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Sonny Stiit - Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings 1949-1952 Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006
format:    16-bit CDs (3), Mono
performance:    10
sound:    8
release year:    2006
label:    Prestige
reviewed by:    Scott Yanow

ImageIn jazz, interpreters occupy a different and more ambiguous position than the innovators. The innovators are the leaders of each musical generation, blazing new paths and attracting a countless number of dedicated followers who are influenced by their ideas. One such innovator, altoist Charlie Parker, virtually changed jazz with his virtuosity, ability to play perfectly coherent solos at ridiculous tempos, his harmonic sophistication and endless amount of catchy phrases that by 1950 was becoming the mainstream of jazz.

Sonny Stitt's first major musical job was playing alto with Tiny Bradshaw's orchestra in 1942. Miles Davis years later claimed Stitt already had his style together, but unfortunately the lack of any real recordings makes that claim impossible to verify. The following year Stitt met up with Charlie Parker at a jam session and they were both apparently surprised at how similar they sounded. However Stitt's claim that he developed his style independently of Parker is debatable, since he most likely heard the Jay McShann recordings that featured Parker. By the time Stitt began to record in 1946, on alto he sounded like Parker's musical double (minus the genius) and was criticized for being a mere imitation even though he had mastered the bebop vocabulary earlier than most. By 1949, Stitt was playing tenor more than alto although he would double on both throughout his career. On tenor his sound was closer to Lester Young while his choice of notes remained similar to Parker's, and he was able to mostly escape the somewhat unfair criticism of being a mere copycat.
Stitt's Bits has all of Sonny Stitt's recordings for the Prestige label from 1949-52. He is heard almost exclusively on tenor, with just three or four appearances on alto and actually more time spent on baritone, an instrument that he stopped playing after the mid-1950s. Not only is Stitt heard on his own sessions but he is featured on dates with a group co-led by fellow tenor Gene Ammons (they took turns being leader), two songs backing singer Teddy Williams and a session with trombonist Jay Jay Johnson's Boppers. In addition to Johnson and Ammons, other players are pianists Bud Powell, John Lewis, Duke Jordan and Kenny Drew, and drummers Max Roach, Jo Jones and Art Blakey. The highpoints of the 76 performances (which include all of the alternate takes) include the Stitt-Ammons tenor battles (including three versions of their hit "Blues Up And Down"), eight songs with Bud Powell in a quartet, and rousing romps on "Later," "Cherokee," "Jeepers Creepers," "Blazin’" and "Liza."

All the selections (except the extended "two-sided" gems) clock in around three minutes, since they were recorded during the end of the 78 era. Stitt gets in a lot of music during each performance, dominating virtually every track except for the numbers that he shares with Ammons. He mostly escapes sounding too close to Charlie Parker despite a similarity in their choice of notes due to the different sound that he achieved on tenor, which is actually closer to the tone of Gene Ammons than to Parker.

Sonny Stitt would continue recording prolifically throughout his life, which ended in 1982. After Charlie Parker's death in 1955, he returned to playing alto more and, although one could argue that he never significantly developed beyond where he was in 1950, Stitt simply saw no reason to give up playing the freewheeling bebop music that he loved.

Stitt's Bits, other than two selections cut for the Cadet label in 1951, has all of the saxophonist's music during this important period. Since it cannot be improved upon in packaging and programming, it deserves a perfect ten.

These recordings were made between 54 and 57 years ago so one cannot expect state-of-the art technical brilliance. But with excellent remastering, digital transfers and audio restoration by Joe Tarentino at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, the performances sound better than they ever did on LP, with little distortion, particularly the quartet (as opposed to septet) numbers. They are as lifelike as one could expect considering their age, and they are certainly quite listenable.

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