Work for Hire

Sonny Stitt and Bobby Hackett Survive the Marketplace

Hackett had a lot worse to contend with than Stitt, but his response was to play every solo as though it might be his last. The same silvery brilliance he brought to sessions with his own bands is heard amid arrangements of breathtaking awfulness. Mosaic uncharacteristically presents the albums as originally sequenced, reserving two infelicitous concept LPs for the last disc: On Blues With a Kick, which has little in the way of blues, he delivers on those rare occasions when permitted to poke his horn through the charts (his break on "Sugar Blues" goes off like an alarm clock—it failed to wake up the producer, but did amend the shuffle rhythm); on Hawaii Swings, a good little band is restrained by cuteness.

Don't Take Your Love From Me, however, could be the most schizoid album every made; the utterly appalling charts by one David Terry present Hackett with the obstacle of a three-women choir from the banshee school of wordless shrieking (they suggest a theremin at times), plus such condiments as tambourine, tympani, and harpsichord. And yet, and yet: Hackett plays with the infallible tact and expressive determination of a man who doesn't know or care that he's surrounded by philistines. On songs like "Autumn Serenade," "Street of Dreams," and the obscure "Wonderful One," there are moments of ludicrous drama, a meeting of the mind and the mindless. So much for apologies. The other seven albums wreath Hackett in clover.

When I was younger, I used to resent the short playing time of, say, The Bobby Hackett Quartet. But in this context, as gorgeous details proliferate in one number after another, I'm more inclined to appreciate how complete and realized his every solo is. Only one number, "My Monday Date," from At the Embers, comes to an ungainly or abrupt end; elsewhere, a canny grace dominates, a combination of animated arrangements and Hackett's alacrity in attacking the melodies. Most of this music is supposed to be not jazz lite but light jazz, '50s style—supper-club fare. The depths he achieves romping through "Spring, Beautiful Spring," of all things, is a reassuring surprise, as though he were aiming every note in defiance of the dollar sign Capitol was trying to stamp on his head. This isn't mood music: You could do aerobics to "C'est Magnifique." One marvels at the energy of the opening notes on "It's Been So Long" or the swinging élan of "If I Had My Way," the stuff of barbershop quartets, wondering how he got away with playing as much as he does. Of course, he didn't get the big hits either. But then, I don't imagine Mosaic will be collecting the Capitol quartets of Jonah Jones, who did.

Sonny Stitt: an invulnerable sense of noblesse oblige
photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images
Sonny Stitt: an invulnerable sense of noblesse oblige

From the first bars of Soft Lights and Bobby Hackett, for which he is backed by rhythm and an efficient string quartet that never becomes oppressive, Hackett embellishes tunes more boldly than he is generally thought to do (Jon Hendricks could write a lyric to his choruses on "Old Black Magic"), hitting key melody notes while kneading harmonies to bring out every lovely curve, always maintaining the equilibrium of a dance—for example, his breaks on "I Cried for You." Something else brought into sharper focus by this box (and Dan Morgenstern's superb notes) is the variety of sounds he effects through mutes, always maintaining an impeccably controlled timbre—for example, the harmonic buzzing on "You Turned the Tables on Me."

Still, I prefer his open horn, as on the exceptional April 3, 1956, session, when Hackett recorded four masterpieces, including an almost embarrassingly sexy "Moonlight Becomes You." His timelessness is underscored by a session that borrowed the sound of the George Shearing Quintet (the label, which had him under contract, might better have borrowed Shearing); its calculated modernism now sounds cloying in a way Hackett's variations don't. Hackett kept growing: His "Embraceable You" from the 1959 Easy Beat rivals his classic 1939 version and trumps it in harmonic complexity. Sonny Stitt has always benefited from the imprimatur of the modern, which sees him and us through a lot of journeyman work. Maybe Mosaic, which previously released Hackett records on The Complete Capitol Fifties Jack Teagarden Sessions (including the ebullient Jazz Ultimate), Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions, and Classic Columbia Condon Mob Sessions has earned for Hackett a re-evaluation beyond the stereotypes of Dixieland and Muzak.

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