The latest chapter in the series of nearly-lost performances by tenor-saxophonist Sonny Lewis is from a long-forgotten venue in San Jose, California called the 3+1 Club. Recorded on Dec. 28, 1990, the new release includes interpretations of four well-known jazz standards, and features the saxophonist in rare form. At the time, Sonny’s good friend pianist Rob Catterton was trying to help him advance his career. “I had known Sonny for around three years and was well aware of how great a player he was. So I packed up every piece of gear that I had and Sonny and I drove down to the club. The first night my reel-to-reel was accidentally plugged into the lights so those recordings were lost, although some of the songs were filmed and can be seen on YouTube. Fortunately, I got clean recordings of the music from the second night.” Over 30 years later, the performances on this EP are being released for the first time.
When these recordings were made, Sonny Lewis had already been a professional musician for three decades. After a year on the clarinet, he switched permanently to tenor sax when he was 14. Soon he was playing R&B in Boston nightclubs, although his main interest was jazz. Sonny attended the Berklee School of Music for two years, and then went to Europe where he had opportunities to sit in with the Bud Powell trio, work with pianist Kenny Drew, and perform in France, Germany, and Libya. During this period he also played dance music with composer Terry Riley at a European US Army base, and was asked to appear on the first performance of Riley’s important minimalist work “In C.”
A leading musician in the San Francisco Bay Area starting in the mid-1960s, Sonny worked in many local clubs when he was not touring with Barry White or the popular R&B group The Whispers. Despite his touring schedule and his recordings on a string of gold albums from The Whispers, he only made infrequent appearances on jazz records, including two albums with drummer Smiley Winters in the early 1970s, and a pair of projects with trumpeter David Hardiman, including a big band record. When a hand injury (focal dystonia) forced his retirement from playing in the late 1990s, it looked as if his musical legacy would be lost to history.
But luckily Sonny Lewis had saved a paper bag filled with over 30 cassettes of his live performances. Through the miracle of modern technology and some expert assistance, Rob Catterton was able to save some of the best moments and make them not only listenable, but sound as if they had been professionally recorded. He has released “Back In The Sixties” (1966), the single “All Of You” (1977), and “Fillmore Street Live” (1988), featuring Sonny during three periods of his career.
For the “Electric” EP, Sonny Lewis and his regular quartet of the period are heard in top form. Sonny recalls, “Just before this, I was on the road with The Whispers. Our keyboardist Percy Scott was also in that band. We traveled around the country hitting some top spots including Madison Square Garden, playing opposite artists like Luther Vandross and the O’Jays. When we returned to San Francisco, I put together this quartet. We played in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, at some private parties but mostly clubs. We were pretty popular at the time. The 3 + 1 Club had a nice ambiance to it. It was located in an industrial park where there were not any neighbors. We had a good opportunity to stretch out. People dug the music and a lot of folks came in to see us. As long as they could clap their hands, snap their fingers, and tap their foot to it, it was cool.”
On the “Electric” EP, Sonny is backed by the following group of highly skilled musicians, featuring electric bass and keyboards for a more powerful sound from the rhythm section:
• Keyboardist Percy Scott played with Sonny for many years, including the “Fillmore Street Live” set in 1988. A talented soloist, composer, and arranger, he seems to have only made one other jazz recording. Percy played alongside Sonny on David Hardiman’s Big Band album. He has worked steadily in the Bay Area for many years, and is widely respected.
• Bassist Charles Thomas started out as a cellist in junior high before switching to bass. He has performed in a wide variety of musical contexts, including jazz, classical, pop, funk, and reggae. Along the way he has worked with Esther Phillips, Les McCann, Billy Paul, John Handy, the Fifth Dimension and quite a few others, including the group Pride and Joy. In addition to being a valuable bassist, Thomas is also an arranger, producer, and vocalist, as well a composer of film scores. He is heard on electric bass throughout the 3 + 1 Club performances.
• Drummer Jack Dorsey moved to San Francisco in 1968, and has since worked with a long list of notables including: Jimmy Witherspoon, Lavay Smith, Etta Jones, Ed Kelly, Buddy Miles, Little Anthony, Jose Feliciano, Denise Perrier, and more recently Macy Blackman and the Mighty Fines. Additionally, he has performed on many film and television soundtracks, worked in the studios, and was also an influential educator.
The night of Dec. 28, 1990 found Sonny Lewis and his quartet in peak form for the “Electric” sessions, but the four songs on this EP were originally almost impossible to save. “Two songs were recorded on a reel to reel and two were on a cassette,” remembers Rob Catterton. “When I first played them, the cassette ran slow and the reel-to-reel tape ran fast. They were so completely out of whack that they were barely listenable. But I ended up tuning the tapes to my piano in the proper key and it all worked out. Independent sound engineer Mark Fuller finished the restoration of the music, and now it sounds pristine.”
The set begins with Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar.” Without sounding at all like the composer, Sonny Lewis gives the piece a soulful spin of his own during his five choruses, playing a perfectly constructed yet spontaneous improvisation that ranks with his very best recorded statements. Percy Scott keeps the momentum flowing and gets a lot of color out of his Yamaha DX7. Charles Thomas plays melodically in his spot (one can imagine singing the notes that he plays), there is a fiery tradeoff with Jack Dorsey (listen to how the musicians echo each other’s ideas), and then the joyful melody closes the memorable performance.
A change of pace is offered on Rod Temperton’s “The Lady In My Life,” a Michael Jackson hit. Percy Scott introduced Sonny to the tune, and delivered this innovative arrangement. The quartet sounds quite comfortable on this R&B groove piece which the keyboardist successfully turned into soul jazz.
Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” is still a favorite of Sonny’s. In fact, another rendition of it can be heard from two years earlier on Fillmore Street Live. This version, after an inventive keyboard solo, has the tenor sounding particularly adventurous, with some heated double-time runs yet often referring to the melody (a la Dexter Gordon).
The program concludes with Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” which is quite a tour-de-force. Sonny creates a stormy tenor solo full of fire, taking it a bit outside during his three choruses yet never losing sight of the classic song. After another excellent keyboard solo, Sonny finishes the night with an emotional statement that makes one very glad that this performance has been saved.
The saxophonist expresses all of our sentiments by saying, “My hat’s off to Rob for making these tapes sound so good.” And our hats are tipped to Sonny Lewis and his group for playing such timeless music.
Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian