Record Review

Sonny Rollins Sunnyside Up and Don’t Hold the Metaphors

Stuart Mitchner

Rollins’s sound is Gargantua come to life. It’s so capacious you could step into its palm and never see all the fingers.

—Gary Giddins

Sonny Rollins has probably inspired more metaphorical rhapsodies than any other jazz musician this side of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Writing of the same 1989 Carnegie Hall concert that evoked Gargantua’s hand, Giddins speaks of Rollins as “the thunder on Mount Sinai” in comparison to Branford Marsalis, the other, relatively mortal musician who “simply played tenor” on the same stage with him that night.

The closest I ever came to Mount Sinai was on a bar stool at the Five Spot in New York. With a little research, I could tell you the names of the players in the rhythm section, but since all traces of them were scattered to the winds during the ensuing event, all I can do is assume that they had taken the stand by the time the first rumbles of distant thunder, which appeared to be coming from the kitchen, could be heard. After a few more preliminary rumblings accompanied by a sound very like the tinkle of sleigh bells, the thundermaster stuck his instrument through the opening used for the passage of food and announced himself with a run that must have shaken the gates of Jazz Heaven. As cutlery, plates, and glassware tinkled and rattled in the wake of another decidedly earthly basso profundo blast, a giant with a mohawk haircut pushed through the swinging door used by the waiters, still playing, the garland of bells around his neck jingling merrily as he shifted his shoulders to and fro and began to tour the club, moving among the tiny tables lifting and dipping his sax like a divining rod. The sounds he was making were sometimes impolite, sometimes fantastical. Still without benefit of accompaniment, he continued his at once low and lofty assault on time and space, already light years beyond Rabelais as he conjured up wood sprites and monsters, Ariels and Calibans, kings and clowns, giving us “a little touch of Sonny in the night.”

And he was just warming up.

“Misterioso”

Fifty years ago today, March 7, 1957, Way Out West, one of the definitive Sonny Rollins albums, was released on Contemporary, a California label. A mere month later another gem arrived, this time on Blue Note: Sonny Rollins Vol. 2. Still to come that same year under his name: The Sound of Sonny on Riverside and Live at the Village Vanguard on Blue Note (said to be his personal favorite).

If I could take only a dozen tracks by Sonny Rollins to the proverbial Desert Island one of them would be “Misterioso,” which is on Sonny Rollins Vol. 2 and features an ensemble such as dreams are made on, with Theolonius Monk and Horace Silver trading off on piano, Jay Jay Johnson on trombone, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Blakey on drums, all playing as if the very fate of jazz were hanging in the balance. Being a typical Monk composition, “Misterioso” seems disarmingly simple at first, like something a kid might have picked out on the school piano during recess. Except that it begins with a drum-roll (okay, make it a clap of thunder) by Art Blakey, who provides the same effect at crucial times throughout the nine minutes and twenty seconds of what the writer of the liner notes calls “a slow blues,” which is like calling The Tempest a slow play. One of my favorite moments in recorded jazz is when Monk passes the baton to Silver. It’s not even strictly speaking a “moment” but just under ten seconds from the time Monk stops and Silver begins. But you know Silver is coming because Monk has paved the way by ending his solo with the same ascending five-note prelude, played not once but three times followed by a blast from Jay Jay Johnson’s trombone before the avatar of cool saunters onstage with a softshoe shuffle, and, after creating a small masterpiece of accompaniment for Johnson, proceeds to do nothing less than compose a “Misterioso” all his own.

And what of the star, the leader? What does he do? He does what a leader should do; he becomes everyone else. He picks up the drummer, bassist, trombonist, and both pianists and rolls them all into one big flat-out, passionate Monkish statement rocketing off a Blakey drum-roll. His sound is big, raw, and naked, almost repellent. Writing about Rollins in the New Yorker around the time both albums came out, Whitney Balliett (the great jazz critic who died last month) mentions Rollins’s “persistently goatlike tone and his abrupt, cantankerous phrasing” before coming round to a recognition of his “revolutionary” approach to improvisation, his “astounding use of polyrhythms,” and his “rolling inspiration and agility.” In another review he refers to Rollins developing a solo style that makes most hard bop “sound as placid as Handel’s Water Music.” But “cantankerous” is the word that comes closest to the character of both his solos here. Like the way he picks up on the hint of a gallop in the drumming and rips into “Camptown Races” complete with “Doo-Dah, Doo-Dah” and a burst of impassioned neighing.

“Way Out West”

The covers of both these LPs from 1957 are classics of jazz cover art. The image of Rollins in shadows with horn and cigarette fronting Vol. 2 is the last word in jazz charisma, the lighter side of which is the Way Out West cover showing the sly Stetson-hatted gunfighter on a cowboy movie desert landscape in suit and tie, with his jacket pulled aside to reveal his bullet-studded gunbelt and empty holster, his tenor sax six-shooter at the ready (Rollins grew up watching Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson). Both these cover images also reflect the chemistry of extremes at the heart of his style, the Blue Note image all dark power, the Heavyweight Champion of Hard Bop, while the music in Way Out West, like the cover, suggests the mixture of force and wit found in his playing and apparent in his choice and treatment of songs like “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels” (he’s famous for doing wonders with unlikely material). The title number on Way Out West is his quirkiest and most Monkish performance. The track’s let-it-all-hang-out ambience owes much to the after-hours situation. Rollins, who was in Los Angeles with the Max Roach Quintet, got together with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelley Manne at the studio at 3 a.m. after each of the three had been through a full night of playing with their respective groups. By 7 a.m., when half the album had been recorded, Rollins said “I’m hot now,” so were Brown and Manne and “Way Out West” is the result. Like so many jazz standards, it’s a reinvention of a pop standard, in this case, “Swinging on a Star,” which Bing Crosby sang in the 1944 movie Going My Way (the song was one of the movie’s many Oscar winners). The rapport between Rollins and Brown and Manne is a delight all through the album, but here it’s downright uncanny. As he did in “Misterioso” Rollins absorbs his drummer, translating Manne’s doodling and puttering into his own tenor-sax patois of trillings and warblings while reminding us of the words to the song he’s sampling: would you rather be a fish, or a horse, or a pig, or, as Balliett might have it, a goat, or would you rather swing on a star and carry moonbeams home in a jar?

Outdoors and Free

The last time I saw Sonny Rollins was on a sultry summer evening when New York felt like New Delhi with the lid down. It was a free outdoor event behind Lincoln Center and the crowd had been building for hours. While there were plenty of people who knew him from records or other appearances, a goodly number had not been born yet when he was in his prime and many clearly didn’t know who he was; they were just there for some free music. I couldn’t even see the bandstand when he began, and, at first, I didn’t really care; the music seemed incidental to the sun setting over the Hudson, the tropical heat, and the bustling, buzzing crowd. After I pushed through the mob to where I could actually see the bandshell, it was like looking at the musicians through the wrong end of a telescope. Fortunately, quite a few people who didn’t know any better were leaving and I was able to move gradually closer until I had a seat in one of the folding chairs with a decent view of the bandstand. Good timing — as I sat down he was swinging into one of his calypso numbers. The first time I saw him play live, after his self-imposed exile that included the famous practice sessions on Williamsburg Bridge, the breakthrough came with his performance of “St. Thomas.” The buoyant, dancing rhythms of calypso, the sound of his Virgin Island roots, always seemed to send him soaring. This night was no exception. Whenever people are talking about their most memorable live jazz listening experiences I automatically think of John Coltrane’s performances at the Village Gate. But there a vital portion of the excitement was fueled by an inspired, relentless rhythm section. With Rollins that night, the excitement was all his; he was in another realm. He’d begun at the bottom, below sea level, and now after an hour of preliminaries, he seemed to be playing for all his fallen peers, beginning with Coltrane. You could also hear Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, and Wardell Gray.

In a 2005 All About Jazz conversation with Rollins, one of his disciples, saxophonist David S. Ware, mentioned that Lincoln Center concert. “I don’t know how you felt that night, but I’ve heard you play a whole lot of times from the ‘60s and this night … it’s like you were playing for the angels. You were playing for higher beings.”

At the Library

Way Out West and Sonny Rollins Vol. 2 are among a number of Sonny Rollins CDs at the Princeton Public Library, which also has a selection of jazz DVDs, including Forgotten Tenor, the film about Wardell Gray I reviewed several weeks ago. If you’ve never heard Gray’s music, check out his Small Combos CD on Jazz Archives, one of the numerous interesting jazz recordings recently added to the collection. The library’s Looking at Jazz series continues on Wednesday, March 14, 7 p.m. with Ken Burns’ Jazz, Episode 2: The Gift, 1917-1924 and Marino Amoruso’s Harlem Renaissance, which contains rare live performance clips, many of which began life as shorts called jukebox “soundies.” For more information about jazz programming at the library, visit www.lookingatjazz.org. And be sure to visit www.sonnyrollins.com to listen to or buy his latest recordings.

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