I was at Melody Records one fall day, flipping LPs through most names, all letters, all sections, not looking for anything in particular, just looking for anything. I came to “C” in Jazz, hesitated for the hundredth time over those Sonny Clark albums, then flipped up to an unidentifiable blue one. I looked closely.
Out of Nowhere by Sonny Criss. I had heard of him, but not from him. His was a name I’d been curious about, but had never had the opportunity to investigate. Except, wait.
Did I have an mp3 of a session with him and Charlie Parker and Chet Baker at the Trade Winds in the early fifties? Why, yes, I did. I remembered not being able to tell Bird and Criss apart, so technically, I still hadn’t heard from him.
I scanned the back of the record sleeve. The mid-seventies date was suspect but the personnel played acoustic instruments — a quartet outing, not some gaudy band with moogs and fender basses. The back of my head tingled slightly as if my brain had gooseflesh. It was that gentle spasm of delighted discovery that the record store junkie keeps hidden under a look of professional boredom.
I bought Out of Nowhere and took it home. Placing the needle on the wax, the music was instantly and formally identifiable as jazz. But there was something more. The music crystalized, and I faded. I was like a man collapsing into his favorite chair in a crowded, but cozy and familiar room, and I needed only a few bars to recognize that I was in the presence of greatness.
Born in 1927, Sonny Criss came of age playing with Charlie Parker in Howard McGee’s band, and his playing, like that of many other alto players of his generation, reflected Parker’s influence. In fact, he was as skilled as Parker and was proud of his performance with Bird at the Trade Winds. He had held his own.
But Criss’ Bird feathers were of a different shade. He developed a bolder, brassier tone than Parker, judiciously employing a gorgeous, highly controlled vibrato. Criss lived beyond Parker and continued to develop throughout the fifties, the age of hard bop. Thus, the deep strain of the blues shows more clearly in his playing than that of his idol.
Criss worked for groups led by Billy Eckstein and Stan Kenton and eventually landed with Buddy Rich for a time. During the late fifties he cut some great hard bop albums, including Jazz U.S.A., for the Imperial label. These albums are now considered underrated masterpieces of the form, but at the time Imperial focused mostly on R&B, so the label didn’t put any promotional effort into them.
His home base was Los Angeles where he fronted bands and recorded a few records throughout the sixties and into the seventies, but he never received wide-spread recognition, never got a throne of his own in the pantheon of jazz gods.
He was just a bebop guy in a west coast town. As DJ and writer Tom Reney points out, the bebop lexicon was more popular on the east coast and “West Coast cool was never for Sonny.”
Out of Nowhere was released in the unremarkable year of 1975, about 6 years into the popular abuse of fusion (hence my caution when I saw the date) and just two years prior to Sonny Criss’ suicide apparently as a result of the pain he was in from stomach cancer. Criss and his Quartet play a fistful of hard bop numbers and ballads, plus a blues original. They hold a relaxed attitude but employ a snappy and articulate execution.
Criss’ alto tone shines like polished metal when he blazes his way through the intricate bop lexicon, but it can withdraw to a deep luster when he draws out beautiful and bluesy phrases in the ballad passages. He is light on his feet, swinging hard, laying back. He articulates furious figures that collapse on the legato of heartbreak. Jazz musicians are infamous for their many notes, but Criss cuts straight to the essentials and not one note is wasted even when they seem to fly recklessly out of the speakers.
His rhythm section, consisting of Dolo Coker (piano), Larry Gales (bass), and Jimmie Smith (drums), effortlessly carries the burden of the essential jazz paradox: obsessive control and reckless abandon, both at once. They are the restless cushion on which Criss floats.
But when Out of Nowhere was released, the album was an unattractive thing for many listeners. By this time, not only was Criss in the wrong town, he was in the wrong era. He was in his late forties, and hard-bop was a relic even among jazz aficionados, to say nothing of lovers of the music industry’s current cash-cow: glam rock.
In other words, Out of Nowhere was probably as unrecognizable then as it is now, and some aspects of the album’s production emphasize the gap of its life in the wrong time. Smith’s drums are tamed by the modern studio. Gone is the live, rowdy sound that the instrument had in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, the echoing crunch of the snare and the occasional distortions of an aggressive attack on the toms are subdued as if they’d been tranquilized.
Furthermore, Gales’ bass, while acoustic, nevertheless carries the glossy pulse of its electric brother. My guess is that was recorded using a direct line to a pickup, which, somewhere along the way, began to be a thing in jazz recordings. Possibly the idea was to get a more prominent sound from the instrument (you know, how the kids like it), but that came at the expense of its stout, wooden tone.
Ultimately, though, these are the picky complaints of someone who loves something a little too much. In spite of the impediments of the album’s production, the band is a fortress of its form, and Criss’ alto shines like an ancient beacon, still burning from a past that listeners largely have forgotten.
Sonny Criss was a quiet, introspective man who did not complain about his troubles or boast about his accomplishments. But he was not the reclusive, bitter artist. In its November 20, 1977 obituary, the New York Times reported that Criss “helped alcoholics and drug addicts . . . [and] offered a series of jazz programs for children at the Hollywood Bowl.”
He also, apparently, was a laid back man. In the liner notes for Out of Nowhere, writer and author Bob Porter relates that the album was intended to be a quintet session. But thirty minutes prior to the start, Criss still had not found a vibraphonist for the date. Unperturbed he made a couple calls, but to no avail, so, as Porter writes, “Sonny settled back and started to work on his quartet session” [original emphasis].
And yet for those who hear him, his strength, vitality, and passion are undeniable. Bob Porter, as quoted by Reney, sums it up: “What stands out for me after all these years is the ability of Sonny Criss to reach across time and engage people with the force of his playing. Try putting on one of his great sessions for people who have never heard him. Invariably, the result is the same: someone will venture forth with ‘Wow! Who is that?’ or some such. It never fails.”
As I listened to Out of Nowhere at a distance of some forty years, I was one of those quietly saying, “Wow! How could I have missed this?” And yet there he was, playing with the precision, soul, and confidence of the one of the greats. Sonny Criss, the furthest thing from a household name, playing as if he had it made.
And yet, in terms of accomplishments, records sold, crowds played to, he was not great. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. The answer to what makes greatness is not hard to figure out. The problem is that we typically answer it according to our own snobbery.
We love the pantheons of our obsessions, the great gods, the Charlie Parkers. But for every “jazz great” there’s a Sonny Criss (if not three or four). He comes of age with the one called great, but it doesn’t stop him from pursuing greatness on his own terms.
He works night after night. He plays to small crowds. He hits the studio when he can. He’s not great because a lot of people know about him, and he’s not great because a lot of writers write about him.
He’s great because the notes he plays testify.