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KING 4328; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 


I don’t know if Earl Bostic, alto saxophonist extraordinaire, had many outside interests in life. He may have been a poet or a pool hustler, someone who liked talking philosophy while seated in leather couches sipping cognac or talking trash standing in an alley while swigging gin.

But whether he had an affinity for rolling craps to make some extra dough or rolling dough to make delectable pastries, if going by the differences found in his recording sessions somewhere around mid-1949 maybe Earl Bostic fell under the sway of German artist Hans Hofmann, an expressionist painter and teacher who said: “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”.

Maybe he never picked up a brush himself, but Bostic seemed to have applied that advice to his own art and finally got back to tackling a song in a simple straightforward manner.
 

 

Know Your Strengths
The highs and lows of Earl Bostic’s work has been a recurring theme here in the two years since we first met him. Musically diverse, yet far too restless to stick with any style very long. Preternaturally talented yet frustratingly blind to the lack of talent of many of those around him. Far more conversant in both melody and rhythm than most of his peers, yet too ambitious to craft material that is content to fulfill those requirements and leave it at that.

More than anything Bostic’s shortcomings seem to be the result of a lack of intense all-encompassing focus on what is right in front of him at the moment. You get the sense that if he simply locked himself in a room with a stack of the best rock records of all kinds from the last year and told him to come up with four brilliant examples of those styles on his horn he’d leave you speechless.

But he never does. He might just have so many ideas that he can’t harness any one of them for the length of time it requires to break it in and ride it into the studio to lay it down on record. So instead he has bits and pieces of good ideas, or maybe just vague impressions of what might work, then wings it with a bunch of sidemen who aren’t on the same page as him and calls it a day.

Because Bostic’s work on those records is good enough to hold up under scrutiny they get released and he moves on to another style the next time around with the same uneven results. When he manages to hit on something inspired the results are great, such as his reworking of Temptation that keeps it sultry while making it ache. Even when he just misses with some aspect of an idea, such as the frantic workout Hot Sauce! – Boss, his playing is impressive as can be.

Yet too often he falls into the trap of letting the concept itself carry the weight, such as the top side of this record, the pointless Nay! Nay! Go Way, something clearly meant to exhibit one of rock ‘n’ roll’s dominant traits, a wisecracking attitude, in a manner that probably seemed easy to do via some chanted lyrics that dismiss an unseen paramour while Bostic does his thing in between the cracks.

It failed not because the idea was awful but because nothing about how it was drawn up had been properly worked out beforehand. If it had been they’d have seen that nobody in the studio that day was capable of singing the part with any conviction, or realized that none of the other instruments were up to the task of matching Bostic. Maybe they’d have even come to the conclusion that Bostic had left himself too little room to maneuver and give us the type of raunchy interludes that we’ve come to expect out of these things.

This is why you need to grasp what works for you and hone those ideas. For instance that same song might’ve been a great vehicle for his fellow King Records star Wynonie Harris, as Harris could make a “Hello” sound lascivious and a casual dismissal of a girl that was hounding him sound like he was dropping her off a bridge tied in a gunny sack doused with barbecue sauce into alligator infested waters.

But Bostic had no one like Harris to push him on a song like that, somebody he had to raise his game in order to match their intensity where both entities are striving to outdo one another.

When in doubt however there’s always one rule that smooths over so many problems… SIMPLIFY! It’s an easy solution, allowing you to shed all of the extraneous parts and focus on just delivering what’s needed to get a song across.

That’s what they do here, more or less. Sugar Hill Blues is a song that’s not trying to do much at all, which means it has little chance to be all that memorable maybe, but that also means it’s not trying to do TOO much which ensures it won’t be memorable for all the wrong reasons either, which is a start.
 


 
 

A Formula For Success
Before we get too far into this review let’s make sure nobody’s getting carried away with what any of this means. Simplifying things is a far different proposition than making a stab for real commercial success… or even real artistic success for that matter, as least in terms of making a jump to a higher plateau. At this point all we’re looking for is a serviceable rock instrumental, something to get them all back on track, a statement which kind of tells you how much we’ve lowered the bar for Earl Bostic recently.

Now to be fair it’s not as if all of Bostic’s rock efforts since mid-1948 have been really bad, he’s had one song Blip Boogie that was actually really good, but he somehow seemed incapable of consistently cutting songs to just reasonably fit the bill each time out, a string of average, perfectly acceptable, rock songs… not too ambitious, but not lacking in anything either.

Which is precisely why this is so reassuring. Sugar Hill Blues is what Earl Bostic should’ve been churning out in his sleep. Gone are the ill-conceived vocal passages and the arrangements that go off track and in their place is nothing more complicated than a blessed return to the basics.

What does that mean? Start with a steady musical bed churning ever so slightly beneath him to keep things grounded. Add a sensible musical theory for the arrangement, start with a slow pace and gradually ramp it up before dialing it back down, a push and pull technique that is measured and well conceived where every aspect is balanced and in proportion to everything else. Then toss in one decent alternate lead instrument that can actually handle the pressure of trading off with Bostic but also have a sonic texture that compliments his horn rather than clashes or merely gets absorbed into the sounds emanating from Bostic’s alto.

That’s the game plan here and while hardly ambitious it is something that they’ve proven incapable of pulling off as of late.

Not anymore, because this mercifully hits all the right notes.

It all starts off with a solid left hand on the piano playing a methodical but lyrical intro – which would’ve been nice to revisit later on, one reason why this doesn’t transcend its components in the final analysis – which leads into the horns swaying together in a brisk yet still sleepy way that is more hypnotic than their actual playing would seem to suggest.

When Bostic takes over with an even drowsier solo you feel yourself going under, but in a good way, and it’s only the slightly harsh tone of the backing horns that keep you from being lulled into a trance. They step it up again in the transition to the next soloing instrument, the guitar which steals the show in its solo, playing with a light airy touch that positively carries you away with it.

The “chorus” that follows containing their most rousing playing snaps you out of it before they repeat this process again, keeping the Bostic lead solo but switching out the guitar for more of a sax-trumpet trade off which is the weakest point of the record but hardly off-putting. It fades a little quickly and they certainly could’ve shored things up with another piano showcase and had they given the guitar the role the trumpet played in the second solo they might’ve really had something special, but as it is they have something usable, which again sounds like a backhanded compliment but is still the most important – and thus underrated – aspect of making music that needs to find an audience.
 

Artificial Sweetener
I’m sure that when they wrapped this take nobody in the room was all that knocked-out by what they did, nor should they have been. Nobody had earned the right to stand around in stunned silence with a glassy half-vacant look on their face, smiling with a cocky sense of satisfaction at what they just laid down. Instead they probably just nodded at the engineer when he indicated that it had been a good take and then Bostic and the other musicians huddled together to work out the next song.

They likely knew it wouldn’t be a hit and even knew that it wasn’t going to be a song they’d play often on stage, simply because it seemed by design to be fleeting. There was no flashy workout for Bostic, no tricky arrangement for them to show off their dexterity, nor did it even provide the kind of long drawn out spotlights for each of the band members to take an extended solo and prove their worth.

Nope, it was just sort of a plug-in-the-gap song, something to play at a club where the patrons might be getting a little agitated with one another over something on the floor over the course of a long night and before they started calling each other names and throwing hands Earl could break out Sugar Hill Blues and calm things down again without anybody realizing they’d been melodically manipulated into tranquil acquiescence.

That might not sound like much, especially in a field such as rock ‘n’ roll where it’s the roof-raising, floor-stomping, wall-shaking records that get the most glory. But it’s these songs – the nondescript, workaday album fillers (to borrow a term from the future) which will need to make up the bulk of any artist’s catalog for them to stick around long enough to get noticed for those roof-raising, floor-stomping, wall-shaking records that will be their epitaph.

If Earl Bostic could’ve been content to mass produce these types of records on demand it would’ve allowed him to keep that audience reasonably satisfied so that when he DID get really inspired and decided to tear the roof off the place with the most torrid explosive display imaginable nobody would’ve complained about the wait.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Earl Bostic for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)