Liner Notes: Complete Sonny Rollins on RCA
by Loren Schoenberg
Rollins’ RCA recordings form a suite of improvisational approaches that range from the classicism of THE BRIDGE to the stream of consciousness of OUR MAN IN JAZZ to the assimilation of both methods heard in THE STANDARD SONNY ROLLINS. Over the course of two very important years in his development as an improviser, Rollins was placed in a variety of contexts that frequently brought out of the best him, and never elicited anything less than true spontaneity and invention. and the fact that a major label would issue and promote music like this at a time when the Beatles were about to rule the world is similarly remarkable.
Sonny Rollins is one of the most original and profound voices to emerge on the tenor saxophone in the history of jazz. Born in 1930 and raised in Harlem, Rollins was first inspired by an elder brother who played the violin and later played with the Pittsburgh Symphony. There was also a sister who played the piano and sang in church. Lessons on the alto saxophone gave way to the tenor, and Coleman Hawkins, who lived in the same neighborhood became Rollins’ first idol. Through peers, he was introduced to Lester Young’s Keynote recordings with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett. The advent of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie shaped the young Rollins’ conception as the 40’s progressed, but unlike the great majority of his contemporaries, he didn’t throw away the aspects of Hawkins, Young and others, including Don Byas, that had originally entranced him. This breadth of interest would later enable Rollins to take inspiration from both John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in the early 60’s. As a teenager, Rollins was mentored by two of the most original jazz pianists of the era, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, who would, in time, help him establish his reputation through classic recording sessions.
It was on a Blue Note date in 1949 with Powell, Fats Navarro and Roy Haynes on which we first get a glimpse of this giant-in-the-making. Alternate takes reveal a highly organized and precociously mature compositional attitude towards improvising - at times varying the same basic shape take to take, at others gambling wildly. Navarro was known for his ability to hone his solos to perfection by the addition and subtraction of the most minute details, and it’s fair to assume that Rollins paid close attention to what he heard from Fats, both in and out of the recording studio . Gifted in all three spheres of music (rhythm, harmony and melody), Sonny’s sense of time, as solid as a tree trunk, was already firmly in place. Able to shift to any part of the beat for emphasis, to vary his tone according to the narrative imperatives of the story he was telling, and at the same time inject a healthy sense of irony and sometimes humor into the music, all Sonny needed was time to mature.
Sonny Rollins came of musical age in an era when a young, talented player was expected to spend years as a sideman, soaking up the myriad experiences of life both on and off the bandstand before striking out on his own. This Rollins did, and in the process was hired by Miles Davis, who was another of the masters who glimpsed the young man’s potential. For a dance at the Audobon Ballroom in 1950, Davis put together a band that included both Rollins and John Coltrane, then known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie. In his autobiography, Davis recalled that Sonny was especially inspired that night and intimidated Coltrane. In light of that experience, who would have guessed the impact that Coltrane’s ascendancy in the late 50’s would have on Sonny? Against the wishes of the record company, Davis used Rollins on his Prestige recordings, and even wangled Sonny’s first sides as a leader, on which he played piano. This was an association that was mutually beneficial. As the mid-50’s approached, both men were involved in what Martin Williams referred to as “establishing some sort of synthesis within the idiom, with the task of ordering its materials.” The less melodic and frenetic elements of what “bop” had become were eliminated in favor of an over-arching lyricism and (to a greater degree in Davis than in Rollins) a new economy of means. More classic recordings followed - most notably a 1953 date with both Rollins and Charlie Parker on tenors, and one the following year which premiered three Rollins’ compositions: OLEO, DOXY and AIREGIN. The last title reflected Rollins’ growing concern in addressing his stature as an American of African descent, which culminated four years later with the FREEDOM NOW suite. There was also a studio date with the Modern Jazz Quartet that reflected his stature as a major up-and-coming talent.
Rollins spent quite a bit of time during this period battling drug abuse, the scourge of the era. Determined to start afresh, he moved to Chicago in late 1955 ,and while there replaced Harold Land in the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. Though both Brown and pianist Richie Powell died in an automobile accident shortly thereafter, they managed to record quite a bit of music during their short period together. The spiritual and musical re-birth Rollins experienced at this juncture led to the quartet album SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS, which unlike so many albums titled with high aspirations, was a fair summation of Rollins’ importance. Rollins stayed with Roach into mid-1957, and continued to free-lance with both Davis and Monk. As the accolades accumulated, it became only a matter of when Sonny was going to step out as a leader.
When this occurred, later in 1957, Rollins began to chafe at the harmonic restrictions brought on by the piano. Like Gerry Mulligan before him, he began to appear with a rhythm section of only bass and drums. This led to THE FREEDOM SUITE, in which Rollins chose to collaborate with two fountainheads of the jazz rhythm section, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. Both men had made their recording debuts with Coleman Hawkins, and were now in turn helping along one of Hawk’s disciples in his quest for originality in both the musical and social spheres. Rollins’ essay on the album jacket was an eloquent statement about the place of the American Negro in the heart of his country’s culture, and the inherent injustices and ironies of their predicament. One reason for the album’s artistic success was the overwhelmingly compositional aspects of Rollins’ improvisations.
By late 1959, the adulation in combination with the advent of both John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as innovative figures in jazz drove Rollins into a period of reflection, practice and abstinience from performing in public. The jazz press, in its only conjunction with nature, abhors a vacuum, and with one of its most individualistic and copy-worthy figures absent, rumors began to fly about what Sonny was up to. A chance encounter with journalist Ralph Berton while practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge led to a thinly-disguised piece of fiction (the bridge was changed to the Brooklyn) in the July 1961 issue of Metronome. Shortly thereafter, Rollins announced his comeback - a gig at the Jazz Gallery - and suddenly the jazz world was awash with anticipation. What would the “new” Sonny sound like?
From the first notes of WITHOUT A SONG, we encounter a Rollins who is never more than a stone’s throw from Armstrong in terms of melodic clarity, sequential development of solos, a truly classic rhythmic stance and the ability to get a lot of musical information across in a relatively short amount of time. The arrangement itself is a masterpiece, with its rubato passages, modulations and organic structure. In Jim Hall, Rollins had a totally original voice on the guitar, and someone who had a strong interest in composition, and could play that way. In his liner notes to a previous re-issue of this material, Will Thornbury quoted Jim Hall: “I had known Sonny - not real well, but I had known him slightly. My first job in New York was with Chico Hamilton’s group, and we worked opposite Max Roach’s group with Sonny and Clifford Brown and Richie Powell. I heard him then and I was just awe-struck
by the whole group, by Clifford and Sonny...I was a fantastic fan of Sonny’s at the time before I went with him...I started getting these mysterious notes in my mailbox - I got a note from him saying he’d like to talk about music - we sort of went on like that - I think I left a note in his mailbox - and he finally stopped by one night.. the kind of awesome respect that he, not exactly commanded, but just got from people, by the way, just by his presence and by his playing..he’s also very kind and sympathetic. I really loved his playing. He had all the good elements of music in his playing-compositional elements like taking a small idea and really developing it, doing things out of tempo, suddenly going out of tempo. He was so strong he could stop the whole group just by the way he played...and taking a tune, playing a cadenza...it was sort of like what Picasso did with a face; he’d just turn it every whichway. It was thrilling to hear him play- it was frightening...that sometimes I’d have to play after him, except that the music was so good that it was fun to get involved in it. We used to rehearse alot, you know. But I have the feeling that the rehearsal time was mostly just to get us used to playing together, because when we got on the bandstand, the rehearsal was just to help us be spontaneous with each other. In think, ideally, Sonnt wanted it to be four-part music, and that we should react to one another, but his presence was so strong that there was no doubt who the leader was..I think Sonny liked the interplay, but he was also very much the leader.”
Throughout his solo on WITHOUT A SONG, Hall varies ideas Rollins’ had played earlier, and also leavens the single-note portions with a 16 bar chorded episode. Bassist Bob Cranshaw’s perfect choice of notes and the subtle swing Ben Riley engendered set the stage for a perfect quartet. They had worked for several weeks before recording THE BRIDGE, and the communion throughout a performance such as WHERE ARE YOU is the kind that only comes from working ensembles. I particularly love the way Hall both anticipates but yet lets Rollins lead during the last, rubato bridge. In addition, the sheer control of Sonny’s tone and inflection is something to marvel at - with the slightest variance of pitch and timbre, he can make a 180 ° turn on the head of a dime. One of Rollins’ biggest admirers was John S. Wilson, the jazz critic for the New York Times from the 50’s through the 80’s, and it was for him that the ever-eliding JOHN S. was named with its 34 bar choruses. Rollins and Hall get quite daring during their fours with each other and Riley, while never losing their equilibrium. THE BRIDGE, an up-tempo take on I GOT RHYTHM changes, makes canny use of an alternation of time signatures. Rollins’ penchant for form turns what could have been just another RHYTHM derivation into a tantalizingly structured original. Throughout Sonny’s work of the mid-60’s, there were frequent allusions to Lester Young, and there are at least two in THE BRIDGE. It had been less than three years since the demise of both Young and his “Lady Day”, Billie Holiday, whose GOD BLESS THE CHILD received a treatment never surpassed in this writer’s opinion. Rollins has frequently said that he is a “speech-like player” and he seems to be enunciating each word of the lyric directly through his saxophone. One of the many things that make THE BRIDGE the classic that it is comes from the clarity of the recording itself. Ray Hall earned his reputation as one of the best engineers in the world with sessions like these. Every instrument is heard with full presence and, most importantly, in the proper perspective - a facet of sound reproduction the more renowned Rudy Van Gelder never let get in his way. Cranshaw’s double-stops and Rollins’ overtones create the perfect bookends to a truly perfect performance. The drummer on this track only is H.T. “Stump” Saunders, who followed Walter Perkins and played for a short time with the quartet before Ben Riley came along. Rollins takes the last part of YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME and transforms it into an out-of-tempo introduction, which he then reprises twice in a rondo-like fashion. Indeed, all the elements in a performance such as this are so inter-related yet spontaneous that one can only marvel at them in their perfection.
Producer Avakian set the stage for this album with his notes to the original release, and here is what he said in part: “The enormous interest in jazz in South America, via recordings and then the occasional visits of American jazzmen, made it inevitable that there would be some meeting ground for the most exciting rhythms of the two Americas...Jim Hall toured South America in 1960 with Ella Fitzgerald and returned with enormous enthusiasm for the music he had heard and the musicians with whom he had played in informal local sessions...Sonny’s background undoubtedly helps enormously in understanding and using this (bossa nova) and the other rhythms heard in this album, for his mother’s family comes from Virgin Island -a look at the map will show that this U.S. possession is a lot closer to South America than you might think.”
This is Rollins’ typically idiosyncratic response to the burgeoning popularity of the bossa-nova. The effect is sometimes reminiscent of Armstrong’s similar peregrinations through the occasional Latin-American titles back in the 1930’s. Every track has Rollins taking a new tack to find the song’s essence. DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL was originally issued on the European release of the album only, and has remained in Rollins’ repertoire to this day. This version is distinguished by an extended dialogue between Rollins and Hall, in which they meld in the middle and switch positions. During the first portion, where Rollins is leading, he plays a patented Lester Young lick, which elicited a bluesy response from the guitarist. In the second half, when Hall was initiating the exchanges, he played the same Young phrase back at Sonny, who repeated Hall’s original response. IF EVER I WOULD LEAVE YOU brings on Sonny’s harsh, bassoon-like tone and agitated phrasing, married to a rolling lyricism that no one else could have ever imagined. There was no way anyone would confuse this with a Stan Getz album! Martin Williams heard Rollins play this piece in concert at the time and wrote: “he became brass, reed, and rhythm section, tenor soloist, and Latin percussionist, all at once and always with musical logic”, and Sonny does the same thing here. JUNGOSO must have come as something of a shock to Rollins fans, for nothing in his previous work hinted at this kind of extreme approach. The tonal distortions debuted on the previous selection is multiplied tenfold by the use of the multi-phonic overtones glimpsed at the end of LOVER MAN. The exchanges with Candido and his conga drums (listen for Rollins’ approximations of the conga’s approximate pitches) are direct descendants of his brilliant trading in years past with Max Roach, Shelly Manne and Elvin Jones. Given the primal nature of his sound here, could the title refer to both the jungle and Carl Jung? BLUESONGO is just what the title implies - a blues with bass and bongo accompaniment. Cranshaw carries the burden between Candido and Rollins with characteristic grace. THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES harks back to THE BRIDGE in its cornucopia of riches coming from both Messrs. Rollins and Hall. The phrasing of the melody is ornamented with those quintessential Rollins touches that add rather than detract from the essence of the song. During a period when jazz was turning more and more into “pattern” playing, this sort of unabashed lyricism was a helpful tonic (and it still is). BROWNSKIN GIRL was an original of Sonny’s that he felt strongly about having on the album - his version of The Girl From Impanema, perhaps.
OUR MAN IN JAZZ
Any thoughts on RCA Victor’s part about Rollins’ commercial potential must have been dashed with this effort. True to his muse, Rollins hired half of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking quartet - cornetist Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins - to find out for himself what all the fuss was about. In Cherry, he had a front-line partner even more idiosyncratic than himself, and similarly blessed with a quicksilver ear. Drummer Higgins was a disci ple of Kenny Clarke’s in the sense that he propelled things along in an understated yet intense way. One trait that Coleman and Rollins shared was a predilection for thematic, motivic soloing. The main difference was in the material being varied. Coleman’s tunes were based on the same “free” principles that governed his solos, while Rollins preferred standard tunes with chord changes. As was his wont, Cranshaw, as the sole harmonic protagonist, mediates effortlessly between what would best suit each soloist. OLEO is a marathon performance - over 25 long, and contains at least three discrete sections - the “free” introduction, lengthy solos (by all) that veer further and further from their I GOT RHYTHM underpinnings, and a medium slow blues that Sonny wrought out of the fast tempo by gradually going into quarter-time. There is quite a bit of back and forth between the horns on this track in particular, and it’s fascinating to hear them find a musical common denominator. DEARLY BELOVED is subject to radical tempo changes before settling into a medium tempo for Sonny’s exposition of the melody. An interlude bridges to the solos that follow (Cherry, Cranshaw), before Sonny returns with a martial feeling which in turn metamorphosis into a waltz alternating with a frantic uptempo - and all this in eight minutes. The coda is a masterpiece- extemporaneous, yet with that special Rollinsesque flair for unity. DOXY, like OLEO, is an early Rollins with little in the way of chromatic modulations that can easily make the transition into a suitable vehicle for this kind of Colemanesque treatment. Cranshaw plays a superlative solo that highlights own, personal philosophy about what the bass’s role should be in jazz. Bassist and author John Goldsby put it this way: “Bob Cranshaw is a giant among bassists because of his selfless dedication to playing time and making the whole group sound good. While many of his contemporaries were trying to bring the bass into the foreground, Cranshaw became one of the most in-demand bassists by taking care of business in the background. He demonstrates a deep understanding of the inner-workings of the rhythm section. This is certainly due in part to his early experiences playing drums and piano. He names as his biggest influences players who were good soloists, but who were most well-known as strong ‘pocket players’: Eugene Wright, Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, and Chubby Jackson.” The last three titles were recorded for inclusion in a compilation of RCA artists, which explains their relative brevity. YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR, a tune associated with Armstrong, has had its main phrase turned into an intriguing staccato motif. This is the quartet as its most “straight-ahead”, and the contrast to the longer tracks that made up OUR MAN IN JAZZ is striking. There is almost something inherently expansive about this discursive approach to jazz that makes these short takes seem almost like sketches rather than the finished product, fascinating as they are. Bassist Henry Grimes had replaced Cranshaw in this later edition of the quartet, and his association with Rollins went back to 1957. His walking and solo on I COULD WRITE A BOOK reveals him to be deep “in the pocket” with Higgins, and a worthy successor to Cranshaw. The highlight of this bands last studio session is THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU, which is virtually deconstructed. By this time in their evolution, this band had honed the ability to spontaneously create multi-parted and tempoed arrangements, and effortlessly flow in and out of the various sections and solos. However, like the BRIDGE quartet with Jim Hall, this edition of Rollins & Company was to break up before its time. Rollins learned a lot, though, during his association with Cherry, and possibly the greatest lesson led to the quartet’s demise. Like many other great and heroic soloists, Rollins needs to be the main protagonist with all the myriad related musical allusions and possibilities for emotional and rhetorical sea-changes at his fingertips. When confronted with a free spirit such as Don Cherry, some of his options were foreclosed, and this was to be the last working band Sonny Rollins ever led with an artistic peer in the front line.
SONNY MEETS HAWK
This is one of the best albums Coleman Hawkins made in his last decade (he died in 1969), due in no small part to the challenge Rollins presented him with in the studio. With several decades worth of tenor slaying behind him, Hawkins couldn’t resist a challenge. Rollins showed his respect for his long-time idol by unleashing a barrage of eccentric expressive devices, thereby challenging him to re-assert the levels of creativity that had established Hawkins as an icon. What resulted was a true and vivid image of Hawkins’ true identity as improviser, made more stark by the startling context in which Rollins and company placed him. YESTERDAYS is densely prefaced by a tart Rollins, setting in motion the tunes basic harmonic motion, and leaving the door wide open for Hawkins’ broad variations on the melody. He concludes with a dramatic trill which was too good for Rollins to ignore, and this becomes the motive of his solo; Hawkins’ energized response to this is one of the albums great moments, as is his reprise of the trill yet to lead into the coda. Paul Bley’s innovative playing comes to the fore during ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. Hear how he gives Hawkins the kind of chording he was accustomed (with superlative results), and then takes the tail of the tenor solo and uses it to plunge into one of his characteristically associative statements. In a sense, Bley was furthering Lester Young’s concept of letting a supremely melodic conception take precedence over the harmonic structure. This solo has long been a favorite of many people, including Stanley Crouch: “At his very best, Paul Bley is to Ornette Coleman what Bud Powell was to Charlie Parker. He adapted the freedom of Coleman’s singing, motific line to the keyboard and worked out a range of inflections that served his work as precisely as had the timbres Thelonious Monk invented for his monumental style. This achievement made Bley the true piano innovator of the sixties avant garde. The remarkable improvisation on “All The Things You Are” is a perfect example. In place after place, the uniquely inflected line, both in its lyricism and its bold runs, extends upon Coleman. Most jazz pianists, caught by Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, or Herbie Hancock, missed Bley. What he had so brilliantly accomplished didn’t get a broader hearing until Keith Jarrett became popular more than a decade after he recorded with Rollins and Hawkins. Through Jarrett, Bley finally got a tickle-toe into the water of the music.” Rollins, who had long before mastered the conventions of this kind of composition, lets his wide-ranging imagination take full flight, influenced no doubt by Bley. SUMMERTIME is shocking on many levels, most strikingly Rollins’ overt homage to John Coltrane. Granted, other true innovators have occasionally paid homage by virtue of quoting: Lester Young’s use of a prime Coleman Hawkins phrase in his first recorded solo (Shoe Shine Boy) and Bix Beiderbecke (TickleToe) and Charlie Parker’s taking a piece right out of Armstrong’s West End Blues (Visa) and also, on occasion, chunks of Young and Ben Webster. But this is something different, for the tribute is directed in the opposite direction - though younger than Coltrane, Rollins’ initial contributions to the music’s evolution happened before Coltrane’s, and he adopts an entirely foreign conception, as opposed to the use of a quote. There is a 1968 concert version of NAIMA, recorded in Denmark where even the most experienced Rollins listener would have difficulty identifying him. Add to that bassist Henry Grimes intermittent use of a major tonic chord on this most famous of minor songs and you have one uniquely mesmerizing version. In 1980, Rollins told David Weiss: “I’m a speech-like player. My phrasing and everything, it’s more speech-like than it is legato, though I like to do things legato also. But what I play is very unorthodox, unusual...it’s very percussive some of the time. Coleman Hawkins was like that, especially his early stuff. ‘Way back he almost sounded like a guy talking. Of course, Coleman was my idol, you know.” The stridency of the early Hawkins can be heard throughout Sonny’s first solo on JUST FRIENDS, with more than a dash of Armstrong thrown in (the most significant influence on the young Hawk). This is not imply that any jazz musician mixes influences like a mad alchemist, but that in the work of a figure of Rollins’ magnitude, all these elements of the music’s heritage can, and frequently do, coexist. Once again, Hawkins plumbs the deep well of his creativity to come up with supremely melodic statements. Much has been made of the high-whistling Rollins’ plays behind Hawk during the last eight bars of LOVER MAN. However, listening to what he played register-wise earlier on the piece makes those sustained altisimmo notes seem inevitable. The handful of trade-off between the two tenors are priceless; jarring, yet unerringly cohesive. During one of his solos, Rollins dons the almost-sinister growling heard back on JUNGOSO (this seems to be a sound Pharaoh Sanders was intrigued by), and rapidly veers towards incoherence, after which Hawkins leaves a judicious space before re-entering as the voice of supreme reason. There is also the specter of Charlie Parker, who, like Armstrong, played a large role in these two tenor titans musical life, and made this tune his own on three different recordings. Rollins kicks off the concluding title, AT McKIES, with a rhythmically ambiguous statement of the theme that sets the tone for the rest of the performance. Bley and the rhythm section follow his lead and play over and through the usual demarcations of the blues. For the only time during the session, Hawkins sounds vaguely disoriented, before warming up to a series of broad descending strokes paced over several choruses (hear how the rhythm section livens up at that point). Bley’s transference of Coleman’s concepts into a harmonic sphere is showcased well on his blues choruses, and lead the way to a Rollins solo that includes a variation on Parker’s device of taking a short phrase on the blues and making an extended sequence out of it (King Oliver was also good at that, come to think of it).
NOW’S THE TIME (orrin - no hancock on 52nd alternate, st. thomas)
Avakian’s next project for Rollins was to have an update on a handful of classic “modern jazz” themes. There had been a night at Birdland in 1963 when Rollins and Miles Davis held a sort of open audition for pianists. Both Herbie Hancock and Paul Bley played. Sonny was immediately attracted to Bley playing and hired him. Possibly to make up for the lost opportunity that night, Sonny hired Hancock to play on this date, along with his rhythm section mate from the new Miles Davis Quintet, Ron Carter, who alternated with Bob Cranshaw. NOW’S THE TIME, one of Charlie Parker’s best-known blues, finds Sonny warming up in a relatively reflective mood, bookending Hancock’s solo with a pair of solos. The alternate take, over 15 minutes long, is another matter. With an infinite amount of time at his disposal, we get the majestically expansive Rollins. Hancock (who eventually lays out for a long period) and Carter adapt to the situation, and play for Sonny in a way that they never did for Miles. When one hears stories of the Proust-like solos Sonny would play in nightclubs during this period, it must have been efforts like this that they were talking about. There is an interpolation of one of his own blues heads in this almost autobiographic performance before the last reprise. Another early “bop” blues, Gillespie’s BLUE ‘N BOOGIE, and Benny Golson’s I REMEMBER CLIFFORD has Rollins back in his preferred trio setting (with Cranshaw on bass). These reflect the impact the quartet with Cherry had on Rollins, and his ongoing synthesis of Coleman’s innovations. Like so many of the music’s greatest players, Rollins playing is as exemplary on a purely rhythmic basis as it is on a melodic one. Has any musician, regardless of genre, ever played stronger (and more swinging) time than what Sonny gets to as he heads towards the reprise of B’B’s melody? In addition, there are many sections where Sonny explores territory that Joe Henderson was to spend quite a bit of time in a few years down the pike. The issued take of CLIFFORD is a brief abstraction of a song dedicated to someone who Sonny loved to play with. It was presumably timing limitations that excluded the second, superior version. To begin with we get the melody, in various forms of solo and counterpoint between cornetist Thad Jones (an intensely compositional improviser) and Rollins. Then there is the tubular and nuanced tone Rollins achieves - it is as aurally expressive as his choice of notes. A solo saxophone cadenza leads to a “free” interchange with Jones and back to the melody with true spontaneity - one can only imagine what this quartet could have gotten to if it had stuck together. The same quartet plays Thelonious Monk’s FIFTY-SECOND STREET THEME in a frantic version in which the song’s motifs are taken apart and varied almost beyond recognition. The interplay with Jones is again superlative, as are the fours with McCurdy. The three-times longer alternate was done with the quartet with Hancock and Carter, and has a rounder edge to it. Ever the precocious quoter, Sonny goes all out here - even bringing in the CAN-CAN and SWANEE RIVER, and Lester Young’s solo on EVERY TUB (that surfaces throughout the collection in different guises) . The tempo is punishing, and six minutes into it, things break down. Sonny keeps playing and manages to count off a second take while still playing. This gives us a glimpse of the reality of recording with Rollins, and the incredibly high-wire he placed himself on. ST. THOMAS was on the 1956 SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS album, and the issued take elicited a relatively “straight-ahead” performance, while on the alternate, Sonny makes a quick detour into his DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL mode, and ends on a vaudevillian note. In its classicism, ROUND MIDNIGHT might well have come from one of Sonny’s late 50’s record dates. One senses the same problem with Hancock that there was with Cherry - Sonny needs to be the abstract one, and likes to react off of someone else, who is playing the “straight man” as Cranshaw, or Carter in this case, does. Nonetheless, given the emotional tenor of the other selections on the original album, MIDNIGHT’S placidity is a good contrast. Sonny had recorded AFTERNOON IN PARIS in 1949, and this version is brief enough to have fit on a 78, and like the preceding track, is notable for its brevity. The alternate take has a more authoritative, Armstrongian take on the melody and the same framework of Rollins and Hancock splitting a chorus, then trading fours with the drums before taking it out, though the ending seems a tad more spontaneous. Few musicians have ever been able to approach Rollins’ sheer creativity, and the three takes of FOUR reveal him in all his fiery glory, plowing through chorus after chorus with no diminution of inspiration. His solo on the issued take begins with some fast-fingered arpeggios that are unique to this version. The alternate actually has more peaks and valleys of intensity, and a more distinct shape, while the third has a start and stop quality in combination with some uncanny intertplay with the drums. (specify). The strong, blowing middle section of DJANGO (not included on the original LP release) is bookended by some rather strange, string-like doings by Rollins - possibly anticipating the TRAVELIN’ LIGHT session later in the year.
THE STANDARD SONNY ROLLINS
Bringing the RCA recordings full circle, this album features Sonny addressing a collection of great songs; if THE BRIDGE acheived greatness by virtue of finely wrought arrangements, here the same exquisite results are reached by more informal means.In addition, there has been a distillation of the best of what he had learned over the intervening two years, so we get to hear an even broader Rollins than before. Has there ever been a more classic sound in jazz than Rollins accompanied by bass and drums paraphrasing a wonderful tune such as AUTUMN NOCTURNE? I think not. The melody’s large intervals fit Sonny’s majestic conception like a glove,and listen for his use of the entire range of the saxophone - for example, during the second half of the first bridge, he descends into the low register to ask a musical question that he answers answers way up high. Like Armstrong, Rollins hews closely to the melody here, holding his penchant for abstraction back until about half-way through NIGHT AND DAY (of course, the tunes were not recorded in this order, but producer Avakian programmed the titles to tell a story). The re-appearance of Jim Hall, after a t two-year absence, playing LOVE LETTERS a capella is a moment of rare beauty. As quickly as he came, he’s gone, leaving Sonny to “stroll” (play with just bass and drums), and the results are striking (even for 1964 Rollins!)
Throughout the great part of MY ONE AND ONLY LOVE, Rollins uses little more than the notes of the melody, phrased with a rhythmic sophistication the equal of the late Armstrong. Then there is that sound - subtlety varied note to note, adding much in the way of emotional shading. Another facet of the performances with Herbie Hancock comes to the fore during the first bridge. Used to playing in a more discursive, associative style in Miles Davis’ quintet, Hancock is clearly steered by Rollins towards the more functional backing he preferred - to be accompanied just like a great singer would be. Though this was their only working association, there are many moments to be savored. WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR (originally unissued) brought out the kind of playing from Rollins that we associate with such albums as the 1958 THE CONTEMPORARY SONNY ROLLINS (chec - is it SR on C?), and it’s a joy to hear Herbie fall right in behind him. Arnold Schoenberg remarked once that contrary to common perception, even after he developed 12-tone music, he still loved the music of Mozart, and that the one made him enjoy the other all the more. In the same sense, when Sonny returns to his “classic” mode as he does here, or on IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, it is all the more meaningful given his perigrinations into far more abstract territory. Sometimes these concepts (“classic” and “abstract”) merge, as they do on THREE LITTLE WORDS. Pianist Dick Katz, who played with Rollins in 1958 remembers the saxophonist starting every night with I WANT TO BE HAPPY a la Lester Young as a warm-up. On this performance, Rollins begins relatively straight-ahead, and gradually goes further and further out, with a brilliant display of alternate fingerings and overtones. His second bridge, with its “WAGON WHEELS” quote and vocalisms has long been a particular favorite of serious Rollins-ites. TRAVELIN’ LIGHT remains one of the most unusual and important recordings of Rollins’ entire career. To begin with, the instrumentation is different. There are two bassists - David Izenson (from Ornette Coleman’s trio) and Teddy Smith, a different drummer, Stu Martin. In addition, both Hall and Hancock are deployed at different points . As Martin Williams noted, Sonny sometimes played like he was a jazz Rimsky-Korsakov, orchestrating various segments of a tune as though he was any one of a variety of instruments. Sonny has a field day throughout TRAVELIN’ LIGHT with the bowed basses, and joins them uncannily on occasion. Equally startling is the mood of the performance - a truly unique performance that transcends genre. The unissued take gives us a glimpse of the challenges facing both the musicians who played with Sonny and producer Avakian. Unlike the majority of artists who come in to a recording date with everything rehearsed to a tee, by this point in his career, Sonny was gambling in the studio, hence the abrupt fades on some of the tunes. WINTER WONDERLAND is taken at an uncharacteristically slow tempo, and subject to a reharmonization (probably Hancock’s). Carter and Hancock construct a different background for Sonny than what he was accustomed to, and it’s instructive to hear him react to what they’re doing. Contrast that to Hall/Cranshaw on LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY and what you wind up with is very clear picture of exactly what Rollins’ profile as an improviser is: one who reacts best to a simpler (though no less sophisticated)accompaniment that leaves him a clean slate on which to make his abstractions, which at their best are melodically driven.
In the years following his RCA recordings, Rollins continued to alternate periods of regeneration and study with intense touring. Over the years, a sense of frustration has evolved amongst his followers regarding his albums, which have never captured the majesty of the in-person Rollins. There have been exceptions- most notably the 1978 “Don’t Stop The Carnival” concert date with at least two masterpieces - SILVER and AUTUMN NOCTURNE, but for the most part, the best Rollins has been found on the concert stage and not in the recording studio. Every Rollins has their favorite moments from these gigs. This writer’s was a night in 1988, outside at Chicago Jazz festival. Following a Benny Goodman tribute, Rollins took the stage with a medium-tempoed RED TOP, dedicated tot he memory of his old friend Gene Ammons. It was as though everything else that had occurred that night had been subject to a scortched earth policy - Sonny must have played 50 choruses, piling one idea after another in an inexorable and mammoth exhibition of pure swing, invention, humor and profundity. There was no doubt that there was no one else on the face of the earth who could have laid that kind of message down, and there still isn’t.