James Clay ‘The Kid from Dallas: Tenorman’ (Fresh Sound) 3/5

james-clayTexan tenor saxophonist James Clay does not occupy the same space in the mind of jazz fans as the late Ornette Coleman, or even fellow tenorist Booker Ervin, but in his own quiet manner contributed to the evolution of jazz. His name has recently surfaced again thanks to the inclusion of a track on a Jazzman compilation and eagle-eyed jazz fans will remember the duet album he recorded with David ‘Fathead’ Newman that was re-issued by OJC on vinyl some twenty or so years ago. Yet Clay remains virtually unheard of. All the more reason to commend Fresh Sound for re-issuing this CD that sheds much-needed light on the tenorist’s Pacific Jazz sides and comprises four separate sessions that date between 1956 and 1957. He is very ably accompanied by pianists of the calibre of Sonny Clark, Bobby Timmons and Lorraine Geller while Jimmy Bond and Red Mitchell share bass duties with a young Billy Higgins turning up on one date. The feel is in general relaxed with swinging bop akin to that of another Texan tenorist, Illinois Jacquet, and Clay excels on the ballad repertoire. On ‘Easy Living’ there is wonderful interplay between the leader and pianist Clark and they continue the rapport on a more uptempo rendition of ‘The devil and the deep blue sea’. James Clay was only in his early twenties at the time of these recordings, yet he had already begun to carve out his own voice and that was a more gentle version of the Sonny Rollins hard bop tradition. This is amply illustrated on the uptempo ‘Minor Meeting’ that is an album highlight alongside the staccato-patterned ‘Airtight’. Clay is in a more reflective vein on ‘In a sentimental mood’. In fact what these relaxed sessions conceal is that Clay was performing with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and with the latter formed a short-lived group called the Jazz Messiahs. One would never have known this for the sessions contained within are relatively straight ahead in format and as such fit comfortably into the classic West coast sound of the era. Terrific black and white photos in the excellent booklet convey the West Coast jazz scene like nothing else.

Tim Stenhouse