax tracks: The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions is available at the Mosaic Records site here. When I checked the site over the weekend, it appears this box is on sale for $129 until March 31st. Trust me, it's worth the hit. It's a box that won't quit.
And hats off to Mosaic co-founder Michael Cuscuna, who personally produced this Roost CD box. From what I understand, Michael is a voracious Stitt fan. I'm sure he made greater headway on his Stitt LP collection than I did.
JazzWax clips:Here's Sonny Stitt playing alto on If You Could See Me Now (Roost) with the Quincy Jones band in 1955...
And if you've seen this clip before, watch it again. If you've never seen it, you're in for a treat. It's Bill Cosby talking about playing drums behind Sonny Stitt...
I love jazz because it is both challenging and exhilarating, and the endeavor of improvisation is the highest form of art.
I met so many great musicians--including my two earliest heroes, Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie--by attending concerts
and being willing to treat them with the respect they deserve.
The best show I ever attended was the Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman Song X concert at Cornell University.
The first jazz record I bought was an RCA compilation by Dizzy Gillespie.
My advice to new listeners is to not be afraid to listen to something because you're not familiar with the artists or the band or
the genre or anything - this is music that is best experienced through discovery.