Back before electric guitarists were down on their knees in stadiums playing competing rock solos, tough tenors roamed the planet. And in the 1950s and early 1960s, tenor saxophonists were plenty tough and competitive. Most came out of the r&b experience of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hot r&b bands of the day included ones led by Lionel Hampton, Bull Moose Jackson, Tiny Grimes and Earl Bostic. The list of tough tenors starts with Coleman Hawkins and includes Gene Ammons, Jimmy Forrest, Buddy Tate, Johnny Griffin, Willis "Gator" Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Illinois Jacquet and Hank Crawford. Two of the toughest, bossiest and gruffest, however, were Arnett Cobb and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. Both were blues soaked through and through, and both were as aggressive and as lethal creatively as rattle snakes.
Cobb and Davis were placed alone in the recording studio together only once, on Blow Arnett, Blow for Prestige in January 1959 (re-issued in 1970 as Go Power!). Though they also appeared together on Very Saxy (also Prestige) in April 1959, they were teamed with tenor titans Coleman Hawkins and Buddy Tate.
But on Blow Arnett, Blow, it's just Cobb and Davis going at it full tilt in a tenor cage match. What's also special about this date are the sidemen—a tough tenor's dream team. On organ was "Wild Bill" Davis [pictured], one of the most exciting and swinging Hammond players of his generation. Rounding out the rhythm section was George Duvivier on bass and Arthur Edgehill on drums, veterans of many organ sessions.
The entire album is a groovy feast that lets you feel the competitive heat between these two rival players. It's so ferocious that you can't help but imagine these two as country lawyers vehemently arguing a court case before judge "Wild Bill" Davis. Of particular note is Dutch Kitchen Bounce, a Cobb original with a Robbins' Nest feel. Here "Lockjaw" Davis manages to outfox Cobb. But on the album's high point, The Eely One, a squirmy medium-tempo blues that features an Everyday I Have the Blues riff, Cobb roars back. The rest of the album is mind-blowing: When I Grow Too Old to Dream is a loping standard, Go Power by George Duvivier delivers on its promise, Go Red Go by Cobb is the album's cooker and "Wild Bill" Davis' The Fluke is a mid-tempo romp. This may have been just another recording session at Rudy Van Gelder's studio, but for these two, it was show-off time, and the result is sensational.
If you dig the tenor sax-organ trio sound, this one exceeds all expectations. Prestige released many albums of this genre during the period, often following a successful formulaic model. But this one stands out as among the very best with musicians who took such summits seriously.
So who won the tenor bout? "Lockjaw" Davis is certainly strong and commanding, constantly trying to outfox Cobb or force him to cough up a cliche phrase. But Cobb is big and all-out, straight down the line and completely on top of his game. I'd have to give it to Cobb, on points.
JazzWax tracks: For some reason, Blow Arnett, Blow is not available as a download. But you can still find it on CD. Sample the tracks here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Arnett Cobb with Buddy Tate and Coleman Hawkins on Lester Leaps In from Very Saxy. The order of tenor solos is Davis, Tate, Hawkins and Cobb...