Between 1949 and 1952, saxophonist Sonny Stitt recorded close to 70 sides for Prestige as a leader and sideman. Excluding Charlie Parker, Lester Young and James Moody, it's hard to think of too many other artists during this period who produced as much exciting and consistently dynamic material for a single label. Later, in the 12-inch LP era, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and others, of course, would come to define prolific recording excellence. [Photo: Popsie Randolph/Popsie Randolph Estate]
The box that comprehensively captures Stitt's early years at Prestige is Stitts Bitts: Sonny Stitt, the Bebop Recordings (1949-1952). For years, the big take-away from the LPs and box was Stitt's blazing speed with pianist Bud Powell on tracks like Strike Up the Band and Fine and Dandy and his swashbuckling tenor duels with Gene Ammons on Blues Up and Down and You Can Depend on Me. After giving the box a fresh listen the other day, what I find just as remarkable are Stitt's rich ballads during this period.
Stitt's sound on tenor sax often has been compared to Lester Young's. But in truth, Stitt's engine ran way too hot for him to be a true Prez clone. There was too much impatience lurking beneath Stitt's lines, and his emphasis was less on Young's linear drawl and more on the quick-witted seamless blues ideas championed by Parker.
Stitt on ballads wasn't a disciple of Coleman Hawkins, either. Stitt's phrasing wasn't gruff nor did he exhibit Hawkins' brutish tone. Though Stitt's solos did tend to run up and down a song's chord changes, pretty always preceded explosive prowess. Stitt on tenor is like the guy who loves to rumble but stops every so often to check his reflection in the mirror. You get the sense he loved the sound of his own horn and marvelled at his own cleverness mid-solo.
On ballads Stitt sounds like, well, Stitt. Despite the knock by critics back in the '50s that he was too similar in style to Parker and Young when playing alto and tenor respecively—or that he sounded like both at the same time—he actually had his own thing that was distinct. On the early Prestige ballads, there's both a commanding presence and a shrewd tenderness that smartly combines Songbook charm with a sewing-machine blues attack.
Stitt on these ballads is only too happy to send notes up like fine smoke—curling and twisting and lingering in the air before moving on to the next idea. Dig Count Every Star or Stairway to the Stars. Or the mid-tempo P.S. I Love You. These are the hidden gems in a flawless collection.
"Stitt's ballad work was very soulful. I liked everything he played then—ballads and uptempo. What makes his ballads special is that they're always lyrical and high-energy.
"Sonny had a pretty good ego, too. Stan Getz once told me that Sonny came by one of his gigs and jumped up on the stage and wailed away. At the end, Getz said, "You didn't even let me get even with a ballad" [laughs].
"I remember Sonny's Imagination session in 1950. [Prestige owner] Bob Weinstock told me that Stitt was having trouble with his alto horn and asked me to bring mine to the date. I was momentarily apprehensive about lending it to Stitt. Sonny had a reputation for disappearing with other people's instruments and hocking them for cash.
"But I didn't mind since I was going to be there and could keep an eye on it. Sonny took my horn and recorded Imagination and Cherokee flawlessly. When I got my alto back, I did feel as though something special had happened to it. But I didn't sound like Sonny when I played it."
JazzWax note: The ballads on the Stitt's Bits box include...
- Ain't Misbehaving
- Mean to Me
- Stairway to the Stars
- Count Every Star
- There Will Never Be Another You
- To Think You've Chosen Me
- Our Very Own
- P.S. I Love You
JazzWax tracks: Stitts Bitts: Sonny Stitt, the Bebop Recordings (1949-1952) is a three-disc, remastered set on Prestige. You'll find the box at iTunes or here.
Want more Stitt in his prime? The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions box from Mosaic picks up the story in 1952 and offers track after track of remastered brilliance on nine CDs. Go here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Stitt in 1951 on a mid-tempo ballad, P.S. I Love You. It's also one of the rare examples of Stitt playing baritone sax. He was joined by Charles Bateman (piano), Gene Wright (bass) and Teddy Stewart (drums). Listen how he gently saws through this standard, each of his lines more interesting and prettier than the one he played moments earlier...