Saturday Night Tunes: Sugar

Sorry this is late. And, hey, the storm outside suggests that I might not be able to finish it before our electricity goes kaput, so fingers crossed!

Stanley Turrentine gets two big bonus points from me: for one thing, I love guys with huge, round tenor sax sounds because I used to want to be one of them once upon a time, and for another thing, he was born and raised in my hometown, Pittsburgh, and got his start in Pittsburgh’s thriving Hill District jazz scene — well, it was thriving, until the city decided to plop an arena down in 1961, in just the right spot to cut the mostly black (funny how that works) Hill District off from downtown, and the Hill never recovered. But a surprising number of jazz greats hail from Pittsburgh and got started there in the 1950s before moving on, usually to New York City. Turrentine and drummer Roger Humphries are two of the most famous, but Billy Eckstine and Errol Garner were also from Pittsburgh, and Lena Horne spent a good chunk of her early career there.

Turrentine came from a family of musicians (seriously, they were all musicians), and his style was heavily blues-influenced. As his career developed, he found a home in the soul jazz world and really fit in there perfectly. Sugar, recorded in 1970 and released the following year, is arguably his best album and certainly contains his most successful single tune, the simple-but-in-a-good-way title track, which is ubiquitous nowadays. I thought after delving into the real avant garde side of things last week, we could use a little straight ahead bluesy stuff this week. Along with Turrentine you’ll hear, variously, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, George Benson on guitar, Butch Cornell on organ, Lonnie Liston Smith, Jr. on (electric) piano, Ron Carter on bass, Richard Landrum on conga, and Billy Kaye on drums. Turrentine, Hubbard, Benson, Carter, and Kaye show up on every track.

“Sugar” (written by Turrentine) is one of those tunes that everybody wants to play, because it’s fairly simple to figure out (a 16 bar blues that lends itself to modal improv with a soul feel), but it’s consequently also one of those tunes that you don’t really want to hear too many people play, because everybody thinks they can wreck it even though chances are they can’t. The original is still the best, as far as I’m concerned; I mean, Turrentine absolutely tears this thing up:

Cornell wrote the next track, “Sunshine Alley,” a funk number that heavily features Cornell’s organ:

The third track from the original album is a John Coltrane original, “Impressions,” which he first recorded in 1962 and played live pretty frequently for the rest of his career. It’s a modal number that follows the same chord changes as “So What,” one of the tunes from Kind of Blue. Here’s the original:

Turrentine’s changes (slowing the tempo, replacing the piano with Cornell’s organ, and putting Landrum’s congas in there to give it a little hint of Latin sound) make this almost a brand new tune, and it stands up pretty well next to Coltrane’s version:


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