In his excellent biography on Bill Evans titled How My Heart Sings, pianist/writer Peter Pettinger makes the following insightful observation about Sonny Clark:
He was one of those pianists who feel, and show, respect for the instrument; one who collaborates with it rather than acts the aggressor upon it. Such a player is immediately in a position to judge and vary sound quantity (while maintaining quality), and thereby to control tonal nuance within a line.
Apart from the terrific Sonny Clark Trio album with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers, his discs were never designed to be piano showcases. Leapin’ And Lopin’ was the last Sonny Clark led recording session and is his most tempered ensemble release. The popular 1958 release Cool Struttin‘ has better soloing, is more vital, swinging and upbeat (and has a better cover!), but Leapin’ And Lopin’ possesses a depth and world-weariness that Cool Struttin’ lacks. It also has superior tunes and greater maturity overall. The melodies are played by the sax and trumpet in hard edged unison, there are few harmonic arrangements on the album. ‘Something Special’ is a minor blues that sounds like the narrow spaces between New York City skyscrapers in the deepest hours of night. Nothing is rushed here, careful steps are taken; this is a time of damaged souls and dangerous people. Saxophonist Charlie Rouse takes a solo full of earthiness and suspense, Tommy Turrentine tunes his trumpet into the quiet despair of the streets. ‘Deep In A Dream’ is a more comfortable place; a sweet, slow ballad with drifting feather-light piano, caramel flavoured arco-bass and a lullaby sax that outlines the melody as if gently ushering you into a cloud-world of secret perfection.
‘Melody For C’, a sophisticated burst of daylight, sounds suspiciously similar to Victor Feldman’s composition ‘Lisa’ that appeared on his album Merry Olde Soul and The Cannonball Adderley Quintet LP Plus (on which Feldman guested), both recorded earlier the same year. The tune is in fact too alike for it to be a mere coincidence. It is now well-known that Sonny Clark plagiarised the unreleased Thelonious Monk composition ‘Two-Timer’, renamed it ‘Five Will Get You Ten’, and coolly credited himself as sole-author when he recorded it on a Jackie McLean session. The practise is not unheard of in jazz, Miles Davis did the same several times, but it is surely poor form to simply lift a melody from another artist and receive the redirected composer’s royalties for it, however meagre they might be. Clark had a significant heroin addiction (he died from an overdose just over a year later aged 31) and doubtless he did this simply to create another trickle of income to finance his all-consuming habit. Nonetheless, ‘Melody For C’ is a great recording, pushed along by the steady ride-cymbal of Billy Higgins. Clark’s spare solo, a restatement of the main theme, is handled with poise.
Bassist Butch Warren’s ‘Eric Walks’ is a crackerjack downtown taxi-ride, one of the more straight ahead hard-bop tunes on the disc along with the carnivalesque ‘Midnight Mambo’ by Tommy Turrentine. Wedged between these two is the trance-like ‘Voodoo’, a bare-bones slow cooker that closes in on you like the dark from a savannah evening slowly descending. Beneath evocative horn solos, Clark deftly elicits hypnotic incantations from his piano; waves of narcosis steadily fall upon you, gravity dissolves and the universe fades and then disappears. Only the very best music has this effect. The same could be said of art generally, and much of this album succeeds to that degree.