Sonny Stitt: Soul Shack


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Sonny Stitt made dozens of records in the 1960s. Many were very good, and some were spotty—as is to be expected when an artist is that prolific. But there also were knockouts—albums on which Stitt was perfectly paced and at the very top of his game on alto and tenor saxophones. One such outing where Stitt offers a penetrating, sweet tone and superlative lines was Soul Shack, recorded in September 1963 for Prestige.

Soul Shack is an album of mostly medium-tempo blues and standards, and Stitt's playing is truly flawless. There's no back-pedaling, no repeated riffs, no “I wish this were over" blowing and no lazy improvisational devices. Instead, the session is all beauty—from start to finish.

Best of all, Stitt was teamed with organist Brother Jack McDuff, who was a frequent recording mate of Stitt's during this period. Except on this date, McDuff frames Stitt with relaxed chord voicings, and his Hammond solos are warm and musky. Rounding out the rhythm section were Leonard Gaskin on bass and Herbie Lovelle, a studio drummer who recorded on jazz, folk and R&B sessions and was in The Ed Sullivan Show band before becoming a film actor in 1980. 

It's hard to know why Stitt put on an all-beef beauty show here and delivered less interesting results on dates just before and after. Perhaps part of the reason rests with the fact that this was his first recording for Prestige in more than a year and he wanted greater opportunities with the label. Or perhaps much has to do with the presence of producer Ozzie Cadena. [Pictured: Sonny Stitt, working out chord changes on the piano]

What is clear is that Stitt employs a honey-soaked, slow-motion attack. My guess is that Cadena knew Stitt's sweet zone and called for a mostly medium-tempo date to show it off (the title track is the sole zealous-paced blues). This session really does sound as though Stitt was playing while swinging gently in a hammock. [Photo of Ozzie Cadena in 2005 by Kevin Cody]

Equal credit for the success of the session belongs to McDuff, whose solos take your breath away. Catch what McDuff does on his Love Nest solo, sending swirling waves of hushed and soulful chords sailing out like paper airplanes. Stitt seems so overcome by McDuff's solo on this track that he re-enters in a groove identical to McDuff's. [Photo of Brother Jack McDuff above by Francis Wolff]

For You, a standard, also features Stitt in a patient mode, lyrically running through the chorus before picking up the pace for his improvisation—but just slightly. Stitt's solo, again, is coy and rich in tone. And so is McDuff's. With the stops set low and without much vibrato, McDuff uses single notes to make his points. The only question mark here is why Cadena and Rudy Van Gelder opted for the fade out during the editing process on this one, Sunday and Hairy. My guess is they were running out of vinyl. Which is a shame, since the feeling was still so rich and meaningful as the volume begins to sink.

This is an album on which Stitt is completely in love with the melodies instead of his agility and cleverness. And McDuff is there for the entire ride, creating a nice spongy springboard for Stitt to bounce around on. You're likely to be just as captivated by McDuff's solos as by Stitt's. My only gripe is that Cadena didn't have Stitt stick around to record another album's worth of material.

JazzWax tracks: Soul Shack can be found on a CD that combines this 1963 date with Night Letter (1969), which features Stitt on the varitone. You'll find this as a CD and download at Amazon here.

JazzWax clip: Here's the standard Sunday from Soul Shack. Dig Stitt taking his time, with McDuff chilling as well...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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