Sonny Stitt is the type of musician people probably have in mind when they say they donít like jazz because itís over their heads or insufficiently melodic or something. The criticism even jazz aficionados leveled at Stitt (who died in 1982) was that his technical mastery lured him into glibness. If such criticism ever bothered the saxophonist, he might have consoled himself by recalling Sam Spadeís retort to Joel Cairo, who chided him for always having a smooth explanation ready: "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?"
Stitt was a musician of amazing fluidity, and his recorded output is vast. Mosaicís Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions is nine CDsí worth of material Stitt recorded for Roost Records from 1952 to 1965, and it captures him at his best.
Ever faithful to bop and to the spirit of Charlie Parker, Stitt was little affected by trends and innovations. His work was a monument to bopís relentless quest for beauty. As everyone has noticed, he can sound a lot like Parker. But his playing is rhythmically smoother than Parkerís and has more of a show-biz quality. (On the tenth bar of a blues, he likes to play a phrase that wraps up the chorus in a package and hands it to the listener.) Heís equally brilliant on alto and on tenor (he also played a mean baritone, though not for Roost). For ballads, he would most often choose alto ó the opposite of what people would expect. On "Body and Soul," well known as the song for tenor-saxophonists, Stitt plays alto.
He knows every way in and out of a chord. Heíll approximate the written melody rather than nail it, giving the final notes of phrases a fluttering tail ("Iíll Be Seeing You"), sardonically lagging behind the beat, waiting to pounce and dig in ("I Know That You Know"). The emotion his music most often expresses is enjoyment of his own mastery of all tempos and all chord progressions. He spins dazzling solos, producing the impression that he can keep going flawlessly at any length ("Bye Bye Blues"), exploring the entire harmonic realm of a song, in multiple directions ("Donít Take Your Love from Me"). Often he reaches and sustains a high plateau of inventiveness, extending your view of the familiar ("There Will Never Be Another You").
Most of the Roost sessions feature Stitt with just piano, bass, and drums. The exceptions are two dates with midsize bands, a "Stitt Goes Latin" session, and a date (the boxís weakest) with organist Don Patterson. Apart from Stittís, the distinctive solos here are those by cornettist Thad Jones, pianist Hank Jones, and bassist Oscar Pettiford. In general, it hardly matters who else is on a Stitt record, and Stitt himself always sounds good.
A typical Stitt LP is a casual affair with one-third blues, one-third songs based on "I Got Rhythm" changes, and one-third standards (he likes old-timy ones, like "My Blue Heaven" and "My Motherís Eyes"). Songs end when Stitt is ready, whether the rhythm section knows it yet or not. At his most perfunctory, he just strings his favorite patterns together, knowing he can make them fit, and not trying to do much more. But Roost got out of Stitt much of his most unperfunctory and downright brilliant playing. The Mosaic box has fewer quotes of "Stranger in Paradise" than youíll find on any other collection of 148 Stitt tracks. It also has surprisingly few of the prolonged tag endings he loved.
Despite the general programmatic sameness of Stittís albums, unusual material pops up on each of the Mosaic discs. "I Told You So" is a one-chord minor-key vamp very much of its time (1963), but itís strange for Stitt, and no less so is the arrangement, which has the saxophonist trading short phrases ad libitum with Thad Jones. Then thereís "Round Robin" (1965), the only minor-key blues on the box. In keeping with his rejection of almost all post-Bird trends in jazz, Stitt rarely played in this form ó a preference for which had become almost the defining characteristic of hard-bop musicians. Here he shows that he could easily have fit in with more-of-the-moment players had he wished.
At his best, Stitt has direct access to the primeval source of bop inspiration. His throwaways are better than most musiciansí urgent statements (check out the little coda with which he wraps "Holleriní the Blues"). No musician has said more about the pure pleasures of jazz.
Write to Mosaic Records at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut 06902-7533, or go to www.mosaicrecords.com.