SONNY ROLLINS Way Out West (Analogue Productions)
As with “Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section”, “Way Out West” (recorded barely six weeks later, in the same studio, no less) documents the kind of serendipitous meeting in which jazz triumphs over adversity. So crowded were the schedules of saxophonist Rollins, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne that they could only intersect for a 3 AM session, where the musicians played together for the first time. Suffice it to say that the results are not too shabby.
“I’m An Old Cowhand” attests that there really isn’t enough humour in jazz. It’s probably the first example of the genre I’ve heard that gets me grinning, right from its clip-clopping intro. A version of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” sounds lively enough to have been played in a night club rather than an antiseptic studio environment: overdub some of the crowd chatter from “Waltz For Debby” onto it and I doubt any listener would hear the join. On “Wagon Wheels” Rollins plays the silences as much as he plays the notes between them, but on the title track he displays a more frenetic style, a kind of fluttering, gulping side to his sound. Ray Brown’s bass is sonorous throughout the album, and Shelly Manne’s percussion work is a model of restraint (perhaps surprisingly so from a ‘name’ drummer), often dialled back to just a gentle patter.
“Way Out West” is another stunning Analogue Productions 180 gram vinyl reissue, although perhaps inevitably given its two-track origins, it has the same soloist on one side, rhythm section on the other stereo balance as the Bill Evans and Art Pepper albums considered above.
SONNY ROLLINS A Night At The Village Vanguard (Classic)
Not only Rollins’ first live album but also the first concert recording made at the titular venue, “A Night At The Village Vanguard” documents the saxophonist playing with a trio that features Elvin Jones on drums, and includes just enough chatter and tinkle to preserve the club atmosphere without becoming obtrusive.
There’s a pointillist splatter through “Old Devil Moon”, clusters of notes suggesting the outline of the melody rather that delineating it exactly. Sonny introduces “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” as “a little something we hope you’ll all be familiar with” – unfortunately for him, I’m familiar with it from the stupendous, if Miles-free, performance that closes Davis’ “In Person Saturday Night At The Blackhawk, Complete”, against which any other version will inevitably be ranked second best. Rollins’ version is still excellent, though, subtly morphing into a rhythm section showcase, albeit slightly undermined by the distracting hepcat mumbling going on in the background.
Although these six performances are excellent in their own right, they don’t work to their best advantage when stacked together as an album. Perhaps it’s the fault of the sequencing, which follows five uptempo numbers with the set’s solitary ballad. The 16-track double CD issue might well improve on this aspect, but that would mean foregoing Classic’s lavish 200 gram vinyl reissue, which, with its deep groove Blue Note labels and chunky pasted-over-cardboard packaging, seems an honest attempt to recreate an original issue as far as is practical. Being an early field recording, the sound is closer to acceptable than audiophile: at times the cymbals sound more like a drumstick being thrown in a puddle than impacting upon a metal disc, strangely enough a characteristic shared with my copies of the two Bill Evans albums recorded a few years later at the same venue.
SONNY ROLLINS The Bridge (Classic)
Originally released in 1962, “The Bridge” marked the end of saxophonist Rollins’ three years of self-imposed retirement. During this time, he’d taken to practicing on the pedestrian walkway of Manhattan’s Williamsburg bridge in an attempt to find a private space to play unimpeded by concerns about disturbing his apartment house neighbours.
Having previously only heard Rollins in trio settings, what’s most remarkable about “The Bridge” for me is his deployment of an electric guitarist, Jim Hall, who brings a languid air to proceedings; he has that burbling, refined tone that seems to predominate in pre-“Bitches Brew” electric jazz guitar. It makes this a charming, eloquent, unfailingly polite album, sprightly, bright and chiming. That’s not to say it doesn’t kick muck when required: on the title track Bob Cranshaw’s bass is positively locomotive, and Ben Riley’s drum solo is whip-snappy. But the album betrays its true heart on the closing brace of standards “God Bless The Child” (Hall’s guitar work again cherrying the cake) and a fragmentary, mischievous “You Do Something To Me”.
Classic have done one of their better jobs with “The Bridge”, creating a warm and vivid sounding record that fully lives up to the “Living Stereo” claim on its period-appropriate pasted-over jacket. Unfortunately, though, my copy seemed to be pressed on slightly more than the regulation 200 grams of vinyl, requiring the emergency application of drill bit to centre hole before it would play nicely with my gramophone, not an operation to be undertaken lightly on a shiny new £30 record.
SONNY ROLLINS East Broadway Run Down (Speakers Corner)
This 1966 release finds Rollins, in part at least, performing in a quartet setting. It's a far more avant garde proposition than albums such as "Way Out West" or "The Bridge", as evinced by the twenty-minute title track that occupies the entire first side. It opens blaring, blazing and swinging, albeit slightly undermined by the uneasy intimation that proceedings are about to get a good deal more complex than they first appear, a feint , that, for example, pianist Andrew Hill was expert at cultivating on his albums. First melody and then rhythm dissolve as the piece becomes a bluesy Jimmy Garrison bass solo. Elvin Jones' percussion spotlight clatters like his kit's falling down a fire escape...well, maybe sculpted with a little more care than that might suggest...and then he takes up with Garrison to create a constant pulsebeat as a basis for Rollins' and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's triumphal return. Rollins works up an eerie screeching sound from his temporarily mouthpiece-less instrument, something like the electric cawing at the centre of Pink Floyd's "Echoes".
If the flipside is less experimental in scope it's also more conventionally entertaining, the ensemble slimmed down to a trio following Hubbard's departure. "Blessing In Disguise", with its bluesy, crowing riff, delivered in Rollins' throaty timbre, is irresistible. It stutters and staggers on occasion, but never loses its swagger. Given the sonorous tone, rhythm and melody Garrison coaxes from his instrument during his solo, he might as well be playing an oversized guitar. "We Kiss In A Shadow", a Rodgers and Hammerstein number from "The King And I", is charming, delivered almost as a samba, Rollins ending on a long, sustained note that almost sounds like a string section.
Speakers Corner have done their usual thorough number on this excellent album. It sounds great, and it's authentically packaged from its use of the original Impulse labels to the retention of the pictures and sleevenotes in the gatefold. Great music, lovingly reissued, "East Broadway Run Down" ticks every box you could ask of it.
SONNY ROLLINS Saxophone Colossus (Prestige)
This 1956 session, recorded with Tommy Flanagan (piano). Doug Watkins (bass) and Max Roach (drums) is acclaimed as one of Rollins’ finest, which, given the strength of his discography, is saying something. The title is no idle boast: throughout, Rollins’ tone is like big, bristly bear hug, reigning himself in only partially for the ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. In fact, there are times when piano and bass recede to inaudibility, leaving proceedings as a White Stripes-style tug-of-war between Rollins and Roach’s clattering percussion fusillades. Opener “St. Thomas”, home to a length Roach drum solo, has a gently Caribbean lilt to it. “Moritat” might well be the album’s highlight, a ten-minute version of Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” theme “Mack The Knife”.
The currently-available vinyl edition sounds pretty staggering. A simple and direct mono recording and a standard pressing of no special audiophile pretension conspire to provide a goodly proportion of you-are-there realism.