Sonny Stitt ‘Lone Wolf: The Roost Alternates’ LP (Warner) 4/5

Born in Boston in 1924, Sonny Stitt dedicated his life to the crafting of his artistic approach with the saxophone. Nicknamed the ‘Lone Wolf’ by a certain jazz critic because of his relentless independent touring and his dedication to jazz, the saxophonist recorded more than 100 albums during his illustrious career that spanned over 40 years, from the 1940s starting within such big bands as Billy Eckstine’s right up to his last albums on the Muse record label in the early 1980s alongside fellow musicians bassist George Duvivier and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Sonny Stitt played and recorded with many of the great jazz musicians that ever recorded and it’s this selection from the unreleased alternate takes from the Roost Records catalogue that really highlights the beauty and lyrical warmth of Sonny Stitt’s playing, both on the ballads and uptempo numbers. This first-time vinyl release on Warner Brothers is a superb collection of alternate takes which were recorded for Roost Records between the years of 1952-1957. The label was co-founded by the larger than life character Teddy Reig, who also produced the first Charlie Parker album as well as countless other important albums within the jazz and Latin music world. It was an important label in many ways and on this album it also documents a transition from alto to tenor.

Although some spoke of Sonny sounding too much akin to Charlie Parker in the early fifties, this tag faded as his sound became more pronounced and he moved more towards the tenor saxophone. You could say that the uptempo ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ had a slight resemblance to that of Charlie Parker but definitely not in a mimicking way. On this exceptional collection, it’s the ballads and mid-tempo swinging tracks which really accentuate the mastery of Sonny Stitt’s warm and inventive tone. The impression of an interwoven story seems vivid and revealing on many of the tracks included on this selection. The quartet settings on these alternate takes seem to bring out the best in his playing with memorable moments of lyrical phrasing and an ease and deceptive effortless sound which is inviting, open and expansive.

Michael Cuscuna has been involved with many of the best reissues since his involvement with the Blue Note catalogue and the Mosaic series which he started back in the 1980s. On this release, he has pulled together the best of the alternate takes which highlight and enhance the true spirit of the artist. The photography of Francis Wolff is reminiscent of the great Blue Note cover art that graced many an album, painting a perfect picture of a moody setting and an artist in their prime. The high-end quality vinyl brings a real richness to the sound quality and depth that allows for the appreciation of this beautiful music.

As well as embellishing music by composers including Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II and Dick Rogers this selection of 12 tracks also includes the wonderful Stitt compositions ‘Symphony Hall Swing’, ‘Sonny’s Bunny’, ‘Blues For Yard’, and the energetic ‘Engos, The Bloos’; a composition which allows more room for pianist Hank Jones and bassist Wendell Harrison to stretch out.

To name a favourite would be difficult as each part of the whole album has something special although the phrasing and sound on ‘If I Should Lose You’ is exceptional, and the sheer spark that accompanies the effervescent ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ is a joy to hear.

As Sonny Stitt progressed through to the Sixties after many great collaboration with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Bud Powell in the fifties, it was to be his friendly sparring duels with artist Gene Ammons that really brought another level of playing to his career. The soul-jazz recordings with organists Jack Mcduff and Don Patterson also suited his style and created a perfect backdrop and contrast for his rich colourful sound to reach out with more buoyancy. With later albums such as Black Vibrations, Never Can Say Goodbye, Tornado and Mr Bojangles, Sonny Stitt added a funkier edge that has since been popular amongst many collectors, DJs and radio presenters but essentially it was Sonny’s association with a rich melodic swing and his roots that seemed closer to his heart.

This welcome release exemplifies the finest of Sonny Stitts playing and thanks to the great sound quality and detailed work surrounding this release, it’s a real opportunity to appreciate an artist at the peak of their playing.

Mark Jones