Sonny Clark: The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions

He might often be thought of as a sideman but Clark produced outstanding solo work in his short life, enough to inspire Bill Evans and others


Hank Mobley, Curtis Fuller, Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan – do those names set your jazz pulses racing? Maybe not – they’re quintessential sidemen, though vital contributors to such classics as Giant Steps and Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer. The first two musicians are featured on this fine Mosaic box-set. Does Sonny Clark belong in their number? When I’ve thought about him, it’s mostly been for his contribution to one of my Desert Island discs, Serge Chaloff’s Blue Serge – not featured here because it wasn’t released by Blue Note. But as this wonderful collection shows, he’s more than just a sideman.

The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions is a six-CD box comprising nine albums, and a booklet with excellent liner notes by Bob Blumenthal. The albums are Dial “S” For Sonny, Sonny’s Crib, Sonny Clark Trio, Cool Struttin’, Leapin’ And Lopin’, Sonny Clark Quintets, Blues In The Night, My Conception and The Art Of The Trio. Also featured in these albums are names that do set my pulses racing – including Art Farmer, whose work I’ve loved since my earliest reviewing days, Jackie McLean, Philly Joe Jones, Clifford Jordan and Pete La Roca. And Clark’s compositions are excellent – as John Zorn showed on his interpretations of them with George Lewis and Bill Frisell, for his two News For Lulu albums.

Sonny Clark grew up in a mining town near Pittsburgh. His father was a coal miner who died from lung disease when Clark was a baby. After a trip to California in 1951, the 19-year-old musician stayed six years, working with Oscar Pettiford and Wardell Gray, and making his recording debut with Teddy Charles. A cross-country tour in 1957 with Dinah Washington brought him to New York where he made his debut for Blue Note. In January 1963, a heroin overdose led to a heart attack, and Clark died aged 31. He’d released only five albums as leader for Blue Note; three of the albums here were released posthumously.

The Mosaic set features a variable set of sessions, but the best are superb. These are the middle ones, from September 1957 to January 1958 – Sonny Clark Trio, with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, is the finest, together with Cool Struttin’ and Sonny Clark Quintet, though the latter isn’t a complete album. Sonny’s Crib, featuring Coltrane, is also excellent. The first session, and the later ones, are less impressive. The problem is partly the material – repetitive blues vehicles that comprise a Blue Note “singles” session – as well as the players. Coltrane and McLean are superior to Mobley and Fuller, while drummer Wes Landers, though good, isn’t at the level of Philly Joe or Louis Hayes. Landers (1925-1993), born in Bermuda, worked for Earl Hines, Basie and Gene Ammons.

Sonny Clark Trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones is an outstanding album – jazz doesn’t get much better than this. On a fine collection of standards and jazz standards – no originals – the pianist is clearly inspired by the company. Be-Bop, one of three originals from the early years of modern jazz, is very fast, crisp and enthralling. But every track is coruscating, and it must have been hard to decide on the final takes – the two alternatives, for Two Bass Hit and Tadd’s Delight, are excellent. I’ve been playing this album obsessively.

Sonny’s Crib features Speak Low, where the masterly Clark solo is edited in from the alternate take. Cool Struttin’ is enhanced by the presence of alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, recently released from his contract with Prestige – Clark appeared on three subsequent recordings under the saxophonist’s name. Sonny Clark Quintet was meant to be the pianist’s fourth album as leader, with more original compositions from Clark. It featured Clifford Jordan on tenor and Kenny Burrell on guitar, with the rhythm team of Paul Chambers and Pete La Roca. But for reasons unknown, only three releasable titles resulted, which remained unissued until released in Japan many years later.

The albums are remastered from hi-res files of the original analogue masters, using current 24-bit technology. The sound is superior to any previous CD issues – close to audiophile vinyl, the label says. They make it clearer why Bill Evans and other great jazz musicians marvelled at Sonny Clark’s playing.

Dial S For Sonny; Bootin’ It; It Could Happen To You; Sonny’s Mood; Shoutin’ On A Riff; Love Walked In; Bootin’ It; Sonny’s Crib; With A Song In My Heart; Speak Low; Come Rain Or Come Shine; Sonny’s Crib; Sonny’s Crib; News For Lulu; With A Song In My Heart; Speak Low; My Conception; Junka; Blues Blue; Minor Meeting Royal Flush; Some Clark Bars; My Conception; Be-Bop; I Didn’t Know What Time It Was; Two Bass Hit; Tadd’s Delight; Softly As In A Morning Sunrise; I’ll Remember April; I Didn’t Know What Time It Was; Two Bass Hit; Tadd’s Delight; Minor Meeting; Eastern Incident; Little Sonny; Cool Struttin’; Cool Struttin’; Blue Minor; Sippin’ At Bell’s; Deep Night; Royal Flush; Lover; Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You; Ain’t No Use; I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; Black Velvet; I’m Just A Lucky So And So; The Breeze And I; Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You; Blues In The Night; Blues In The Night; Can’t We Be Friends?; Somebody Loves Me; All Of You; Dancing In The Dark; I Cover The Waterfront; Blues In The Night; Something Special; Deep In A Dream; Melody For C; Eric Walks; Voodoo; Midnight Mambo; Zellmar’s Delight; Melody For C (77.44 + 78.26 + 49.04 + 75.13 + 58.47 + 54.32)
Collectively, Sonny Clark (p); Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Tommy Turrentine (t); Curtis Fuller (tb); Jackie McLean (as); John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Charlie Rouse, Ike Quebec, Clifford Jordan (ts); Kenny Burrell (g); Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, Jymie Merritt, Butch Warren (b); Louis Hayes, Art Taylor, Philly Joe Jones, Pete La Roca, Wes Landers, Art Blakey, Billy Higgins (d). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, July 1957-November 1961.
Mosaic Records #276