One of the few altoists to emerge in the mid-1940s who had a tone that was apart from that of Charlie Parker, Sonny Criss (1927-1977) always sounded quite individual.
Born in Memphis, Criss grew up in the Los Angeles area. While Parker was his main influence early on, Criss had a heavier sound and also had some Benny Carter in his playing. In 1946 he worked with Howard McGhee’s band at a time when Charlie Parker sometimes sat in. Criss also gigged with Johnny Otis, Al Killian, Gerald Wilson, and a small group that backed Billy Eckstine (1950-51). Criss was on a Jazz At The Philharmonic tour in 1951 and can be heard in top form on Intermission Riff, a live jam session released on Pablo that teams him with trumpeter Joe Newman and tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw” Davis.
Criss toured with Stan Kenton in 1955, worked with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars and Buddy Rich’s quartet, and spent 1962-1965 in Europe. Upon his return, he recorded some of his finest work during 1966-1969, seven albums for Prestige: This Is Criss, Portrait of Sonny Criss; Up, Up and Away; The Beat Goes On, Sonny’s Dream, Rockin’ in Rhythm, and I’ll Catch the Sun. All are quartet sets other than Up, Up and Away (a quintet outing with guitarist Tal Farlow) and Sonny’s Dream, which has the altoist backed by a nonet arranged by Horace Tapscott. Throughout these sessions, Criss shows that he was one of the top altoists of the era even though he was greatly underrated.
Sonny Criss continued creating fine music up until the time of his death in 1977, never sounding like anyone but himself.