Sonny Criss: Portrait of (1967) Prestige (new: bonus track)

Hot on the heels of Frank Strozier, celebrating the 700th post at LJC (Strange, this started as a sort of Blue Note tribute site, look now where it has gone… jazz all over) Continuing on the theme of artists deserving of greater recognition: altoist Sonny Crissrecording career 1946-77.

Selection: Allen’s Alley (Wee)


Sonny Criss (alto saxophone) Walter Davis Jr. (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Alan Dawson (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, March 23, 1967

From the twilight years of bop, but the line up of Chambers, Walter Davis and Alan Dawson never fails to swing.  Criss is an alto player who deserves a lot more attention than he enjoyed in his lifetime. His recording career stretches back to 1946, first appearance on record  age 19. Recording initially for early classic labels such as Emarcy, Regent, Crown, Savoy, Norgran, Brunswick and Imperial, it was not until 1965 that he signed to Prestige as leader. A string of a half-dozen or more  titles appeared in quick succession, Weinstock struggling to keep Prestige afloat through sheer volume of releases.

At end of the decade Criss relocated to California, where presumably work for an alto player was more plentiful,  but recording only erratically until his death in 1977 – last title The Joy Of Sax  (Impulse! AS-9326 – green  bullseye label) in the slightly uncomfortable fusion company of Lee Ritenour (electric guitar) and  Patrice Rushen (electric piano).

Times were changing, in my view  not musically for the better, but that’s just my opinion today (just remember, it’s my blog). Somewhere in the attic are some Lee Ritenour albums, along with Bob James and David Sanborn, that GRP sound, sounding more dated than recordings made twenty years previously, though I must have liked it at the time.


Often characterized as a Parker disciple, but which bop altoist isn’t? Every critic’s first words to paper, everyone was influenced by Bird, how could they not be? Parker was the towering figure, so listen only to Parker? It’s a distraction from listening to the distinctive voices of those that followed. Criss is a distinctive player, a bluesy stylist with  lightening-fast fluidity and drive more in the manner of Phil Woods. He is a joy to hear.

The selection “Wee” is an old fast-tempo BeBop tune from a Charlie Parker recording Wee (Allen’s Alley) – which is pure bebop virtuosity. It’s an astonishing if slightly imperfect performance but one which fulfils my need for speed. Conoisseurs of comparisons might want to pit Criss against the master, Wee as recorded at the famous Parker-Powell-Gillespie-Mingus-Roach  Live at Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada 1953

Criss often recorded popular show tunes and ballads, and a couple of times I passed on his 1956 album “Criss Plays Cole Porter”  for fear of Karaoke-jazz –  “over-familiarity” with the tunes:  Night and Day, Anything goes, Just One of Those Things…. one Cole Porter tune maybe, but not all. His  mid/late ’60s Prestige albums are nevertheless a solid showcase for his talent and worth seeking out.

Vinyl: PRT 7526 green label Fantasy VAN GELDER stamp

Sonny-Criss-Portrait-of-Stereo--original-trident-Prestige-labels-1800-LJCVintage reissue of Prestige PRST 7526 (1967) left. An example of “good Fantasy” (circa 1972-3) These very early ’70s Prestige are often well worth a listen, notably those pressed with Van Gelder mastered legacy metal. Within a short space of time, Fantasy engineers would remaster everthing. It always pays to check the runout.


Collector’s Corner

The cover of Portrait of Sonny Criss unfortunately ranks high in the LJC  Most Unsuitable Knitwear on an Album Cover Awards. These are some of other contenders (click if you dare)

Top-Five-Sweater-covers-LJCHaircut and trouser cuffs seem to manage to reinvent themselves as retro fashion, but nothing dates so much as knitwear. Perhaps it is because knitwear was often a gift from an older but doting family relative with knitting skills. Childhood Christmas, you would examine carefully all the festively-wrapped presents in your name under the Christmas tree: heavy flat box (Meccano set!) smelly (bath things, ugh), envelope (money!, hopefully) but that big bulky but light soft package set alarm bells ringing: jumper alert!

More Sonny Criss blogged previously, the very excellent Prestige 1966 title This is Criss (Prestige 7511) including show tune from Fiddler on the Roof, Sunrise, Sunset. Maybe I was too hasty about that Cole Porter album.

Readers ask, LJC answers:  Bonus Track!

God Bless The Child

I’m feeling generous, hang the bandwith, 700th post celebration,

12 thoughts on “Sonny Criss: Portrait of (1967) Prestige (new: bonus track)

  1. This is my first comment here but I have been an avid reader for a while now. You also steered me towards many wonderful records. This one I managed to get on an original Prestige blue label (PRST 7526, with Van Gelder stamp). I also listened to the tracks you posted in your review of ‘This is Criss’ (Prestige 7511) and now have a modest Sonny Criss collection 🙂

  2. Both Ritenour and Bob James are great in my book 😉 Very very competent musicians BUT and it’s a big BUT – it’s not Jazz! At least not in the pure sense of “real jazz”. Som call it contemporary jazz some call it smooth jazz. I like it but it’s a different universe than Hank Mobley I for myself like to expand my view and taste in music instead of just discarting the old as bad (been there done that) music.

  3. Compared to other players or in that style like Jackie McLean, Phil Woods or Charles McPherson ( ok he is slightly younger) for example, I always had problems with his sound. Kind of piercing and inflexible.

  4. I have always been a huge Sonny Criss fan. Take the time to check out his work on Muse Records. They are well worth the listen.

  5. I second the recommendation of “Sonny’s Dream” – a sensational LP. Must have.

    As for the album subject of the post, I will always love “Portrait of Criss” for his version of “God Bless the Child”

  6. Congrats on the 700th post ! It’s been a fascinating road, always delighted to get an email notification about a new post.

    Green Prestige label, ehhh ?..seems the great vinyl famine is still on ; )

  7. Don’t forget Sonny’s Dream (Birth of the New Cool) – Prestige 7576. Criss and a nine piece band with arrangements and compositions by Horace Tapscott. A truly fantastic record!

  8. Of his ’60s Prestige records, “This is Criss!” is the best, IMO (which I believe you featured way back when), with “Portrait Of” a close second. Those two feature the best material before he started getting into “hip” jazz covers of then-current pop songs (Up Up and Away being the most egregious offender).

  9. Bob James, Chuck Mangione, Earl Klugh…yes, they were the stalwarts of 70s jazz (at least in California) that I thought were cool then, but quickly migrated to Dexter Gordon after discovering him in a reissue. GO!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s