Sonny Clark ‘Cool Struttin’

It takes bravado to call your album ‘Cool Struttin’. It’s a perfect title for this essential record though, summarizing the swagger, swing, and attitude of the music succinctly, and with iconic artwork to complete the package. It seems like everybody woke up to the brilliance of this LP over the last decade. Blues and chemistry are the core drivers here: bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones were a well-oiled rhythm machine, sharing a bandstand with Miles Davis almost nightly, and having worked with pianist Sonny Clark on prior sessions. Trumpeter Art Farmer and alto saxophonist Jackie McLean had also done sessions with Clark, Chambers, and Jones, and the two of them had played together for a while with tenorist Gene Ammons, so there was a solid foundation upon which these four long tracks are built. Art Farmer’s tone is refined, and his lines are sophisticated. McLeans’ tone is fiery, and his lines have a youthful urgency—the pairing works brilliantly. Clark’s playing is elegant, soulful, and beautiful, with a bounce that’s accented by a rhythm section who know exactly when to step on the gas with a bit of encouragement, and when to give a wide berth to the soloists. Speaking of driving, that brings me to the album cover, which has always fascinated me. Based on the direction the man and the woman (Ruth Lion, wife of Blue Note exec Alfred) are walking, it seems inevitable that they would meet off-frame. Or would they? The slightly blurry automobile on the opposite side of the street in the background appears to be pulling out into traffic. Where to? Is there a connection to the man? The woman? Both? Was it intentional or a happy accident that the bottom hem of her skirt and his overcoat line up perfectly? Great photo! This record is the total package—the two Clark originals are excellent, the take on Miles’ “Sippin’ at Bells” is wonderful, and the Chuck Henderson/Rudy Vallee standard “Deep Night” is a joy. It’s beautifully recorded, expertly played, and has a vibe that goes down smooth with morning coffee or a nighttime whiskey. Jazz newbies and veterans rave about ‘Cool Struttin’ for good reason

Grant Green ‘Born to Be Blue’

Another must-own title from the Tone Poet series. More specifically: Here we have Green paired with one of his best melodic foils, pianist Sonny Clark. If you’ve not heard their quartet work together (four LPs, all of which are essential) stop what you’re doing right now and right that wrong. The Green/Clark symmetry is superb, bordering on magical. Add tenor sax ace Ike Quebec (whom Green had also done several sessions with), power the affair with the Sam Jones (bass)/Louis Hayes (drums) engine, and you’ve got a ticket to hard bop heaven with tight, turn-on-a-dime, conversational interplay. Take the title track for instance: a smokey, dimly-lit scene is setup by Quebec and Clark. Quebec’s playing is pensive. Measured. Heartfelt. As he seeks a silver lining in his world-weariness, Green begins to quietly make his presence known, gently arpeggiating a couple of chords before commenting on Quebec’s parting thoughts with clean, single-line precision. Then Quebec claps back with a forceful, anguished wail before adding a few final musings. He and Clark gently bring this soul-searching ballad to a close before Quebec’s final words, and Clark sends everyone back into a misty night…no happier, no wiser, but perhaps a bit more resolute. An achingly beautiful ballad that’s superbly delivered by this quintet. There’s an interesting alternate take on the digital version that doesn’t carry nearly the same emotional impact for those who care to compare. Great job by Joe & the Tone Poet team—great sound, lovely packaging and the price is right. I’m pleased to see this continued focus on sessions that were shelved when originally recorded like Wayne Shorter’s ‘Etcetera’ and Donald Byrd’s ‘Chant’. Often their initial appearance in the 1980s wasn’t exactly with much fanfare, and the cover art used in that series was—compared to the inspiring photos and art of @bluenoterecords heyday—crap. That wrong has now been righted. This one was recorded in March 1962 but put on ice until 1985. Highest recommendation

Grant Green ‘Oleo’

There’s a synergy between guitarist Grant Green and pianist Sonny Clark that makes all the sessions they recorded in the five week period between 23 Dec 1961 and 31 Jan 1962 essential listening. Quality however doesn’t necessarily run consistently with A&R decisions and as Green’s more commercially leaning soul jazz proclivities were Blue Note’s focus, none were released during Green’s lifetime. When they were finally rolled out of the vault in the 80s and split into individual albums, vinyl availability was limited to Japan for two of those three sessions. Blue Note has since compiled them into a double CD (“The Complete Grant Green/Sonny Clark Quartets”) which is spectacular, but for the vinyl hounds this release ‘Oleo’ was the last of the sessions Green/Clark did together and issued by King in Japan in 1980 as part of the “Worlds First Appearance” series (GXF 3065). Like “Gooden’s Corner”, this one features Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums supporting the melodic interplay between Green and Clark, with highlights being the Green original “Hip Funk”, a fun take on Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and a ripping run at “My Favorite Things”. Sonically, this Japanese pressing sounds pretty terrific though truth be told, the double CD sounds as good and costs less. Besides, the CD contains the equally brilliant work of the other sessions including the crowning achievement: the Green/Clark Quartet (with Art Blakey on drums) turning “It Ain’t Necessarily So” on its head—you gotta hear it. Of the LPs that reveal the awesomeness of these sessions—“Oleo”, “Gooden’s Corner”, and “Nigeria”—this one is the least essential but STILL ESSENTIAL. Again, pick up the CD and you get it all and it’s all pretty great