By Doc Wendell
The sound of Gene “Jug” Ammons’ tenor saxophone is one of the biggest, lushest, most beautifully indulgent tones to emanate from any instrument in the entire history of jazz. Like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt, Tommy Potter and Lucky Thompson, Ammons’ creativity blossomed in the superbly adventurous orchestra of Billy Eckstine of the mid to late ’40s.
Prior to playing with the incomparable “Mr. B”, Ammons played in trumpeter King Kolax’s band in his hometown of Chicago. After leaving Eckstein’s bandstand, Ammons enjoyed a brief stint in Wood Herman’s sax section. In 1950 Ammons formed his tenor sax duo with Sonny Stitt. The live performances and recordings of Ammons and Stitt swapping hard, Chicago style bebop tenor lines influenced jazz musicians everywhere. Their duels were hard yet sweet and remain an integral part of American music history.
By the mid ’50s Ammons had signed to Prestige Records. Bob Weinstock would recruit the very finest bop players of the day to jam with “Jug” in a number of different settings. Gene Ammons All-Star Sessions With Sonny Stitt is comprised of three stellar sessions. The album kicks off with a recording date from June 16, 1955. Ammons is joined by Art Famer on trumpet, Lou Donaldson on Alto sax, Freddie Redd on piano, Addison Farmer on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. “Woofin’ And Tweetin'” is a 13 minute 12 bar blues bop masterpiece featuring some of the most swinging playing by Donaldson, Farmer, and Ammons. Addison Farmer, Freddie Redd and Kenny “Klook” Clarke lay down the most beautifully clean grooves imaginable. “Juggernaut” is based on the “I Got Rhythm” chord changes. Lou Donaldson’s alto lines are frenetic whereas Art Farmer and Ammons take their sweet time and tell a story with each beautifully unravelling solo.
The album then goes back in time to the days of the Ammons/Stitt tenor battles of 1950. Ammons and Stitt are accompanied by Duke Jordan on piano, Tommy Potter on bass and the legendary Count Basie alum, Jo Jones on drums. There are three burning outtakes of Ammons’ classic “Blues Up And Down”, each one more spectacular than the last. The sound quality is a little rough and scratchy but it adds to the purity of the music. This is no-nonsense bebop performed with love and joy. Ammons and Stitt don’t really sound as if they’re competing with one another; their tenor lines compliment each other with harmonic and rhythmic precision and mastery.
The “heads” or choruses of each piece have a big band swing feel but the improvisations are all bop. Both renditions of “You Can Depend On Me” are uptempo barn burners that cook beyond belief. Stitt plays mostly in the upper register of the tenor sax whereas Ammons swings right there in the middle. “Bye Bye” from the same session date of March 5, 1955 features the addition of Billy Massey on trumpet who sounds a lot like Clark Terry.
This short compilation then jumps to October 28, 1950 with two exquisite ballads; “When I Dream Of You” and “A Lover Is Blue.” These are without a doubt two of the most powerful ballads of that entire era. No one could tackle a ballad like “Jug” and Stitt. Both pieces slightly resemble Charlie Parker’s mournful takes on “Embraceable You.” This is the sound of yearning and loneliness yet there’s always a healthy dose of unadulterated ecstasy in everything Ammons and Stitt played together, even through the pain and isolation. The contrast makes the music irresistible.
The accompaniment of Junior Mance on piano, Gene Wright on bass and Wesley Landers on drums is focused and restrained. “Stringin’ The Jug” from the same date is structurally close to “Blues Up And Down.” Stitt and Ammons dance around each other’s tenor lines with a sound that captures the feeling of Chicago’s grittiest and coldest late night bop jam sessions. Ammons and Stitt are joined by Billy Massey on trumpet, Al Outcalt on trombone, Charlie Bateman on piano, Gene Wright on bass and Teddy Stewart on drums for “New Blues Up And Down” which is a more aggressive take on one of Ammons’ most covered compositions.
The music on Gene Ammons All-Star Sessions With Sonny Stitt is bebop in its purest form. These are raw jam sessions where each player is free to play whatever they want in that moment without worrying about time restraints or producer suggestions. That big, bright, round “Jug” tenor tone will make you want to learn the tenor sax as will Stitt’s wonderfully intricate lines. It’s music like this that makes America great when everything else is letting you down.