Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Gorgeous Alto of Sonny Criss

The story goes that Charlie Parker said to Sonny Criss, "you get the keys to the kingdom." Or something like that. Like most of Bird's promises, I suppose, it was more than he could deliver. Criss would remain a minor figure in the hardbop pantheon, and I have only really discovered him in the last couple of days. But my sweet Lord, what a marvelous soul is on display in his recordings.

I can only recommend three of them, and I am listening to the third for the first time as I type the these words. Sonny's Dream, on Original Jazz Classics, makes the Penguin Guide's Core Collection. For good reason. Recorded in 1968, it features a set of Horace Tapscott compositions. Each one is a priceless piece of music, deeply impressionistic with the musical and political currents of the time woven in. The set included a lot of horns, a trombone and a tuba, trumpets, another alto and a tenor sax. This gives the feeling of an orchestra backing Criss at times, but it always falls back into the small combo action that is my bread and butter. Criss is brilliant and luminous. Tommy Flannagan plays piano, and I am not sure I have heard him play at this high a level elsewhere.

Two other discs that get four stars in the Penguin Guide are Portrait of Sonny Criss, and This is Criss! These are more conventional hardbop sets, each featuring Walter Davis on piano, Paul Chambers (Kind of Blue) on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums. The material is popular and mostly pedestrian (Sunrise, Sunset, On a Clear Day). But it is precisely this that allows Criss to emerge as a first rate player. Listening to all the passion he squeezes out of Sunrise, Sunset, you don't for a moment imagine you are attending a Jewish wedding. All three of these discs are available at eMusic for about the price of a tall Mocha at Starbucks.

Criss was born in Memphis in 1927, and committed suicide in 1977. I gather from a few bios I found online that he was long afflicted by depression. The Penguin guide notes play up this angle, seeing his torment in his music. But it turns out that he was suffering from stomach cancer, and that more prosaic explanation is probably enough. Either way, his early death was a tragedy. Another decade of Criss recordings is one of those things we can look for in the stacks when we get to Heaven. God willing.

ps. I purchased and enjoyed a fourth Sonny Criss recording, Saturday Morning. Just right now I am thinking I like it better than the three reviewed above. Anyway, here is a cut from the disk. Enjoy, and please invest in some Criss recordings. You won't be angry at me for suggesting it.

See Sonny Criss/Angel Eyes/Saturday Morning/ on
This one has Barry Harris p, Leroy Vinnegar b, Lenny McBrowne d.


  1. Thanks so much, Ken, I had never heard of Sonny Criss before reading your post, but I just bought his album "This is Criss!" on iTunes which is superb.

  2. Thank you, Michael.

    I just downloaded Saturday Morning, the fourth Criss recording I have added to my collection. It is another gem, in addition to the three that I mention on my post.

    I had never heard of Criss until recently, either. You might check out my post on the Penguin Guide to Jazz. It is my jazz Bible. Also, eMusic has all four of the Criss discs I mention. If you don't know this service, it is a lot cheaper than iTunes. The catalog they have is awesome.

  3. Actually, Bird is supposed to have said that to Sonny Stitt. I prefer sonny Criss.

    David Sherr,
    "the other" alto saxophonist on Sonny's Dream