Sonny Clark Steps Out of the Shadows, on a Revelatory New Reissue From 1960

Oct 24, 2017

If ever a jazz musician combined the far extremes of clarity and obscurity, it was pianist and composer Sonny Clark. Over less than a decade’s worth of recording, his precise, boppish touch and subtle sense of phrase rang out on dozens of albums, mostly on Blue Note Records: his own small-group efforts, like Cool Struttin’ and Dial ‘S’ For Sonny, as well as exceptional outings by the likes of Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan and Johnny Griffin. Whatever the setting, Clark’s pianism elevates the level of play. He’s intuitive, nimble and soulful. Clarity is his calling card.

His obscurity, a somewhat more nebulous idea, begins with the conviction that Sonny Clark should be far better known to the jazz public. Even to his cult of admirers, he’s a bit of a cipher, more easily loved than understood. Among the definitions that Merriam-Webster offers for “obscure” are: “not prominent or famous” and “shrouded in or hidden by darkness.” Clark, who struggled with heroin addiction, and died in 1963 at 31, fits the bill on both counts.

But a fuller picture of the pianist is beginning to emerge, and it will only be improved by the arrival of Sonny Clark Trio: The 1960 Time Sessions with George Duvivier and Max Roach. Due out on Nov. 24 in a limited edition on the fine independent label Tompkins Square, it’s an expanded double-LP reissue of Sonny Clark Trio, originally released on Time Records.

The mastering on the new release, by David Donnelly, is deeply illuminating. So too are the liner notes, by Ben Ratliff, who opens with this statement: “Sonny Clark Trio is one of the most exquisite albums in jazz: typical and low-key extraordinary, confident and slightly vulnerable, somehow much more special than it knows.”

With Max Roach on drums and George Duvivier on bass, the original album, produced by Bob Shad, was always a marquee showcase. Clark understood that, filling the album with his own compositions for the first and only time in his career. (The other album simply titled Sonny Clark Trio, recorded in ’57 with Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones, doesn’t have a single original.) 

Sonny Clark with Max Roach, Jan. 1960
Credit Chuck Stewart / Courtesy of Tompkins Square

And on the subject of Duvivier and Roach, Clark is unequivocal. “This rhythm section has had so much experience that they’re immediately able to get down to what you want to do,” he’s quoted as saying in Nat Hentoff’s original liner notes. “These are two dream cats for a pianist.”

In the same liner essay, Hentoff pronounces Sonny Clark Trio the pianist’s finest statement to date. “Here he plays with a much more personal style than on any of his other recordings,” he writes, “and I cannot remember his ever having improvised on record before with so relaxed and self-confident a beat.”

You can hear those qualities, along with a layer of mystique, on several versions of “Nica,” the album’s standout tune. Here is an exclusive premiere of Take 4, which has only previously been heard on a substandard CD reissue, now out of print.

“Nica” is both an accessible and unusual theme, with a sense of harmonic intrigue that Clark, in his solo, turns into an alluring dramatic arc: his phrases proceed like an ascent up a spiral staircase. Ratliff describes the composition’s structure this way: “It is a 32-bar AABA song in F major/minor; typical of Clark’s writing (like ‘Minor Meeting’), each ‘A’ section is a statement phrased in two strains, slightly differently.”

There’s a chance that you don’t know “Nica” but still recognize its contour, in which case you’re probably thinking of a track from Cool Struttin’. That tune is “Royal Flush,” which is identical in most respects, but not at all in tone. The pugnacity in the front line, which has Art Farmer on trumpet and Jackie McLean on alto saxophone, puts it squarely in the realm of hard-bop, a characterization that has clung to Clark’s legacy, and in some ways drawn a perimeter around it.

In that sense, “Nica” might be Clark’s reclamation of the theme, and not just an attempt to wring new royalties from existing catalogue. “Perhaps because there is so much changing between major and minor within two-bar segments,” notes Ratliff, “the song never quite feels resolved; it is an example of holding two opposite emotions, and a few others besides, at the same time.”

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Tompkins Square, established in 2005, has a sterling reputation for chronicling American music old and new, but usually with a rootsy bent. (Among its recent archival releases are Roscoe Holcomb - San Diego State Folk Festival 1972 and When I Reach That Heavenly Shore : Unearthly Black Gospel, 1926-1936.)

Josh Rosenthal, the label’s founder, brought something besides an objective appreciation to this Sonny Clark release. “I grew up with Judd Apatow,” he explained in an email, alluding to the director, producer, writer and all-around comedic juggernaut, who was raised on Long Island.

We worked at our high school radio station together. He was the comedy guy with his own interview talk show, I was the music guy. (Many of his original interviews with comedians from this period are transcribed in his book, Sick in the Head). His grandfather was Bob Shad, who owned Mainstream/Time. Judd’s mom, Tami Shad, and I used to talk about doing stuff with the catalog, but she got sick and passed away before we could ever consummate any deals. Mia, Judd’s sister, started pitching the catalog for syncs in recent years, so we started up the conversation again. So I've known the whole clan since I was kid, and that makes doing this one so much fun. It’s for Sonny Clark and his legacy, but I feel it’s also for Tami and Bob, and Bob’s widow, Molly, as well. Molly is still with us, well into her 90s now.

Sonny Clark Trio: The 1960 Time Sessions with George Duvivier and Max Roach was coproduced by Rosenthal and Mia Apatow, under a license from Time Records. It joins a new spate of reissues on the Mainstream label, set in motion by Judd Apatow — suggesting that the jazz-reissue market might be having a Bob Shad moment.

It’s unclear whether we’re also about to experience a Sonny Clark moment, though that feels like a distinct possibility. On social media, Blue Note has lately been promoting a digital playlist of Clark’s work as a leader; it’s available on Spotify or Apple Music. Tompkins Square’s release is likely to receive attention beyond the usual circle of vinyl-obsessive jazz connoisseurs (though it will appeal to that constituency, to be sure).

There’s also an illuminating Sonny Clark chapter in Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View, a brilliant and unorthodox new biography of the American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. The book’s author, Sam Stephenson, is familiar to jazz fans for his related work with the Jazz Loft Project, an immersive dive into Smith’s trove of home recordings. But Stephenson also did field research in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Herminie No. 2, where Clark was born.

As he did in a memorable essay for The Paris Review in 2011, Stephenson also writes with a careful, probing sensitivity about Clark’s decline and ultimate end. He reports on recordings made at Smith’s loft, including a harrowing episode, late one evening in 1961, when the tapes capture Clark passing out, in a heroin overdose.

Clark’s story will surface, in some fashion, at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on Thursday night, during a program called ‘Wide Angle with Gene Smith: An Evening with Sam Stephenson + The Paris Review.’ Among the participating musicians are pianist Angelica Sanchez, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the Wordless Music String Quartet. They’ll play some music by Sonny Clark, along with some by Hall Overton and Thelonious Monk.

In his book, Stephenson writes: “On the two nights before Sonny Clark died — January 11 and 12, 1963 — he had played piano at Junior’s Bar on the ground floor of the Alvin Hotel on the northwest corner of 52nd and Broadway. The next thing we know with certainty is that Nica de Koenigswarter called Clark’s older sister in Pittsburgh to inform her of her brother’s death.”

Sonny Clark at Bell Studios in New York City, Jan. 1960.
Credit Chuck Stewart / Courtesy of Tompkins Square

There is more to this coda, much of it heartbreaking. But it’s worth thinking about the connection between those fateful last moments and the music that’s now seeing rerelease. The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter is the “Nica” for which Clark named his reimagining of “Royal Flush.” So it belongs in the same subcategory as “Nica’s Dream” (Horace Silver), “Nica’s Tempo” (Gigi Gryce) and “Pannonica” (Monk), along with about half a dozen other tunes.

Listening anew to the tune, in its various takes, is far from a morbid experience. Quite the contrary. And as with the other high points of Sonny Clark Trio — like the springy “Junka” and “Minor Meeting,” which are also heard in multiple takes — it draws back the curtain a bit on Clark. His life will always seem to carry the poignant air of tragedy. His music, however bittersweet, is still another story.