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Album Review: Sounds of Synanon by Joe Pass

Synanon songs: music that healed its makers, from CHRIS SEARLE on Jazz

Joe Pass
Sounds of Synanon
(American Jazz Classics 99100)


THE post-war years of jazz were set alight by the explosion of bop: the astonishing new sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and a host of disciples and imitators.

But with this joyous sonic revolution came its curse in the rise of drug culture and the misery of addiction, depression and self-harm. This was often provoked by a blind emulation of afflicted heroes like Parker and the frequently fostered myth that substances like heroin were catalysts for musical originality and brilliance.

This collapse into narcotics addiction was all too common in southern California and several prominent jazz musicians fell under its curse. One of these was the phenomenal guitarist Joe Pass, born Joseph Passalacqua in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1929. Pass became a professional musician while at high school, played in swing bands, spent two years in the US marines before settling in Los Angeles where the early promise of a life in music was derailed by narcotics addiction.

He spent time in prison and nearly four years at the public health service hospital at Fort Worth before joining the therapeutic community in Synanon, a residential treatment centre on the ocean shore at Santa Monica, where his constant positive exposure to music and fellow musicians eventually cured his addiction.

It also led to the unique album Sounds of Synanon, cut at the Pacific Jazz studios in Los Angeles in July 1962, where Pass on his recording debut joined other musician residents of Synanon as a celebration of the clinic’s healing powers.

Pianist Arnold Ross had attempted suicide before his stay in Synanon, trumpeter David Allan had been an Ornette Coleman accompanist before addiction, drummer Bill Crawford was a reformed addict who had joined Synanon’s board of directors and conga man Candy Latson had, like Crawford, learned how to drum in the clinic from volunteer teachers.

The album’s opening track C.E.D is dedicated to Synanon’s founder and co-ordinator Charles E Dederich, an ex-alcoholic. Pass’s guitar leads the way with some lightening chops above the restless beat of the drummers and bassist Ronald Clark, while on the bluesy Allan tune Aaron’s Song, both the trumpeter and Ross play poised and eloquent choruses. Pass is relaxed and inventive on Stay Loose and Projections gives an opportunity for Greg Dykes to show his powerful mettle on baritone horn with more fluent lines from Pass.

The ramifications of the title of the track Self-image were crucial for its players and within its nine minutes Allan’s tune becomes a burner for them all. Allan’s tone is soft and tender while still reaching the heights, Dykes plays with emotive creation, Pass’s chorus is sheer beauty and invention and Ross’s solo, quietly and thoughtfully wrought, seems to exemplify the self-examined life and behaviour freely encouraged at Synanon.

This reissue on the Fresh Sound label is a diamond, for not only does it contain the rare Synanon tracks but also those on another singular album of 1962, with Pass in a trio context with his New Jersey confrere on organ, Richard “Groove” Holmes and local drummer Lawrence Marable. This is not the conventional Jimmy Smith-model rumbustious organ trio, but more complex, intricate and subtle in its soundscape.

Hear the serenely balladic It Might As Well Be Spring with Holmes’s coolly caressed melodism over Pass’s chords, or Parker’s bop classic Moose the Mooche where the guitar-organ interaction is superb and Pass launches himself on a soaring flight of notes before Holmes returns with a flying solo. Groove’s Bag is a deceptively simple opus with Holmes unstoppable in his relentless swing and Pass well abreast of him.

Sweatin’ is an apt title for the album opener, with so much excitation do the trio announce themselves. Pass’s solo on Duke Pearson’s Jeannine is short and sublime and Holmes’s own composition Minor Surgery is a trio colloquy of rare brilliance, on a session once forgotten but now found again after more than half a century.


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