Sonny Clark died of a probable heroin overdose in New York City in 1963 when he was only thirty two years old. In the ten years since he made his recording debut with The Teddy Charles West Coasters in 1953 he had participated in over fifty recording dates, most of them for the Blue Note record label. In fact there was a period in the late fifties when he was effectively the house pianist at Blue Note, recording sessions with among others, Buddy de Franco, Sonny Criss, Frank Rosolino, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon.
Born in Pennsylvania to a poor mining family, Clark moved to California aged twenty, and spent his first few years on the West Coast, playing with people like Wardell Gray and Art Pepper, eventually joining Buddy de Franco's band in 1953.
In 1995 a recording surfaced of a young Clark playing a trio date at the glamorous Mocambo nightclub in Oakland California, with Jerry Good on bass and Al Randall on drums. The record is an interesting document of Clark's early style. His primary influence is of course Bud Powell, however on this earlier recording you can also clearly hear the influence of Art Tatum in his playing. This is especially the case on his version of Willow Weep for Me which borrows heavily from Tatum's 1949 solo recording of the tune.
In 1957 Clark became Dinah Washington's accompanist, which gave him the opportunity to travel to New York where he relocated. He soon became an in-demand sideman for many of the top players around New York at the time, which led to sessions for Blue Note at the Van Gelder studio in New Jersey. It was after one such session with the Hank Mobley Sextet in June 1957 that Alfred Lion, impressed with Clark, offered him his own date. So, the next month, Clark returned with Mobley, Curtis Fuller and Art Farmer, along with Wilbur Ware on bass and Louis Hayes on drums to record the first session under his own name which would be released as Dial 'S' for Sonny.
Dial 'S' For Sonny (1957)
Clark, brought four originals to the session and the band also recorded versions of the standards Love Walked In and It Could Happen to You. Clark's talent as a composer is evident on this first session - all the originals being fresh and striking. Although he makes use of the traditional 'blues' and 'rhythm changes' forms, the tunes never sound formulaic, and Clark adds enough interesting detail in the way of vamps, changes of feel, and harmonic variations to make them distinctive.
The standards are more straightforward, although again, Clark adds some unusual harmonic touches. Bill Evans cited Clark as an influence, and famously dedicated the anagrammatically titled NYC's No Lark to him. It's interesting to hear the way Clark ends both the standards with a progression that Evans would make extensive use of later. In Love Walked in Clark ends with the sequence:
Eb maj / Gb maj / |B maj / E maj / | Ebmaj / / / ||
This progression makes use of tritone substitution - the major 7 chords substituting for the original VI II V I movement.
In It Could Happen to You Clark uses the same progression but in a truncated form.
Dbmaj / / / | Gb maj7 / / / | Fmaj 7 / / / /||
Clark didn't invent this progression. Tad Dameron used it as the turnaround for his tune Ladybird which was written in the late forties, however it's not inconceivable that Bill Evans took the idea of ending a tune in this way from Clark.
Listening to Clark's solo on Love Walked In it's possible to hear his influence on Evans. Clark favours long melodic lines which weave through the changes and have a logic and inevitability to them. His tone is muscular, but has a delicacy which sets him apart from many of the the hard-bop pianists around at the time who favoured a more percussive 'funky' approach. Evans effectively incorporated both these features into his own playing.
Clark also rarely draws on blues vocabulary when playing standards. Clark was a brilliant blues player, but unlike Wynton Kelly or Horace Silver 'the blues' didn't permeate his style; he drew on it sparingly. In a similar way, Evans tended to avoid blues cliches and blues vocabulary, and in fact rarely recorded songs based on blues progressions with his own trio.
Six weeks after the Dial S for Sonny sessions, Clark again made the familiar trip south from New York to the Van Gelder Studio, this time with a different band. The only musician to return from the first session was trombonist Curtis Fuller. On tenor, Clark brought John Coltrane.
1957 had so far been an eventful year for Coltrane. In April Miles had fired him from his quintet because of his worsening drug habit. A month later Coltrane quit heroin cold-turkey, and by the summer was performing with Monk at the Five Spot. Coltrane seemed inspired by his collaboration with Monk, and his playing at this time seems to reflect a newfound sense of direction and purpose. Later in September Coltrane would record Blue Train, which is acknowledged as perhaps his finest album from this period.
The repertoire for this session is the usual mix of standards and originals. The arrangement of Speak Low is iconic, and has become almost the default way of performing this tune. During his solo, Coltrane makes an uncharacteristic mistake. At the end of the first A section he loses the form, thinks he is heading to the bridge and plays a soaring Ab which clashes with the Gmin7 chord, after which he stops briefly and recovers. Clark obviously felt the mistake wasn't too noticeable as, although they recorded another take, this was the version which was chosen.
It must have been catching, because Byrd also loses the form on the 'out' head of Sonny's Crib. He forgets that despite being a blues, the tune has a bridge, and goes straight to the ending. It's interesting how these slips weren't considered that important, and one gets the sense that the musicians treated these sessions more as live performances, and accepted slips and mistakes as part of the creative process.
Coltrane's solo on Sonny's Crib almost seems like a dry run for his famous solo on Blue Train, and in fact the tune itself, with it's call and response A section, may have provided some subconscious inspiration for Coltrane's composition.
Sonny Clark Trio (1957)
For his third Blue Note date that year Clark put together a trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, (perhaps taking advantage of the fact that Miles Davis had temporarily broken up his quintet earlier that year). For the first time Clark doesn't contribute any originals to the session, the repertoire focusing on jazz standards and show tunes.
An interesting choice is the Dizzy Gillespie tune Two Bass Hit. Gillespie had previously recorded it with his big band, and Clark's arrangement follows the big band version pretty closely. Interestingly Clark's version predates the well-known Miles Davis version on Milestones (recorded in 1958), and I wonder whether Chambers or Philly Joe suggested the tune to Miles after playing it with Clark?
Clark also tackles Bebop, another Gillespie tune. The head is notoriously tricky, and in fact sounds a bit shaky here, with Chambers missing the downbeat into the solo. During the A sections Clark uses a Powell like dominant pedal in the left hand. Clark's left hand is still very much rooted in bebop, making extensive use of shell voicings and pedals; he doesn't use the rootless left hand voicings that other pianists like Bill Evans, Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal were beginning to employ at this time.
Clark's solos on Tadd's Delight and I Didn't Know What Time it Was are two of his best. His long melodic lines are in full evidence on these tracks. Each idea builds logically on the preceding one, creating a beautiful sense of forward momentum and flow.
Unusually he plays I'll Remember April as a Tatumesque ballad, which in fact suits the tune's bittersweet lyrics rather better than the uptempo treatment it's usually given.
Cool Struttin' (1958)
Clark returned to the studio with Chambers and Philly Joe in January 1958, bringing with him Jackie McLean and Art Farmer. The result was Cool Struttin' probably Clark's best known and most successful recording. Clark brought three originals, and the band also recorded versions of Sippin' at Bells, Deep Night and Lover. The original LP only comprised four tunes : Cool Struttin', Blues Minor, Sippin' at Bells and Deep Night, with Royal Flush and Lover only available on reissues.
The title track is a classic of the genre. Clark's comping on this album is especially strong. Clark was one of the most in demand side-men around at that time (in 1957 alone he'd recorded eighteen sessions for Blue Note) and this shows in the way he supports all the soloists on this album. On the title track his comping behind Farmer is a masterclass and worth looking at in more detail.
Farmer's solo begins at around 2:12
2:14 Clark plays an ostinato triplet figure where he plays every other triplet quaver beat. This sets up a tension against the 4/4 groove.
2:22 Both Farmer and Philly Joe pick up on this triplet rhythm and play with it.
2:27 He plays some stabs on the 'and' of 2 and 4,
2:37 He introduces a rhythmic figure of 3 semiquavers which overlaps the bar lines, giving a sense of propulsion.
2:53 Farmer hits a concert B natural on the II chord (Gmin7), which Clark responds to by playing a dominant 7th #11 voicing (G7#11) which Farmer in turn then picks up on, incorporating the #11 (C#) into his solo line. This small detail shows just how attuned these musicians were to each other, and how closely they were listening!
3:02 Clark starts playing some sustained 11th chords, adding a feeling of suspension.
3:30 Clark sets up a little melodic riff which he continues through the chorus.
Solo ends at about 3:58
This shows how much Clark is listening and thinking when comping. Sometimes he follows the soloist, like when he picks up on the implied dominant chord at 2:53, sometimes he leads by introducing a rhythmic figure or ostinato. He's never just laying down the chords, but is always looking to how he can contribute to the overall performance.
Listening to this track it's not difficult hear how Clark influenced a young Herbie Hancock, especially with regard to his comping. Hancock also uses a lot of rhythmic ostinatos and triplet based figures to add dynamics and tension to the groove. He brings this technique to a new level in his playing with Mile's sixties quintet, but I feel the roots of this are in Clark and other hard-bop players like Wynton Kelly and Red Garland, who also hugely contributed to the role of pianist as active members of the ensemble.
Farmer is followed by McLean, after which Clark takes another short solo and then Chambers plays one chorus arco. The other band members were perhaps expecting a longer solo and Chambers ends up playing a chorus of walking bass before the theme returns.
Art of the Trio/Blues in the Night (1958)
Later the same year Clark recorded two trio albums, again for Blue Note. For the first session he used Jymie Merrit on bass and Wes Landers on drums. Landers had previously worked with Buddy de Franco which is how Clark probably got to know him. For the second session Merrit is replaced by Paul Chambers.
The repertoire for these sessions are all standards. The tracks were probably intended to be released individually as 45's for the jukebox market, which is why the playing is quite low key and restrained. Clark makes more use of block chords when playing the heads, and In places almost sounds like Red Garland, even employing Garland's trademark left hand comping pattern.
Despite being more restrained, Clark's playing is as assured and vital as ever on these recordings. He plays particularly well on the slow blues Blues in the Night, showing a real understanding of the idiom, and his solo on Somebody Loves Me is a masterclass in sustained melodic invention, each idea leading seamlessly to the next.
My Conception (1959)
The album My Conception which was recorded in March 1959 was first released in Japan in 1979. It featured a band including Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley Paul Chambers and Art Blakey. The record also included an alternative take of Royal Flush from the Cool Struttin' sessions. When the album was re-released in 2000 it also included three tracks recorded in December 1958 featuring a different band of Kenny Burrell, Clifford Jordan and Pete La Roca (still with Chambers on bass). These three tracks were originally intended for an album called Sonny Clark Quintets which was never released.
The album is notable in that it features all Clark originals. Along with the previously recorded Minor Meeting and Royal Flush, it also includes Junka, Blues Blue, Little Sonny, Eastern Incident and My Conception. The latter has become notorious for its supposed similarity to Waltz For Debby by Bill Evans. Evans cited Clark as an influence, and it may be that there was some unconscious influence, however to my ears it bears more resemblance to Earl Zindars tune How My Heart Sings (which Evans also liked to play).
Clark did famously steal a tune from Thelonious Monk however, (Five Will Get You Ten) which he supposedly lifted from 'The Baroness' Nica's apartment and recorded as his own composition on the Jackie McLean album A Fickle Sonance. Apparently Monk was quite relaxed about this and generally seemed to have an almost fatherly relationship towards Clark, often trying to help him out with problems caused by his addiction.
The Sonny Clark Trio (1960)
Clark's next record would be his only non Blue Note release under his own name. The Sonny Clark Trio was recorded for Capitol, and features Max Roach on drums and George Duvivier on bass. It differs from his last two trio dates in that it consists of all original material.
The album kicks off with Minor Meeting. This is the third time Clark had recorded this tune, although the first time in a trio setting. The next tune Nica is basically just Royal Flush re-titled in honour of the Baroness Pannonica who helped Clark with his personal problems, as she helped so many black musicians at that time (which is why she probably has more tunes titled in tribute to her, than any other figure in jazz history!)
Sonny's Crip is not to be confused with the tune Sonny's Crib on the album of the same name - it's a completely different tune. Just to confuse matters further, on the session Clark recorded with trombonist Bennie Green earlier that year the band performed Sonny's Crib but it was mis-titled Sonny's Crip!
Clark again performs his original tune My Conception, although this time he plays it solo. Clark's solo playing had evolved a lot from his earlier Tatumesque style, and this performance seems more informed by Monk and Powell's approach to solo playing.
Leapin' and Lopin' (1961)
Leapin' and Lopin' would prove to be the last record Clark would make under his own name. It was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's new purpose built studio in Englewood New Jersey. The band features, along with Warren on bass and Higgins on drums, Charlie Rouse on tenor (best known as a long running member of Monk's quartet) and Tommy Turrentine on trumpet. Ike Quebec also features on one track, a quartet performance of Deep in a Dream. At the time Quebec was making something of a comeback after a period of low visibility.
Perhaps the most notable track on the album is the Clark original Voodoo, which is quite unlike anything else in his catalogue. The tune is in Dminor and consists of two sections. The A section features a repeated phrase played against a descending step-wise bassline. The melody emphasises an Eb note which clashes with the Dmin harmony creating a Monk-like dissonance. The B section in contrast has the horns playing a rhythmic figure on one note over a different progression.
There is one other possible recording of Clark playing with a trio, although this remains something of a mystery.
In 1957 Charlie Mingus recruited Hampton Hawes to record a trio album with himself and Danny Richmond. At this time Hawes and Clark were renting a hotel room together, Clark having just finished his stint with Dinah Washington. As Hawes tells it in his autobiography Raise Up Off Me:
I fixed and made the date. Sonny came to the studio with me, and though he wasn't listed under personnel he played the ending on one of the tracks because I was back in the bathroom fixing again.. We got paid after the gig - Charles gave Sonny five dollars for his two chords - and you know we went straight to Harlem and got blind that night.
In Clark's official discography there's a listing for the Mingus session with Clark credited for having performed on I Can't Get Started. So maybe the last chord after Mingus's final cadenza is actually Clark? I guess we'll never know for sure...