Gene Ammons

A Stranger in Town

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For those who love Gene "Jug" Ammons' playing, there are various reasons to be frustrated. First, the tenor titan was only 49 when he died of cancer on August 6, 1974 -- in an ideal world, a player that masterful would have had as long a life as Benny Carter. And second, there is the fact that Ammons was imprisoned for heroin use from 1962-1969; the harsh sentence that he received makes an excellent case for combating drug abuse with treatment rather than incarceration. But here's the good news: When Ammons wasn't behind bars, he recorded frequently and his work was -- despite his drug problems -- amazingly consistent. If Fantasy decided to put together a 20-CD Ammons box set, there would be a wealth of five-star material to choose from. This 68-minute CD, which Fantasy assembled in 2002, focuses on different periods of Ammons' career and draws on three Prestige LPs: Night Lights, Sock!, and Velvet Soul. The oldest tracks ("Count Your Blessings" and a soulful version of the Italian ballad "Cara Mia") are from 1954, while the most recent ("Calypso Blues," "Night Lights," and the Eden Ahbez standard "Nature Boy") are from 1970. Meanwhile, the early '60s are nicely represented by, among other things, four Mal Waldron pieces and a heartfelt performance of Mel Tormé's "A Stranger in Town," which, like "Cara Mia," reminds listeners how expressive a ballad player Ammons could be. Thankfully, Jug wasn't the sort of musician who had periods of good recordings followed by periods of bad recordings -- again, Ammons' work was quite consistent when he wasn't locked up on drug charges. This rewarding CD demonstrates that Jug had as much going for him in the early '70s as he did in the early '60s and in 1954.

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