Born in Miami, FL, in 1928, Willis "Gator" Jackson was first inspired by Charlie Parker and then by Illinois Jacquet to learn to play the saxophone. His cohorts at first were Blue Mitchell and Julian and Nat Adderley. Discovered by Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in 1948, Jackson was thus introduced to Vinson's former employer, Cootie Williams. It was with the Cootie Williams Orchestra that Willis Jackson made an explosive two-part record called "Gator Tail" and earned himself the nickname "Gator." This exciting compilation traces the saxophonist's first recordings made under his own name from January 1950 through April 1954. Willis Jackson's sweaty, gutsy tenor sax technique places him somewhere between Illinois Jacquet and Big Jay McNeely. He was also capable of savoring ballads in the manner of Gene Ammons. The bands with him on the Apollo sessions of 1950 included drummer Panama Francis, pianist Bill Doggett, and trombonist "Booty" Wood, a veteran of the Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins bands. The Atlantic and Deluxe sessions of 1951-1953 yielded a mixed bag of ballads, mood pieces, and jump tunes. The Four Gators provide oozy background vocals on "Street Scene" and assist with "Wine-O-Wine," an attempt by the Ertegun brothers to cop a bit of thunder from Sticks McGhee. "Here Is My Heart" has a rather theatrical wordless vocal by Gladys Bruce. A groovy unidentified organist adds luster to the 1952 recordings. Although there are a handful of fine ballad performances included here, most of these tunes are jazzy R&B dance instrumentals bordering on rock & roll. "Try a Little Tenderness" becomes a slightly upbeat bounce with toothy touches from the sax. "Shake Dance" has a lively shuffle rhythm that feels almost like a premonition of Jamaican ska, a perfectly logical maneuver for a man born and raised in Florida. Must have been something that came up out of the Gulf of Mexico and got him.
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AllMusic Review by arwulf arwulf