Album reviews

‘The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions’ (rec. 1957-61)

The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions

(Mosaic MD6-276. Review of 6-CD set by Len Weinreich)

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It was once generally accepted among jazz aficionados that a talented life cut short (Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan…) was a certain route to immortality.

Unfortunately, not for Conrad Yeatis Clark, destroyed by heroin at 32. If you ask: “whoClark?”, the answer is ‘Sonny’ Clark, youngest of eight siblings, saddled with the nickname ‘Sonny’ because he stopped growing when he reached five foot five inches.

Physically slight, but an artistic skyscraper, measured by level of his peers. Among tenor players, for instance, he gigged with John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Rouse, Clifford Jordan and Stan Getz. Clark was a jazz pianist of celestial order worthy of celebration. Yet, though his legacy was nurtured by discerning jazz cognoscenti (particularly in Japan), it appears that his contribution has suffered a degree of unfair neglect.

Until now.

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In an effort to rescue and revive Clark’s reputation, Mosaic Records have issued a limited edition of The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions, chronicling four years of musical development over 61 tracks (including out-takes) covering nine Blue Note albums on six CDs. Probably the pre-eminent jazz specialist label, Blue Note was the lovechild of two jazz-obsessed foreigners, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jewish refugees arrived in the United States from Nazi Germany. Equipped with sensitive ears, Lion produced the sessions. And, equipped with a sensitive eye, Wolff captured them on camera. 23 of Wolff’s atmospheric shots of participants in the sessions illustrate veteran jazz critic Bob Blumenthal’s comprehensive notes and detailed track analysis in the accompanying booklet.

Blumenthal’s informative essay offers his take on Clark’s style: “while some considered him merely another Bud Powell disciple or a funky follower Horace Silver, his style was less relentless and virtuosic than the former, less brittle and more flowing than the latter”. Blumenthal also quotes Clark in discussion with the late jazz writer Nat Hentoff: “Your soul is your conception and you begin to it in your playing when the way you strike a note, the sound you get and your phrasing come out as yourself and no one else”.

“No one else”. Sonny Clark doesn’t sound like anyone else. His work is alert and effervescent. His piano insists on close attention with sly substitutions and unexpected accents with subtle touch, original phrasing, immaculate time immaculate and fresh ideas.

‘Dial ‘S’ For Sonny’.
We open in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Hackensack, New Jersey to tape the cream of New York’s Hard Bop school. Musically, they are frequently fierce, often angry, always intense and urgent but, on track one, reveal their cool side, maintaining Sonny’s Mood at a simmering mid-tempo. Leader Clark’s crew include Hank Mobley on tenor, Art Farmer on trumpet and Curtis Fuller on trombone, supported by bassist Wilbur Ware and Louis Hayes on drums, all spring-loaded for action. Clark enters his solo tentatively before developing a series of elegantly inter-connected phrases. On the stereo take of Bootin’ It, a finger-busting hard bop blues, Clark takes the first solo, describing intricate patterns with his right hand. Three of tracks (Bootin’ It, Sonny’s Mood and Shoutin’ On A Riff) on this session are Clark originals and two are standards, Burke and Van Heusen’s It Could Happen To You and the Gershwin’s Love Walked In. The pleasures are limitless.

‘Sonny’s Crib’.
On his second Blue Note album, Clark and Fuller are joined by trumpet player Donald Byrd, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor for two originals: Sonny’s Crib and News For Lulu and three quality standards: Weill and Nash’s Speak Low, Arlen and Mercer’s Come Rain Or Come Shine and Rodgers and Hart’s With A Song In My Heart, whose melody is taken at a steady pulse by Byrd over Fuller’s trombone harmonies before catapulting himself into a solo crackling with high energy flurries. Then Coltrane wades in with customary authority distributing phrases and ideas that no saxophonist ever played before and never in that order. In his turn, Fuller leaves more open spaces, allowing us to hear more of Clark’s masterly comping. And then the spotlight swings towards Clark who issues an inexhaustible supply of sparkling licks. Towards the end of Come Rain Or Come Shine, when Coltrane restates the theme, my advice is to close your eyes and receive a glimpse of paradise.

‘Sonny Clark Trio’.
This Sonny Clark trio is not any old trio, considering that the other two members are Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, undeniably the world champions in 1957. Fused into a single unit, they subject popular and bebop standards to a thorough workout: Dizzy Gillespie’s Be-bop (fluent high speed reworking of rhythm changes), Rodgers and Hart’s I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (Clark cleverly re-sculpting the melody before spinning smart variations over insistent rhythm), Lewis and Gillespie’s Two Bass Hit (relentless swing and invention, courtesy of Philly Joe), Tadd Dameron’s Tadd’s Delight (a virtuoso Chamber’s solo that reveals the beauty of Dameron’s lovely melody), Romberg and Hammerstein’s Softly As In The Morning Sunrise (breathtaking keyboard runs and chunky block chords over a medium speed strut) and DePaul, Raye and Johnston’s I’ll Remember April (a tour-de-force of unaccompanied piano, charming and lyrical).

‘Sonny Clark Quintet’.
For the session on 8 December, 1957, Clark retained Paul Chambers on bass but enlisted Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, Kenny Burrell on guitar and drummer Pete La Roca to record three original compositions: Minor Meeting, a riff piece which shifts into four with Clark firmly in command and swinging ferociously; Eastern Incident whose Orientally-inclined theme is stated in tight unison before adventurers Jordan, Burrell and Clark explore its opportunities (which, in Clark’s case, appears to include a detour via ‘La Marseillaise’). Finally, the group lets loose on Little Sonny with its Middle Eastern echoes and Clark’s solo, opulent in texture and drama.

‘Cool Struttin’’.
65 years ago, at the Hackensack, New Jersey studio on 5 January 1958, engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s microphones were poised to document Clark with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, trumpeter Art Farmer, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, all collaborating on an album to be titled ‘Cool Struttin’’.

Ten minutes ago, having checked the Popsike website that lists vinyl album values, it would appear that the original Blue Note 12-inch LP of ‘Cool Struttin’ (in decent nick) was selling for $5,000 or £3,890. Some sort of record?

From its glossy Reid Miles-sleeve graphics (displaying the elegant calves and ankles of Ruth Lion, Alfred’s wife) to the riches concealed in the grooves, what undiscovered insights could I possibly reveal about Cool Struttin’, the album that knocked out Japanese jazz fans in Tokyo’s hi-fi cafés, cementing his cult in the Land Of The Rising Son(ny).

Certainly, Jackie McLean’s alto sounds slightly sharpish, but then it always does. The music never falters, never disappoints. Kicking off, Clark’s Blue Minor launches McLean into Earth orbit. Clarks’ title track, a blues, Cool Struttin’ (“a funky-modern version of an old step” he explained) exemplifies fervour, each member of the band playing at peak inspiration, especially Clark’s intriguing solo. A 12-bar explosion from Philly Joe Jones introduces Miles Davis’s Sippin’ At Bells (Miles’ version was one of the earliest 78s in Clark’s collection) before the entire band hurtles into a tight unison statement followed by a fine Clark solo, McLean in incandescent form and Farmer’s more contemplative trumpet. Deep Night is a majestic ballad written by Horace Henderson (brother of the more famous Fletcher) and 1920s heart-throb vocalist Rudy Vallee, beautifully performed. And if that weren’t enough, there are still two more excellent tracks on the album: Clark’s Royal Flush and Rodgers and Hart’s Lover. An unmissable treat.

‘The Singles’ Session’.
Later. during 1958, in an attempt to access the profitable juke box market and perhaps score some valuable radio plays, Blue Note management took an executive decision to release a series of 45rpm singles. Clark was backed by Jymie Merritt on bass and Wes Landers on drums to tape six songs. Three were classic jazz compositions: Don Redman and Andy Razaf’s Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You; Illinois Jacquet and Jimmy Mundy’s Black Velvet (better known after lyrics were added as Don’t Go Away Mad) and Duke Ellington’s I’m Just A Lucky So And So. The other three were familiar standards: Fields and McHugh’s I Can’t Give You Anything But Love Baby; Wyche and Kirkland’s Ain’t No Use and Lecuona, Camarata and Stillman’s The Breeze And I. Stylistically, the songs were treated differently from the earlier trio tracks, less cerebral and closer to the middle of the road. In effect, sophisticated music for horizontal dancing.

But, not for a moment should you imagine these singles are aural wallpaper. While the intention might be commercial, the result is art. With every note and every phrase, Clark is suggesting: “pay attention: my music is never intended to remain in the background”.

‘Blues In The Night’.
Although this trio session was recorded only three weeks after the ‘Singles’ Session’, with Paul Chambers replacing Jymie Merritt on bass, but Wes Landers remaining on drums, it could have been recorded in a different universe. Chamber’s genius resonates throughout. The six tracks, all standards, deliver high emotion with minimum glitz. The down-home feeling in Arlen and Mercer’s Blues In The Night almost persuades us that it might even be a genuine blues. Swift and Warburg’s Can’t We Be Friends and Cole Porter’s All Of You receive gently swinging treatments enhanced by Chambers’ presence. Clark’s modish locked hands introduce both George Gershwin’s Somebody Loves Me and Green and Heyman’s I Cover The Waterfront. And, on his snappy version of Dietz and Schwartz’s Dancing In The Dark, Clarke’s keyboard delicacy manages to be both light and fantastic.

‘My Conception’.
In late March 1959, Blue Note assembled a combustible combination of hard boppers to record six Clark originals under his leadership: Donald Byrd on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Blakey, whose blazing rim shots and commanding bass drum ignite the session, audibly inciting Mobley, Byrd and Clarke to break sweat and reach for fresh new ideas on Junka. The tempo decelerates for Blues Blue as Clark delivers a master class in comping behind the horns. A couple of Clark’s earlier compositions are revisited: a faster Minor Meeting from his previous Quintet session, turbocharged by Blakey’s hustling and a slower version of Royal Flush from Cool Struttin’. After a fanfare opening, the team tear into Some Clark Bars, based on I Got Rhythm’s chords, spurred by Blakey’s scorching drive. On the other hand, My Conception, a tender ballad, is treated with delicacy by all.

Leapin’ And Lopin’.
November 1961, Tommy Turrentine, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins gathered to mark Clark’s final session as leader on the Blue Note label. But, on Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie DeLange’s Deep In A Dream,tenor player Ike Quebec replaced both Turrentine and Rouse. Four of the compositions, Somethin’ Special, Melody For C, Voodoo and Zellmar’s Delight, were Clark originals. Warren supplied Eric Walks and Turrentine wrote Midnight Mambo. On first release, this album was awarded five stars, its highest accolade, by DownBeat magazine. 62 years later, their rating still holds good. The outstanding track is Voodoo whose apparent simplicity and repeated single note motifs are deceptive, a sombre theme carrying hints of menace (Clark’s habit killed him 14 months later). His exceptional piano solo, with audibly Monkish overtones (according to the sleeve notes, Baroness Nica de Koenigswater, Thelonious Monk’s No. 1 supporter and protector, was actually present at the session and, of course, Charlie Rouse was a long-time Monk associate) is less playful but more edgy than his earlier work. It’s instructive to hear how his authoritative comping from the piano stool directs proceedings. On Melody in C, the band skips effortlessly like mountain goats over the peaks and ledges of precipitous bebop harmonies. Turrentine and Rouse steam through the up-tempo Eric Walks. Zellmar’s Delight is an accurate description: a joyous melody and a delight. The band eats it up. For the stately ballad Deep In A Dream, the quintet becomes a quartet with Ike Quebec on tenor. Clark leans into Warren’s resonant arco bass for an exquisite reading. And while Quebec’s breathy tone pulsates with passion, it never courts sentimentality.

Conclusion: Hear, hear.
The Blue Note label has always been renowned for its high-quality sound. Every track in this Sonny Clark collection was originally recorded by the fabled Rudy Van Gelder, the notoriously secretive audio engineer, in his equally fabled New Jersey studios. For this reissue, Mosaic claim to have gone even further. The sound was “mastered from hi-res files of the original analogue masters by Andreas Meyer and Nancy Conforti at Swan Studios, NYC. Thanks to current 24 bit/192 hKz technology and dramatic improvement in analogue to digital converters, the sound on this set is far superior to any previous CD issues and is astonishingly close to that of audiophile vinyl”. Whatever, they sound pretty magnificent to me.
With this exceptional collection, Clark receives fulsome recognition and the tribute he always deserved. R.I.P.

Sonny Clark Trio, Quintet and Sextet in various combinations including Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Tommy Turrentine (trumpet); Curtis Fuller (trombone); Jackie McLean (alto saxophone); John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Charlie Rouse, Ike Quebec, Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone); Kenny Burrell (guitar); Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, Jymie Merritt, Butch Warren (bass); Louis Hayes, Art Taylor, Philly Joe Jones, Pete La Roca, Wes Landers, Art Blakey, Billy Higgins (drums). Recorded Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, U.S.A. between July 1957 and November 1961.

LINK: More detail from Mosaic Records

3 replies »

  1. Lovely review Len. Sonny Clark is a criminally under-rated pianist in the jazz pantheon. I hope this new box set does justice to his superb legacy. Leapin and Lopin has always been my favourite Clark recording.

  2. Agreed a great review. Likewise Leaping and Lopin’ is a favourite Blue Note. Melody for C a particular track on my list of all time favourites.

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