Criss was a bop saxophonist, strongly influenced at first by Charlie Parker. He played with unparalleled authority and facility on the instrument, but because he spent most of his career on the West Coast, with a brief stay in Paris in the ’70s, Criss never gained the recognition of his East Coast counterparts like Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley.
Sonny’s style was distinctively mature, producing a warm, rich tone and a prominent vibrato. He was capable of playing dazzling runs with such effortless grace that they never sounded ostentatious. An excellent jazz musician, through lack of opportunities Criss never gained the recognition he deserved.
Sonny is remembered fondly by almost everyone who ever heard him play. He had an innate ability to communicate. His passion for a beautiful ballad or a funky blues was equal to his lightning quick articulation at fast tempos.
Criss was known as a soloist and a small group specialist which would be his role for his entire career. He rarely got any studio gigs and while he gradually built up a reputation as a leader around Los Angeles, he never worked enough out of town to establish himself as a draw on the road. In late 1955, he began a three-year association with Buddy Rich.
Criss’ style is marked by super-fast runs, soaring, high register figures and a pure urgent tone and delivery. His ballad renderings are often characterized by sorrowful solos, spoken with manly regret and without a wasted gesture.