The most elusive concepts in music are rhythmic ones—what it means to “rock”, “lay back”, to be “funky”. In jazz, that tricky concept is “swing”. We know it when we hear it, of course, but the precise formula for swinging is hard to write down, though it seems to have something to do with playing notes in a syncopated pattern that creates a feeling of momentum, particularly relative to the playing of other instruments at the same time.
But do you see how unsatisfying and limiting that definition is? The alternative might be just to listen to the music of pianist Sonny Clark.
Clark died in 1963 of a heroine overdose, a sad casualty of a jazz epidemic during that era. He had arrived in New York where he would make his mark recording a handful of tasty platters as a leader and dozens as a select sideman for the best musicians of the era, like Sonny Rollins. The Sonny Clark Trio, the original name of this record, was recorded in March of 1960 by the small Time Records, toward the end of Clark’s most fertile period, after the records that are considered his best. Cool Struttin’ from 1958 is acknowledged as his classic: a soulful swinger featuring a quintet fronted by Art Farmer and Jackie McLean and using the Miles Davis rhythm section of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.
The rhythm section on this 1960 date was elite—drummer Max Roach and bassist George Duvivier. Clark brought to the session eight original tunes, only one of which was familiar. “Nica” (yes, another tune named for the Baroness who so famously befriended jazz musicians) is the same as “Royal Flush” from Cool Struttin’. They are predominantly up-tempo compositions with a driving feel, and two are blues. The themes themselves are not particularly distinctive or unique, but they are exquisitely Sonny: crisp and clear, attractive and ideal raw material to inspire ripe improvisations. And they all swing like the very thrill of nightfall of like the stroll of your hippest friend.
The reissue here is a two-LP set that provides the original eight released takes, and then six alternate takes of four of the songs. The sound is terrific, clear and balanced, with a sharp stereo separation that puts you right in the studio with the trio. “Minor Meeting”, for example, gives you Roach’s ride cymbal in the right channel and Duvivier panned to the left, the piano dead center, your ears nestled mid-band just where they want to be. Clark’s theme sandwiches a swinging line between somewhat different sets of stop-time figures (1-2-3! rest ), and then the band cooks for Sonny, whose solo never seems like it will run out of ideas. Roach is in continual conversation with the line, dropping tiny bombs on his snare, and then he trades fours with Clark that send up perfectly concise clouds of stardust in your ears. The patterns on his kick drum sit in a slightly different space than the snare and cymbals. It sounds incredible.
The alternate takes are fascinating. Take 9 of “Minor Meeting” is slower, and the theme is off—the band isn’t hitting it together, at least not together enough. The piano solo is weighed down by the bad start, and you can hear Clark talking himself into a glorious solo, which means that the 3:46 chosen take is way better than this six-minute version. Roach is less active, and the fours don’t pop as they should. Take ten is on tempo and fluid at first, but the band hiccups into speeding up at least twice then hops out even faster for Clark’s solo, which is fiery but not as swinging as on the best take. Yeah, even musicians this good need many tries to get it right.
“Junka” is an engaging theme, also a 32-bar construction with hip chord changes. Take one is essentially at the same tempo as the chosen take, but it runs a minute shorter. On Take 1, Clark takes three full choruses, then trades fours with Duvivier for a fourth and fifth and with Roach for a sixth before the theme is restated. The chosen take has a Clark solo (five choruses this time) that is a mite better: more effortlessly fluid, I’d say, while still containing that puckish punch to certain phrases that make your ears reach out to hear more. Clark knew he was on for this take, and the way he leads into the bassist’s first four-bar chunk is pure magic.
The two blues numbers are somewhat more perfunctory, to my ears. “Blues Blue” has a call-and-response construction alternating a line and a two-chord gospel cadence, and it will remind folks of Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin'”. Great solo, though. “Blues Mambo” sets a basic 12-bar theme against Roach’s mambo groove, which is fun, then the band ends up just swinging the tune a chorus into Clark’s solo.
Throughout the leader’s improvisations on The 1960 Time Sessions, you get to enjoy one of the best things that Sonny Clark had to offer—a deceptively amazing left hand. On first listen to Clark, all you hear is his right hand as it improvises, playing lines that spin up through the harmonies, endless lines of grooving magic. These are mostly single-note melodies with splashes of chords or sly double-stops. You can ignore the left hand if you’re not careful. But on a second listen, tune into the way Clark uses just a few fingers of his left hand to play shadowy accents, sometimes just one muffled note that puts a shadow on the harmony or gooses the improvisation with a quick jab. Horace Silver played this way too, but he was less subtle, punching or stabbing, whereas Clark plays left-hand jazz piano like a pastel or charcoal on paper. Wonderful.
The most unusual track on this recording is “My Conception”, a ballad for solo piano. It is a largely rubato performance felt in 4/4, but it features a particular sequence of chord changes that seem like an influence on Bill Evans’s signature tune, “Waltz for Debby”. Evans acknowledged being a Clark fan, and we are reminded here of how tuneful he always was and how beautifully he integrated fast, Tatum-esque runs with a more soulful countenance. Don’t worry, Bill Evans isn’t revealed to be a plagiarist, but it’s cool to realize that artists who seem so different are, in fact, linked.
For me, the signature tune here is “Sonia”, where we get it all: a simple and concise theme with a ton of space in it, a flying-high Clark solo, then fours with both bass and drums, a continual dialogue between the leader and Max Roach, and a sense that this music is simply going to go on forever.
And in a sense it did. Though Clark would make only one more album as a leader and was apparently in decline, his music has had a staying power. His peers loved him, but his music wasn’t “the new thing” in its own time. Over the years, more and more of the hippest musicians and fans were Sonny Clark acolytes. No less a trendsetter than John Zorn made an album under the moniker “The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet” (with Wayne Horvitz, Bobby Previte, and Ray Drummond) on Black Saint. Those guys knew that Clark’s tunes opened up new, inviting worlds, and they recorded versions of “Sonny’s Crib,” “Sonia”, and “Minor Meeting” from the 1960 sessions.
Now you can hear the real thing again, hipper than ever.