Very Vari!


There are worse things in life than hanging out with Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Eddie Harris and Rusty Bryant. All of them, with Stitt at the helm, played the electric Varitone saxophone and the Gibson Maestro Attachment in the late ‘60s, as a means to spice up their groove and experiment with sound.

Selmer introduced the Varitone extension on July 10, 1966 on a convention in Chicago. The Varitone is a control box for the attachment that fits on the bell of the saxophone, which is connected to a large amplifier. The player is enabled to achieve volume control, tone variations (allegedly 60 different sounds) and echo and tremelo effects. The octave effect – by pushing buttons the saxophonist can add a note an octave lower or silence the top note – is attractive, creating ways to experiment with timbre.

Stitt was fast. Merely two days after the convention, The Lone Wolf recorded his first album on Roulette with the use of the Varitone extension, What’s New!!!. Macabre ballad, lovely pun. Stitt used a killer band including trombonist J.J. Johnson and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet (who himself gave the Varitone a go on two rare occasions on the album) and the rhythm section of guitarist Les Spann, pianist Ellis Larkin, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Walter Perkins, who are present as well on follow-up I Keep Comin’ Back. Parallel-A-Stitt was a small ensemble session featuring organist Don Patterson.

In the Downbeat issue of October 6, 1966, Stitt says, “It’s a revelation. It enables you to probe and find. It projects your own tone – not a distorted tone. Your individual sound doesn’t change. The mind will never get lazy with that help. You’re thinking all the time what to do next. All this gives you is something more to work with. It doesn’t help you to think better. It sounds so pretty. I love it. It’s the most beautiful thing that’s happened to me.”

“Big bands, organs, electric guitars, loud drummers can be quite frustrating to a person who’s trying to think while playing. With this new saxophone, a fellow can hear himself above anybody. He can play in a big ballpark and still be heard.”

Indeed, Stitt’s style remains the same, and while his Varitone records are not essential Stitt, he plays fluently supported by killer line-ups while toying with octaves and different sounds, prominently a hard and hootin’ sound which features a slight distorted edge that, despite his comments, I do hear. Nothing wrong with that. Anyway, unfortunately you won’t find anything of these three records on YouTube except the balladeering of What’s New. While checkin’ tunes after my vinyl listening session, I did come across a live performance of “electrified” Stitt with one of his greatest regular groups of Don Patterson and Billy James, playing The Shadow Of Your Smile at the Left Bank in Baltimore. Nice!

By 1970, likely Stitt’s contract with Selmer had run out. On Turn It On!, Stitt uses the Gibson Maestro Attachment. Hear him blast away on the title track with Virgil Jones, Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad.

Eddie Harris wanted his penny’s worth. The saxophonist played the Chicago Maestro Attachment on Plug It In! and Silver Cycles. Harris added the Echoplex, which could provide multiple tape loops which played back the recorded sound at constant intervals. It was therefore possible to play new melodies over the basic motif. Harris used the attachments to the benefit of his hodgepodge of soul and avant-leaning jazz of that period, like Lovely Is Today, Free At Last and
Coltrane’s View. Anything goes with Eddie, lots of grease and lots of feverish vibes and arguably the most interesting electrified player of this bunch.

Lou Donaldson quickly latched on to the Varitone. He played it on some of his popular jazz funk records with organists Charles Earland and Lonnie Smith and drummer Idris Muhammad. Donaldson used it sparingly, focusing on his tone, all silk and velvet and satin. Listen to Turtle Walk from Hot Dog and Everything I Play Gonna Be Funky from Everything I Play Is Funky.

On his only association with the Varitone attachment, Rusty Bryant pulled out all the stops on Night Train Now!, 1969 jazz funk affair with Jimmy Carter on organ, Boogaloo Joe Jones on guitar, Eddie Mathias on bass and Bernard Purdie on drums. Heavy artillery. Buzzing like a bee, howling like a bear, Bryant hits Cootie Boogaloo and John Patton’s Funky Mama right out of the ballpark.

Why did Stitt or the others did not extend their experiments with the Varitone and CMA in the ‘70s and beyond? Perhaps they eventually preferred the authenticity of acoustic sound over the ‘clumsy’ Varitone. Or maybe they felt constrained by the endorsements of the devices. I coincidentally heard just yesterday from my jazz friend Jean-Michel Reisser-Beethoven, who was friendly with Sonny Stitt, that Stitt hated the Varitone, which contrasts with his enthusiastic Downbeat comments.

Why did fusion artists did not pick up on the electric attachments? Most likely, before anyone cared to try, synthesizers provided all the sounds one could wish for. Or am I missing something?

Possibly. Immersed in the heavy sounds of these hot cats.

Sonny Stitt - 12!

Sonny Stitt 12! (Muse 1972)

Nowadays, to define jazz is a Gargantuan task. It could mean such a hell of a lot. (and therefore, arguably, a lot of the time nothing at all) Nowadays, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis have become figures of mythic proportions. But in 1972, when Sonny Stitt’s 12! was recorded, jazz was at a low ebb after two decades wherein it had been a face with two odd sides. On the one hand, jazz – de facto still an affair of the in-crowd, had experienced a relatively meagre amount of attention in the US and Europe (certainly as compared to other, more traditional art forms) On the other hand, jazz did certainly not suffer from a shortage of clubs and record labels, and therefore a steady supply of work for musicians, however marked by hardship those conditions might’ve been. Speaking of 1972, those ‘relative’ days of wine and roses were over. And Sonny Stitt, who’d been there all the way and one of the great American jazz men who defined the era, still wasn’t a household name. Probably because he didn’t generate copy because of o.d’ing in a back alley or having hanged himself on the nearest shower rod.

Sonny Stitt - 12!


Sonny Stitt (tenor saxophone, alto saxophone), Barry Harris (piano), Sam Jones (bass), Louis Hayes (drums)


on December 12, 1972 in NYC


as MR 5006 in 1972

Track listing

Side A:
I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)
I Never Knew
Our Delight
Side B:
The Night Has A Thousand Eyes
Blues At The Tempo
Every Tub

Instead Sonny Stitt kept on playing, prolifically, relentlessly. In fact, 12! finds Stitt – 48 years old – in true form, fresh and energetic. Stitt may have been out of sight for a while and may have made a mediocre album here and there in the sixties, yet had a great run of recordings in the early seventies, delivering the outstanding works Tune Up, Constellation and 12!. People again had to pay attention.

The opener and title track immediately makes clear where Stitt’s been at. In a twelve-bar blues (hence the title) the experienced rhythm tandem of Louis Hayes and Sam Jones vigorously crank out the chord scheme and Stitt alternates between outrageously fast and cleanly executed bop runs and tasteful and shouting blues statements. He’s on alto saxophone here and is heard quoting See See Rider, a gesture pianist Barry Harris picks up on in his turn, playfully making a reference to the same classic blues song at the start of his well-balanced solo.

I Got It Bad, virtually synonymous to Johnny Hodges, is a fine ballad. The rest of 12! consists of another dose of blues and bebop. A highlight is I Never Knew; it starts with a jumpy vamp and thereafter, up-tempo and in 4/4 time, Stitt wraps up the story he’s been telling ever since battling with Gene Ammons in the forties. Barry Harris solidly flies through the changes. Harris’ declaration of independence has long since been sealed, yet, at the same time, on this tune and album, Harris throws in more than a bit of Bud Powell.

That should be enough to satisfy the customer, but there’s more where that came from. In the ultra-fast Every Tub, a piece that suggests that in bop there was injected more than a dose of jump ‘n’ jive, Stitt is stimulated to the core by the red hot rhythm section and launches into a high-voltage solo that remains interesting because of Stitt’s unlimited imagination. Stitt pulls out all the stops, ending a three minute immaculate bop course on a wailing note. He’s mean. This is the Sonny Stitt young lions were hesitant to stand shoulder to shoulder with on stage, the Sonny Stitt that on those occasions seemed to deliver the delirious, yet despite its madness utterly coherent message: Here comes Sonny!

On 12! Stitt is assisted by an almost equally experienced set of cats. Sam Jones played with about all of them; and one of his solo albums on Riverside being named Down Home gives you an idea of the bassist’s intentions. Jones and drummer Louis Hayes have been one of the most prominent and exciting rhythm sections in Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet from 1959 to 1964. (Jones played on more recordings of the quintet, notably on the classic Something Else) Barry Harris was a sought-after pianist and is well-known for contributing his soulful, robust style to Lee Morgan’s famous hit record The Sidewinder.

Sonny Stitt’s style pretty much stayed the same over the years, he wasn’t the ‘searching’-type. Stitt is what he is, an authority, an institution. In the fifties and sixties many set Stitt aside as a mere copyist and disciple of Charlie Parker, which was ridiculous. Of course, undeniably, more than in others, in Stitt one could easily hear Parker, sometimes as much as one could hear Parker in Parker. That is, on a superficial level. Stitt learned from that bunch of brilliant innovators that created the new music labeled ‘bebop’, which permeated jazz for years to come, and he played his part in it as well – influencing the likes of John Coltrane along the way. What Stitt was doing in the sixties and seventies was keeping the flame of bebop alive and in the process attributing to the sense that it still was alive, not only in Stitt, but also in the minds and works of the younger generation.

This is what Stitt was doing, year after year, mostly in classic quartet or quintet settings but other settings as well, authoritatively, occasionally a bit half-heartedly, but more often than not by blowing everybody’s brains out. In the manner that is immortalized, for instance, in the grooves of 12!.

You may or may not know all this or you may or may not have heard something along these lines before. It wouldn’t be surprising, since a batch of renowned critics such as Dan Morgenstern have been more than eager to praise or defend Stitt. I take it for granted because Sonny Stitt deserves it that the tale of his frequently unrecognised importance to the jazz heritage keeps being told; that the records are being kept straight.

YouTube: The Night Has A Thousand Eyes

Don Patterson - Tune Up!

Don Patterson Tune Up! (Prestige 1964/1969)

Tune Up! is one more example of a record company’s policy to keep an interest in the career of a musician when he or she is absent with no apparent return ticket attached; in this case Don Patterson, whose hard road of drug abuse at the end of the sixties had become strewn thick with heavy rocks and barbed wire.

Don Patterson - Tune Up!


Don Patterson (organ), Booker Ervin (tenor saxophone A1-2), Sonny Stitt (tenor saxophone A2, B1), Houston Personn (tenor saxophone B2), George Coleman (tenor saxophone B2), Virgil Jones (trumpet B2), Grant Green (guitar B1), Billy James (drums A1-2, B1), Frankie Jones (B2)


Recorded on July 10 & August 25, 1964 and June 2 & September 15, 1969 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as PR 7852 in 1969

Track listing

Side A:
Just Friends
Flying Home
Side B:
Tune Up
Blues For Mom

It didn’t affect his playing on the title track, this album’s most interesting cut, a leftover from a September ’69 session that spawned two high-standard releases – Brothers 4 and Donnybrook. It would be hard to follow up Grant Green’s amazing solo on Miles Davis’ fast-paced composition – Green (credited as Blue Grant) showing no loss of remarkable straight jazz skills during his burgeoning funk jazz period – were it not that Don Patterson rises to the occasion, not tempted to flex his muscles in bragadocious manner, but instead stringing one dynamic, coolly delivered bop run to another, like multiple toy beads.

It’s difficult to make head or tail out of an album that presents four tunes from four different sessions, ranging from ‘64 to ’69. This nevertheless belies the good quality of these sessions, what with the standing of Patterson and sidemen such as Stitt, Ervin, Coleman and Jones, who confidently blow their way through standards and blues.

YouTube: Tune Up

Sonny Stitt - Night Crawler

Sonny Stitt Night Crawler (Prestige 1965)

The discography of Sonny Stitt is so vast, it’s bound to include some average affairs. Night Crawler is one of them. It, like much of Stitt’s organ combo work from the sixties, doesn’t possess the brilliance of his bop playing in the fifties or career-defining early seventies work, but sets a good groove. Stitt’s playing, however, isn’t very spirited.

Sonny Stitt - Night Crawler


Sonny Stitt (alto & tenor saxophone), Don Patterson (organ), Billy James (drums)


on September 21, 1965 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as PR 7436

Track listing

Side A:
All God’s Children Got Rhythm
Answering Service
Side B:
Night Crawler
Who Can I Turn To?

For a big part, Night Crawler relies on the classic AABA-song structure. Stitt also returns to the well-worn warhorse All God’s Children Got Rhythm. Although not really on fire, Stitt’s beautiful execution nevertheless is a thing to be treasured.

Stitt’s delivery on alto is ultra-clean and bop’s signature techniques such as double timing and the trading of fast fours are played in a seemingly effortless manner. Night Crawler being the one funky blues, it’s not surprisingly chosen as album title. It’s just one of six tracks on which organist Don Patterson displays a wonderful sense of restraint. Night Crawler is part of a series of albums in which this trio cooperates. (e.g. Low Flame, Soul People and Don Patterson’s Funk You) They also were a working band. It explains their smooth interplay.