Recorded at Webster Street Studios, San Francisco, CA c. 1965. Personnel: Sonny Lewis, tenor sax; Tom Harrell, trumpet; Jym Young, piano; Harley White, Sr., bass; D. Young, drums
The musical legacy of Sonny Lewis, a talented saxophonist with a wide-ranging career, was almost lost to history.
Born and raised in Boston, Sonny Lewis began on the clarinet when he was 13 before switching to tenor the following year. As a teenager, he was already a professional musician, playing R&B gigs. After attending the Berklee School Of Music for two years, he went to Europe, playing jazz gigs in France and Germany. During this period Sonny also sat in with the innovative bop pianist Bud Powell, worked with pianist Kenny Drew, and played in Tripoli, Libya. At home in any setting, Sonny Lewis performed with Beat writer William S. Burroughs, played dance music with composer Terry Riley at a U.S. Army base in Verdun, and was a part of the original performance of Riley’s influential minimalist work “In C.”
After moving to the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-1960s, Sonny became an important part of the Bay Area music scene. He toured with Barry White for a year, worked with Merle Saunders, and performed for many years with R&B group The Whispers, appearing on many of their hit records. More importantly from the jazz standpoint, during this time he also led his own groups in SF, working with a variety of top local musicians. Sonny was recorded on a pair of albums with drummer Smiley Winters (1970-72) that included altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald, and with trumpeter David Hardiman on two occasions: a big band album from 1978, and a privately-issued octet date. As good as he sounds in his spots, none of these recordings really put the focus on the tenor sax. After a notable career, a hand condition (focal dystonia) forced his retirement from music by the late 1990s.
Fortunately the Sonny Lewis story does not stop there, due to his friendship with pianist-producer Rob Catterton, who remarks, “I first met Sonny at a session in 1987. I had never been exposed to anyone playing at that level before, and It inspired me to go back to music school for seven years. We became good friends and rehearsed quite a bit, just the two of us.” They stayed in touch, and many years later, Sonny brought Rob a paper bag full of over 30 cassettes. Many were recorded on handheld players, but there were a few soundboard tapes mixed in that were clear enough for release. Two of the cassettes documented his playing at a major San Francisco street fair in 1998, and have been released as ‘Fillmore Street Live.’
“Ten or fifteen years ago, before publishing music via the Internet was possible, Sonny brought me a reel-to-reel in a deteriorated white box which would eventually be released as ‘Back in the Sixties.’ The tape kind of floated around the house until Sonny asked me about in 2017. I worked on it with an engineer at that time, but it was in rough shape and wasn’t really releasable. During this period, I was also searching the Internet for a local engineer to remaster my solo piano Grateful Dead tribute record. Because he only lives two towns away, the Dead’s engineer, Jeffrey Norman, came up in my search. I sent him my self-recorded album, and he agreed to remaster it, saying that he’d always wanted to do a solo piano project. During this time, I sent him a cut from Sonny’s reel-to-reel, and he was struck by it, and offered to help with the restoration.”
Catterton continues, “Jeffrey told me about a company in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Plangent Process, founded by Jamie Howarth. They have developed a patented process to restore audio, which has been used on recordings from artists including Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, and the Grateful Dead. So, we sent Sonny’s tape to Massachusetts, and when I got it back it was transformed. I then turned it over to independent remastering engineer Mark Fuller, who did brilliant work. The recording now sounds fine, which is a remarkable accomplishment.”
Recorded in 1966, the five pieces on “Back In The Sixties” are the earliest existing jazz recordings of Sonny Lewis. Sonny remembers, “We were playing at a club, Haight Levels, and decided to use the studio on Webster Street to record some of our better tunes. Our trumpeter was a student at Stanford, Tom Harrell. Even at that early age, he was a dynamite player, as you can hear.” Only 20 at the time, Harrell would go to have an illustrious career both as a soloist and a composer. Tom would be with Sonny’s quintet for a couple of years before leaving to join the Stan Kenton Orchestra. This set predates Harrell’s previously known first recordings by three years.
The rhythm section is comprised of pianist Jym Young, bassist Harley White, Sr., and a drummer only identified as D. Young. “For the life of me, I can’t remember his name,” says Sonny. “All I remember is that he was from Portland.” Jym Young’s only other known recordings are from 1966: an album of his own, “Puzzle Box”, and tenor-saxophonist Dewey Redman’s “Look For The Black Star.” Sonny continues, “Jym Young’s playing reminded me of McCoy Tyner, and he was a fine writer, too.”
Harley White, Sr. is a distinguished bassist and educator who worked with Earl Hines in the 1970s. In addition to recording two sessions with Hines in 1976 and the Jym Young album, White is on albums led by Smiley Winters, pianist Ed Kelly, singers Rhonda Benin and Margie Baker, saxophonist Paul Stephens, pianist Jessica Williams, the Mel Sharpe Orchestra, and along with Sonny in the David Hardiman Big Band.
The Sonny Lewis Quintet begins their set with “Confrontation.” Sonny says, “It sounds like a Wayne Shorter tune, although I’m not positive who was the composer. Tom Harrell wrote this one out for us. He could listen to anything once and write it out in a few minutes.” The assertive hard bop piece has an infectious African rhythm that alternates with a brief straight ahead section. Harrell and Young take concise solos during this brief performance with Sonny taking fills at the beginning and end of the track. Although pretty advanced, the song is catchy enough that it could have been used as a theme song for the group.
“Full Moon, Empty Arms,” is based on a Rachmaninoff classical melody. Modernized, the theme sounds a bit like something that McCoy Tyner would have recorded. The adventurous Tom Harrell arrangement has a passionate tenor solo, and an explorative improvisation by Young.
“Calling In The Woods” was written by Sonny Lewis when he lived in Paris. He remembers, “It has some interesting rhythms and is kind of a celebratory, happy piece.” The first part features free playing with Young on thumb piano and plucking the grand piano, White often bowing his bass, some unidentified singing, and the feel of Africa. The second part features an African folk melody based strongly in the tradition of Abdullah Ibrahim. Sonny takes one of his finest recorded solos, displaying his very original tone and a melodic sensibility. Even when he takes the music a bit outside, Lewis still makes his horn sing and cry. Harrell takes a colorful spot of his own, Young is in fine form, and the unidentified drummer’s contributions perfectly fit the music.
The program concludes with “Straight Thru,” a quirky jazz waltz that Sonny thinks might have been composed by Jym Young. On this track, the saxophonist creates an intense tenor solo that makes one very glad that Rob Catterton and the talented group of sound engineers were able to save this music for posterity.
Rob summarizes the project: “Playing with Sonny Lewis made everyone want to reach higher, reach for the stars, and play as well as they possibly could because he played so great. It’s an honor to be able to work with his tapes and release some of his music to the public. They show how brilliant a saxophonist he was. And there will be more releases to come from different stages of his career.” -- Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author