Everyone who digs jazz piano is crazy about Sonny Clark. The pianist combined a swinging hard-bop style with delicate phrasing, resulting in a seductive keyboard touch that was envied and unrivaled. Bill Evans' admiration for Clark was so pronounced that he named a song for him—N.Y.C.'s No Lark, an anagram of Sonny Clark's name.
Clark's last album as a leader was Leapin' and Lopin' (1961), and it remains one of my favorites. After Leapin' and Lopin', Clark would continue recording as a sideman for Grant Green, Ike Quebec, Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon throughout 1962 until his death following a heroin overdose in January 1963.
Leapin' and Lopin' was recorded in November 1961 and features Tommy Turrentine on trumpet, Charlie Rouse [pictured] on tenor sax, Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec is heard on one track—the ballad Deep in a Dream. More on a possible reason why in a minute.
Leapin' and Lopin' is essential because it provides us with all of Clark's brilliant piano styles in one place—his pensive ballad work, hard bop swinging, soulful funk and Latin-tinged blues. The album's horn players—Rouse and Turrentine—couldn't have been more perfectly matched to Clark's catalyzing sound.
What makes Clark so appealing to the ear are his chord structures and soft, engaging lines. He never lingers in one area of the keyboard, and his chord clusters are always about beauty and tasteful percussion. Best of all, when accompanying players, Clark didn't just lay down a thick bed of chords. Instead, he soloed behind them with chords, egging on the soloist's effort and adding texture to their statements. Clark is never dull, and on Leapin' and Lopin' there's an especially hushed effortless to his playing that is remarkable and memorable.
The album opens with Something Special, a hard bop line in a minor key written by Clark. We hear Clark move cat-like on the keyboard, with Rouse showing off his smoky chops. Turrentine [pictured] follows, sounding very much like Kenny Dorham—hitting every note cleanly and without overbearing force. And Clark's bluesy solo is sharp and inspired.
The ballad Deep in a Dream opens with a fabulous intro by Clark, who then delivers the standard's main theme. Quebec [pictured] solos with a breathy Lester Young approach, and Clark's solo is equally soft. For me, the standard could have been taken a peck faster, but the dirge tempo certainly grows on you. By the end of the tune, Clark and Quebec seem to be dueling for most seductive sound, and Clark by my count was ahead. But in the final measures, Ike pulls off quite a trick—slurring his last note and out-smoothing Clark. But Clark rises to meet the challenge with a descending configuration followed by a glossy ascending arpeggio. Perfection!
Melody for C is the most spirited track on the album. The modal line is bright and frisky, setting up Rouse, who roars through his solo with a gritty, controlled tone. According to Rouse's discography, the saxophonist recorded half of Further Definitions (Impulse) earlier that same day (November 13, 1961) with Benny Carter, Phil Woods, Coleman Hawkins and Jo Jones. What a tune-up session! No wonder Rouse's lines are so fluid on Leapin' and Lopin'. His crowded schedule on this particular day may help explain why Quebec played on just one tune. Or perhaps Quebec was supposed to be the tenor on the Clark date but took ill and Rouse was called in. Who knows?
Clark's solo on Melody for C is perfect, and his percussive accompaniment includes his signature style of hitting a chord and employing a glissando—running his thumb down the keys. His playing here is gorgeous—the musical equivalent of suede. At certain points Clark is so serene he sounds as if he's playing the piano with brushes. This is easily one of my all-time favorite Clark solos.
Bassist Butch Warren contributed Eric Walks, a hard bop flag-waver with Tadd Dameron touches. The tune switches between major and minor keys, and showcases Turrentine, whose playing was considerably softer than Lee Morgan's, Donald Byrd's or Freddie Hubbard's. I find that Turrentine and Rouse were especially suited to Clark's playing because they sound like keyboard players themselves, hitting every note with clean, staccato distinction.
Voodoo is a tune with a minor-key gospel funk line that opens in march time but dissolves into a walking hard-bop tempo following Warren's snare roll. Listen as Clark offers a light, funky Bobby Timmons approach here.
Turrentine wrote the album's closer, Midnight Mambo. The Latin-tinged song with a Calypso feel also is in a minor key and features Clark jabbing chords behind Rouse's solo. Clark must have been quite a change, stylistically, for Rouse, who spent the prior four years touring and recording with Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, Rouse recorded only twice with Clark—on this album and on trumpter Louis Smith's Smithville. Rouse resumed playing and touring steadily with Monk shortly after this date.
To quote from Ira Gitler's 1961 liner notes:
"Sonny Clark is fortunately far from fashionably funky, and is more personal a pianist than ever before. Bud Powell was his main influence and, if his general area of keyboard approach is to be considered, still is. However, Clark, whose past Blue Note recordings show that he was never as close to Bud Powell as, say, Walter Bishop or Kenny Drew once were, is now more solidly his own man when it comes down to specifics. Furthermore, he has not lost that quality which Art Farmer referred to on the back liner of Cool Struttin': 'Some people sound like they're trying to swing. Sonny just flows along naturally.'"
And how. What makes Leapin' and Lopin' special for me is Sonny's maturity and the inclusion of Rouse and Turrentine, who aren't overpowering. The pair brightly complement Clark's natural flow.
JazzWax tracks: Leapin' and Lopin' is available on CD and at iTunes, but I must warn you that the sound is inferior. For some baffling reason, Leapin' and Lopin' has not yet been remastered as part of the Rudy Van Gelder series.
To fully appreciate Sonny Clark's chord choices and solos, I recommend springing for the import. The extra expense is worth it. My Japanese import seems to be unavailable now at the usual online CD shops. But i did notice Japanese imports of the album available at eBay. Simply type "Leapin' and Lopin'" into the eBay search engine and you'll see the "buy now" offerings.
Bill Evans' gentle N.Y.C.'s No Lark is available on Conversations With Myself. The album won Evans a Grammy Award in 1964 for "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance—Soloist or Small Group." Given the fact that the album features Evans overdubbing his own lines, it seems Verve had both solo and small group territory pretty well covered.