It was Charlie Parker who first unlocked the alto-saxophone, enabling it to mimic a musical ribbon that freely rippled and twirled in the thermal updraft created by the rapid-fire chord changes of late-40s bebop. Many imitators were swept along in his wake, but only those who successfully developed their own sound despite that irresistible influence were best placed to have influential careers of their own. Where New York native Jackie McLean emerged as fiery and urgent, Sonny Criss turned his heavily Parker-based style into a slightly more relaxed Los Angeles dialect, and by the time he came to record This Is Criss! in 1966 his formidable technique had become fully evolved.
Joined by Walter Davis Jnr. on piano, ex-Miles Davis and Wynton Kelly Trio bass player Paul Chambers, along with drummer Alan Dawson, Sonny Criss crafted an LP for Prestige Records that is the quintessence of hard-bop, consummately recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his cathedral-like studio. The quartet had never performed together before this date, but their combined professionalism and musicianship cohered flawlessly to produce this unexpected classic. The melancholy achieved on ‘Black Coffee’ is inspired, Criss plays clean and masterful. The solo by Walter Davis Jnr. is one that describes a heart empty of everything except resignation and regret. As with ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ and the wistful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ , the core of the tune is the impeccable delivery of the melody, as Criss makes clear on the liner notes: “I never play a ballad unless I know the lyrics. It’s just as important to me as the changes.”
Naturally, the album also swings plenty, particularly on ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Greasy’ by Walter Davis Jnr. which previously appeared on McLean’s 1959 Blue Note release New Soil as a romping R&B belter. The blistering ‘Steve’s Blues’ is the sole Sonny Criss authored tune here, dedicated to his son who was serving in Vietnam at the time. The original LP finished with Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Skylark’, a beautiful breezy tune with lyrics by Johnny Mercer that detail his longing for Judy Garland, with whom he had an affair.
“Faint as a will o’ the wisp
Crazy as a loon
Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon
The CD reissue has a scorching version of the jazz standard ‘Love For Sale’ that serves as a vehicle for more Sonny Criss acrobatics and sits well among the many highlights of this record without unsettling its even flow. This Is Criss! is a perfect primer for those curious about this undeservedly little known saxophonist, or indeed for anyone wishing to investigate jazz for the first time.