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Sunday, July 30, 2023

Angel Eyes - Gene Ammons

Angel Eyes

Angel Eyes
Gene Ammons
Recording Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder
Supervision: Esmond Edwards
Prestige 7369

Gene Ammons - Tenor Sax
Frank Wess - Tenor Sax & Flute (A1, A2, B1, B2)
Johnny "Hammond" Smith - Organ (A1, A2, B1, B2)
Mal Waldron - Piano (A3, B3)
Doug Watkins - Bass (A1, A2, B1, B2)
Wendell Marshall - Bass (A3, B3)
Art Taylor - Drums (A1, A2, B1, B2)
Ed Thigpen - Drums (A3, B3)

From the back cover: Gene Ammons was convicted and sent to a federal prison in Illinois, not too long ago, for possession of narcotics and so it is not likely that we will be hearing from him for some time. The tragedy most importantly belongs to Ammons, but it is one which claims anybody who believes that we can afford to lose even on good musical to ignorance, paranoia, apathy and liquor lobbies.

Gene Ammons was born in Chicago in 1925, the son of Albert Ammons, the great boogie-woogie pianist, and it is in that tradition (a tradition also created and nourished by Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, who were friends and frequent visitors) that his deepest roots lie, (Gene made his first recordings with his father.) Before he was twenty, Gene was working with the Chicago band of King Kolax and from there he graduated to the famous and awesome Billy Eckstine big band (1944-47) where at one point or anther he sat along side of such musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, Tommy Potter, Dexter Gordon andArt Blakey. Later, in 1949, after several years of leading his own small groups, he prefaced Stan Getz in Woody Herman's "Herd" and it is there that he gained his first real recognition as a tenor man of more than passing ability. In the early 50's Gene began a sometime partnership with Sonny Stitt which lasted until the former's incarceration and their night club and record "battles" are rivaled for the aura of legend by only Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray.

Ammons, through he is highly regarded by musicians is, conceivably, the most underrated tenor saxophonist of his time (the one exception might by Lucky Thompson). He has been largely dismissed by critics, but his impact on players like Stitt, Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and (on into the avant-garde) Archie Sheep, has been major and, as Stanley Dance has pointed out been inconsiderable on various contemporary purveyors of soul and funk."

It may be that one reason for Ammon's lack of critical acclaim is that he is not so easily categorizable. He learned and borrowed from both of the major, and disparate, tenor saxophone sources, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and thus cannot be relegated exclusively to either camp of followers, which is upsetting. Ammons is close to Young in his linear conception, closer to Hawkins in his sonority. He defined for himself and took what he needed from these polarities and consolidated them into an original expression. As Nat Hentoff has remarked, "Ammons began by being much influence by Lester Young, went through a 'cool' period, and then burst into his present style of driving, blues laced directness of emotion."

Gene Ammons' music has many facets and qualities. He is a mainstream musician in the best sense of that term, touched by all phases of the jaxx evolution, from spirituals, through blues, the dance bands and bop. He is capable of extraordinary lyricism (hear Angel Eyes) and startling invention.

Ammons is very much preoccupied with sound – the personal aspects of one's sound which is where the identity of all the best born players can be found.  Ammons' own sound is famously big – "He's got a big sound and a big soul," Sonny Stitt says.

"I think you have to use the full sound of the instrument, or else you're not really playing it," Ammons has said. "Some guys that the critics talk about so much, they're not really playing their horn. And they're trying to sound like someone else." Asked to give advice to young musicians once, he answered, "I would tell him to get a sound. Practice his sound."

Pianist Mal Waldron, who plays (and very prettily) on You Go To My Head and It's The Talk Of The Town, say of Gene, "Gene is soulful, down to earth... he has that sincere quality. He's always himself and is always involved in what he's doing... he never plays with his eyes out the window. He's very close to basic jazz... his approach is from the heart instead of the head. His playing is vigorous and he lifts everybody on the session with his spirit."

Dan Morgenstern, in his notes from an earlier Ammons' album speaks of "...his (Ammons') ability to be rough without getting raucous, brusque without being bitter, tender without turning treacly, acerb without getting angry... Gene Ammons tells a straight-forward story of and for our times."

And Frederic Ramsey, Jr. has said a Ammons' style, "Ammons seems to get at his notes the way a shark flips over before he takes a bite – flatting, sliding into his attack, then riding away on the eddy of melody. It's good tenor tone, fluffy and a bit edgy and reminiscent of Hawkins in... slow numbers and, on faster ones, sharp with dollops of reedy cutting acid."

Gene is in top form in this album which is taken from two sessions. On Angel Eyes, where he is particularly powerful and soaring, and the two ballad tracks on which he is accompanied by pianist Mal Waldron, bassist, Wendell Marshall and drummer Ed Thigpen, You Go To My Head and It's The Talk Of The Town, he flows with a booming grace. These numbers perfectly demonstrate the essence of the small dance group tradition which has been on of Ammons' main musical realities – and also the reality which has touched players like John Coltrane as well. On Gettin' Around, Blue Moon, and Angel Eyes, Ammons is assisted by Frank Wess who plays a moving, dancing flute on these tracks. On Water Jug, he shifts to tenor and shifts interestingly and excitingly, right into Ammons' "Bag". The rhythm section on all consists of organist, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, the late Doug Watkins on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums.

Gettin' Around, Blue Room and Water Jug are swung with varied degrees of heat over Smith's strong and fiery underpinning. Ammons' solos (and much the same can be said for Wess' work) have a passion and drive that is lifting.

The state, as well as Ammons, has lost, and a lot.

Notes: Robert Levin (Jan. 1965)

From Billboard - August 7, 1965: This excellent album runs the gauntlet from lyric ballad to bright-tempoed jazz. Johnny (Hammond) Smith is an added treat on organ. The title tune is a real standout with "It's The Talk Of The Town" and "Gettin' Around" close behind. Ammons' great modern individuality within basically traditional lines should give this album wide appeal.

Gettin' Around
Blue Room
You Go To My Head
Angel Eyes
Water Jug
It's The Talk Of The Town

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