Saxophone Colossus 

Marking the 70th birthday of jazz great Sonny Rollins

Marking the 70th birthday of jazz great Sonny Rollins

On Sept. 7, Sonny Rollins turned 70. Some might find it understandable that the jazz faithful did little more than politely acknowledge this milestone. Lionel Hampton, for instance, is 91 and still active. Fellow saxophone icon Benny Carter celebrated his 93rd birthday this August. There’s been far more awareness of centennial celebrations for the dearly departed Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Louis Armstrong, and rightfully so.

Still, Rollins’ birthday deserves much more than passing comment. Rollins and comrade John Coltrane carried the torch during the ’50s, inheriting from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young their status as jazz’s top two saxophone innovators. Though Coltrane’s impact as seer and icon looms large not only over jazz but over all popular music, Rollins retains his crown as jazz’s greatest living tenor saxophonist. Today’s hot names, from James Carter to Joshua Redman to Branford Marsalis, speak in awe and with reverence about Rollins’ influence on their style and sound.

Yet while critics around the world and in America still rave about his live performances, Rollins maintains the erratic recording and touring schedule that has always marked his career. Famous for his lengthy sabbaticals, he’s been an incredibly prolific artist, then undergone periods of troubling inconsistency.

Rollins created several unforgettable, highly influential masterpieces throughout the ’50s and ’60s; he’s also churned out throwaway dates through much of the ’80s and ’90s. Rollins has explored, embraced, then rejected the avant garde, dabbled with R&B, and moonlighted on an occasional rock session gig. His penchant for tinkering with song forms, coupled with an amazing memory, has resulted in everything from Noel Coward and Stevie Wonder covers to film soundtrack pieces and show tune reinterpretations. He’s composed genuine anthems, then penned tunes that might embarrass a first-year student. There’s never anything predictable about Sonny Rollins; he’s equal parts perplexing, innovative, insightful, humorous, and annoying.

Rollins’ technique alone places him in the highest pantheon of jazz immortals. Infusing his magnificent, immense tone with amazing harmonic ideas, speed, and fluidity, he has created a sound that’s massive, hypnotic, and instantly recognizable. His solos sometimes bowl listeners over with their intensity, or he’ll introduce melodic fragments and song quotations with lightning speed, making comedic licks and references even the most attentive fan might miss. He’s an equally moving ballad player, and he’s a champion of calypso, riding the rhythms with agility and grace.

Rollins hasn’t made a new recording since the typically uneven Global Warming in 1998, but there’s currently an abundance of his material on the market, including an invaluable boxed set, Sonny Rollins—The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside & Contemporary Recordings (Riverside/Fantasy), which came out this spring. In addition, the BMG label has issued the single-disc The Best of the Complete RCA Victor Recordings, which culls cuts from 1998’s six-disc set The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. St. Martin’s Press has also released an intriguing book, Open Sky—Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation, by Eric Nisenson, who smartly blends musical analysis, biographical details, and pithy comments from Rollins.

This onslaught of items should clarify any questions or dispel doubts about whether Rollins deserves his reputation. The Freelance Years, a five-disc opus, covers a prolific period from 1956-1959 that saw Rollins cutting classic dates for Contemporary, Blue Note, and Riverside, among others. The discs include every track from the Contemporary and Riverside recordings, also including Rollins’ sessions with Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. The set encompasses acclaimed albums Way Out West, The Sound of Sonny, Freedom Suite, Sonny Rollins Plays, and Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, fleshing out the track selection with a few alternate takes.

All five discs contain countless moments of splendid solo playing and ensemble interaction; the music showcases Sonny Rollins in prime, searing form. What’s more, his mighty playing often prodded others into elevating their performances. During his stints with Rollins (especially on Way Out West), drummer Shelly Manne surpassed even the blazing rhythmic intensity he displayed with Ornette Coleman.

While some sections are less satisfying than others—notably the tracks with Abbey Lincoln, on which Rollins never seems fully relaxed—none of the discs are bad, and many are magnificent. The 1958 Freedom Suite album has been frequently treasured and attacked for political reasons; at the time, some right-wing types accused Rollins and drummer Max Roach of subtle anti-white bias. The nearly 20-minute title cut, which opens the fifth disc, ranks as Rollins’ greatest compositional achievement. The suite is a five-part epic that constantly switches tempo, employing everything from an eight-bar blowing section to waltz time, dramatically pushed by the surging rhythm section of Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford.

It’s an indication of how strong Rollins’ playing was during this period that even those sessions he didn’t consider that productive yielded many good moments. He wasn’t overly fond of his playing on either Jazz Contrasts or The Sound of Sonny, but the latter includes a beautiful unaccompanied version of “It Could Happen to You.”

After an extended retreat from music from 1959 to 1962, Rollins was quickly signed by RCA. He received a $90,000 advance and (relative) creative control over his projects, both of which were unprecedented for any jazz artist at the time. While BMG’s single-disc compilation hardly conveys the variety and scope of the music he made for RCA from 1962 to ’64, the songs included here are certified classics. “The Bridge,” the title track of the album that signaled his comeback, features Jim Hall’s feathery, full tones underscoring brisk, breezy tenor from Rollins. Hall was also on board for a dazzling cover of “God Bless the Child” and an early rendition of the signature tune “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”

Rollins has always frequently shuffled personnel, as well as musical formats. Like The Freelance Years, the BMG set reflects this tendency. On one hand, the disc includes two cuts from his date with idol Coleman Hawkins; while Rollins’ playing is technically flawless on “Just Friends” and “Yesterdays,” he’s clearly deferring to Hawkins here. He’s far more assertive, meanwhile, on “Round Midnight” and “St. Thomas,” cut in ’64 with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Roy McCurdy. On these cuts, he’s in his favorite setting, the pianoless trio. While Carter stakes his claim in the middle of the songs and McCurdy supplies shifting rhythmic fabrics, Rollins provides amazing melodic readings and inventive solo reworkings. His tone and time are elastic, and his rubbery phrases serve as reminders that he’s always seeking fresh things to say with every line.

Those unaware of Rollins’ sociopolitical views will find Eric Nisenson’s Open Sky invaluable. The author of biographies on John Coltrane and Miles Davis as well as a controversial treatise titled The Murder of Jazz, Nisenson doesn’t take the traditional biographer’s approach. Instead, he provides skeletal details, then lets his subject embellish them. Rollins freely talks about his drug problems, plus his relationship with such greats as Monk, Coltrane, and Miles Davis. Rollins also expresses his contempt for what he considers the manufactured competition and hype generated by jazz writers and journalists; he discusses the difficulty of attaining and sustaining creative excellence; and he discusses the reason for his periodic sabbaticals.

Rollins’ most compelling statements in Open Sky are those on jazz and race. He repeatedly expresses frustration, dismay, and resentment at simple-minded attitudes toward skin color. His relationship with Jim Hall, who is white, is discussed at length, providing insight into the kinds of tensions that Rollins faced as a result of his decision to integrate his group. He ultimately emerges as a universalist, defiantly proud of his African American heritage and angry at the racism that still permeates this society. He is unwilling to embrace or accept stereotypes, conventional wisdom, or prevailing images about anyone.

Nisenson doesn’t make this book a treatise on race or an academic exercise. By letting Rollins speak for himself, and putting the emphasis on his musical achievements, the author provides a wonderful portrait of a jazz hero. This, plus great music from the Contemporary/Riverside set and RCA sampler, may be the best Rollins birthday present the jazz audience could get.

Noteworthy Naxos

Naxos of America’s jazz and world music divisions have been busy lately, issuing several releases of note. In the jazz department, Lew Del Gatto’s Katewalk includes a dynamic reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” plus four fine originals. Del Gatto’s robust, thick-toned tenor sparkles on ballads, blues, and straight-ahead blowing tunes. Trumpeter Randy Brecker and trombonist Steve Turre are also accomplished improvisers whose fiery contributions not only punctuate Del Gatto’s solos, but also fuel a solid rhythm section. Katewalk veers from bustling funk to bawdy blues, delicate show tunes, and introspective stanzas.

Mike Nock, head of jazz A&R for Naxos, constantly scours the globe seeking acts with a distinctive approach or an ear-catching sound. Both Lilacs and Laughter, featuring pianist Florian Ross and his Brass Project, and the CD David Phillips & Freedance fit the bill. Ross, a slashing keyboardist, wrote all 13 songs on his date. The arrangements present some intriguing instrumental colors and contrasts. Sometimes trumpets and French horns are matched; on other occasions trombones and tubas take center stage, with Ross’ prickly lines and edgy phrases solidly underneath.

Phillips & Freedance at times play rambling, fusion-influenced jams; then they’ll become a disciplined, almost reverent ensemble, as on their cover of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Their all-over-the-board attitude sometimes works and sometimes misfires, but Phillips, guitarist Rez Abbasi, saxophonist John O’Gallagher, and drummer/percussionist Tony Moreno clearly delight in their rambles through jazz, rock, and whatever else on this date.

Recent releases from the Naxos World division include Diego Marulanda & Pacande’s ¡La Verraquera!, which blends classic Colombian melodies and themes with Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz inflections and tinges. Irshad Khan’s The Magic of Twilight is somber, reflective material, intensely played and passionately performed by Khan on sitar, Vineet Vyas on tabla, and Sujit Sen on tamboura.

Memphis and beyond

Saxophonist Hank Crawford and R&B vocalist Irma Thomas each have new releases. Crawford, who studied at Tennessee State University before gaining fame as Ray Charles’ music director in the late ’50s and early ’60s, grew up in Memphis. While the blues and soul-tinged jazz have long been his strong suit, he’s an underrated bop and interpretative player. His newest date, The World of Hank Crawford (Milestone), doesn’t totally abandon the funky grooves of his work with organist Jimmy McGriff, but it does feature his tart alto solos on some surprising tunes.

Guitarist Melvin Sparks provides down-home touches, while baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave alternate between expressive and confrontational solos, eliciting from Crawford energetic alto playing that showcases his considerable skills.

While Irma Thomas has long been the soul queen of New Orleans, she doesn’t have any trouble turning her attention to Memphis music. My Heart’s in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn (Rounder) matches her enchanting vocals with Penn’s world-weary, heartache-laden lyrics. Penn didn’t want this to be a repertory project, so he contributed nine new numbers, among them the scene-setting title cut, the poignant “Keep It Simple,” and the urgent “Hurtin’ for Certain.” In addition, Thomas did cover a couple of Penn anthems, among them “I’m Your Puppet” and “Zero Willpower,” the latter a song she initially cut in Muscle Shoals during the late ’70s.

Thanks to a great supporting cast whose ranks include saxophonist Jim Spake, guitarist Michael Toles, and keyboardist Marvell Thomas, plus longtime Penn associate Spooner Oldham, the arrangements and production more than match Thomas’ arresting performances. She convincingly shows that her Crescent City magic can be transferred to other locations.

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