Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson ‘Doin’ The Gator Tail: Tenor Sax Blasting 1949-1959′ CD (Jasmine) 4/5

Back track to the 1980s and Willis Jackson was the darling of the jazz dance scene with a bevvy of strong melodic grooves on the Prestige and Muse labels respectively that caught the imagination and vibrancy of that emerging scene. However, that was only part of the story and for those in need of the bigger picture, this excellent and extremely generous compilation provides the earlier side of the tenor saxophonist’s career when he recorded for labels such as Apollo and Fire, largely on the 45 format that was ideal for jukebox play. Willis Jackson’s career started as an R & B tenorist in the 1940s and this CD captures an entire decade of his music between 1949 and 1959 when he was developing as a musician. The first three numbers find him as main soloist with the Cootie Williams Orchestra in a straight ahead bop format, including the two part 45 ‘Gator Tail’, and the collective vocals plus tenor on ‘Blow Jackson Blow’. It was in fact that combination of tenor saxophone and vocals that resurfaced with the 1950 offerings alongside vocalist Eddie Mack and the Bobby Smith Orchestra and collectively they impress on such numbers as, ‘Hoot and Holler Saturday Night’, with vocal monologue intro and the laid back blues ballad, ‘Cool Mama’. Jackson’s own individual style came to the fore later that year with, ‘Call of the Gators’, but in truth his range was surprisingly wide and that is wonderfully illustrated on the Ellingtonesque hues of ‘Harlem Nocturne’ from 1951 on Atlantic, which on the flip side was paired with the similarly evocative ballad, ‘Street Scene’. By the late 1950s, however, Jackson was by now pioneering what would come to be termed soul-jazz, with a moody, percussive piece in, ‘Later Gator’ from 1957, notable for the use of Hammond organ and repetitive riff. That latter trait would become a signature of his R&B influenced brand of jazz. This evolution in style is typified by ‘Makin’ It’ from 1959 with Bill Jennings in attendance. Willis Jackson’s influences included Illinois Jacquet, whom he most resembles, and Gene Ammons. It is to be hoped that this earlier overview of his career will, in turn, lead to a retrospective of the later career which a younger generation that did not take in, ‘Nuther’n Like Thuther’n’, first time round in the mid-1980s can experience once again. One of the best jazz meets R&B single artist compilations that Jasmine have re-issued to date and a sure winner for listeners and dancers alike.

Tim Stenhouse