LAST JUNE, six weeks before his death, Sonny Stitt traveled from his home in Chillum to New York City, where he recorded enough material for two albums. The first of these--"The Last Stitt Sessions, Vol. 1" (Muse MR5269)--confirms the suddenness of his passing: Right until the end, Stitt was playing with characteristic speed on the up-tempo tunes, with a gentle, billowing tone on the ballads and, always, with that bluesy expressiveness for which he and his saxophone were known.
If one instrument symbolizes Washington jazz, it's the sax. It's Washington's horn of plenty, overflowing with the ripe, indigenous creations of numerous area musicians, including Buck Hill, Andrew White, George Ross, Mike Crotty and, until recently, Stitt.
Along with trumpeter Vaughn Nark, several of these reedmen have released excellent albums of late, evidence of the talents we have around us--and of the one now gone.
Apart from documenting his playing abilities, "The Last Sessions," like the majority of Stitt's albums, holds few surprises. The tunes--featuring pianist Junior Mance, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Jimmy Cobb--are a likable lot; as likable as they are familiar. In the course of his 100-plus album career, Stitt covered much of the same territory over and over again, but it's still a pleasure to hear him jump from the gate playing the "I Got Rhythm" chord changes that form the basis of the opening tune, "Steamroller," or to hear him warm up to a lovely evergreen like "I'll Be Seeing You" without becoming sentimental.
Throughout his career, Stitt could never shake the comparisons critics made between his playing and Charlie Parker's. Reportedly, he found these comments professionally and artistically stifling. But on "Steamroller" and Parker's own vehicle, "This Is Always," such comparisons seem inevitable. And to hear Stitt softly interpret the Gene Ammons favorite "Angel Eyes," or unearth his own twin blues--"Makin' It" and "Keepin' It"--is to appreciate a more subtle dimension of his talent: his emotional directness, the sheer naturalness of his phrasing, a "voice" free of gratuitous effects or glib embellishments.
In his final days, Stitt was fortunate to work with musicians who understood and enhanced his enduring approach to jazz. "The Last Sessions" isn't a collection of inspired performances by any means, but it is honest, straightforward Stitt, and it does his memory proud.
Other recent releases of local interest include "Buck Hill Plays Europe" (Turning Point TPR90982), on which Washington's "wailin' mailman" is heard blowing up a storm in Holland. Hill has recorded several top-flight albums in recent years (until now on the Swedish Steeplechase label); and "Europe" will definitely please those listeners who've grown accustomed to hearing the saxophonist perform locally with pianist Marc Cohen, bassist Tommy Cecil and drummer Hugh Walker.
If there's a saxophonist alive today who plays with more strength, stamina and volume than Hill, he's a well-kept secret. On the boppish "Mitsy" and elsewhere, Hill works up a full head of steam, while Cohen and Walker stoke the fires. But there is more than just visceral and impassioned jazz to be heard on "Europe." The album includes six originals by Hill, many enlivened with infectious themes that tend to fold back on themselves, and Hill's one clarinet feature, the warmly sensuous "Jasing," is a pure and unexpected delight.
"Impressions" (Steeplechase SCS1173), Hill's latest release, is the second collection of tunes culled from his breakthrough performance at Holland's Northsea Jazz Festival in 1981. Like the first album--last year's "Easy to Love" (Steeplechase 1160)--this one is essentially a mixture of standards (or near standards) and original tunes by pianist Reuben Brown.
On the opening number Brown leads the way, splashing chromatic colors throughout "Alone Together"--to the driven accompaniment of drummer Billy Hart--before turning decidedly blue on one of his own tunes, the emotionally churning "Penn Station." As convincing as Hill is on these tracks, he's at his best later, boldly interpreting Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," or sustaining the sheer intensity of John Coltrane's "Impressions" with a steely lyricism. No wonder he left such a strong impression on European festival-goers.
"Dedications" (Rossonian Enterprises) features the head of the jazz department at the University of Maryland. George Ross is a musician of varied interests, and "Dedications" reflects several of them. The album initially flirts with fusion and pop forms, but its real strength lies in Ross' gifts as a composer and improvisor. In a series of colorful pieces, he interprets different aspects of jazz expression: bop, free-form, Latin and mainstream.
On alto and soprano saxophone, Ross consistently displays an alluring tone and a talent for mature lyricism whenever the mood calls for it. And as he proves on the incendiary title track or the bop express "A Riff for Biff," he has no problems pulling out all the stops when necessary. "Dedications," however, is not a one-man show. Ross has assembled a fine quintet, whose collective musicianship is immediately apparent and whose individual contributions result in many bright voicings and interesting textures. "Dedications" succeeds splendidly as a sampler of their talent and imagination.
"Cutting Through" by the Vaughn Nark Quintet (Lavensham LVH8103) features trumpeter Nark, a member of the Airmen of Note. Like Ross, Nark seems to have come up with just the right combination of elements for his debut album: well-chosen material embracing traditional and contemporary approaches; strong soloists; striking arrangements, and intelligent programming.
Backing up all this is Nark's commanding technique, which first reveals itself on the title track, an exhausting workout from Bar 1. Throughout the album, Nark's bold tone and crisp attack are nicely offset by Peter Barenbregge's saxophones, and the entire ensemble distinguishes itself on a fresh and volatile interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia."
The album's up-tempo tunes are certainly the most exciting, but just as Nark's trumpet is capable of soaring, his flugelhorn can prove soothing, too. The introspective quality he imparts to the ballad "Alone" is particularly affecting, and the softer-voiced flugelhorn makes pianist Stef Scagiarri's melodious contribution, "Somewhere in the Sun," all the more warm and appealing.