One of the first albums featuring the fully-formed analytical and deconstructive Rollins style, this 1955 quartet recording opens with a stunning up-tempo version of the unlikely vehicle ‘There’s no business like show business’, on which Rollins satirises the razzle-dazzle while pulling apart and obsessing over the various superior features of the melody and harmony. The rest of the album continues in much the same vein with continually inspired solos on numbers such as ‘Paradox’ and ‘Raincheck’, driven on by Max Roach’s pro-active drumming. Rollins’ fluent lines display a complete mastery of the history of jazz saxophone up to that point, which he had already moulded into his own unique style. However what is more distinctive is his determination to stretch established formulae to breaking point, but always within the context of dissecting the composition at hand; thus the improvised lines on the harmony are frequently interrupted as Rollins goes back time and again to some distinctive phrase from the melody, which he subsequently leaves hanging in space like a problem to be solved.
Way out West
One of the greatest jazz albums of all time, and jazz’s greatest concept album, everything about this recording is special, from the unusual tenor-trio format with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums, to the cowboy-themed compositions, to the famous cover photograph by William Claxton of Rollins in wild-west garb wielding his tenor in the Mojave desert. Recorded throughout the night, the atmosphere is intimate and engaging, and all three players sound continually inspired, each making their own irreplaceable contribution to this classic music: Brown is always in complete control, Manne invents quirky clip-clopping effects to fit the concept, and Rollins thinks very hard indeed about these cowboy tunes. Rollins certainly got more ‘way out’ in the coming years, but with this album his playing achieved a certain perfection which nobody could better, not even him.
And the Contemporary Leaders
The last of the great early Sonny Rollins albums, a period dramatically brought to an end when he went into one of his self-imposed retirements, this album doesn’t have a concept like Way Out West, but Rollins’ playing is at the same amazing level, and the band and recording-sound are exceptional. As was his habit, Rollins selected some old show tunes, such as the Al Jolson number ‘Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody’, and turned them into viable modern jazz vehicles, with the highlight being ‘I’ve told ev-ry little star’, which Rollins transforms by adding four little upwards flurries, reminiscent of shooting stars, to the last two bars of the ‘A’ section: it is hard now to imagine anyone playing that tune without the flurries. Another bonus of this album is the presence of pianist Hampton Hawes, who contributes some brilliant, flowing solos; his perfectly timed contribution to ‘I’ve told ev-ry little star’ keeps the creativity at the same level Rollins had just left it at after his solo, which is no mean feat.
Sonny meets Hawk
This mid-period recording from 1963 hasn’t received much critical acclaim and is usually dismissed as a curiosity. However I like the fact that it is conceptually bizarre, and what is more important, it features, in my opinion, the absolute pinnacle of tenor saxophone playing. The background is that Coleman Hawkins was the first great jazz tenor saxophone player, who brought the instrument to prominence in the ‘20s, cut some masterpieces in the ‘30s and ‘40s, played with the bebop revolutionaries, and kept updating his sound right into the ‘60s. In short, he was an open-minded revolutionary from an earlier era. He was also Rollins’ hero. When they got to play together, then, you might have thought that Rollins, whose playing had by now fully embraced the avant-garde, would play with great respect to give the older man a chance to fit in. Instead, he turned up, with his Mohican hair-style of the time, and played some of the most extreme, bizarre and experimental tenor of his career, cutting right across the band with obtuse harmonies, rhythms and sonic-effects. Hawkins was long past his prime, and although he has his moments, his playing is often quite rambling and uninteresting, but his situation is not helped by the fact that Rollins, in his absolute prime, seems to be doing everything within his power to put the older man off. Nevertheless, in spite of, or maybe because of the extreme inappropriateness of what he is doing, Rollins’ playing is endlessly fascinating; always ingenious, sometimes shocking, and incorporating lots of subversive humour. My theory as to how this all came about is that Rollins was still very conscious of the criticism he had received for his meeting with John Coltrane in 1956, when Rollins was the star and Coltrane was not yet widely known; Coltrane sounded more impressive in that encounter, but according to Rollins, he had deliberately hung back to give Coltrane a chance, just as Charlie Parker had hung back to give Rollins a chance when they recorded together in 1953. Rollins, after all, wasn’t to know that this would be remembered as the only meeting between the two greatest modern jazz tenor saxophonists of all time, whose contrasting styles, I always think, are somehow analogous to that between Picasso (Coltrane) and Miro (Rollins). Given Rollins’ consciousness of this episode, then, he wasn’t about to hang back with Hawkins, an inappropriate decision, but one that created a strange magic. The highlight of this album is the simple up-tempo blues ‘At McKies’, which has a throwaway theme that Rollins begins to deconstruct straight-away with a short initial solo. Then Hawkins plays a solo on which he does his best to be far-out. Next there is a stunning short solo by pianist Paul Bley, on which he moves the harmony to interesting parallel planes, letting his notes trail off like broken spider’s webs. By this time the band has picked up, ready for Rollins to return with the theme before playing a second solo. This solo, a kind of ironic analysis, in which Rollins sometimes seems to be satirising indecision by changing his mind mid-line, is the most brilliant tenor solo I’ve ever heard.
Recorded in 1965, the same year Coltrane was recording albums like Ascension and Om, also on the Impulse label, this quartet recording of four standards and an original was infinitely more conventional, but Rollins’ playing, in its own very different way, was just as advanced; rhythmically it was considerably more advanced. With a strong emphasis on tonal distortions, and with his ironic, obsessional, and deconstructive tendencies more accentuated than ever, Rollins’ playing has majesty and complete authority despite its perverseness. The highlights are the wistful version of ‘Blue Room’, and an almost neurotic treatment of ‘Three Little Words’; check out the final part of the unaccompanied coda, where Rollins kicks into a corny old ending, but decides to insert more notes into it than it can hold.
A live recording from 1976, Rollins was into his late period now, in which he adopted a growl and articulation intended to be reminiscent of Caribbean saxophone players, and started playing open-ended rock, pop, and calypso grooves to fit; this transition was remarkably wise, since the more easy-going style set him up perfectly for old age in years to come. At this time, however, he was still at the height of his powers, and revelling in the possibilities of his new style and musical surroundings; his playing is just as obsessive and explorative as before, and at this particular concert he was playing out an interest in reed-squeaks, an effect saxophone-players generally do their best to avoid. The highlight is the up-tempo ‘Keep Old Yourself’, a variation on Coltrane’s ‘Mr P.C.’, on which the band really roars as Rollins explores all available options.
Dancing in the Dark
I once got into a taxi in New York, and the driver had this album playing; America seemed a really cool place. By 1987, when it was recorded, Rollins had definitely mellowed, but although the music is poppy and a little overly emotional at times, Rollins’ playing is just as fascinating and uncompromising as ever, and there are some truly memorable tunes played by the front line of Rollins’ tenor and Clifton Anderson’s trombone; there is also some great hyper-active drumming by Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith. The highlights are ‘Allison’, on which Rollins’ old obsessional tendencies are in evidence as he adjusts the tune each time around, and the infectious calypso classic ‘Duke of Iron’, on which he keeps it simple are thereby somehow really does end up sounding like some elderly, sun-drenched Caribbean player.