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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, but when he misses it’s often because the songs collapse under the weight of his concepts – ambitious but ill-suited for his own strengths.

This is why you need to grasp what works best for you and hone those ideas. For instance the wisecracking vocals he tried on the top side of this, Nay! Nay! Go Away, 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
Maybe the best word to describe this record is “reassuring”. Songs like Sugar Hill Blues are 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.


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