Big John Patton’s “Understanding” Misunderstood

By Carl Glatzel, Editor
Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

I usually use as a litmus test for unfamiliar recordings. I’m glad I went with my gut when I found a 1995 Blue Note re-issue of Big John Patton’s Understanding at a local, used book store. If I had gone with the AllMusic critic’s opinion I would have avoided it like the plague and tossed it aside. For the uninitiated, Patton is an organist who came to prominence on the Blue Note label in the early-60s. He was known for his economical, modern approach and inspired, bluesy solos. One of the few organists of the era to dodge the Jimmy Smith comparison.

Understanding, 1968

After outputting a handful of releases with label regulars Grant Green and Lou Donaldson he ventured off into some uncharted territory. The 1968 release Understanding is not truly a dramatic departure but it does house some free playing by saxophonist Harold Alexander and that is what AllMusic took issue with. It’s stated to somehow interrupt the groove and comes across as disjointed and out of place. Perhaps to the untrained ear, or to a listener not familiar with or accustomed to the unorthodox sounds of Pharaoh Sanders or the other artists from the Impulse! New Thing stable. Alexander’s playing is by no means that of Peter Brotzman or a young Gato Barbieri. To these ears, it comes off as more to do with exuberance, where the spirit of the session takes the helm. Understanding still defaults to a soul jazz category and it’s easy to dismiss free (or freer) playing in this arena, but one listen to this vibrant interplay and you’ll fall into the groove and won’t want to leave. Patton is at the top of his game and his bandmates push him to his swinging limit. The trio is rounded off by Hugh Walker on drums who gives his all — keeping a steady, turbulent backbeat under the soulful wailing laid down by Patton and Alexander. This is music to drive to, you’ll want to be moving and moving quickly.

Patton is at the top of his game and his bandmates push him to his swinging limit.

Right from the opener “Ding Dong” you know exactly where you stand – this is some heavy-duty soul and these players aren’t about to let up. That’s what’s so enticing about this particular release, the raw sounds of Alexander’s sax really churns the already boiling pot. Each player builds on one another adding more fuel to the fire, keeping things interesting. This certainly isn’t the Soul Jazz recordings of previous years — dare I say — in some ways it’s even better. Patton proves he’s not afraid to go out on a limb with a loose canon like Alexander. The addition of Walker on drums is a great move, his style adds some necessary backbone to help ground a free range player like Alexander. Patton is spot on, as usual, with soloing and his signature basslines. It’s Patton’s buoyant, almost hypnotic, bass that really adds a sense of forward motion to each track. His lines are deceptively simple, undulating deep down under Walker’s rock-steady drumming — the album’s blood and guts.

This certainly isn’t the Soul Jazz recordings of previous years — dare I say — in some ways it’s even better.

It’s now time to go out and seek this holy grail of groove. And when you do, you’ll want to turn up your hi-fi and tune out the naysayers.

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