Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt – God Bless Jug And Sonny

Gene Ammons and Sonny StittGene Ammons
and Sonny Stitt
God Bless Jug And Sonny

(Prestige – 1973/2001)
by John Barrett

Separately, their styles were quite different. One man honked hard on tenor, in the style of Coleman Hawkins; the other slithered on the alto, the very image of Charlie Parker. Together they were competitive and unstoppable – they would battle all night, with the heat always rising. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt made their first records together in 1950, with many reunions thereafter – this one, a live show in Baltimore, was one of their final efforts.

After a unison romp on “Blue ‘n’ Boogie”, Gene is first to solo; his tone is sloppy, and it takes him a while to get going. Some of his phrases remind me of Wadrell Gray; in time he quotes “Kerry Dance”, and Sonny’s tune “Later”. Billy Higgins keeps it hot with fast cymbals, and Cedar Walton’s chords are buoyant. Sonny’s turn is crisp, weaving his notes with confidence … and STEAM! Teasing near the end, the horns spar through the exchanges, quoting early and often. The long fadeout is special – they both walk in the same footsteps, and they never DO get back to the theme. Yes, the night’s off to a fine start.

“Stringin’ the Jug”, written in 1950, combines “I Got Rhythm” chords and a theme similar to “New Blues Up and Down”. Gene’s tone is a LOT better; he sounds like Lester Young in places as he quotes “High Society”. The crowd shouts encouragement over long, intense lines – Stitt is cooler, and he works HARD. (Perhaps to acknowledge this, he quotes “Five O’Clock Whistle”!) Clustered together, his notes have a life of their own, and Higgins fills the spaces in between. Ammons then steps forward for “God Bless the Child”: it’s smooth and muscular, the way he always did ballads. With his best tone of the session, Gene paints in broad strokes, with Walton adding lush chords beneath. Then it’s Sonny’s turn: on alto he courses through “Autumn in New York”, by slow waves and frantic curlicues. Sam Jones is a mighty presence here, thumping strong as the drums whisper. And Sonny’s tone is simply PERFECT: the crowd shouts its delight and the horn gets stronger, right up to the exquisite send-off. The band congratulates Stitt at the end … and so do I.

Walton wrote “Ugetsu” while in the Jazz Messengers; it serves as his feature while the horns take a break. Jones seems a little intrusive; his notes are loud and Cedar is tentative … at least at first. Agile on his solo, Walton’s elegance approaches that of Tyner, with Sam droning behind him. Good as it is, I wish we could hear Stitt on this … or Jug in his prime. Both horns return on “Bye Bye Blackbird”, a long, appropriate send-off. This has Ammons’ best moment: he slurs and he honks, and the crowd devours it. Walton is strangely quiet; Jones’ busy walk is fine by itself. Gene has some good ideas without really completing them; Stitt starts quietly, bopping the low notes and stretching them out. With Sam behind him, Stitt is rhythmic – when the full band enters, Sonny floats, slowly and lyrically. The riffs build, the speed increases … Jug has the upper hand on the exchanges; as he whispers, Sonny claps his encouragement. They toss each other some quotes, take it down soft, and march out together – two giants, fighting ’til the end. Their playing (especially Gene’s) may have seen better days, but their EMOTION is unsurpassed.