SONNY STITT

It’s Magic
Delmark DD 563

Back in the days when there were working group and a jazz night club circuit saxophonist Sonny Stitt (1924-1982) was constantly on the road and constantly recording. The epitome of the journeyman player Boston-born Stitt seemed to make LPs the way others eat hamburgers — compulsively. From his earliest session in 1946 until a few weeks before his death the saxman was always up for another session. The dates could be all-star challenges with the likes of trumpeter Dizzy Gilllespie or pianist Oscar Peterson, two-tenor duels with his longtime partners Gene Ammons or relaxed pick-up like this one from 1969.

When he recorded as the sole horn, Stitt’s backup was invariably a piano-bass-drum bebop trio or a soul-jazz organ combo. Here the controlled, spot on rhythm comes courtesy of little-known drummer Billy Pierce – possibly a local Chicagoan – while the constant bass line and all the cushioning accompaniment is from Don Patterson (1936-1988). A Columbus, Ohio-native, known as Stitt’s favorite organist, he also worked with other funky saxmen like Ammons and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and you can see why.

Each of the 10 short – only “Just Friends” brushes five minutes – blues and ballads performed here is kept on an even keel. A former pianist, his note placement is near perfect and he doesn’t clutter the tracks with flamboyant crescendos or expansive tremolos. At the same time his playing is passionate and gritty enough that you can see how Stitt’s trios could play the chitlin’ circuit as easily as the prestige jazz clubs.

In the 150s and 1960s, the non-star sidemen worked overtime to make the soloist sound good, and here Pierce – wonder if it’s really Stitt’s longtime drummer Billy James under a pseudonym? – and Patterson lay back enough to let the saxophonist do what he does best on either alto or tenor saxophone. Old school in this context, Stitt rings every last ounce of passion out of the ballads like “Body and Soul” and “Just Friends” and turns stands like “Green Dolphin Street” into light-toned danceable numbers, with extended no-note-out-of-place cadences, but without any touches of fake funkiness.

Key to professionalism is knowing yourself and your audience. Stitt, as you note on warhorses such as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “How High The Moon” always lets you hear the foot-tapping melody and never lets his solo variations get involved in what he would have termed “far out” playing. The only sound experimentation on show is his use of the electrical Varitone to add extra notes when he soloed. It’s obvious on a tune like “Getting Sentimental Over You”, but here and elsewhere it doesn’t interfere with the flow of his ideas or the performance.

Stitt’s recorded work runs to over 100 LPs and this slightly less than 40 minute disc is neither a major artistic statement nor a throw away. For Stitt it was probably just another gig. But considering he and Patterson aren’t creating anything else right now, it’s an artful souvenir of straight-ahead jazz masters in action.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Four 2. On Green Dolphin Street 3. Parker’s Mood 4. How High The Moon 5. Shake Your Head 6. It’s Magic 7. Getting Sentimental Over You 8. Just Friends 9. Body and Soul 10. They Can’t Take That Away From Me

Personnel: Sonny Stitt (alto and tenor saxophones); Don Patterson (organ); Billy Pierce (drums)