by Ian Mann
October 30, 2017
The playing, from a well balanced quartet, is superb throughout with everybody acquitting themselves well, particularly leader Allen for whom this whole project was so obviously a labour of love.
“The Gene Ammons Project”
(RT Jazz Records RTJR001)
Brandon Allen is an Australian born tenor saxophonist who has been based in London for a number of years and who has become a very popular presence on the UK jazz scene, whether leading his own groups or as a prolific and in demand sideman.
He has previously appeared on these web pages on recordings by his fellow Aussie the guitarist Blake Wilner and as co-leader, with British trumpeter Quentin Collins, of a hard hitting quartet featuring organist Ross Stanley and drummer Enzo Zirilli. This band, also sometimes known as Drugstore Cowboy, released the highly enjoyable album “What’s It Gonna Be?” in 2011, followed in 2015 by the deceptively titled “Beauty in Quiet Places”. Other sightings of Allen have been in the bands of guitarists Nigel Price and Chris Allard and drummers Dylan Howe and Clark Tracey. He has also been part of Sax Appeal, led by fellow saxophonist Derek Nash.
Currently Allen has a high profile engagement as part of the London based quintet led by the American bassist and composer Kyle Eastwood, a band which also includes Collins on trumpet and flugel, Andrew McCormack on piano and Chris Higginbottom at the drums. This line up appears on Eastwood’s recent release “In Transit” which also features contributions from Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista on alto and soprano. I intend to take a look at this recording in due course.
In May 2017 Allen brought his regular working quartet featuring Stanley on both piano and organ, Arnie Somogyi on acoustic and electric bass and Matt Home on drums to The Hive Music & Media Centre in Shrewsbury for a performance promoted by Shrewsbury Jazz Network. This hugely enjoyable gig featured the quartet playing a programme of pieces associated with the late Chicagoan saxophonist Gene Ammons (1925-74).
At that time the music of Allen’s “Gene Ammons Project” was yet to be released and I’m grateful to Brandon for forwarding me a copy of the album, which is a welcome reminder and an excellent souvenir of that much appreciated Shrewsbury show.
In his liner notes Allen talks of his admiration for Ammons’ playing, his sound and phrasing and his obvious love of both melody and the blues. Allen regards Ammons as highly underrated and feels that he has been unfairly overshadowed by contemporaries such as Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Sonny Stitt, despite forging a long lasting musical partnership with the latter.
The ten tracks featured on “The Gene Ammons Project” offer a full overview of the saxophonist’s career from 1943-74. Ammons always stayed in touch with the commercial music of his day and in 1950 his version of “My Foolish Heart” registered on Billboard Magazine’s black pop charts. However it may be that Ammons’ commercial success has adversely affected his critical reputation.
Gene Ammons was the son of boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons (1907 – 49). He grew up to be a tenor sax specialist and in a career stretching through the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s he recorded prolifically in a variety of jazz styles ranging from the swing and bebop of the 40s and 50s to the soul jazz of the 60s and 70s. His career was interrupted by two fairly lengthy jail terms for narcotics offences, a factor that may also account for the fact he never quite acquired the recognition that his undoubted talents deserved.
Ammons first came to public attention as a member of vocalist Billy Eckstine’s band. Apparently it was the singer who bestowed Ammons with the nickname “Jug” when the saxophonist’s band uniform hat didn’t fit – I’d always assumed the nickname came from all the time Ammons spent “In The Jug”.
Ammons followed his time with Eckstine with a stint in clarinettist Woody Herman’s Second Herd before later embarking on a solo career. Among those he worked with were pianist Mal Waldron and trumpeter Donald Byrd, but Ammons was particularly noted for his collaborations with fellow saxophonists including such big names as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon.
Allen cites Ammons as a major influence on his own playing style and “The Gene Ammons Project” grew out of a series of gigs that formed part of the “Late Late Show” series at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. These ‘themed’ performances paid homage to a number of leading saxophonists but it was Ammons, who had been such a profound influence on him, that Allen decided to run with and base an album around - in the process bringing the music of Ammons to a whole new contemporary audience. I have to admit to knowing precious little about Ammons and his music before that Shrewsbury gig and I was therefore very grateful for the education. I have since acquired a compilation of Ammons’ ballad recordings , “Gentle Jug Vol. 2”, which includes one piece covered by Allen. More on that later.
Like the Shrewsbury performance the “Gene Ammons Project” represents an approximately chronological journey through Ammons’ career. The opener at The Hive was “Please Baby, Won’t You Please Say Yes” which also kicks off the proceedings here. It’s a classic blowing tune that features Allen’s muscular tenor soloing, Stanley’s sparkling piano work and a series of sparky breaks from drummer Home. The recorded version can’t quite match the sheer vitality and physicality of the Shrewsbury performance but it’s still an invigorating start.
The latin-esque “The Breeze And I” was a tune associated with both Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, a more commercial piece that sees Allen adopting a warmer tone on the tenor but still soloing with his customary fluency. Stanley again shines at the piano as Somogyi and Home provide lightly swinging accompaniment.
Ammons’ own “Ger-ru” swings lazily with Stanley on trilling Fender Rhodes sharing the solos with Allen’s forceful, bluesy tenor and Somogyi’s melodic but resonant bass.
Home’s drums and Somogyi’s double bass introduce the boppish arrangement of “You’re Not The Kind” with Stanley leading off the solos at the piano in a style reminiscent of Bud Powell.
The excellent Home also features more extensively alongside Allen’s hard edged staccato tenor phrasing.
One of the highlights of the Shrewsbury show was the little known ballad “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman”, a tune that also appears on that “Gentle Jug” compilation. The song was originally recorded by the vocalist Etta Jones, with whom Ammons had worked. Allen’s gorgeously warm, tender tenor balladeering is complemented by Stanley’s lyrical piano and the delicacy of Home’s sympathetic, almost subliminal, brushwork. Smogyi also impresses with a warmly melodic double bass solo. This is jazz ballad playing at its best with Allen’s version comparing very well to Ammons’ original.
Another show-stopper at Shrewsbury was Ammons’ own “Piece To Keep Away Evil Spirits”, a composition dating from 1970. Combining Ammons’ innate love of the blues with aspects of more contemporary developments the tune provides a vehicle for expansive solos from Allen on tenor and Stanley at the piano, each stretching out with power and purpose as Somogyi and Home stoke the rhythmic fires around which they dance.
As mentioned previously Ammons was always receptive to the commercial music of the day and he is considered to be one of the early pioneers of the 70s soul jazz movement. From this era comes an arrangement of the Michael Jackson pop hit “Ben”, you know, the one about the pet rat. Stanley switches to Rhodes as Allen adopts an incisive, soulful, r’n’b sound on tenor.
Dating from 1970 Ammons’ own “The Black Cat” is hard swinging soul jazz with Stanley on the move again, this time to Hammond organ. As one of the first call organists in the country he sounds wonderful at the keyboard as he shares the solos with the soulful honk of Allen’s tenor. Home is also a busy presence as he gets to enjoy a series of brisk drum breaks.
With Stanley on Rhodes “Lucille” continues to find Allen mining the soul jazz seam, but this time in ballad mode. He solos with a majestic fluency as he shares the limelight with Stanley’s keyboard with Home and Somogyi providing subtle rhythmic propulsion.
The album concludes with Stanley returning to the Hammond for a funky, suitably gospel infused arrangement of the song “Son Of A Preacher Man”, once a pop hit for Dusty Springfield. This was another audience favourite at Shrewsbury and the recorded version includes joyous solos from Allan on tenor and Stanley at the Hammond as Somogyi and Home lay down an irresistible groove.
There have been a spate of John Coltrane tributes this year from such popular and influential saxophonists as Denys Baptiste, Tommy Smith and Gilad Atzmon but in many respects Allen’s homage to the lesser known Ammons is ultimately more worthwhile. It brings Ammons’ music to the attention of a new, modern day audience, one that will have less idea of how the music ‘should’ be played. In this regard Allen is less weighed down by the history of the music that he has chosen to acknowledge than Baptiste, Smith or Atzmon, as good as their Trane tributes undoubtedly are.
Allen’s tribute represents a good overview of the often troubled Ammons’ career and in doing so embraces a variety of musical styles, with Stanley providing the appropriate changes of instrumentation. It’s a package that makes for a highly exciting and entertaining live show as well as a satisfying album. The Shrewsbury performance also included a number of items that do not feature, suggesting that Allen may have enough material up his sleeve for a “Volume Two” provided this current offering achieves the success that it deserves. The playing, from an excellent and well balanced quartet, is superb throughout with everybody acquitting themselves well, particularly leader Allen for whom this whole project was so obviously a labour of love.
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