April 26, 2010

Give “Gator” Some Respect

Nuther'n Like Thuther'n: More Gravy/Boss Shoutin'In 1964, sax man Willis “Gator” Jackson released the album Nuther’n Like Thuther’n on Prestige Records. This title neatly sums up the main criticism of Jackson: that he made a lot of records and they all sound the same. Granted, Jackson was no musical innovator, but one can still feel how his gritty, lowdown-blues blowing could stir a crowd in a dancehall on a hot Saturday night. Perhaps it’s the Sixties version of “dirty dancing”?
     Jackson was born in Miami in 1932 and was already touring with Cootie Williams, late of the Duke Ellington orchestra, and his band in 1949. He played a lot of rhythm and blues in the early Fifties. His honking and wailing sax style - in performances, he’d lie on his back and play - particularly on the song “Gator Tail” earned him his nickname. Jackson married R&B singer Ruth Brown and toured with her extensively. When he signed with Prestige in 1959, he modified his flamboyant style and became a proponent of soul-jazz playing. “Soul” signifying emotion in this case - something that Jackson wore on his sleeve when he played. Subtlety was not his game - Jackson was about expressing the emotion of the tune, not playing in a “style” per se.
     He was greatly influenced by Illinois Jacquet, who was also a honker in his day, and he admired Gene Ammons. Jackson had this to say about playing the sax: “So many of these saxophonists playing today [1961], they have what I call a ‘peashooter’ sound. They sound like an alto, they’re playing alto on the tenor. They’re wonderful technicians, they all have a good execution, but they don’t make the instrument sound like they should.” No one ever accused Jackson of being a peashooter. Just try sitting still while listening to Jackson’s version of “Swimmin’ Home Baby” from 1964.
     For the next ten years, Jackson made a slew of albums for Prestige, more and more of which are becoming available, including Please Mr. Jackson, Gentle Gator, and a compilation album called At Large. Over the years, he had long associations with both Jack McDuff and Carl Wilson on organ and with Pat Martino on guitar. “Gator” continued playing up until his death in 1987 and he left behind some swinging albums of bluesy soul-jazz, played by a master of the form.

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