Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and blues guitarist/vocalist Otis Rush are among a select group of musicians whose reputations were shaped by their stunning innovations in the ’50s, and whose subsequent careers have sometimes been held captive by those contributions. Both men have periodically deserted the music scene, disillusioned by record company politics and frustrated by unrealistic fan expectations. Yet at the tail end of the ’90s, they remain active, with new releases that will again have fans asking whether their tremendous talents are being fully served by the labels issuing their material.
Sonny Rollins, who celebrated his 68th birthday on Sept. 9, is widely considered jazz’s greatest living saxophonist. From his earliest dates in 1949, when he sparkled as a 19-year-old playing alongside immortal pianist Bud Powell, Rollins has amazed audiences and critics with his wide-ranging sound, immense tone, and encyclopedic harmonic knowledge. During stints in the short-lived but unforgettable Max Roach/Clifford Brown quintet, Rollins’ swooping tenor solos signaled him as a rising force in the emerging hard-bop community.
After voluntarily serving time in a federal penitentiary in Lexington, Ky., to kick a severe drug problem, Rollins dominated the jazz landscape from 1956 to 1967. Such jewels as Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, Blue Seven, Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite, and East Broadway Run Down brilliantly juxtaposed reworked standards with challenging originals and put Rollins’ robust tenor center stage. Rollins was also among the few jazz musicians to explore calypso sounds and incorporate them into his material. His impact was so great that cohorts from John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis sang his praises, and each Rollins LP became an event.
But the pressure to continue became too intense, and Rollins “retired” in the late ’60s, only to come roaring back with Next Album in 1972. Since then he’s remained with one label (Milestone), and every subsequent release has ultimately (and unfairly) been compared with those amazing ’50s and ’60s efforts.
Now 54, blues musician Otis Rush has also had to bear the cross of being labeled “the greatest”even with such icons as John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy alive and well. Rush, who made the move from Philadelphia, Miss., to Chicago at the age of 14, cut several stunning singles for Cobra Records from 1956 to 1958. The choruses, chord structures, and pace of “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” “Double Trouble,” and “Groaning The Blues” still sound inventive four decades later.
These songs not only became part of the core vocabulary for the Chicago West Side sound but have been studied, absorbed, and filtered into the work of numerous rock acts: Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton are among the many to have covered Rush tunes, and Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band Double Trouble in tribute to the guitarist.
Yet Rush’s commercial fortunes have never approached his notoriety. His career since the Cobra days has been marked by prolonged periods of inactivity, and even when he has generated an immense buzz in the blues world, the fanfare hasn’t amounted to much material success. Stellar dates for Delmark, Black & Blue, Blind Pig, and Alligator have won raves from the blues hardcore but little attention elsewhere, while a good major-label effort, Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, cut for Mercury in 1994, was botched due to horrid distribution.
Given both men’s backgrounds, it’s not surprising to see Rollins’ Global Warming (Milestone) and Rush’s Any Place I’m Going (Pointblank) receiving such intense scrutiny. And while neither record can be deemed a classic, both are solid entries.
Rollins has long been among jazz’s more politically aware individuals, and this release documents his longtime interest in environmental politics. As with The Freedom Suite, there are no lyrics or vocal statements; instead, songs like “Echo-Side Blue,” “Mother Nature’s Blues,” and the title cut indicate Rollins’ concern by inference.
The six tracks match him with two different unitshalf the pieces are quartet outings, with pianist Stephen Scott demonstrating a relaxed yet hard-edged sound underneath the always warm, surging Rollins tenor, and with nimble rhythm support from bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Idris Muhammad. The other three tunes add trombonist Clifton Anderson and percussionist Victor See Yuch, and substitute drummer Percy Wilson for Muhammad. This unit is featured on the session’s best number, the nearly 12-minute-long “Global Warming.” As a calypso number, it’s not as magnetic as “St. Thomas,” but Rollins’ throbbing solo and mastery of the “island beat” remain impressive. Those still expecting another Way Out West orBlue Seven are waiting for Godot; instead, let’s be content Rollins hasn’t opted for the easy riches and creative laziness of smooth jazz and continues making honest, if at times flawed, records.
Rush’s newest, Any Place I’m Going (Pointblank), matches him with legendary Memphis trumpeter and producer Willie Mitchell. It’s among his finest vocal outingshe sings with gritty passion and ease, even sounding credible and energized on familiar numbers like “Part Time Love,” “The Right Time,” and “Pride and Joy.”
However, Rush’s fans expect and demand stirring guitar solos and accompaniment, and on that score the results are mixed. His tuning and licks are more restrained than usual, and there’s little of the note-bending, flailing lines, and distorted, shattering solos that made him famous. Instead, Rush plays in shorter bursts and in softer tones, still utilizing imaginative phrases and nimble voicings but relying more on vocal interpretation rather than sonic energy to get his points across.
The album’s highlights are two riveting numbers that graphically illustrate Rush’s life: “I Got the Blues,” sung in a weary but defiant fashion, is a story of survival against a backdrop of constant struggle. “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” concludes things with a flurry, as Rush takes a tune most often associated with Little Milton and makes it a personal testimony of his own. These two songs not only highlight what’s so special about Otis Rush, they also raise the hope that he still has another epic release in him.
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