Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sonny Clark’s “Conception”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Sonny Clark approached music with joyous abandon. … Note perfect, rhythmically bouncy and always ready with a quirky idea, he was the ideal group-player ….

Appearing as it did in the shadow of Cool Struttin’ [… an immaculately tasteful Jazz album and one of the key documents of hard bop] the March 1959 My Conception sessions never gained the reputation of its wonderful predecessor. This is unfortunate, for here again Clark showcases a wonderful set of originals The result is an immaculately tasteful and sophisticated modern Jazz record.. .”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“And don’t forget, Sonny Clark.”

This gentle reminder was offered by a friend during a group conversation on the subject of Jazz musicians who were often overlooked in terms of the body of work they composed.

Also referenced during the course of the chat were pianists Elmo Hope, Russ Freeman and Cedar Walton, trumpeters Clifford Brown and Donald Byrd, trombonists Curtis Fuller and J.J. Johnson, alto saxophonists Art Pepper and Gigi Gryce and tenor saxophonists Hank Mobley and John Coltrane.

Remember, it’s all in a point-of-view with regard to how opinions are formed.

Some in the group seriously objected to Gigi’s Gryce’s inclusion in the obscure composer listing arguing that Gigi was better known as a composer than a player while others strongly agreed that the compositional body of work that Hank Mobley, Clifford Brown and even John Coltrane had put together during their careers was overshadowed by the acclaim they received as instrumentalists.

But when pianist Sonny Clark’s name was mentioned, it was met by a universal acknowledgement that his writing was deserving of much wider recognition and respect.

One person likened Sonny’s obscurity as a composer to that of fellow pianist Elmo Hope while also remarking that “… the consistency and the of quality of his writing puts him right up there with Horace Silver” [the legendary small group leader and pianist turned out such iconic Jazz tunes as The Preacher, Doodlin’ and Senor Blues].

Following this get-together, I went searching through my collection of Sonny Clark recordings and pleasantly rediscovered a number of his terrific tunes, all of which was made even more amazing when one considers that he was a victim of the heroin scourge that gripped the Jazz world from around 1945-1965 and died in 1963 at the age of 32.

Sonny’s all-too-brief career is wonderfully encapsulated and memorialized in Michael Cuscuna’s insert notes to Sonny’s Blue Note recording – My Conception[7243 5 22674 2 2]. We wrote to Michael and he graciously granted his permission to reproduce these notes on JazzProfiles.  

© -Michael Cuscuna: used with the author’s permission, copyright protected, all rights reserved.

“SONNY CLARK is not a name that appears with any frequency in documents of jazz history. He has never been proclaimed a major original pianist. Yet Clark's major influence seems to have been his own creativity. His style was full and rich, yet carried a bright, irresistible swing that swept away the musician and listener alike. He was, to these ears, the realization of the perfect post-bop pianist. By all accounts, the musicians that worked with him regarded him as a source of joy and inspiration. And any listener who stops and really hears his work will be hooked forever.

After spending the first 20 years of his life in and around Pittsburgh mastering the piano and playing vibes and bass as well, Clark ventured out to the West Coast in 1951 with his older brother. He worked the Los Angeles area with Wardell Gray, Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon, Shelly Manne and a score of others. In 1953, Oscar Pettiford came to Los Angeles, formed a band that included Clark and went up to San Francisco. There Sonny met Buddy DeFranco who was leading a quartet with Art Blakey and Kenny Drew. Blakey and Drew left, and Sonny was asked to join. During the next two and a half years, Clark appeared on three DeFranco recordings and toured Europe, the American Midwest and Hawaii with the clarinetist.

In January of 1956, Clark settled into a more stationary life, joining Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars. During that year, he recorded in a quartet setting under the leadership of Serge Chaloff with Philly Joe Jones on drums (EMI Capitol) and with drummer Lawrence Marable's quartet which featured tenor saxophonist James Clay (Jazz West). On that album Sonny was not only featured as a player, but also contributed three compositions.

In February 1957, he joined Dinah Washington in order to work his way back East. Referring to West Coast music, he said, "I did have sort of a hard time trying to be comfortable in my playing, the fellows on the West Coast have a different sort of feeling, a different approach to jazz. They swing in their own way....The Eastern musicians play with so much fire.” On another occasion, he was quoted as saying, "Jazz is jazz wherever it's played. The whole thing has to do with the individual and his conception toward jazz. The thing is that my playing is different from the way most of the fellows out West play. I'd rather work in the East because what is played here is closer to the traditional meaning of jazz. They're getting away from the tradition out West — combining jazz with classical music and playing chamber music-type jazz. What they play is really very good, but it's just not the way I want to play. That's why I came back East." And come back he did in April 1957 at the end of the Dinah Washington tour.

He worked at Birdland under the leadership of J.R. Monterose and Stan Getz and gigged briefly with Anita O'Day and Charles Mingus. In early June, he recorded with Sonny Rollins (Riverside). On June 23, he recorded as a sideman for Blue Note on a Hank Mobley session. A month later, he made his first album as a leader for Blue Note. Thus began a long and fruitful association wherein Clark appeared regularly on Blue Note dates with a variety of artists.

In fact, between June 1957 and March 1959, he was in the studio eight times as a leader and another 15 times as a sideman with Mobley, John Jenkins, Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan, Louis Smith, Tina Brooks, Bennie Green and Jackie McLean.

Then for some strange reason, Sonny was totally absent from Blue Note for the next two and a half years. In 1960 he recorded a trio album and appeared on albums by Bennie Green and Stanley Turrentine, all for Time Records and all very much Blue Note in style and personnel. That two and a half years of relative inactivity is usually credited to his bouts with drug addiction.

In October 1961, he reentered the Blue Note fold on a Jackie McLean date and during the next 12 months appeared on 13 sessions under the leadership of McLean, Don Wilkerson, Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine and Grant Green as well as making his last album as a leader, Leapin' And Lopin', in November 1961. After his final session in October 1962 (Stanley Turrentine's Jubilee Shout), Clark suffered a heart attack. He was released from the hospital in January 1963. He played two nights at a New York club called Junior's and, in the early morning hours, died of an overdose. To preserve the club's image and liquor license, his body was moved to a private apartment before the police were called in. Thus, a short ten years after his first record dates with Teddy Charles and Buddy DeFranco, his career and his life came to an end with the most tragic cliché in the jazz life.

It is through recorded documents such as this one that Sonny Clark continues to live and enrich our lives. This album, made on March 29, 1959, closed the first of Clark's two tenures at Blue Note.

What is most unique and most delightful is the presence of Art Blakey on drums. It is surprising that these two Blue Note regulars only recorded together three times — on this date and on still unissued Tina Brooks and Grant Green sessions. [Note: These sessions have since been released by Blue Note as Tina Brooks Minor Move and Grant Green Nigeria.] The great Blakey is typically superb here in his drive, pacing and taste. Listen to how he literally conducts the flow and dynamics of the music from the drum stool. His shadings and his power pace and inspire each soloist perfectly. And when given the opportunity to trade fours with the horns, as on "Junka" and "Some Clark Bars” he positively erupts.

With the exception of Sonny's first Blue Note album and a trio session of standards issued on 45 singles, bassist Paul Chambers was present on every date that the pianist led at Blue Note. And they were, of course, brought together on many sessions by other Blue Note artists. Clark once said, ‘I met Paul in Detroit in 1954. He was very young and nobody outside the city knew much about him, but I dug him right then. He's very consistent and has superior conception, choice of notes and ability to construct lines. He plays with intelligence and he always keeps it interesting.’ Aside from his typically superb support, Chambers gets off an effective and to-the-point arco solo on "Junka.”

Donald Byrd appeared on Clark's second album Sonny's Crib in October 1957. Two months later, both men contributed admirably to Lou Donaldson's Lou Takes Off. They were reunited in January 1959 on a Jackie McLean date that produced half of the Jackie's Bag album. That reunion undoubtedly led to Byrd’s presence on this session.

Encounters between the pianist and Hank Mobley were all too rare. Clark made his Blue Note debut, as mentioned earlier, on one of Mobley’s sextet albums (BLP 1568) on June 23, 1957. Mobley then participated in Sonny's first album Dial S For Sonny a month later. Clark appeared a month later on a still unissued Mobley album. They did not record together again until this album. Clark once said, ‘I never heard Hank Mobley in person until I came to New York but I listened to his records with the Jazz Messengers and dug him very much. [He] plays in my style and I was very happy working with [him] and very satisfied with the results.’

That is certainly an understatement. If "post-bop" ever spawned two underappreciated figures who were suited to each other's playing, it was Clark and Mobley. Both have a bright, propelling and very individual sense of swing. And both can burn hard with surprising lightness and grace. In the general format of hard bop that can mask the less inventive player, Clark and Mobley always gave their all with subtle, self-assured brilliance. Check out Mobley's astonishing solos on "Junka" and "Royal Flush" and his beautiful reading of the theme of "My Conception." They made quite a team!

"Some Clark Bars" is the only tune on this album that pops up nowhere else in Sonny Clark's discography. "Minor Meeting," the oldest composition, first appears on the Lawrence Marable-James Clay album of 1956, then on a December 1957 Blue Note session (that was issued in Japan on the album Quintets in 1977) and finally on the pianist's trio date for Time Records. "Royal Flush," from the January 1958 session that produced the Cool Struttin' album, was also issued in 1977 on the Quintets album. The version heard here eliminates the introduction used on the earlier date. "Junka," "Blues Blue" and "My Conception" were all given trio treatments on the aforementioned Time album from 1960.

Despite an occasional rough edge in the arrangements or a minor trumpet fluff, this newly unearthed album is a welcome and valuable edition to the legacy of Sonny Clark. Perhaps through such releases the magnitude of Sonny Clark's brilliance will be recognized by the world audience where it has only been truly appreciated by the musicians themselves and the Japanese jazz audience. Sonny Clark's music will long endure.


With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles put together the following video tribute to Sonny which features the second version of his Royal Flush from the My Conception album. [Click the “X” to drop the ads from the video should they appear.]

Joining Sonny are Donald Byrd on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass and the irrepressible Art Blakey on drums.