The 1960 Time Sessions is essential jazz piano.
In his brief lifetime, pianist-composer Sonny Clark recorded 10 albums as a leader and appeared on dozens of sessions in Blue Note Records’ hard-bop halcyon days. But while a casual jazz listener will immediately recognize the name of name of Thelonious Monk, Clark may be something of an inside-baseball figure. Yet he has been championed by such diverse figures as Downtown iconoclast John Zorn (who led two groups that paid homage to Clark) and the late Bill Evans, leader of what many consider the quintessential jazz piano trio. If you’re not already familiar with Clark, Tompkins Square’s vinyl reissue of The 1960 Time Sessions, with the pianist accompanied by bassist George Duvivier and drummer Max Roach, may introduce you to your new favorite pianist.
Conrad Yeatis Clark was born in the Pennsylvania coal mining town Hermine No. 2—numbered to distinguish the company town from a larger mine by the same name. His coal-mining father succumbed to lung disease not long after Sonny was born in 1931. Clark died of a heroin overdose in early 1963 at the age of 31. Such details seem like the life of an artist whose music must reflect his tortured life, but Clark’s compositions are among the most endearing and joyful in jazz. Originally released on Time Records in 1960 as Sonny Clark Trio, it was the only album released in the pianist’s lifetime that featured all original compositions.
Opener “Minor Meeting” reveals something of Clark’s professed Bud Powell influence. Like many of Clark’s compositions, his delicate signature comes through, rippling but never showy, unassuming but confident, rhythmic and melodic. Roach is a perfect foil for Clark, giving his leader a drive that he might not have on his own; listen to the subtle fills under Clark’s solo on “Nica” and the playful rhythm that propels “Blues Mambo.” If Roach is the most aggressive voice on the session, Clark keeps his own proficiency close to the vest, gently comping on “Nica” before unfolding a perfectly timed, more florid figure. “Blues Blue” is naturally more straight blues, but even here Clark opens with a series of trills that evoke not a hellhound but a bluebird. As Duvivier walks the blues along with Clark’s solo, the pianist’s lines dance with their own inquisitive logic. The solo feature “My Conception” lets the pianist soar with runs that echo another influence, Art Tatum, but Clark’s melodic sense and charming rhythms shine, modulating from tender ivory tickles to grand gestures.
A bonus disc of alternate takes prove that the album’s producer’s made the right choices – “Nica (Take 2)” loses its way a bit with a percussive Duvivier solo that takes the track a bit too far from its central melody and mood, and Clark’s solo subsequently takes a slightly hard tone. But it’s instructive to compare how Clark structures his solos from take to take. “Sonia (Take 3)” has a perhaps more impressive intro solo, but it’s taken at a slightly faster tempo that loses some of the charm of the melody.
Liner notes by Ben Ratliff briefly illuminate Clark’s life and influences, and carefully note what the album is not. For instance, it’s not Clark’s finest hour; he gives the honors to the hard bop staple Cool Struttin, while others (this critic included) the later Blue Note Leapin’ and Lopin’.
Ratliff acknowledges a lot of potential confusing with titles. “Nica,” which for purposes of the 1960 release was dedicated to Pannonica de Konigswater, the Baroness and jazz benefactor who similarly inspired Monk to name a song for her. But Clark had previously recorded the song as “Royal Flush” in 1958. “Sonny’s Crip” may seem to be a misspelling of “Sonny Crib,” another 1958 track, but it is a distinct composition. What’s more, Clark recorded more than one album released as Sonny Clark Trio; this one isn’t to be mistaken for a 1958 Blue Note session with Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones.
Still, make no mistake about this: The 1960 Time Sessions is essential jazz piano. Clark fans will be happy to support this archival release, and newcomers to his music should be prepared to follow him down a rewarding rabbit hole.