Graded on a Curve:
Sonny Stitt,
Lone Wolf: The Roost Alternates

Saxophonist Sonny Stitt made plain that the best way to emerge from another artist’s shadow is to simply persevere. Well, that and focus more on the tenor sax. Initially downgraded (if not totally dismissed) as a Charlie Parker imitator, Stitt didn’t let the criticism slow him down; from the late 1940s to the early ’80s, he recorded well over 150 albums. Of course, not all of those are great. The brand-new Lone Wolf: The Roost Alternates does flirt with that level of quality however, rounding up unissued takes from the ’52-’57 period of his lengthy association with the Roost label. Out June 28 on Run Out Groove through Warner Records, it offers Stitt in fine form and leading consistently sharp bands.

Indefatigable and adaptable; both terms fit Sonny Stitt like a glove. As the decades unwound and the records piled up, he who was once belittled for his similarity to Charlie Parker came to be valued as one of the grand survivors of the original bebop era. All the while, he was refusing to be boxed in by this reversal of esteem, picking up the electric saxophone, exploring the potential of soul jazz, and dishing albums of pop covers (like ’73’s Mr. Bojangles), though he could still deliver in the trad Modern Jazz manner. He recorded and gigged regularly up to his death from cancer on July 22, 1982.

Stitt was a strong player with classic LPs in his discography and an impressive list of achievements. He briefly played with Miles Davis, co-led two groups with tenor-man Gene “Jug” Ammons, and played in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and alongside the trumpeter in the ’70s-era outfit The Giants of Jazz. As said, time has vindicated Stitt, and it can be tempting to completely dismiss the naysayers as being hypercritical. However, there is still an important distinction to be made.

Charles “Yardbird” Parker Jr. remains one of the great musical innovators of the 20th century (if one whose rep has been somewhat unfairly eclipsed by that of John Coltrane). Stitt has claimed that his style on alto was a case of parallel development, and I’m in no position to dispute that claim. But Stitt, to my knowledge, has never been pronounced as an architect of a new musical form, which is not to put him down but just to state facts.

While Stitt had his bouts with personal issues that hindered him (something we can all relate to, I think), he’s justly celebrated as a man who didn’t quit. The nickname Lone Wolf derived in part from his refusal to be constrained by a recording contract (he cut records for Roost until ’65 but simultaneously hit studios for Prestige, Argo, Verve, Impulse, and Atlantic, and later Cadet, Muse, Flying Dutchman and more), but the sobriquet applied just as much to his inclination to rove over the roadmap playing clubs with local pickup groups (recalling to me the later career of Chuck Berry).

In his mature years, it is said that Stitt’s great records emerged when producers pushed and/ or inspired him. Early on, he still had something to prove, which helps elevate Lone Wolf: The Roost Alternates to the realm of the special. Something to prove? Well yeah, but it does seem that Stitt’s gravitation toward the tenor, which he plays on Lone Wolf’s first four tracks, is occasionally reduced to the man simply attempting to get beyond Parker’s shadow.

Some still derided him as a Bird clone on tenor, which is borderline ridiculous, as he sounds much closer to Lester Young here, hearty and warm, and with an ease of delivery that fruitfully combines with the later sessions to produce a cohesive LP. This ’52 date turned up (amongst other places surely) on Savoy’s ’86 LP Symphony Hall Swing and of course Mosaic’s ’01 9CD The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions, both of which were produced by Michael Cuscuna, who contributes notes here.

The band for these four selections features the obscure pianist Fletcher Peck, who sounds quite good throughout (dishing a nice solo during “Why Do I Love You”), the well-known drummer Jo Jones (not Philly Joe), and bassist John Simmons; his profile might not be particularly high, but he recorded extensively and with a long list of major names. All three are quite receptive to Stitt’s artistry, and as the tunes unwind, I can’t detect any reasons for their designation as alternates.

The fact that they’re not programmed after the release versions, which could aid in clarifying their stature but at the expense of album flow, is just fine. Side one moves pretty easily into ’55’s “The Nearness of You” from the quintet of Stitt, switching to alto (for the remainder of the album), the great pianist Hank Jones, dependable bassist Wendell Marshall, drummer Shadow Wilson (known for his work with Thelonious Monk), and guitarist Freddie Green (who played extensively with Count Basie).

Green is frankly pretty distant in the mix and fairly passive in execution. According to the credits for Sonny Stitt Plays (aka Sonny Stitt, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Stitt), the ’56 LP where these tracks originally appeared (the alternates are tacked onto the end of the CD reissue) Green sits out “If I Should Lose You,” contracting the band to a quartet that returns for tracks 3-5 on side two, though it’s from a ’57 session that produced Sonny Stitt with the New Yorkers.

But first, side one wraps up by introducing the third group featured on Lone Wolf, composed of pianist Dolo Coker (known for his ’70s leader LPs for Xanadu and earlier sideman work with Dexter Gordon, Philly Jo Jones and Art Pepper), bassist Edgar Willis (who recorded with Johnny Otis and at length with Ray Charles), and drummer Kenny Dennis (whose list of credits includes Miles, Sonny Rollins, and Mal Waldron).

They gathered in studio either in late ’56 or January ’57, with the issued takes from the session initially found on 37 Minutes and 48 Seconds with Sonny Stitt. I’ve heard the standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” so many times and in such differing contexts (from the Harlem Globetrotters to a Polish-language version sung by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in the 1983 remake of the Ernest Lubitsch masterpiece “To Be or Not to Be”) that I feared the version here wouldn’t transcend the overfamiliarity, but they pull it off without a hitch.

I should’ve known. Lone Wolf does a terrific and succinct job of emphasizing Stitt’s effectiveness with standards (the band with Coker also tackles “Harlem Nocturne”) and ballads (right off the bat with “They Say It’s Wonderful” and closing the record with “It Might as Well Be Spring”) but his skill with impromptu blues (“Blues for Yard,” dedicated to you know who) is one of the highlights.

The whole of Lone Wolf: The Roost Alternates is a treat for bop fans, especially those who value hearing the music transition into high 1950s art. Ultimately his own man, Sonny Stitt was a crucial part of that development.


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