Boss Tenor

Out Christmas shopping yesterday, your editor lucked into Gene Ammons’s Boss Tenor for $6. Bet you’ll get gone if you go here and listen to the first track, “Hittin’ the Jug.”  And here’s the rest of the gift: Amiri Baraka’s spontaneously lovely liner notes.

I suppose Gene Ammons is what you could call a real hybrid. His playing is a perfect (albeit weird) assimilation of two widely opposed ideas of playing the tenor saxophone. Gene somehow manages to sound like he comes right out of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, the two farthest poles in the business of playing the tenor saxophone.  Hawk, with his big, big overpowering sound and head-on attack; Pres, seemingly in complete opposition, his sound almost an extension of his breathing, thin, wispy, evanescent, improvising even on the “head” of the tune, leaving the melody as the merest suggestion of what we know it to be. And both men, of course had and have huge “schools” devoted, in one degree or another, to sounding just like them (even now after the tremendous Charlie Parker influence).

If, for instance, I name Chu Berry, Arnett Cobb, Herschel Evans, Lucky Thompson, (Don Byas, through Thompson), Ike Quebec, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster, and Buddy Tate as some people more or less directly influenced by Hawk (and that’s not even beginning to mention all the people who these people have themselves influenced, or all the other more oblique influences Hawk has made)…and then, if I name all the people Pres has influenced more or less directly, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, Allen Eager, Brew Moore, Stan Getz, James Moody, Warne Marsh, Zoot Sims (and with that add all the new Parker-Young-influenced modern horn-men), you see that we take in almost all saxophone players in jazz. To put it baldly, most people up until the time of Charlie Parker played the saxophone either like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young. But to my mind, Gene Ammons is one of the few people to have completely assimilated both styles and not only evolved an entirely individual style of of his own, but also became an important influence himself. I’d say Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, J.R. Manterose, Cifford Jordan, and to a lesser degree John Coltrane, have all benefited greatly by listening to Gene. The weird distillation of Hawk within the easy solemn grace of Pres is the most readily discernible feature of Ammons’s style. That power, that relaxation, made into a separate voice. Ammons’s wild rhythmic sense and peculiarly bluesy accents make him his own man.

I first heard Gene Ammons in Newark. New Jersey at a place called the Masonic Temple. He had a big band then, featuring Sonny Stitt on tenor. He and Stitt would have at least one “battle,” on their horns, during every set. This “battle” would invariably set everyone on his ear. I was about 14 or 15 at the time, and I remember, wistfully (no offense intended, Gene), being a staunch Stitt man. But whoever’s man you were, those were really some wild sessions. Everybody would take sides, however, and there’d be cries of “Go, Gene, Get It, Baby” and “Cook Sonny, Burn!” (I can’t ever remember anyone saying, “Go Man, Go!”) And they would…cook, burn, stomp, jam, etc. on into the morning. If I remember correctly, the tune they used as a theme, or at least as a frequent battleground for those public cutting sessions, was something called “Blues Up and Down.” The unison sound of Stitt and Ammons was really too  much. It sounded something like an overly huge tenor saxophone playing out of a sound truck. Really something!

But to get to this record. Prestige seems to be pioneering a good trend i.e., recording all the big talents who play what the critics call “swing” (in Ammons’s case, the noun, the adjective and the verb) using (another critics’ word) “modern” rhythm sections. This album, and most of the others in this series have shown this to be a marvelous idea. Ammons’s rhythm section on this date is one of the best, not to mention steadily employed, rhythm sections in modern jazz. Flanagan, Watkins, and Taylor have worked with almost every big name in modern jazz. J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk etc., etc. And Ray Barreto is certainly one of the most sought after conga drummers in the business. (Listen to his work with Red Garland or “Lockjaw” Davis. Also, this rhythm section [as a group and separately] has been talked about so much on record jackets, as far as biographical material etc., that it hardly seems sensible to go into it again here).

What I said before about Ammons’s fantastic appropriation of two completely opposite styles into his own individual style is especially evident on this record. The first tune, “”Hittin’ the Jug,” after Tommy Flanagan’s lovely bit of introspection, becomes for Gene a series of admirable understatements, underscored in blue, and given a kind of casual elan by Ammons’s funky lyricism. His huge raspy tone is warm, but seems, even with its apparent breath, to be as evanescent and delicate as that of the best of Lester Young’s disciples. “Close Your Eyes,” an old, old standard which seems lately to be coming back into its own in jazz circles, is here given a mildly uptempo outing. A sort of fast “walk,” helped brightly along by Ray Barretto’s flippant conga line. Ammons seems to rip into each phrase with considered delight, walking his favorite tightrope between simple melodic phrasing and bouncy rhythmic accentuation. The ease with which Ammons pulls this kind of thing off often makes his solos seem overly simple, but there are years of application and experience behind this seeming insouciance. “My Romance,” another old standard seems to point up the extraordinary amount of listening (to Ammons) Sonny Rollings has done. The huge rolling line, threatening at times to use the very timbre of the horn as a pure melodic device in itself seems to have become Rollins’s trademark, especially on standards like this one. But listening to Gene’s fey but definitely attractive approach to the same idea, one gets the feeling of being confronted with the original article.

There are two other old standards in the date, “Canadian Sunset” and “Savoy,” both of which are given a new lease on life. There is also a not-so-old standard, Charlie Parker’s  “Confirmation,” It’s a tribute to Parker’s genius that many of his compositions (and arrangements) have already assumed the status of standards. They are a seeming endless source of inspiration for all kinds of jazz people. Everybody from the Modern Jazz Quartet to Bobby Hackett plays Bird’s tunes. Ammons does the tune justice here with fine assists from bassist Doug Watkins. The remaining tune on the date is an original, “Blue Ammons,” a walking-type “conga-blues” with a growly, relaxed type swing that is moving as well as soothing. A.T.’s drums, especially where he trades “fours” with Ammons, make one of the highlights of the entire date.

Ammons’s playing on this side points up, at least to me, how easy and casual real “funk” can be and still be convincing. And this kind of funkiness seems pretty “modern” even though Gene’s been around for God knows how long.