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Perhaps my most expendable album
on September 28, 2010
Upon first hearing this in college, I'm not sure if I was more shocked or saddened. Sonny had come out of his self-imposed hiatus, trying to work out an answer to the challenge represented by Coltrane and "Giant Steps," and rather than surrender an inch of the field to Hawk's harmonic genius, he decided to become field general, playing the game on his own terms--leaning more to the experimental harmelodics of Ornette than the comprehensive harmonies of Hawk or the complex ones of Trane.
The favorable ratings the album appears to garner, even after all these years, recently led me to return to it--for the last time. I'm afraid that upon hearing this at an impressionable young age, I began to think that either all of the jazz history texts were totally wrong in their high praise of Coleman Hawkins and his ability to play in any style or context or that Hawkins was washed up at the time of this recording. It wasn't until 40 years later that the damage gradually came undone, largely as a result of listening to albums like "Night Hawk" (Hawk and Jaws in an utterly complementary tenor match); "The Hawk Relaxes" (with rhythm section, a Van Gelder recording); "The Big Challenge" (3 pairs of dueling horns on the Jazzland label); several Riverside albums on which he's featured with Max and Abbey; "Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins" (on Impulse, more essential that the Ellington-Coltrane meeting); and above all "The High and Mighty Hawk" (a British recording with Hank Jones and Ray Brown, as close to perfection as it gets).
Whether this mismatch was Sonny's doing or some clever producer's at RCA Victor, it does both great saxophonists an injustice, at least to these ears. And all the more so given the personnel. We know that Sonny could have played more "inside" on this "friendly" occasion, recalling the Rollins of "Saxophone Colossus," "Sonny Rollins Vol. 1," "Newk's Time" (an overlooked gem), "Way Out West," and "The Bridge"--not for the sake of cloning each other's personal style but to ensure a result that would, at the very least, represent a common ground, a similar genre, a comparable idiom. Moreover, he had the personnel who could quickly adapt. (I recall, later in the '60s, catching Roy McCurdy, who is still extremely fit, able and active on the West Coast, staying right in the pocket for Cannonball, Nat, and Zawinul in Milwaukee, digging the kind of deep groove that Hawk simply thrived on.)
And to think that I once thought the three recordings of Miles with Sonny Stitt from 1960 (concerts in Paris and Stockholm) represented a totally misguided, extremely unfortunate match-up! (Miles later even said as much.) Compared to "Sonny Meets Hawk" the pairing of Miles and Stitt sounds like Guy Lombardo (again, just a comparison--not necessarily a judgment. Louis was a big fan of Guy, just as I am of Louis).
(Qualifier: Mine is one listener's reaction to "Sonny Meets Hawk." Note that my title merely offers a personal feeling, not any sort of "objective judgment." If the session made you think no less of Hawk's playing than of Sonny's, then it may very well be a 5-star desert island disc. But if you give it 5 stars, please don't do so out of some notion like "Sonny Shoots Down the Hawk," or "Sonny Teaches the Father of the Tenor Saxophone How to Play." )
2 stars for Hawk's passionate playing on the Jerome Kern opener; 0 for Sonny's flutter/stutter tonguing.