Sonny Criss - alto sax; Bill Taylor - piano; Junie Booth - bass; Mousie Alexander - drums
A masterful alto sax player who was one of the more potent Charlie Parker disciples on the scene during the 1950s and 1960s, William "Sonny" Criss played with unparalleled authority and facility on the instrument. But because he spent most of his career on the West Coast, with a brief stay in Paris in the '70s, Criss never gained the recognition of his East Coast counterparts like Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 23, 1927, Criss moved to Los Angeles at age 15 and by age 19 was playing alongside his hero Parker in a band led by bebop trumpeter Howard McGhee. He later put in time on the Los Angeles scene with the bands of R&B star Johnny Otis and singer Billy Eckstine before participating in a number of jam sessions arranged by jazz impresario Norman Granz in 1947. Following a brief stint in Buddy Rich's band, Criss was signed to Imperial Records in 1956 and subsequently gained an underground reputation on the strength of such strong releases as Jazz in U.S.A., Go Man and Sonny Criss Plays Cole Porter, the latter featuring pianist Sonny Clark. Criss also recorded 1959's At the Crossroads with pianist Wynton Kelly for the Texas-based Peacock Records label before signing with Prestige in 1965 and releasing a string of acclaimed bop-fueled albums including This Is Criss, Sonny's Dream, and The Beat Goes On. He subsequently recorded for the Xanadu, Muse, and Impulse labels before contracting stomach cancer in 1977, leading to his tragic suicide on November 19, 1977.
Criss' appearance at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival was the first time that many East Coast jazz critics had a chance to see him perform. This fact may have led to him being named a "Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition" later that year by Down Beat magazine. And while his Saturday afternoon set was brief, it was a perfect showcase of his pungent tone, soulful phrasing, and Bird-like facility on the horn. Accompanied by pianist Billy Taylor, bassist Junie Booth, and drummer Mousie Alexander, Criss opened with a blues-drenched rendition of "Willow Weep for Me" that had him flaunting his astonishing chops. His stunning cadenza at the end of this oft-covered Tin Pan Alley chestnut offers further proof of Criss' sheer command of his instrument. The abbreviated set closes with a blazing uptempo romp through the Sonny Rollins blues classic "Sonnymoon for Two" that showcases Criss in full flight, spinning rapid-fire lines in a seamless flow of notes. His rip-roaring, incendiary alto work on this bebop staple earned him a standing ovation from this appreciative Newport crowd. (Milkowski)