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Sonny Stitt - Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952

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Artist: Sonny Stitt

Album: Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952

Label: Concord

Review date: Aug. 10, 2006

Saxophonist Sonny Stitt was perhaps the ultimate “single,” a jazzman for whom the idea of a long-term working band was an illogical construct. Stitt much preferred to ply his formidable talents in a multiplicity of settings. His preference was for peregrination, particularly later in life, traveling from city to city for short sojourns with local rhythm sections. Without a band in tow, the logistics of a gig were more manageable, the rewards more plentiful. Concurrently, Stitt viewed recording contracts as necessary conduits to paychecks, but hardly worth lingering on at length. One of the outcomes of his free agent approach was a voluminous discography spread out over a small army of labels that included Cadet, Argo, Roost, Chess, Verve, Atlantic, Impulse and Roulette among a host of others. The average Stitt fan has his work cut out for him when it came to tracking down every album recorded by his hero.

Stitt also earned the dubious reputation in some circles as a musician more interested in making fast cash than creating lasting art. Abundant are the anecdotes that have him hitting the studio, slaloming through a quickly conceived batch of blues and standards, collecting his fee, and splitting to cop a score. The checkerboard nature of his recording career makes the appearance of this new Concord box set all the sweeter and apposite. Stitt’s Bits collects the bulk of his early recording work for the Prestige label, a corpus of music previously spread out over a dozen LPs and CDs. Consolidated onto three discs, the set’s 76 tracks are remastered and sequenced chronologically. Stitt was one of the earliest purveyors of bebop and the set opens with several sessions that are classics of the idiom. His piquant tenor soars as part of trombonist J.J. Johnson’s Reboppers and on two dates with the redoubtable Bud Powell on ivories. Stitt’s alto, the instrument on which he was initially better known, doesn’t show up until the close of the second disc, and then only on a brief smattering of cuts. Better featured is his strapping baritone, a horn that he would all but abandon in later years.

The other big draw of the set is the plentiful cache of tracks pairing Stitt with Gene Ammons. The pair constituted one of the most popular and kindred saxophone tandems in jazz. Ammons, aptly nicknamed Jug, had a robust, more overtly soulful sound, frequently playing Hardy, to the more lissome Stitt’s Laurel. Evidence again of Stitt’s mercurial nature, leadership fluctuates from session to session, with Ammons topping the roster on several occasions, Stitt heading the outfit on another, and the two splitting the difference and sharing ownership on two more. One particularly potent pair of dates finds Ammons and Stitt in the company of two of Charlie Parker’s favorite sidemen, pianist Duke Jordan and bassist Tommy Potter. Drum doyen Jo Jones completes the all-star rhythm section and spurs the horns to passionate chases on their signature riff tune “Blues Up and Down.”

These early sides, though limited in terms of length by the recording technology, feature plenty of genial fisticuffs and dip liberally into the R&B conventions of the era, with several novelty vocal numbers and even an obligatory mambo in the songbook. Quality and congruity fluctuates, but overall there is a consistency to Stitt’s playing not always present on his later sessions. In addition to nearly four hours of prime bebop saxophone, there’s also stellar sideman work from the likes of Max Roach, Art Blakey and Junior Mance. Veteran jazz critic and American Splendor author Harvey Pekar’s booklet notes run down all the details, but are a bit scattershot in approach. He decides to dwell on the “dead horse” argument of Stitt’s similarities to Charlie Parker, traffics in a fair number of clichés, and could have benefited from the input of a more invasive copy editor. Despite the foibles, his enthusiasm for Stitt shines through in the prose and it becomes obvious that these recordings have served as a regular part of his listening rotation for the most of his life. Dizzy, Bird and Bud are widely regarded as the royal triumvirate of bebop. Based on the persuasive evidence of these vintage sides, the perpetually errant Stitt easily belongs in their fast company.

By Derek Taylor

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