Sonny Clark: My Conception (1959) Blue Note Tone Poet

Selection: Minor Meeting

.  .  .

Track List

  1. Junka 7:30
  2. Blues Blue 7:18
  3. Minor Meeting 6:46
  4. Royal Flush  7:00
  5. Some Clark Bars 6:18
  6. My Conception 4:44

Artists

Sonny Clark, piano; Donald Byrd, trumpet; Hank Mobley, tenor saxophone; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Blakey,  drums; recorded March 29, 1959; engineer Rudy Van Gelder, Hackensack, New Jersey. The recording remained unreleased for twenty years, and even then only in Japan, now a full-flowering Tone Poet, 2021

After establishing himself in the early 50s West Coast scene, from 1957, Sonny Clark became Alfred Lion’s preferred piano player, leading seven Blue Note albums. The My Conception session was held a little over a year after BLP1588 Cool Struttin’, (1958)  and over two years before BLP4091  Leapin’ and Lopin’ (1961)  In between, Sonny  played behind such figures as Rollins, Mingus, Grant Green, Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Lee Morgan, Tina Brooks, Bennie Green, Ike Quebec, Stanley Turrentine and Dexter Gordon. All was going swimmingly, until his career stopped abruptly in late 1962, game over. 

Cool Struttin’ pitched Sonny in the unusual and contrasting front line of Jackie McLean and Art Farmer. With My Conception, Sonny is in more familiar terrritory with Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd. Come Leapin’ and Lopin’  it is the turn of Charlie Rouse and Tommy Turrentine. Sonny just bounces back, fits with everyone.

Music

All Music:. “Simply put, this is hard bop at its very best.”

LJC: The playing is tight and supremely confident. Though Sonny leads, ample space is given over to everyone, a well balanced team, and a perfect advertisement for the power of hard bop.  Mobley in outstanding form, swaggering malted notes punctuated with rapid-fire figures,  Byrd likewise, bright and burnished gold. Blakey pushes everything along with a firm hand, and  Sonny makes impressive “guest appearances” (sic).

Sonny Clark has a rhythmic drive and energy that defies easy comparison: not the elegance of Tommy Flanagan, not the smiling piano of Horace Silver, not the cerebral invention of Andrew Hill, not the blues-inflection of Horace Parlan, not the audacious mischief of Monk, not the percussive dialogue of Hancock, not the ivory-polished perfection of Bill Evans. Phew, that was a lot of nots. Sonny had the power and attack of Bud Powell, but a  sympathetic feel for group navigation all of his own – it’s..Sonny.

Why My Conception never was released at the time, who knows, but it’s a fresh as today, a gift from the past.

Vinyl: BST 22674

My Conception, originally released in 1979 in Japan, as GXF 3056

In the ’70s, as America followed the pied piper of jazz rock and fusion, the jazz coffee shops in Japan, jazz kissas, nurtured the Japanese long-standing enthusiasm for hard bop. Rare Blue Note albums became much sought after as collector’s items  – “treasure albums”-, and “Cool Struttin'” was the ultimate “treasure album”, a firm favourite in the jazz kissas. Coffee, jazz and hi-fi, what a fabulous concept. Cool Struttin’ received the Blue Note Vinyl Classics treatment back in June, so that treasure is a little more available today. Not one I rushed to upgrade, interested if anyone has any  comments on it.

Blue Note Japan responded by issuing more Sonny Clark albums of previously unreleased material, some of it lesser material, in trio format. I have some of these  Japan-only  albums. Though blessed with near-silent vinyl, they tend to be a bit flabby in the low frequencies and lacking bite at the top-end , sometimes a characteristic of vintage Japanese issues. 

But this is Tone Poet. Just when you think Tone Poets can’t sound any better, this has to be the best-sounding Tone Poet yet, certainly in my collection so far. The distance between Blue Note 75  and TP is now huge. 

Having listened to a lot of Van Gelder, this recording  typically breathes 1959 Hackensack air, slightly drier and harder in tone than Englewood Cliffs sessions, which have more air and space.

March 1959 was early days in Van Gelder’s transition to stereo, recording on two track intended for mono, however with a quintet there is more room for manoeuvre. Kevin Gray delivers a characteristically very wide stereo image, Mobley tooting away on far right of the stage, silence on far left until suddenly out of the blue, Byrd chips in – pin-sharp instrument positioning, almost unnerving, but Blakey, Clark and Chambers glue it all together. A great sounding album, no complaints from me. Though some people have. 

A few comments online regarding distortion on Byrd’s trumpet on the last track side 2. Seems to be a feature of the Discogs commentariat nowadays, we had it with Hill’s Passing Ships, complaining about distortion. Is it the pressing? Is it on the original tape? Is it just my copy?  I’m sending mine back… Precious. 

Soapbox Alert: Discogs is beginning to read like a comments thread in a hi-fi forum. The trumpet is a very loud instrument. With close miking, it must be difficult to avoid the very occasional overload. It is not a fault, it’s a minor imperfection in an imperfect world. I’m not against perfection, but holding everything to a standard of perfection is a recipe for a lot of unhappiness in life, just sayin’..

Tone Poet vinyl:

Gatefold

Some Francis Wolff shots of Sonny found online.

Collector’s Corner

Sonny Clark original 1500 series Blue Notes auction prices are extraordinary due to his “treasure item”  status in Japan. To my surprise, Leapin’ and Lopin’ has leapt over Cool Struttin’ to the number one auction-price spot, at over $7,000. (Popsike data, depending on search term, may include failed payments) Or as happened with one auction I saw, a Japanese bidder mistakenly entered his bid in yen instead of dollars, woosh!! money, sayonara.

Somehow the Tone Poet seems unfairly priced, too cheap, but this piece of history doesn’t exist on “original vinyl”. 

With a lot of potentially competing material from Blue Note already on the shelf, is this an edition you really need?  I say yes. The presentation in stereo is near miraculous, it is a welcome reminder of how well Van Gelder’s Hackensack sessions were recorded, and what a great piano player Sonny was.

Many AAA reissues of this calibre seem to emerge each month . I opted not to go for  the recent Blakey “Witch Doctor” TP,  because the letter “B” on my shelf is already overflowing with early ’60s Blakey/Messengers albums, and it did not add anything different. The Sonny Clark TP on the other hand is a really worthwhile new addition, and m-m-m-more m-m-m-Mobley is always welcome.

I’m less sure about the forthcoming Lee Morgan 8CD/ 12 LP Complete Live At The Lighthouse Sessions. Three days in July 1970, four sets each day, a gruelling forty seven tracks if you include each set introduction. You get three  versions of every tune in Morgan’s playbook, and seven versions of Speedball

Brings to mind those large Mosaic boxsets, where the first LP has a few signs of play and the last few have none. 

Ebay has offers for The Complete Lighthouse box around £400, or perhaps that’s just the postage. Maybe I’m misjudging it, maybe it’s an essential purchase, call me out. I just hope there is no distortion on the trumpet on any of the tracks, because we’ll never hear the end of it.

.LJC

Action Note to self: Get Leapin’ and Lopin’ down for a spin. Though a Japanese press, my listening notes (a few years back) rave about the high quality of sound. UPDATE: No, it’s just a typical dull soft Japanese pressing. The bar is much higher nowadays compared to 5 – 10 years ago.

 

16 thoughts on “Sonny Clark: My Conception (1959) Blue Note Tone Poet

  1. LJC said: “Cool Struttin’ received the Blue Note Vinyl Classics treatment back in June, so that treasure is a little more available today. Not one I rushed to upgrade, interested if anyone has any comments on it”

    My COOL STRUTTIN’ is the 2014 (?) Music Matters and so I can’t comment on the BN Classic Series issue. I couldn’t quite work out from your comment, LJC, whether you meant you have a COOL STRUTTIN’ that you have no wish to upgrade from, or simply don’t have it. Assuming the latter may be the case, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t enjoy this set.

    My favourites are the slower numbers, Blue Minor and the peerless version of Deep Night, but I also enjoy Sipping’ at Bells which to my mind has the paired horns in a head that always sounds like a swinging peal of bells… Or perhaps that’s just my over-active imagination.

    Jackie McLean is in very fine form, of course, and his “menthol sharp” tone (Cook & Morton) has always seemed to me to be a perfect accompaniment to Sonny Clark…

  2. Lee Morgan’s LIVE AT THE LIGHTHOUSE is a fine double album, one that I have enjoyed over the years, but I really have no desire to possess the gargantuan expanded set, even though Lee is one of my favorite trumpet players. I have generally found in my limited experience with these expanded “live” sets that the versions chosen for original release by the artists (and/or producers) themselves are generally the “best.” This often goes for the photographs chosen for the albums too – Lee looks very cool in the photos on the original album, but Lee on the child’s swing – not so much. Perhaps I would purchase such an exhaustive set for a favorite artist who had few other releases, but there are over a hundred albums on which Lee appeared, many of which I’ve yet to hear for the first time. But I certainly concede that for historical reasons, for the “completists” among us, for those with large pocketbooks, and for those that just can’t get enough Lee, the new set looks like a valuable addition

    There is an eerie quality to the liner notes on the original album. DJ Ed Williams
    wrote, “…Lee is finishing a week at Slug’s. I went in the other evening and though Bennie (Maupin) and Jymie (Merritt) were out of town, the group still bristled with spirit and excitement. Lee Morgan was a happy man, and that same happiness is reflected in the eyes of his wife Helen. She and I sat together….” It was of course during a later date at Slug’s in New York that Helen shot and killed Lee Morgan, a tale referenced in Kasper Collins film “I Called Him Morgan.” Sadly, it was Helen who, according to one friend “….literally picked this man (Lee) up out of the gutter and made it possible for him to function again as a human being.” (Collins is also creator of the excellent documentary “My Name Is Albert Ayler.”)

    My LIVE AT THE LIGHTHOUSE (an album released by Blue Note in 1970) has the light blue and black labels used in 1970-71, as shown in LJC’s superlative presentation of the “Complete Guide to the Blue Note Labels.” For a New York minute I thought that I might have a first pressing but further study showed that there are copies out there for sale with the classic blue and white “Division of Liberty Records” label, which LJC showed was still used into 1970. I was not too disappointed though since I recall that I had purchased my mint quality copy, which is very heavy vinyl stamped with the Van Gelder name and has a fine sound, for about 5 U.S. dollars. One anomaly to my set is that both sides of the second record have the D side label on them. Since each side is a side-long cut, they can’t be distinguished by the number of cuts, but the matrix numbers and the engraved Side 3 and Side 4 in the dead wax easily distinguish the two sides.

  3. That Lee Morgan set is pretty cool. I opted for the CDs because I didn’t want to flip 12 records. Plus, what are the chances all 12 records arrive flat and quiet? Worth getting on CD but idk about vinyl.

  4. Firstly let me thank you for confirming it is the improvisation first and the recording second. We all want the best sound possible but where would we be if Mingus had not run his tape recorder at Massey Hall for example.
    Another interesting thing ( for me at least) is the photo you have of The Sonny Clark Quintet ,( green cover EMI Japan issue) which was the first release of this material , it was re-issued in Japan in 1983 on King as Cool Struttin’ Vol 2 with the catalogue number 1592 on the cover ( this was apparently listed in US but never released.) Can send photos showing same classic cover with type in green instead of yellow if desired.. King ref is K18P-9279
    Finally , My Conception is a fine album ,I have the Japanese copy shown , so will stick with that at this time

  5. Thanks for this fabolous post, LJC! My Conception is my fourth Tone Poet. I have played it one and like it, but I will have to get a CD and play it plenty of times to really get to know the album. As for describing Sonny’s playing style, I really like the Art Farmer quote in the linear notes of Cool Struttin’ about Sonny not trying to swing. I also read somewhere that in Japan his style is describe with particular words that mean something along the lines of „melancholic“ or „sad“.

    I bought the Classic Series Reissue of Cool Struttin’ and I’m very pleased with it. However, I have to defend the Blue Note 75s series a little bit. In 2015 I bought a copy of Moanin’ and it had been one of my best jazz LPs so far. The sound quality was better than the few cheap Blue Note reissues I had bought before. It set a new standard in terms of audio quality for me. I went on and bought about 15 more of them, including Cool Struttin’. Only recently, after buying a few Blue Note 80s LPs and the TP of Hank Mobley’s Poppin’ I started to note the shortcomings of my 75s LPs.
    Cool Struttin’ was the first LP for which I replaced by 75s version with a Classic Series version. I did a comparative listening, also including CD, and I have to say that the 75s LP sounded way better, more alive than the CD. The difference of the Classic Series LP to the 75s LP was not that big, but of course the Classic Series won. It sounds more alive and also more crisp to me, especially the drums.

    On a second note, I really appreciate your comments on the Lee Morgan set and Art Blakey’s The Witch Doctor. With all these high quality LPs coming out at the moment, I sometimes feel like I should get them all because they might never be available at an affordable price again. And when I look at music boards or hifi forums (note to myself: avoid hifi forums), everyone seems to know all of the albums. But at the same time, I want to got at my own tempo, I’m a slow listener who likes to take time to digest a new album. And not having heard albums Search for the New Land, The Gigolo, Mosaic or Indestructible, it feels wrong to spend 40 € for the Lighthouse Box Set or The Which Doctor.

    By the way, I’m already looking forward to your post about the future TP of Hank Mobley’s Curtain Call, which I assume you will get. It’s one of my favorite albums, Hank + Kenny + Sonny is a dream team for me. I got a Japanese pressing, it was the first time I violated my 30 € mark that I had set myself for LPs.

    • Just a few thoughts,re:Lighthouse/Sonny Clark-I,too,have the second issue LATL with the darker Liberty label. Since I bought mine in ’72,I wonder if the label/pressing issue at BN wasn’t just a real “grabbag” at the time,given the Liberty transition? After all,the sessions were done in 1970-released in 1971/72. It wasn’t a posthumous issue,so what exactly would the time frame be for a second pressing? IOW,might the labels have preceeded the actual lp press? It wouldn’t have been the first time that labels and quality control found themselves in a face-off at BN.
      Also,various issues of some of these tracks were out on Trip Records,I believe. Ok,worth hearing, but the first official issue remains the cream of the crop. I feel the same about dates My Conception and Mobleys Poppin’-second-tier stuff IMO. Had them and unloaded them-weak compositions and “same old,same old” performances,nothing that stuck with me after the lp was put away. Again,YOMV.
      Also,anyone who has yet to hear Search For The New Land,The Gigolo or Mosaic(Philip) all I can say is: What are you waiting for? Absolutely killer dates,with the ensemble on Search one to die for!
      Mosaic is Blakey at his best-there is no higher recommendation than that,right? My opinion? Buy cd. Hit play. Repeat.
      Lastly, the film I Called Him Morgan sheds a light on the latter period of Morgan’s life that just leaves you wanting more from him. Whether an extended LATL fulfills that desire is up to you.

      • What I’m waiting for? I simply cannot listen to a lot of new albums in a short time. I tried out streaming when it was new, thinking I could check out all of the classic albums. I started with Miles Davis’ classic prestige marathon albums, gave each album about five listens. After the third album I was “full”. I didn’t feel the need to hear more, I rather wanted to go back to the first album and play it until I knew the solos, the drum fills, the piano accents, etc. It’s like I can’t wait to listen to all of these great albums, but I don’t see the need to rush. I actually saw the film about Morgan, and it only increased my anticipation for his albums I don’t know.
        An upside of my way is that it’s less expensive, a downside is that I read blogs like LJC or biographies and don’t get a lot of references.

        Regarding Poppin’, it’s no Soul Station, but it’s Mobley shortly before his prime, and his sound has a relaxing quality that I haven’t found in other sax players. The title track I find to be a rather boring composition indeed, but the versions of Darn That Dream and Tune Up are definitive for me, and East of Brooklyn is one of my favorite Mobley compositions. But hell, other people buy every session Coltrane made for prestige, and I can do with Coltrane’s Sound if I need some Trane in my life.

  6. Thank you once again LJC, I appreciate your blog immensely. I have some idea of the work that goes into it & I hope others do as well.
    Many times its something of an education, as well as being interesting to simply read. Thats a valuable aspect.
    Here in the US, a certain gentleman just passed away that had a jazz radio program in connection to Columbia University in New York. He was considered an incredible, & irreplaceable, authority on Jazz history, he knew things others simply dont & never will.
    When you listened to Phil Schaap, it wasnt just a radio program, you were in essence attending a class at a university.
    Reading, & absorbing, your blog reminds me of this gentleman’s program. Please, keep up the fantastic work you do.

  7. My Conception is indeed a fabulous record and it really does sound terrific; I love those Hackensack recordings.

    I agree about the Lee Morgan boxset, just too much of the same material and way too pricey for me even at Amazon’s asking price of £288. The 8CD version @ £45 is decent enough and give you the same content. Note that most of the Speedball tracks are set-ends that last a couple of minutes or less. As I recall, only one full take, maybe two.

  8. “holding everything to a standard of perfection is a recipe for a lot of unhappiness in life, just sayin’.”
    Pithy as always, LJC.
    I had been thinking of buying this TP and you’ve convinced to do so. Thanks!

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