A young Gene Ammons asserted his formidable ability to play the tenor saxophone in Chicago from 1948 to 1952. These sessions from the Chess label (reissued when the GRP label bought the masters) represent this coming of age in jazz contexts ranging from bop and blues to many ballads and hints of the big-band sound. While his sound is typically robust and gutsy, there's also quite a bit of evidence that Ammons was capable of playing tender and sweet, but at the base of all this music is the blues. A variety of bands are heard, but certain groups with certain sidemen are most notable, as they showcase the tenor man in distinctly different ways and means. Guitarist Leo Blevins and pianist Junior Mance are the finest contributors on the first two-thirds of this collection. Blevins uses a restrained tone mostly on chords during the classic swinger written by Coleman Hawkins, "Stuffy," and is marvelous in his restraint during the ballads "Once in a While" and "Pennies from Heaven," the latter with a featured second line from muted trumpeter Bill Massey. Mance is the best in a jazz-blues vein, whether on the slower, fully flowered tunes "Goodbye," "You Go to My Head," and "My Foolish Heart," the best small group swingers "Baby, Won't You Please Say Yes" and "You're Not The Kind," or in a larger combo aside the wailin' and boppin' of Ammons, Massey, and trombonist Matthew Gee during the quintessential Shorty Rogers number "More Moon" based on "How High the Moon" or titled "Full Moon." Energized and animated, Ammons goes to town on the hucklebuck style of "Jug Head Ramble," honking and sprawling in a call-and-response with Mance and Blevins, baritone saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and unsung drummer Wes Landers. The last four tracks again have Stitt on baritone, not tenor as he and Ammons would adopt in later life as a most famous tandem, with Massey and trombonist J.J. Johnson forming a mighty horn line. Massey's "Beezy" is the hottest and heaviest tune, "I'll Walk Alone" uses the most teamwork, and the other two, "Old Folks" and "Somewhere Along the Way" are more the sultry vehicles for Ammons with the others taking a back seat. This CD is an interesting window into the early germination period of a true jazz giant, and despite a somewhat thin production sound indicative of the era, is well worth finding and owning.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos