Selection: Minor Meeting
. . .
- Junka 7:30
- Blues Blue 7:18
- Minor Meeting 6:46
- Royal Flush 7:00
- Some Clark Bars 6:18
- My Conception 4:44
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.
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:
Some Francis Wolff shots of Sonny found online.
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.
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.