Gene Ammons' Boss Tenor is arguably the tenor saxophonist's best known and most critically acclaimed album. With songs like Canadian Sunset, Close Your Eyes and Blue Ammons, the June 1960 album has enormous cohesion and creative aggression. But as rich as Boss Tenor is, I've always been more partial to Ammons' Up Tight! and its sister album, Boss Soul.
Recorded on October 17, 1961 for Prestige, Up Tight! featured Ammons with a sound that seemed bigger, fatter and more gospel-influenced than past outings. Joining Ammons on the date were pianist Walter Bishop, Jr., bassist Art Davis and drummer Art Taylor, with Ray Barretto on conga. The personnel remained the same on October 18, except for a switch at the piano: Patti Bown replaced Walter Bishop, Jr.
Up Tight! has a tough, sad history, which makes the recording that much more meaningful. Ammons recorded the album between prison terms. Addicted to heroin since the mid-'50s, Ammons was arrested in 1958 and charged with possession. After his conviction, Ammons was sentenced to Statesville Penitentiary near Joliet, Ill.
Shortly after his release in 1960, Ammons was re-arrested for violating the terms of his parole. Apparently playing in nightclubs was against the agreed-upon terms set by the parole board. When he was released the second time in 1961, Ammons began to record with a soul-jazz feel that was heavy on the blues and deeply introspective. Up Tight! is from this period.
Mindful of Ammons' continued addiction and risks the musician was taking with his health and the law, Prestige owner Bob Weinstock in 1961 decided to record Ammons as often as possible to build up a treasure chest of material to release in case the tenor saxophonist was re-arrested. Ammons agreed. So the day after Ammons recorded Up Tight!, he recorded another album's worth of material, which was placed on the shelf.
Weinstock's gut proved to be accurate. In late 1962, Ammons was arrested again for heroin possession, and this time he was sentenced to seven years at Joliet. Material from the session recorded a day after Up Tight! was released in 1966 as Boss Soul. In the liner notes to the second album, Bob Porter wrote:
"Perhaps a young jazz fan will hear Boss Soul by accident or out of curiosity and discover something. The something he gets from the LP will be hard to explain, perhaps just a feeling for the man and his music, but this is what Ammons wants and needs.
"In letters to Prestige president Bob Weinstock, Ammons continually hopes that the company has enough albums "to keep my name alive." Fortunately thus far it has had enough but the supply is dwindling. For those discovering Ammons for the first time, there is much to go back for, and for those who have passed him by, there is much to re-discover and re-evaluate. For those of us who have been there, we, like Gene Ammons, can only wait."
If you're like me, you'll be swept away by I Sold My Heart to the Junkman, Soft Summer Breeze and Don't Go to Strangers. Up Tight! and Boss Soul is Ammons at his very best.
JazzWax tracks: Up Tight! and Boss Soul together document two of Gene Ammons' most perfect recording sessions. Patti Bown's piano playing on the latter is deliciously bluesy and relentlessly interesting. You'll find both albums together on one glorious CD, called Up Tight!, at iTunes and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the full Up Tight! album, with Gene Ammons, (ts), Walter Bishop, Jr. (p), Art Davis (b), Art Taylor (d) and Ray Barretto (cga)...