Jazz pianist Sonny Clark gets first-class treatment on a new box set collection

Clark recorded nine sessions with the prestigious Blue Note label between 1957 and ’61. A new set featuring his work as band leader for the label showcases his crisp, tuneful creativity.


This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Sonny Clark grew up in and around Pittsburgh and made his first recordings in LA during the heyday of cool jazz in the 1950s. He later moved to New York in 1957, where the hotter music was more to his taste, and signed with the prestigious Blue Note label. There’s now a new box set collection of all of his Blue Note recordings. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sonny Clark on his tune “News For Lulu,” 1957. Clark was his own man on piano. You could hear what he owed to Horace Silver’s grooving and Bud Powell’s complexity, but Clark had his own fleet, nimble, carefully crafted personal style. His fingers are pistons dancing on the keys, making the strings sing out. And he’s swinging all the time, even playing a single note. His fluent lines could be almost glib sometimes, but bluesy feeling keeps him grounded.


WHITEHEAD: Sonny Clark with Paul Chambers on bass and “Philly” Joe Jones on drums. The pianist holds his own at that quick pace, but medium tempos give Clark more room to fine-tune his timing and force at the keys. On a 1959 take of his tune “Royal Flush,” Clark organizes his stealthy solo around a catchy rotating figure that’s not part of the melody, as if he’s composing in the moment.


WHITEHEAD: Sonny Clark recorded nine sessions for Blue Note between 1957 and ’61. His excellent rhythm partners include drummers Louis Hayes, Arthur Taylor and Billy Higgins and bassists Wilbur Ware and Jymie Merritt. On the piano’s altered blues (ph), “Some Clark Bars,” bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Blakey give the beat almost a country lope, the blues as folk music, their bass and drums that fit right into a rockabilly band.


WHITEHEAD: Blue Note recorded Sonny Clark in trios and in quintets and sextets with excellent horn players. They include Art Farmer, Donald Byrd or Tommy Turrentine on trumpet, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and on saxophones, John Coltrane, Jackie McLean or Clifford Jordan. The scene stealer on Clark’s 1959 LP, “My Conception,” is tenor Hank Mobley, who was having a very good day in the studio. Clark’s ballad, “My Conception,” taps Mobley’s romantic side.


WHITEHEAD: By 1961, when Sonny Clark recorded his fine and final Blue Note album, “Leapin’ And Lopin’,” he’d been spending a little time around Thelonious Monk and was feeling his influence. For this take, he hired Monk’s saxophonist Charlie Rouse and a tuneful bassist Monk would hire later, Butch Warren. Monk’s influence is playing on Clark’s riffing tune, “Voodoo,” and on his stubborn piano under Rouse’s solo.


WHITEHEAD: Fourteen months after recording “Leapin’ And Lopin’,” Sonny Clark died of a heroin overdose at 32. Much music he’d recorded sat in the vaults until the 1970s, when his rediscovery by Japanese jazz fans in particular prompted Blue Note to gradually release all his stockpiled recordings. Now we have in one place everything he recorded for the label as leader. The six-CD Sonny Clark roundup, “The Complete Blue Note Sessions,” comes from web warehouse Mosaic Records with expert program notes by Blue Note authority, Bob Blumenthal. Sonny Clark deserves such first-class treatment. His playing brims with the crisp, tuneful creativity that draws listeners to jazz in the first place.


MOSLEY: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book “Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film.” He reviewed Sonny Clark: The Complete Blue Note Sessions on the Mosaic label. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Marshall Project journalist Maurice Chammah joins us to talk about music programs in prison. He explores how art and music can help build hope and dignity within prison walls and helps us understand the mindset of those who commit crimes and are imprisoned. I hope you’ll join us. To keep up with what’s on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Tonya Mosley.


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