When the name Sonny comes up in Jazz, especially related to saxophone, who comes to mind? Probably Sonny Rollins, a giant of the tenor sax. Maybe even Sonny Stitt who, (if memory and old liner notes serve), was tagged so often with imitating Bird that, for a time, he switched from alto to tenor. How about Sonny Criss? Doesn’t ring a bell? Not surprising. Criss was usually under the radar for a lot of jazz fans.
Though I never got to see him, I still remember, back around 1975, in the halycon days of KJAZ, hearing a song that blew me away. It was called ‘The Isle of Celia’. Not only was the sax player fluid and fast, but also probably the bluesiest I’d ever heard. ( Confession- my love of blues even predates my love of jazz, and started in my early teens, listening to WDIA, a legendary blues station from Memphis I could pick up from home – but only late at night! (Ah, how those late night radio signals could travel!)
Anyway, back to Sonny Criss. After hearing that song, I had to have the album. It was called Crisscraft and contained some of the sweetest, intense sax I’ve ever heard. After that I went on a Criss hunt, digging up old albums wherever I could find them. I still have four albums issued under his name, as well as a couple of albums on which he is featured, and some MP3 compilations I found.
Criss, like many jazz artists, led a pretty tough life. He had some drug problems, was an ex-patriate for a while, and ended up with a major illness that cut short his career, which started in the late 40’s. He died in 1977 at age 50.
Sonny was once referred to as the fastest man alive on alto sax (and he’s up there, if not at the top), but that doesn’t tell half the story. That wonderful tone, on ballads or up-tempo songs, is distinctly his; his ballads bluesy and breathy, his fast solos fluid and seemingly effortless. Criss is immediately recognizable to me, (when I hear him on our internet radio) which says a lot, since my ears can usually pick out about 8-10 sax players. If you haven’t heard Criss before, check him out. You won’t be disappointed. I’ve provided a couple of links below that give you a taste of his music and a little more about his life.
More about Sonny Criss
Music by Sonny Criss