Sonny Stitt

It's Magic

by Robert R. Calder

11 May 2005


The liner notes here recognise, as did reviews of Delmark’s previous CD of material from these 1969 sessions, a curiosity. As Clark Terry also did briefly (there was some controversy in jazz magazines of the time), Sonny Stitt makes use of the relatively harmless, then-current gimmick called the varitone. It enabled a horn player to produce not merely his own sound, but (through a speaker) somethng much the same an octave lower (and, for all I remember, maybe an octave higher, or two octaves up or down). Terry actually suggested to Ben Webster that he might try it. Webster’s report of this was uncomplimentary, but Clark Terry’s a joker and his own use of the item was probably humorous.

The only saxophonist I’ve spoken to who’s used it was Lol Coxhill, not in his usual one-man unaccompanied free-improvising performances, but when, in order to pay bills some years back, he took a job as reed section member in a Glenn Miller ghost band in London. He used the varitone in lieu of a baritone saxophone and its missing player!

cover art

Sonny Stitt

It's Magic

US: 22 Mar 2005
UK: 11 Apr 2005

Stitt presumably used varitone to add a little variety on paying gigs with his standard trio of the time, featured here in material Delmark acquired from the Chicago company Stitt recorded this stuff for. The empathetic drummer was Bill Pierce, and at the heart of the band was the sometime bebop pianist Don Patterson, who having taken up organ managed to be an excellent bop organist and a partner Stitt was delighted to have found.

Stitt was one of the outstanding saxophonists to appear in the 1940s, but unlike Rudy Williams and Charlie Parker, he wasn’t the dedicatee of a composition by Charles Mingus. He outlived both of these masters, Parker the genius and Williams the last major stylist on alto saxophone to appear before Parker took things in another direction.

Williams has been described as the major Parker victim, for between his emergence and his early death in a skin-diving accident, he had suffered something of a confusion of styles. An attempt to incorporate Parker’s general innovations rather queered his timing, presumably because that was initially so distinctive and not congenial to the new harmonic approach. .

Later on, Art Pepper suffered a similar problem when John Coltrane’s innovations came to preoccupy him. He got out of his confusion and into something outstanding, before the effect of other earlier disasters caught up with him and his ruined health killed him.

Stitt’s problem was very different. He was a little younger than Parker, but had started very young and found his way fairly soon into a style not remote from Parker. If he was ever totally in thrall, on record he was no more than amenable to incorporation of elements from Parker’s innovative style. All too liable to be mistaken for a Parker imitator, he was himself a towering player and should be recognised as such.

His timing remained distinct from Parker’s, and if he took to tenor rather than alto saxophone as a means of avoiding accusations of being an imitator, he did so to stunning effect. Soloing on alto in 1946, he sounded somewhere between John Jackson, an older Kansas City player who supposedly influenced Parker, and Parker himself.

Stitt made a lot of recordings, and acquaintance with his very best (notably one early date on tenor with Bud Powell) can make the listener a little impatient of quite a lot of what he recorded later. The question relevant to a Stitt recording is how distinctive it is. For the sake of variety, on gigs he played both alto and tenor (he also recorded on baritone), and presumably he used the varitone to help please a not exactly specialised jazz audience on gigs. This is presumably also why he fronted an organ trio: to stay in work. However, he could move only in the direction of a wider approachability. Cheap tricks and playing to the gallery just weren’t on the agenda.

What’s interesting is that the overall context seems to have led him to play in a more laid-back manner. He sounds unusually relaxed; the fast alto playing on “Just Friends”—a tune with Parker associations—is especially distinctive. Where Parker merely implied the beat and phrased right across it, Stitt kept to it always, and not least here.

There may have been other, now hardly undiscoverable reasons for Stitt being here more relaxed than at other times, but that hardly matters. The tenor playing on “Body and Soul” here is breathier than usual with him. That gives this particular session something of an edge on other sets with a regular trio and where he dug in more. Perhaps the excellent Patterson was especially congenial, in accompaniment as well as in a solo capacity. Perhaps use of organ rather than piano had further effects on the overall performance. Maybe use of the varitone, which I really don’t notice—Stitt’s easier playing takes my attention—made Stitt pay special attention to his sound.

There’s also the fact that this is a set of, by and large, standards, decidedly a conventional choice of tunes, possibly again with approachability in mind. The average track length is about four minutes, and with the choice of material might that be a fault, if it wasn’t—as it is—another contribution to the relaxation which is this set’s big recommendation. He can’t have played ballads much better than he does here. On the more birk items he could indeed rely on Patterson to supply heat. A wholly admirable bop organist, and highly simpatico.

This is a very satisfying performance, although with a total playing time of forty minutes, this set isn’t the most generous. Maybe the earlier set from the same source sold enough to inspire this, or maybe there was nothing more in the can to increase playing time. It didn’t take much of this to make me feel mellow, and stay mellow for quite some time.

It's Magic


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