© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Sonny Clark was an important figure in hard bop piano, but his reputation has perhaps suffered a little from the fact that his creative efforts had a deceptively easy flow. In the sleeve note for the pianist's Cool Struttin album, Art Farmer comments that 'a primary quality in Sonny Clark's playing is that there's no strain in it. Some people sound like they are trying to swing. Sonny just flows naturally along. Also central to his work is that he has a good, powerful feeling for the blues.'
The trumpeter, on the mark as ever, has identified a crucial quality in Clark's playing. Ironically, though, it is one that has led at times to his work being undervalued as a little too easily achieved. There is, for example, at least a slightly patronising note in the following summation of the pianist from The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed: “For all his exuberant self-confidence, he never quite seemed a convincing professional, but rather an inspired amateur, happy when there was a piano in the corner, a bottle open on the top, and some business to be attended to in the back room.”
Richard Cook’s and Brian Morton’s generally favorable reception of Sonny’s music suggests that judgement may not be intended to be as dismissive as it sounds. If Clark was an amateur, it was surely in the strict sense of the word, a lover of the music he played, and a highly inventive and accomplished one.
He was born Conrad Yeatis Clark in the coal-mining hamlet of Herminie, Pennsylvania, on 21 July 1931, and lived in Pittsburgh from the age of twelve, until he moved to the west coast with an elder brother at nineteen. He began playing piano as a child, and was featured on an amateur hour radio programme at the age of six, playing boogie-woogie style piano. His interest in jazz was sparked by hearing radio broadcasts of the Basic and Ellington bands in the mid-1940s, and by recordings of Fats Waller and Art Tatum. The nascent bebop sound captured his attention, however, and bop was his chosen form throughout his career, which ended with his death in 1963 in New York from a heart attack brought on by the combined effects of drug addiction and alcoholism - the latter a cruelly ironic consequence of his efforts to rid himself of the former.
He began to pick up jobs on the west coast from 1951, firstly with Vido Musso and Oscar Pettiford in San Francisco, then in Los Angeles. He made his first recording with Teddy Charles's West Coasters in 1953 (which also yielded the first recording of one of the pianist's own compositions, 'Lavonne'), and joined Buddy DeFranco's quartet that year. He toured Europe with the now rather undervalued clarinetist in 1954, and cut a fine series of dates with him for Verve in 1954-55, which were collected by Mosaic Records as The Complete Verve Recordings of the Buddy DeFranco Quartet/Quintet with Sonny Clark.
While in Oslo with DeFranco in 1954, Clark was recorded in an informal session at a post-gig party which was later issued as The Sonny Clark Memorial Album on Xanadu in 1976. It is a valuable document of the pianist's style, and doubly so, since it not only features two extended trio pieces, with Swedish bass player Simon Brehm and the drummer from the DeFranco band, Bobby White, but also five solo piano pieces.
These are a rarity in the Clark discography, although the Bainbridge Time trio set from 1960 includes a lush, fulsome, almost Tatum-esque solo reading of his tune My Conception, mostly played rubato (or 'out of tempo' - the word literally means 'stolen', in the sense of taking the music out of its regular time scheme). The sound quality on the Xanadu release is poor, but these solo pieces provide a fine starting point for a consideration of his style which, while deriving to a large extent from the example of Bud Powell, is invariably more relaxed and crisply swinging, with none of Powell's nervy, neurotic tension, or his moody darkness.
Clark's short version of All God's Chillun’ Got Rhythm included here is arguably the most Powell-like playing (on one of Bud's own favoured vehicles) he ever committed to tape, and verges on a pastiche of the master, both in the way he shapes his phrases, and in the rhythmic accentuation he brings to them. The remaining solos are more typical of his general approach, as he tosses off extended melodic and harmonic explorations with a beguiling fluidity, and that surely deceptive ease.
Technically, he is well in command of the material, as his dextrous manipulation of the double-time passages in Improvisation No 1 will testify, although his fingering is less certain at times on Denzil Best's fleet bop theme Move, taken at a fearsome, finger busting tempo. His playful transition from Body and Soul to Jeepers Creepers is accomplished with an almost casual harmonic virtuosity, which is mirrored again in Improvisation No 2, where a relaxed opening section gives way to Miles Davis's Sippin' At Bells (a tune he knew from Charlie Parker's 1947 recording, which he recalled was 'one of the first in my jazz record collection'), and then, in a highly unconventional piece of lateral inspiration, slips into an investigation of Over The Rainbow.
The two extended trio pieces, a blues given the title Oslo, and the standard After You've Gone, both offer Clark plenty of space to demonstrate not only his facility, but the copious flow of his musical thought at the keyboard. He never gets boxed into a corner in which he has to rely on regurgitating cliches or simply repeating himself, but maintains the steady flow of invention at a pace and fecundity which seems literally inexhaustible. The listener is left with the sensation, particularly on After You've Gone, that the solo could simply have gone on indefinitely, and kept moving to new places. Throughout the session, it is apparent even through the low-fi sound haze that the twenty-two year old pianist already had his style pretty much in place.
He remained with DeFranco's band until 1956, then joined bassist Howard
Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars in Hermosa Beach, as well as recording with the likes of saxophonist Sonny Criss, trombonist Frank Rosolino, vibraphonist Cal Tjader, drummer Lawrence Marable, saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, and a memorable session with baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff on 4 March, 1956, which became the classic Blue Serge (Capitol), arguably the most significant memento of his time on the west coast. In reflecting on that time, though, Clark articulated the standard view of the coast-to-coast divide.
'The climate is crazy,' he told Leonard Feather in the liner notes for Sonny Clark Trio. 'I'm going to be truthful, though: I did have a sort of hard time trying to be comfortable in my playing. The fellows out on the west coast have a different sort of feeling, a different approach to jazz. They swing in their own way. But Stan Levey, Frank Rosolino and Conte Candoli were a very big help; of course they all worked back in the east for a long time during the early part of their careers, and I think they have more of the feeling of the eastern vein than you usually find in the musicians out west. The eastern musicians play with so much fire and passion/
Clark's pursuit of that fire took him east in 1957, as an accompanist to singer Dinah Washington, a job he took 'more or less for the ride' back to New York. He quickly settled into the New York bop scene, where he became a regular in the studios (mainly but not exclusively at the behest of Blue Note), both as a leader, and as sideman with a slew of the city's leading bop artists, including Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, John Jenkins, Curtis Fuller, Clifford Jordan, Bennie Green, J. R. Monterose, Jackie McLean, Grant Green and Dexter Gordon, among others. Clark invariably plays with the kind of vibrant fluency that was his trademark, and his ability both to fit into the musical situation at hand, and make a distinctly individual contribution to it, indicates just why Alfred Lion turned to him so often in the studio.
He made his debut as leader for the label with the slightly uneven Dial S For Sonny, recorded on 21 July, 1957, with a sextet which featured trumpeter Art Farmer, trombonist Curtis Fuller and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley as the horn line-up, with Wilbur Ware on bass and Louis Hayes behind the drums. The album contained four of Clark's own compositions and two standards (one of which, Love Walked In, was a trio feature for the pianist).
A second and rather stronger sextet date on 9 October became Sonny's Crib, which retained only Fuller from the sidemen on the earlier date, with John Coltrane on tenor, Donald Byrd on trumpet, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Only two of the five sides were original to the pianist this time, the title track and News For Lulu. Both albums were solid hard bop dates, and in News For Lulu in particular (named for a dog he had owned in California), the pianist served notice that he had original and arresting things to say as a composer.
In between these sessions he cut a revealing trio date on 13 September, 1957, issued as Sonny Clark Trio, with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Listening to his solo on the opening track, Dizzy Gillespie's Be-Bop, is to hear the already mature style of the Oslo date cranked up a few more notches on the intensity scale. This is the environment he sought in abandoning the more highly arranged chamber jazz approach of the west coast for the developing hard bop ferment of New York, and he revelled in the opportunity.
It provided a half-dozen clear demonstrations of his style (with a couple of alternate takes surfacing on the CD issue in 1987), split evenly between the bop themes Be-Bop, Two-Bass Hit, and Tadd's Delight, and the standards I Didn't Know What Time It Was, 'Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise, and I’ll Remember April. The essentials of that style lie in his massive rhythmic exuberance, tied to sparely applied left hand chordal punctuations and a fluid, single line melodic conception in the right hand (with an occasional passing recourse to chording for extra emphasis), which suggests the linear influence of horn playing as much as any of his alleged piano mentors. His touch is always sure, and he likes to throw in an unexpected accentuation or shift of dynamic here and there.
If his own vocabulary did not reveal any notable departures from the bop idiom, he did possess a singular voice within it, and also drew as required from the wider stock-pile of jazz styles. Apart from Bud Powell, he has been linked stylistically with a diverse pool of influences, including Art Tatum, Count Basie, Hampton Hawes, Lennie Tristano and Horace Silver, usually with the acknowledgement that he arrived independently at his own development of their particular traits which have been detected in his playing.
The rigorous, academically-inclined Tristano seems at first glance to be an unlikely inclusion in any such list of influences. His usual linkage is with the cool school of such acolytes as Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, rather than with a dedicated bopper like Clark. In the sleeve notes for Cool Struttin’ however, the pianist professes admiration for Tristano's 'technical ability and conception', a link which David Rosenthal developed more explicitly in an all too brief consideration of Clark's work in Hard Bop (Rosenthal's final remark is in marked contrast with the 'inspired amateur' jibe in the Penguin Guide).
“The link with Tristano (though also with Powell) is most evident in Sonny Clark's snaking melodic lines. These lines, which can extend for several bars at a time, building through surprisingly accentuated melodic turns, are really the essence of Clark's style and his dominant musical mode. The intensity generated by this onrush of ideas, pouring forth in rapid succession as the long phrases build toward delayed climaxes or, at times, multiple internal ones, lends an air of concentrated taking-care-of-business to the side.”
That melodic invention is evident throughout the Sonny Clark Trio album, and at any tempo, from the relaxed groove of Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise, where he spins long, sinuous phrases around Jones's swinging brush strokes, varied by a vibrant double-time chorus, to the hyperactive scamper through Be-Bop, where his cascading melodic lines dance over an ebullient, funky rhythmic momentum. The vast majority of Clark's recordings, both as leader and sideman, were in a band setting with horns, which made his trio sets all the more intriguing as an unadorned example of his pianistic craft.
They included another fascinating but rather primitively recorded live album, Oakland, 1955, issued on the Uptown label in 1995; the dozen selections (and two alternate takes) gathered on Standards, recorded by Blue Note in November and December 1958 for release as 45 rpm singles (these were also issued under various titles on CD in Japan); and a session of his own compositions for the Bainbridge Time label on 23 March, 1960, with George Duvivier on bass and Max Roach on drums, which was jointly credited to all three musicians on its original issue, and later appeared under other titles, usually Sonny Clark Trio.
The years 1957-8 were very active ones for the pianist, and although much of his work was on Blue Note dates, he did venture out occasionally under the aegis of other labels. One such occasion took him into the Riverside studio with Sonny Rollins in June, 1957, for the sessions which became The Sound of Sonny. It offers an instructive glimpse of the pianist in a more structured - and even restricted - situation, since Rollins was specifically looking to work with 'more sense of form' on this session.
Clark responds to the shorter solo lengths and tighter structural control with cogent, subtly constructed miniatures of his customary fluent manner, but also exhibits a sure sense of compositional form in his comping behind the saxophonist, deftly shaping and reshaping the contours of the standard progressions under the rolling horn phrases. It is an aspect of his work easy to overlook amid the general admiration of his flowing melodic invention, and one which will be heard again in greater detail in his later with-horns dates for Blue Note.
A couple of months later, on 11 August, 1957, he was back in Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio for a date with another saxophonist, this time the more obscure Chicago altoist John Jenkins, a disciple of Charlie Parker. Oddly, Ira Gitler's sleeve note describes the session as Clark's 'first recording for several years', an error which has been allowed to stand in the most recent reissue of the album as John Jenkins and Kenny Burrell in the Blue Note Connoisseur series in 1996.
It is one of a number of sessions undertaken as a sideman for the likes of Curtis Fuller, Clifford Jordan and Johnny Griffin in this period, and is an example of his ability to slot into a studio session and turn in a professional accompanying job which is tasteful and resourceful, but without revealing too much of his own personality in the process. His solos are deft but a little routine, in a setting which does not seem to have unduly inspired him. That, though, can be the studio pianist's lot, and the results are certainly listenable enough.
The situation was very different in the session of 5 January, 1958, a quintet date under his own leadership which produced what many listeners regard as his finest album, Cool Struttin' (the chic sleeve design by Reid Miles is a Blue Note classic). The quintet, in which he is reunited with Chambers and Jones behind a front-line featuring Art Farmer on trumpet and Jackie McLean on alto, is a highly compatible one. The pianist's own playing has come together in a way he tries to define in discussing his understanding of 'soul' in jazz, quoted by Nat Hentoff in the album's sleeve note: ‘I take it to mean your growing up to the capacities of the instrument. Your soul is your conception and you begin to have it in your playing when the way you strike a note, the sound you get and your phrasing come out of yourself and no one else. That's what jazz is, after all, self-expression.'
The original album comprised four lengthy tracks, two of which were Clark's own. Cool Struttin’ is a blues with a 24-bar structure made up of two 12-bar segments, and Blue Minor is a minor-key tune with a laid-back 'blue' mood rather than a blues form, with a hint of a Latin tinge in the melody line. Deep Night is a pop tune which he liked for its chord changes, and which is given a distinctive treatment at the kind of rolling mid-tempo which suited him so well, while the final cut returns to what we have already seen as being an old favorite of the pianist's, Sippin' At Bells, another 12-bar blues structure with what he characterises as ‘sort of advanced changes'.
The title track is quintessential Clark. The relaxed tempo sets a comfortable mood for the amiable ensemble statement of the theme, spread over its double 12-bar undercarriage. Clark then launches on a characteristic rippling, expansive solo over three 12-bar choruses, before springing a surprise when Farmer takes over in the middle of the opening measure of the fourth (12-bar) chorus - in other words, the trumpeter comes in halfway through the second chorus of the piano solo in the 24-bar scheme of the piece. Farmer's beautifully focused, rounded sonority is an ideal counterweight to McLean's more acerbic, biting alto, and both have their say before Clark takes up the baton again with another crisp, elegant solo, this time cycling through a full two choruses of the 24-bar structure. Chambers's short bass solo then leads into the final ensemble statement.
Even at this easy tempo, though, Clark injects a purposeful sense of forward motion into his playing, and one which is highly characteristic of his style. He likes to push up onto the beat rather than to hang back behind it, and to use a sharp, percussive rhythmic touch on the keys, giving his playing a pungent momentum. That urgency is more readily apparent in the faster tempos off Blue Minor or Sippin' At Bells, but is a recurring feature of his style at virtually any tempo, including ballad.
It is easy to hear why Sippin' At Bells remained a favorite with the pianist. The 'advanced changes' of the chord progression provide a rich harmonic grounding for all the soloists to feed off, while the directly expressive blues line is perfect fodder for him. He spins a beguiling single line sequence against a skeletal chordal punctuation in the left hand over Jones's punchy, driving drumming. Once again, though, he sounds even more at home in the brisk but more deliberately paced Deep Night, where his playing unfolds with the easy, graceful swing of a man who is entirely happy at his work, while his collaborators provide sophisticated support.
Two more tunes cut at the session were subsequently added to the CD version. His own Royal Flush is a relaxed workout in a mid-to-uptempo groove, but is not quite as focused rhythmically as the selections chosen for the original issue, while Lover romps through the Rodgers and Hart standard at a fast lick. A Japanese album released under the title Cool Struttin' Volume 2, and later as Sonny Clark Quintets, also combined those two unissued items with three cuts, Minor Meeting, 'Eastern Incident' and Little Sonny, from a date on 8 December, 1957, featuring saxophonist Clifford Jordan, guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Pete La Roca.
He recorded another quintet date for Blue Note in 1959 (one of the very few occasions on which he recorded with Art Blakey), but the tapes were not released until 1980, and only in Japan. Both these sessions were combined on the Blue Note Connoisseur release My Conception in 2000.
Clark created a significant album in Cool Struttin’ but it would be another three years before he released another as a leader for Blue Note, with only the trio set for Bainbridge to bridge the gap. As it turned out, that album, Leapin and Lopin’ recorded in November, 1961, would prove to be his last. The line-up featured Tommy Turrentine (trumpet), Charlie Rouse (tenor), Butch Warren (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), as well as a guest spot for tenorman Ike Quebec on Deep In A Dream. Clark returned the compliment on the saxman's Blue Note albums Blue and Sentimental (1961) and Easy Living (1962).
The album includes three compositions by Clark, but one in particular, Voodoo, focuses attention on him as a writer, rather than simply a player. In an interesting parallel with Herbie Nichols, Clark's music attracted the interest of a later generation of New York avant-gardists, led by pianist Wayne Horowitz, who had been playing some of his tunes in his live sets. At the suggestion of Giovanni Bonandrini, the head of the Italian-based Soul Note/Black Saint record label which has done so much to propagate contemporary American jazz since the early 1970s, and using the name The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, he released Voodoo (1986), an album of seven of Clark's tunes with John Zorn (alto sax), Ray Drummond (bass), and Bobby Previte (drums). Zorn later returned to Clark's work in another context, as part of the News For Lulu (hat ART, 1988) album (the title, of course, is a composition from Sonny's Crib), with guitarist Bill Frisell and trombonist George Lewis.
In the sleeve note for Voodoo, Horowitz observes with some justice that ‘bop tunes get the shaft; they're not considered as compositions, even if they're by Horace Silver or Elmo Hope.' While it must be acknowledged that many bop tunes consist of not much more than a rudimentary blowing theme thrown over a set of (often pre-existing) chord changes, others deserve to be recognised for their genuine compositional qualities. The strange, compelling theme of Voodoo certainly falls into that category.
It opens with Warren's eerie walking bass figure, quickly overlaid with Clark's chordal splashes, an introduction which establishes the slightly menacing mood of the music. The horns take up the figure on the opening measure of the theme proper (the piece is in standard 32-bar, AABA form), building the tension over the pianist's continuing bold comping into the first solo, taken by Rouse. Clark follows Turrentine, developing his ideas over two choruses of percussive, unusually choppy improvisation that stands slightly to the side of his usual flowing approach, but is ideally tailored to the atmosphere of the tune.
The two horn players provide a marked contrast with the combination employed on Cool Struttin’ and help to ensure that each session has its own distinct feel, although the choice of material is also a significant factor in that regard. Turrentine was a less sophisticated and individual player than Farmer, while Rouse, who was still in the early stages of what would be a long association with Thelonious Monk, has a very different stylistic approach to that of McLean, as well as playing a different horn. The rhythm section, too, has a lighter (but never lightweight) feel than the powerhouse Chambers-Jones combination, notably in Higgins's freer drum style.
The music is not dominated by the blues to anything like the extent of Cool Struttin’ and the whole album lives up to the implied distinction in the two album titles, with its livelier, more uptempo feel and the harder blowing approach evident on tunes like Clark's Somethin' Special and Melody In C, or Warren's Eric Walks. The obvious exception is the only ballad, Deep In A Dream, where the pianist's refined, gorgeously understated piano is answered in kind by Ike Quebec's sultry, romantic tenor saxophone. The remaining selection on the original LP, Turrentine's Midnight Mambo, is a jolly romp in which Clark leavens his ebullient solo with elegantly interpolated mambo rhythms, while the CD release added an alternate take of Melody in C and the previously unissued Zellmar's Delight.
If these two albums were all we had of his playing, they would be sufficient in themselves to establish Clark as an important contributor to the evolution of bop piano. Leapin' and Lopin' followed a period of relative eclipse after the activity of the 1957-8 period, but he was to enjoy another productive spell in the studios as a sideman in 1961-2. In addition to the two Ike Quebec records mentioned above, he made memorable contributions to Blue Note albums like Jackie McLean's A Fickle Sonance and Tippin The Scales (a quartet date which remained unissued until the early 1980s), Grant Green's Born To Be Blue, Stanley Turrentine's Jubilee Shout, and three albums with Dexter Gordon, two of which, Go! and A Swingin' Affair, were culled from the same sessions.
The pianist finds his place within all of these diverse settings (and more besides) with the same stylish aplomb which characterized his work at all points in his sadly curtailed career, always responding intelligently to the music going on around him, but always remaining his own man in the course of fulfilling its demands. His sorry end is an all too familiar tale. He died from a drug overdose on 13 January, 1963, and his passing was commemorated by another great pianist, Bill Evans, who faced his own struggles with the same demons. There is a bittersweet irony in the fact that his memorial dedication to Clark, NYC's No Lark, an anagram of the pianist's name, is one of the bleakest, most emotionally despairing pieces of music Evans ever wrote. Whatever his personal circumstances, Clark's own music rarely betrayed any such hint of the darkness which hovered over his life.” [Sources Blue Note LP insert notes and Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’].”