"When is Sonny Stitt going to get his props?" asks Harvey Pekar, getting right to the point at the start of his liner notes. "He was one of the founders of bebop, yet during his lifetime and to some extent even now, he's been dismissed as a technically skilled copier of Charlie Parker. I think his detractors are misreading his legacy. Stitt contributed a lot of his own ideas to the jazz vocabulary."
Pekar has certainly nailed Stitt's reputation: I'd previously heard him as a sideman, and almost immediately wrote him off as just one more Bird clone. But I was unfair even without having heard more of Stitt; I mean, show me a sax player in that first generation of beboppers who didn't try to sound like Charlie Parker, and I'll show you a sax player who's lying about trying to sound like Charlie Parker. But all of those people learned to find their own sound, just like all jazz players worth their salt do.
Stitt is undoubtedly the bop saxman who stuck to Bird's path the closest, but even the most superficial listen to the new Prestige box Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952 proves in an instant he was not just another Parker wannabe. His jet-fast runs and high-note-to-low-note dynamics are Parkerian, Stitt has a sleeker, more streamlined approach, and a firmer foot in the blues (Parker was a great blues player, but he tended to use them as more of a jumping-off point for his flights; Stitt stands firm in the gutbucket).
This is partly because he specialized in the tenor, which demands a more grounded and bluesy technique, but also because Stitt had a different vision: he wanted to flex some of the subtle sinew that Lester Young had bequeathed to jazz. In doing so, Stitt added a kind of lean lyricism to bebop saxophone: he sounds less like a descendant of Bird than he does a precursor of Sonny Rollins.
Fortunately, the revelation comes when Stitt is surrounded by some of the best players in the postwar jazz world. He first appears here as a sideman for trombone god J.J. Johnson, and nearly half of the rest as second tenor and/or baritone in the band led by Billy Eckstine's favorite son, Gene Ammons. In these sessions and in the ones he leads, Stitt is joined by such musicians as John Lewis, Duke Jordan, Kenny Drew, Nelson Boyd, Junior Mance, Tommy Potter, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. But the jewel of this CD set comes in two sessions Stitt recorded with a fella named Bud Powell on piano.