FEATURE: Brandon Allen on Gene Ammons (new project, recording about to happen)

Brandon Allen. Photo credit: Carl Hyde

Saxophonist BRANDON ALLEN is originally from Perth, Australia, and is now a major presence on the London scene. is a tough, no-nonsense tenor player who hosts the Late Late Show at Ronnie Scott’s and leads the Brandon Allen Sextet. He is the founder and director of the Highgate Jazz with Soul Festival. He has recently been touring throughout the UK, Europe and the Far East with The Kyle Eastwood Band.

He has a fascination with the work of GENE AMMONS, and is embarking on a new project which is currently at a relatively early stage, and full of possibilities. It could lead to an album and/or touring. Sebastian found out more:

LondonJazz News: For readers who don’t know Gene Ammons can we have a few facts. 

Brandon Allen: 

Eugene “Jug” Ammons (April 14, 1925 – July 23, 1974), also known as “The Boss”, was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. He was the son of boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons.

– Born in Chicago, Gene’s first break came while still in high school with the King Kolax Band. Shortly after he was recruited to join Billy Eckstine, playing alongside the likes of Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon.

– He went on to replace Stan Getz in Woody Herman’s 2nd Herd and shortly after formed a group with the alto and tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt. Together they made some seminal albums. He also enjoyed a strong musical collaboration with Dexter Gordon.

– 1950s were a prolific period for Ammons and produced some acclaimed recordings such as “The Happy Blues” (1955). Musicians who played in his groups, apart from Stitt, included Donald Byrd, John Coltrane, Jackie Mclean, Duke Jordan and Kenny Burrell.

– His later career was interrupted by two prison sentences for narcotics possession, the first from 1958 to 1960, the second from 1962 to 1969. He recorded as a leader for Mercury(1947–1949), Aristocrat (1948–1950), Chess(1950–1951), Prestige (1950–1952), Decca (1952), and United (1952–1953). 

– For the rest of his career, he was affiliated with Prestige. After his release from prison in 1969, having served a seven-year sentence at Joliet penitentiary, he signed the largest contract ever offered at that time by Prestige’s Bob Weinstock.

– While adept at the technical aspects of bebop, Ammons more than Lester Young, Ben Webster or Charlie Parker, stayed in touch with the commercial blues and R&B of his day and was one of the founders of the soul jazz movement of the mid-1960s.

– He died in Chicago in 1974, at the age of just 49, from cancer.

LJN: So let’s move on to your own interest in Gene Ammons. Does it  go back a long way?

BA: Yes, absolutely. The first jazz CD I ever bought was Uptight by Gene Ammons.
I think it comprised of two albums, sort of a compilation. I always just heard it as an album.

LJN: And what was it that held your attention?

BA: I was immediately taken with his sound, feel and language. The tunes are a combination of very common standards and some lesser known songs. The arrangements aren’t complicated but are delivered with absolute authority and taste. I played along with this record a lot and learnt most of the solos. I still have the original copy and I still regularly listen to it, and still love it!

LJN:  And you kept going and got to know other albums too?

BA: I continued to build up my collection of Gene Ammons records as well as other jazz artists as I got hooked on jazz. Another great record is Blue Gene (Prestige). It’s an amazingly moody but deeply swinging record that features great playing from Pepper Adams, Idrees Sulieman, Mal Waldron and of course Gene Ammons. In my book it’s one of the best classic jazz albums, period.

And then “The Boss is back” was an album I bought about a year or so after “Uptight” and it features more of the funkier side of Gene’s playing, recorded shortly after his release from a long prison sentence – including Son of a Preacher Man (above). The version of the record I bought included tracks from another album made on the same series of sessions, called “Brother Jug!”

There are some great grooves on there and his sound is rich but now raw, tougher and it seems that he has discarded any extra language that is no longer needed. His playing is so direct and fuelled with true passion and the blues.

There is good use made of the Hammond organ and congas too.

LJN:  And there are some two-tenor quintet albums that have inspired you…

BA: “The Chase” (with Dexter Gordon) and “Boss Tenors in Orbit” (with Sonny Stitt) are great albums. I love the sound of two tenors especially when Gene plays with these guys.

They really egg each other on but at the same time there is such maturity and musicality in the way that they respond to each other in their interactions. They even swap personalities it seems at certain points in the music.

Gene’s early combo recordings are fantastic. His sound and style is clearly influenced by Lester Young but he has also absorbed the most crucial innovations of Charlie Parker. There are some wonderful septet/octet arrangements that I’d love to recreate at some point.

His solos were also featured on a number of early R&B sides, I first became aware of them through hearing them at the St Moritz club in Soho. I’ve been trying to get hold of more of them ever since. Simple bluesy phrases played with a great sound and feel.

LJN: So what;s the plan…? 

BA: Gene Ammons has been such a huge influence on my playing, especially my sound,  I had the idea to put together a project interpreting Gene Ammons’ music about two years ago. I found myself just wanting to play certain tunes from his recordings and slowly I put together a list of tunes to try.

I haven’t changed much about the arrangements from the recordings but have let natural changes happen and I try to play in the spirit of Gene Ammons rather than endeavouring to sound like him.

The set works as a chronological salute to his career, starting with the early swing/R&B, covering the bop/hardbop period and ending with some of the funky soul jazz material. It’s a fun gig for me to do. There’s a lot you can do with the tunes because most of them are quite simple!

We’ll be recording some of the material in April with no pressure attached to the session. If it comes out well we’ll see what happens then. I’m just excited to document the music and I hope to arrange some touring at some point.

Band lineup:

Brandon Allen
(tenor saxophone)
Ross Stanley (piano and Hammond organ)
Arnie Somogyi (acoustic and electric basses)
Matt Home (drums)

Categories: miscellaneous

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