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Sonny Clark: Oakland, 1955

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Album Review

The first officially recorded date from an ensemble led by the brilliant jazz pianist Sonny Clark is an interesting prelude to his subsequent classic efforts for the Blue Note label. After leaving his home near Pittsburgh, moving to Los Angeles and finishing work as a sideman with Wardell Gray, Oscar Pettiford, and Buddy DeFranco, Clark lived in the Northern California Bay area of San Francisco, and led this obscure trio of bassist Jerry Good and drummer Al Randall. Recorded in performance at the Mocambo Club in Oakland in mid-January 1955, it is an historical document for fans of Clark who might want to hear the pianist at a time when he was happy — not doing the drugs that destroyed his life and career — and in a freewheeling mood playing standards. Clearly influenced by Bud Powell's virtuosity, Clark shows he has all of the chops, inventiveness, and speed to burn that made him one of the most impressive pianists of the hard bop era. The production values are thin, though, especially Randall's drumming, which hurts the overall quality of the sound, but Clark's piano still reigns supreme, and it takes him little time to warm up. As deft as his fleet lines are, the feeling of the music is relaxed in tempo and development. It is not until the third tune, "There Will Never Be Another You," that the trio brings the beat to a boil, and Clark shows off with flurries of arpeggios, but not staggeringly so. A take of the basic, happy blues of John Lewis' "D & E" lopes along, while "All the Things You Are" sports a slight calypso refrain. The rest of the program is distinguished by classic bop tunes, and Randall's scratchy snare drum. The loose snare is distracting, and sounds like a supplemental percussion instrument. The band does kick into another gear, using tight and frequent stop-start techniques on the melody of "Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea," while Clark unleashes his power during "But Not for Me" and Dizzy Gillespie's stretched-out "Night in Tunisia." There's a wow in the tape recording for the intro of "All the Things," some poor microphone placements on the drums causing the sonic imbalance, with Randall sounding tired or less inspired in the second half. Randall died a decade after these recordings, and Clark spent only eight more years playing brilliant jazz before losing his battle with drug addiction, while Good went on to a career in music as a player and accountant for the local musician's union. This LP, while definitely flawed, gives a clear indication of what the pianist had to offer when the moment was somewhat right. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi


Born: 21 July 1931 in Herminie, PA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '50s, '60s

Like Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker before him, Sonny Clark's life was short but it burned with musical intensity. Influenced deeply by Bud Powell, Clark nonetheless developed an intricate and hard-swinging harmonic sensibility that was full of nuance and detail. Regarded as the quintessential hard bop pianist, Clark never got his due before he passed away in 1963 at the age of 31, despite the fact that it can be argued that he never played a bad recording date either as a sideman or as a leader....
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Sonny Clark: Oakland, 1955, Sonny Clark
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