Benny Green - Soul Stirrin'

Benny Green Soul Stirrin’ (Blue Note 1599)

Of the invariably soulful albums from trombonist Benny Green, Soul Stirrin’, with the heavyweight line up of Gene Ammons, Billy Root, Sonny Clark and Elvin Jones, is arguably his finest effort.

Benny Green - Soul Stirrin'

Personnel

Benny Green (trombone), Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), Billy Root (tenor saxophone), Sonny Clark (piano), Ike Isaacs (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), Babs Gonzalez (vocals A1, A2,)

Recorded

on April 28, 1958 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 1599 in 1958

Track listing

Side A:
The Cooker
Benny’s Back
Bossa Rocka
All Of Me
Big Fat Lady
Side B:
Benson’s Rider
Ready And Able
The Borgia Stick
Return Of The Prodigal Son
Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid


Benny Green is like that friendly uncle who always takes you aside at a family gathering, stuffing a couple of bucks into your pocket, ‘here kid, go buy yourself some candy.’ Green’s playing is accessible, uplifting, his phrases smack of smoke-filled back rooms, where burly whisky drinkers throw dirty jokes to the other end of the card table. His altogether very deft, modern style retains a lurid sense of old-timey swing, which places him at the other end of the spectrum opposite pioneer J.J. Johnson. His tone is tart, a lovely blast of fresh air.

By 1958, Green’s experience consisted of a decade spent in the bands of Earl Hines and Charlie Ventura. He had worked and recorded with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Criss, Hank Mobley and Randy Weston. Green was up for his second Blue Note album, following Back On The Scene and a slew of releases on Prestige onwards from 1951.

Not only did Green have aboard Ammons, Root, Clark, bassist Ike Isaacs and Jones, the bop poet and songwriter Babs Gonzalez also put his best foot forward, providing two melodies. Throughout the album, there are ample examples that justify the title. It’s a spirited, blues-drenched affair. There’s the sparse, precise riffing behind the soloists in We Wanna Cook, an uptempo, twelve-bar blues swinger, reminiscent of the Count Basie cookers, and also marked by Papa Jo Jones-style drumming by Elvin Jones. The same procedures – saxes spurring on trombone – mark the title track, absolutely the best tune of the album, a heated Blues March-type groove, albeit a bit slower. Babs Gonzalez hums the melody, the soloists take off, Gene Ammons especially commanding, on top of his game, blowing long wailing notes, coupled with sparse, melodic bop figures, a wall of sound from The Boss.

Gonzalez’ Lullaby Of The Doomed, Round Midnight-ish, is a breather. B.G. Mambo’s fat-bottomed theme jumps and jives, but turns into a rather pedestrian, straightforward 4/4 rhythm. Sonny Clark’s introspective side comes to the fore in Lullaby, his accompaniment on the album is spicy, he turns a beat here, injects a persuasive bass note further away from the sequence there, continuing to hold momentum all the way. Perhaps the mutual understanding of Green, Ammons and Root, who played together earlier in their careers, contribute to the album’s coherent soul groove. Billy Root, rather the mystery man of this set, a great, hard-swinging player, had a more imposing career than most people probably realize, most of the time spent as a sideman. He played with John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Stan Kenton, Lucky Thompson, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Check out an enlightening interview of the candid Root with guest writer Gordon Jack on the great Jazz Profiles website of Steven Cerra here.

When listening to Black Pearl, you will notice that it closely resembles Black Pearls – with the added ‘s’ – from John Coltrane’s album Black Pearls. Soul Stirrin’ was recorded on April 28, 1958. Black Pearls – released as a profitable afterthought by Prestige in 1964 when Coltrane had long since moved to Atlantic and Impulse – is recorded on May 23, 1958. So Bennie beat ‘Trane to a month. The liner notes to Soul Stirrin’ say: ‘The program is completed with Black Pearl penned by sax man Bill Graham.’ However, Coltrane’s album credits not Graham but John Coltrane as composer. Did Coltrane nick a tune? Aficionados on the in-depth Organissimo website suggested that Graham’s credit got lost, it was then registered as unknown, and subsequently assigned to Coltrane. Apparently, Coltrane remembered the nice melody, picking it for that wonderful session with Donald Byrd, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor. Organissimo adds the fact that the tune is registered to Graham in The Coltrane Reference, the Bible of Coltrane facts. Recognition after all for Bill Graham, born 1918, a relatively unknown saxophonist who warrants more than a few words in another time and place. To be sure, Black Pearl is another one of the tunes making sure Soul Stirrin’s a keeper.

Gene Ammons - Brother Jug!

Gene Ammons Brother Jug (Prestige 1970)

As if nothing had happened, Gene Ammons resumed his place in the Prestige roster after his seven-year long stint in jail and delivered four consecutive big-selling albums in 1969/70. Brother Jug is the second in line.

Gene Ammons - Brother Jug!

Personnel

Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), Sonny Philips (organ), Junior Mance (piano), Billy Butler (guitar), Bob Bushnell (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums), Frankie Jones (drums), Candido (congas)

Recorded

on November 10 & 11, 1969 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as PR 7792 in 1969

Track listing

Side A:
Son Of A Preacher Man
Didn’t We
He’s A Real Gone Guy
Side B:
Jungle Strut
Blue Velvet
Ger-Ru


“Jug” was a nickname cast upon Ammons by singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine, whose band Ammons was part of in the mid forties, like so many future modern jazz giants as Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. One day the band checked out new hats in a store. When Eckstine found out the enormous hat size of Ammons, he blurted out: ‘You jug-head motherfucker!’ The name, shortened to “Jug”, stuck. Shortly after, Ammons had his first big-selling song with 1947’s Red Top. The ballad My Foolish Heart, which had been in the book of Eckstine’s band, was next, a smash hit in 1951. The Prestige albums of Ammons sold well, especially 1960’s Boss Tenor, which spawned the popular Canadian Sunset, and 1962’s Bad! Bossa Nova. At that time, Ammons had become a heroin addict. Already having done stints in jail in the fifties, now the law put him away not only for possession but also selling narcotics, a sure sign that Ammons was abused as a symbol of ‘the degenerate, black musician’. He had to put up with a staggering seven-year sentence.

During those years of 1962-69, Prestige kept his name in the spotlight as best as it possibly could, releasing a number of albums with material from the vaults. Nevertheless, upon the release of Ammons from jail in 1969, the label was curious if the big-toned melodist could still deliver. The answer was affirmative with a capital A. Ammons had honed his chops in prison. The homecoming concert at Chicago’s Plucked Nickel in the fall of ’69 (the liner notes say) was a succes, the following gigs in Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia likewise. New York? No, Ammons wasn’t allowed to play in the Big Apple. A bunch of bureaucrats from the liquor board kept “Jug” out of town. Except for the studio of Rudy van Gelder, where Ammons recorded the well-received The Boss Is Back! and, subsequently, Brother Jug! and The Black Cat!. In between, Prestige released a live album with Dexter Gordon, The Chase!.

Meanwhile, the health of Ammons had detoriated considerably. Ammons passed away in 1974 at the age of forty-nine. They had to dug for “Jug”. At his funeral Sonny Stitt, whom Ammons had been associated with regularly throughout his career, played My Buddy. One of the best friends of Ammons, tenor saxophonist Prince James, also performed. James is featured on Brother Jug as well, on the last track of the album, Ger-Ru, which also includes Junior Mance, the pianist who’d been part of an early Ammons group.

The rest, however, consists of an organ combo including organist Sonny Philips and one of Prestige’s house rhythm sections of bassist Bob Bushnell and drummer Bernard Purdie. Solid groove music assured. The loose, tough-as-nails version of Son Of A Preacher Man is a ringer, while the flagwaving shuffle blues He’s A Real Gone Guy, a song from r&b singer Nellie Lutcher, conjures up images of loved ones leaning against the wall, drowning each other with drunken, smeary kisses. Every Gene Ammons album of the late sixties and early seventies has a stand-out track. On Brother Jug, it’s Jimmy Webb’s Didn’t We, a ballad that finds Ammons at the top of his unsurpassed, unique game of level-headed drama. Soon, as Ammons would grow more ill, his form would understandably falter. But for the moment, “Jug” was back at the forefront of entertaining and hi-level soul jazz.

Scroll down on the Spotify link to listen to most of the Brother Jug album. Well, The Boss Is Back is also pretty swell.

Gene Ammons - Bad! Bossa Nova

Gene Ammons Bad! Bossa Nova (Prestige 1962)

Throughout his spectacular career, tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons had several big hits, both singles and albums. One of those albums, Bad! Bossa Nova, paved the way for soulful players intent on exploring Latin music.

Gene Ammons - Bad! Bossa Nova

Personnel

Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), Hank Jones (piano), Bucky Pizzarelli (acoustic guitar), Kenny Burrell (acoustic guitar), Norman Edge (bass), Oliver Jackson (drums), Al Hayes (bongo)

Recorded

on September 9, 1962 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as PR 7257 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Pagan Love Song
Ca’ Purange
Anna
Side B:
Cae, Cae
Moito Mato Grosso
Yellow Bird


After organist Jimmy Smith, who was second to none as far as popularity and record sales was concerned, Gene Ammons was another very succesful artist of the soul jazz era. Ammons started out in the bands of King Kolax and Billy Eckstine in the mid-forties, the latter a playing ground for the burgeoning bebop generation of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wardell Gray, Fats Navarro and Art Blakey. And Ammons, who knew his share of bebop. During his tenure with Eckstine, Ammons’ colleagues in the reed chair were Dexter Gordon, Leo Parker and Sonny Stitt. As a leader, Ammons gained a lot of public acclaim with the jumpin’ blues theme Red Top in 1947. The tenor saxophonist subsequently struck gold with the ballad My Foolish Heart in 1950, one of the tunes in the borderland of r&b and jazz (the distinction wasn’t as evident then as it is now) that many jazz artists of the day specialized in. During the years 1950-52, Ammons made up an explosive sax battle team with Sonny Stitt, whom he would keep recording with on and off through the sixties.

Ammons, the Chicago-born son of boogiewoogie master Albert Ammons, wasn’t about to slow down, if only by long, intermittent stints in jail for possession of drugs. Ammons has recorded for Savoy, VeeJay, Argo, but was part of the Prestige roster early on, an association that would continue throughout his career. His ‘HiFi’ jam albums of the late fifties with the likes of John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Mal Waldron and Art Taylor were attractive but curtailed the playing time of the big-toned tenorist. His style would come fully to the fore on the big-selling Boss Tenor in 1960, which spawned another jukebox hit, Canadian Sunset, as was Exactly Like You from 1961’s Jug album. The fruitful period 1960-1962 secured Ammons’s top ranking in soul jazz history. Bad! Bossa Nova is the last in line, since Ammons was convicted again, now also for selling drugs. It looked like the authorities wanted to set an example by sentencing the black jazz musician to seven years in jail. A great tragedy for Ammons and an utter disgrace which black people, unfortunately, have been all too familiar with. His comeback on Prestige in 1969 would be very successful. But his conditions worsened and Ammons passed away in 1974 at the age of forty-nine.

Unabashed emotion. A big sound that fills the (bar-)room. Excuse me? A soccer stadium! Great storytelling abilities. A tough tenor that wails with the best of ‘m but with controlled power. A prime balladeer. And a great entertainer. The title of Bad! Bossa Nova sounds about right. Bad it is. Ammons wholeheartedly funkifies the set of Latin-tinged tunes. If it doesn’t exactly consign Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Samba album, containing the hit Desafinado, released half a year earlier, to the litter bin, after a back-to-back spin Getz/Byrd’s album certainly comes across as shopping mall muzak. Both albums were big sellers, Jazz Samba foremost, but Bad! Bossa Nova sold large quantities in black neighbourhoods. A couple of years later, while Ammons was doing time, it was re-issued by Prestige as Jungle Soul and again sold extremely well!

Highlights are Ca’ Purange and Cae, Cae. Ca’ Purange (Jungle Soul), a simple recurring Latin figure, is a perfect canvas for Ammons’ bold strokes. His tone fills the sky, sparse, long lines and staccato honks stoke up the fire, which threatens to overrun the swamps, where Gene Ammons’ greasy, hypnotic soul groove is pulling you in anyway. A dense rhythm section including Kenny Burrell as acoustic rhythm guitarist lays down a colorful groove for Ammons, with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, also on acoustic guitar, occasionally chiming in with spicy licks. Hank Jones is an extra treat. The masterful pianist delivers deliciously swinging, delicate miniatures, pulling out all the happy-go-lucky stops with locked-hands technique and notes tumbling over each other like kittens reaching for the milk at the nipples of pussy mom in Cae Cae particularly. Hank Jones, early bebopper, modern jazz giant probably best known for his role on Cannonball Adderley’s Something Else, knows how to play popular music, having operated in the shadowlands of jazz and r&b in the early fifties, notably on organ. Gene “Jug” Ammons is a true master of blending sophistication with entertainment which Bad! Bossa Nova makes abundantly clear.

Gene Ammons Angel Eyes

Gene Ammons Angel Eyes (Prestige 1965)

Tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons was incarcerated on drugs charges from 1958-1960 and 1962-1969. As record companies often did when one of their leading artists was absent, Prestige released a series of albums throughout the sixties to keep the musician in the picture. Angel Eyes, culled from two earlier sessions, is such an album. Arguably because of the circumstances, it lacks a consistent feel and at times sounds run-of-the-mill.

Gene Ammons Angel Eyes

Personnel

Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), Frank Wess (tenor saxophone, flute A1, A2, B1, B2), Mal Waldron (piano A3, B3), Johnny “Hammond” Smith (organ A1, A2, B1, B2), Wendell Marshall (bass, A3, B3), Doug Watkins (bass A1, A2, B1, B2), Ed Thigpen (drums A3, B3), Art Taylor (drums A1, A2, B1, B2)

Recorded

on June 17, 1960 and September 5, 1962

Released

as PR 7369

Track listing

Side A:
Gettin’ Around
Blue Room
You Go To My Head
Side B:
Angel Eyes
Water Jug
It’s The Talk Of The Town


At these particular sessions from 1960 and 1962, a wild bunch of seven musicians earned their day’s pay. Among them is Frank Wess, whose flute arrangements seem out of place and whose considerable talents have been put to better use in Prestige’s catalogue.

Tenor great Gene Ammons is central to proceedings that almost offer a retrospective to the swing era, a feeling sufficiently enhanced by organ player Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith, whose playing might be modern here and there, but whose open registered organ sound dates back to the days when Jimmy Smith was just a highschool kid.

High point on this album is the ballad artistry of Ammons, who lends his own particular flavor to the style of such luminaries as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. That slow, lenghty workout on Angel eyes and smoky stuff on the two non-organ cuts from 1962’s session just might make you forget the leaky faucet of fate, if just for a while.