Saturday Night Tunes: Boss Tenors

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Although the premise isn’t all that different from Tenor Madness, the 1956 Sonny Rollins album that featured a sax duel between Rollins and John Coltrane on the title track, 1961’s Boss Tenors is actually more of a collaboration than a competition. The boss tenors in question, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, were friends and had even, according to, already co-led a group several years earlier. But it’s a fun album driven by the strengths of the two saxophonists.

I sometimes think of Sonny Stitt (d. 1982) as the Joe Frazier to Charlie Parker’s Muhammad Ali (ask your parents grandparents). If there hadn’t been a Muhammad Ali, people today might think of Frazier as the greatest heavyweight of all time. Similarly, if there hadn’t been a Charlie Parker, it might have been Sonny Stitt who was credited with inventing bebop and changing jazz forever. People who hear Stitt’s earlier alto work after already being familiar with Parker often assume that Stitt was copying Parker’s sound and style, and there is a pretty strong resemblance. But the story goes that Parker and Stitt met each other in 1943 for the first time and Stitt already sounded uncannily like Parker, because that’s just the way he played. Stitt started playing more tenor in the late 1940s, then made tenor his primary horn after doing time in prison for selling drugs, partly to lessen the comparisons with Parker.

Gene Ammons (d. 1974) was always a tenor player, one of the key figures in the heavily blues and R&B-inflected “Chicago style” of tenor playing and a leader in the soul jazz movement. While he was technically proficient and quite capable of playing in the bebop style, Ammons is known more for his big, expressive tone and his ability to emote through his music.

In addition to the two leads, Boss Tenors features John Houston on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and George Brown on drums.

“Blues Up and Down” kicked off the LP version of this album. Anybody who has the Verve CD, like I do, will wonder why the first track is “There Is No Greater Love.” That’s because, for some reason, the CD starts with side 2 of the record. “There Is No Greater Love” is a fine tune but a lousy opener for this particular album, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, so we’re starting with “Blues Up and Down” the way the LP did. Stitt and Ammons wrote this one together, a fast blues that serves mostly as a vehicle for the tenor cutting contest that had to be on this album somewhere:

Next up is “Counter Clockwise,” a slower (except in the double-time sections), soulful showcase for Williams’s meaty walking bass line:

The Isham Jones standard “There Is No Greater Love” opened side 2 of the LP (per the liner notes) but it’s the first track on my CD. The thing is, Stitt is on alto for this one, which is an extremely odd choice for kicking off an album called Boss Tenors, so I’ve decided to go by the LP order. “No Greater Love” is usually covered as a ballad, but here it gets a medium-tempo treatment. The call-and-response stuff that Stitt and Ammons get into towards the end is the highlight:

The melody of “The One Before This,” written by Ammons, might be the simplest one ever written (you’ll see), but it leads into some great solos from Ammons, Stitt, Houston, and Williams:

I never get tired of hearing covers of “Autumn Leaves,” the Joseph Kosma classic, even though it’s one of the most exhaustively covered tunes in jazz history. It’s a great choice to close the album. Here Stitt and Ammons trade bars in both the opening and closing statements of the melody, which makes for a cool effect:



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