The rap on Sonny Stitt is that he was little more than an imitator of Charlie Parker, without a firm identity of his own. However, from the evidence of these early Stitt recordings -- gathered together into a three-CD box -- the first part of the rap doesn't quite ring true, though the second remains an open question. Stitt may have shared an occasional rhetorical turn or blindingly fast run with Bird -- most tellingly on "S`Wonderful" -- but definitely not his entire style. You can hear plenty of Lester Young influences on the tracks where he plays tenor sax, and many of the ballads preview the soulful inflections that would flourish when he joined the soul-jazz movement in the '60s. Moreover, aware of the Bird backlash, Stitt recorded the majority of these tracks on the tenor, with occasional sessions on the baritone and finally, about two-thirds of the way through the set, on alto. What we don't hear at this point in his career is a truly individual voice; at times, when he and Gene Ammons are dueling on tenors, it's difficult to tell the difference between them upon casual listening.
Not only are Stitt's own sessions included in this thorough survey, but also those where he was a co-leader with Ammons and Bud Powell, and a sometimes-non-soloing sideman for Ammons, J.J. Johnson, and the obscure Billy Eckstine-wannabe vocalist Teddy Williams. Above all, this box is a revealing look at the beginnings of the Prestige label just before Bob Weinstock learned how to exploit the potential of LP with open-ended blowing sessions. All of these tracks -- including those designated as Parts 1 and 2 -- were recorded to fit on a single side of a 10" 78 rpm record, as was still the custom of the time, and the neighborhood jukeboxes were definitely a target. Hence we hear Stitt not just as a high-minded -- if by necessity, heavily self-edited -- bebopper, but also as a participant in de facto period pop and R&B sessions. There are even some novelty numbers that tend to be ignored by history (how about a title like "Who Threw the Sleeping Pills in Rip Van Winkle's Coffee?" -- with group vocals!). Even deep in the bop era, jazz musicians still made gestures toward whatever happened to be selling to the masses, voluntarily or not. Although there are no unreleased tunes or outtakes, several tracks make their first CD appearances here, and three (including the notorious "Van Winkle") are being heard for the first time since the 78 era.