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Monday, January 17, 2005

Grant Green's "Nigeria" (January 13, 1962)

Blue Note records under the ownership and management of Alfred Lion -from 1939 until the mid 1960s- built up one of the most impressive catalogs in jazz history. Only the catalogs of Columbia Records and Clef/Verve are in the same ballpark but the former made a living raiding “minor” labels for already developed talent while the latter’s 60s output suffers from Norman Granz’s absence. Generally, Alfred released the better stuff and he, by all accounts (i.e., his former wife in Sharon Greene's piddling bio of Grant Green), really dug jazz guitarist Grant Green. It shows: dozens of Grant Green sessions were recorded and released by Alfred Lion and Green became the de facto Blue Note in house guitarist playing on dozens of high caliber sessions. Yet the "Nigeria" sessions recorded nearly 43 years ago on January 13, 1962 at the Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey remained unreleased until long after Alfred Lion had passed on. I guess there was so much great stuff being recorded by Blue Note at this time that some noteworthy performances were bound to slip through the cracks.

Grant Green made his name playing guitar in Saint Louis and then joined Lou Donaldson's band in 1960. What differentiates Grant Green from other guitarists is that he plays note by note and never plays chords. Apparently he was so blown away, like many people, by Charlie Parker -or so goes the story- that he decided to play like him on guitar. In the liner notes which accompanied “Nigeria” Ben Sidran summarizes Grant’s playing: “Some compared his hollow-bodied guitar style to that of the earliest pioneer, Charlie Christian. One also hears touches of that other great popularizer, Les Paul. For while Grant was not a radical player, he excelled at the basics and the subtleties: he could swing like crazy and he played the prettiest phrases. Grant Green made esoteric music easy for the average listener to get to, just as jazz singers have done for years. Grant Green was a popularizer and a singer on his instrument.”

Lou Donaldson brought him to New York in late 1960 and introduced him to Blue Note Records and the rest as they say is history. In early 1962 the “Nigeria” session was organized with Grant Green, the session leader, on guitar, Sonny Clark on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Art Blakey on drums. What a dream lineup! This was to be Grant Green and Art Blakey’s only recording session together and I doubt they ever played together again. Blakey and Blue Note soon ended their relationship. Although Blue Note had enough of his recordings in the “can” to keep putting them out over the years. In fact, Blakey's last sessions for Blue Note were only days later on January 20th on an unreleased Ike Quebec recording (also featuring Sonny Clark) and January 24 for the unorthodox “African Beat." Around this time Blakey decided to concentrate his own sessions as leader and end his work as a hired hand.

Sonny Clark, unlike Blakey, is not the household name he ought to be. To my ears he is one of the more impressive jazz piano players. Now I have not heard as much jazz as many but one early record Sonny distinguishes himself on is Serge Chaloff's wonderful "Blue Serge." In any case by the time Sonny Clark played on the “Nigeria” session he had a number of impressive dates under his belt including sessions as leader for “Dial S for Sonny”, “Sonny’s Crib” (with Coltrane and Byrd!- this session is Coltrane’s Blue Note debut with “Blue Train” still to come two weeks later), “Cool Struttin’”, and had just recorded “Leapin’ and Lopin” two months prior. A year to the day after this recording session and at the ridiculous age of 31 Sonny Clark passed away from a heroin overdose. What a loss! All Music Guide sums him up as having ”...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.” And Wikipedia has this to say: “Sonny Clark is known for his unique touch, sense of melody and complex hard-swinging style.” I would add elegance to any description of his playing.

So what we have here ladies and gentleman is three absolutely first rate top shelf hard bop musicians getting together for an afternoon or evening jam session on a few choice standards. Sam Jones the bassist is no slouch either having previously played on Cannonball Adderley’s “Somethin’ Else.” Grant Green and Sonny Clark would play together on other sessions (“Gooden’s Corner”, “Oleo” and “Born to be Blue”) which have now been collected on a two CD set (along with “Nigeria”) and released under Grant Green’s name as “The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark.” All these sessions are recommended but “Nigeria” is the one with the added stick to stir the pot: Art Blakey!

The highlight of “Nigeria” is “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The tune swings and lopes along beautifully- that is it cooks- and features some wonderful playing by both Grant and Sonny while Art Blakey, in his inimitable style, in addition to some rock solid drums, gets in on the action with “YYYYYAHHHHHH!”’s, “WWOOOAAAAHH!”’s, “HO HO HO HO!”, “UUUUUMMHHH!” and even “WOO HOO!” Towards the end of the song, when Blakey can take it no longer, given what he has witnessed and been part of, he cuts loose with some sweet licks of his own that must have shook the roof of the Van Gelder Studio. Ben Sidran writes: “..the endlessly good groove that is the star of the cut. Interspersed with Blakey’s press rolls, this fat-back groove- like those Art played on innumerable Jimmy Smith jam session dates- gets Grant all the way up on his toes. His tone is singing six different ways to Christmas, until he finally gets Blakey singing, for it is the drummer you hear shouting ‘whoa!’ and grunting in response to Grant’s precise preaching. By the time Sonny’s solo arrives, Blakey is putting as much vocal into the overhead mikes as the cymbal. Clark seems to goad him on, and finally, when he has taken his ninth chorus and seems ready to turn it back to Grant, Blakey won’t let him go. You can hear Art laughing and shouting to Sonny, ‘No, go ahead, go ahead.’ And go ahead he does, until Blakey finally turns him loose with an escalating series of strokes. As the song fades behind that Latin feel, I’m ready to do it all over.”

In sum, this is a wonderful hall of fame session that unfortunately remains semi-buried as part of an obscure two disc package of Grant Green Quartets with Sonny Clark. This is goosebump causing music and well worth checking out!

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