The Very Best of Sonny Rollins

Published on July 30th, 2012 in: Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Retrovirus, Reviews |

By Paul Casey

sonny rollins best of cover

“What was beginning to happen to me was that I was being expected to really deliver great music all the time. In other words my name was bigger than I thought I could support with what I was doing. I remember one particular job that I had, when I just felt I wasn’t really playing well enough, you know? And everybody was really so excited to see me and I really felt I let the people down. I was really frustrated with myself, you know? That was really the genesis of this thing on the bridge. That’s what really it was all about.

I was out walking two blocks from where I lived at, actually, and I looked up and I saw these steps, you know, going up. And I walked over the street and I walked up those steps and there was this big beautiful expanse of bridge, you know? Nobody up there.

Usually I don’t pay too much attention to the trains. Usually absorbed in what I’m doing. But in a way it adds, you know it’s part of the atmospheric noise, and it adds to your playing in a way, you know? All these sounds, you see, because I’m sure subconsciously I change what I’m playing to blend with the sound of the train. It all has its effect.”
Sonny Rollins from BBC Arena’s Beyond the Notes documentary

A striking image in the history of the 20th Century Jazz. A powerfully gifted man, having given up a professional life in music, plays his saxophone atop the Williamsburg Bridge, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York. Sonny Rollins, music, and the world. Moving with the trains, with the earth moving as they pass by, and the earth moving to the sounds of his saxophone.

This is the instinct to create; to open up a place in the world long enough to put something in that was not there before. This is Jazz. Creation on a feel. If you can get that feel right, you have it made. Instinct supported by dedication, practice and earned gifts. The genre where an album is just one time, locked down. As long as a musician lives, creation is a must. Sonny Rollins still lives. Rollins’s belief in the power of Jazz to alter the person, to alter the environment and society is dependent on the above being a reality. Just as his surroundings altered his music, his music would alter the environment.

The Very Best of Sonny Rollins takes its performances from before Rollins’s three-year hiatus from Jazz, before he returned with The Bridge in 1962. The ten tracks here cover the years 1953 – 1958 and nine albums. Unlike the unfortunate lives of so many Jazz musicians, Sonny Rollins did not succumb to an early death. Born September 7, 1930, he is 81 years old today. He is still performing. He has put out nearly 60 albums, as well as a whole mess of side projects and collaborations, including records with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. As a result any collection calling itself The Very Best of Sonny Rollins, which consists of a single disc, is just not going to be able to live up to its title. As an introduction to Rollins, it is—like most of these lovingly assembled collections—very fine indeed.

“I’ve seen a lot of great musicians, you know that never really had a chance to really express themselves. They were always kept in the small area of the club and with the club goes the whiskey, you know the degrading things so to speak. It kills off a lot of people. It kills off a lot of people. You can blow your horn and if you get great on it you can live a good life, so to speak. You know the public don’t really give a damn as long as you sound good. They don’t care what you do. You use drugs, you can do anything you want as long as you sound good when you get up on the stand. Well I don’t know if it’s worth that to me.”
Sonny Rollins from BBC Arena’s Beyond the Notes documentary

Two musical relationships seem to have given Rollins the staying power, physically and musically, to stay around when so many others have not. Rollins called pianist Thelonious Monk his guru. “I wanted to be like Monk. I wanted to be a person that was into music, only. Monk always said that music is first, last, and always, music. And that’s how I felt, you know?” This commitment to the craft, above all else would prove crucial when other temptations presented themselves.

While playing with Charlie Parker, Rollins describes his own involvement in the drug scene:

“We were following Bird, Charlie Parker, we thought this was the right thing to do. He impressed upon me the fact that he really didn’t want people following him in this way. He was really upset that I was kind of messing him up by doing this. This was one of the prime reasons in helping me to get off of this horrible habit. I was so anxious to show him that ‘Hey I got your message,’ but then he died.”

The set opens with “St. Thomas,” one of Rollins’ most famous records. Speaking with Christopher Lydon on >Open Source, Rollins describes how the song came about:

“I actually heard the tune as I’ve often said, on my mother’s knee when I was a baby. It’s sort of a traditional song from where the island she came from in the Caribbean. St. Thomas, you know. So I made a little Jazz interpretation of it. It’s a nice tune. It’s got a long genealogy. You know, it was not, I didn’t sit down and compose it myself, but the record company wanted to get royalties and so on, so they didn’t care about that. It’s great but eventually you run into people who say ‘Wait you didn’t write that,’ so finally I had to make a sort of research.”

This interpretation pushes the song’s traditional origins through the pulsing excess of New York City. Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Train tracks, car horns, a hundred directions at once. Mass of people. It is no coincidence that so much important music happened in New York. New music has old roots. “St. Thomas” is from the Saxophone Colossus album, released in late 1956. It gives sentience to traffic lights, water draining at the side of the road; the city is blinking. A life lived in motion. Under metal, and above rolling wheels you are feeding this city. You are altering its reality and shaping your environment through the minute hand. Time spent, time committed.

The standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is” also comes from Saxophone Colossus. Written by Don Raye and Gene DePaul it has been a stand-out song for many performers—Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, John Coltrane—and does another good turn for Sonny.

“Pent Up House” comes from Sonny Rollins Plus 4, also recorded in 1956. Max Roach sticks around on the drums, with Clifford Brown coming in on the trumpet, Richie Powell on piano, and George Morrow on bass. Both Brown and Powell died in a car accident three months following the recording. It’s another Big City Sound.

“In a Sentimental Mood” was recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie. John Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes (though not requiring exclamation this time), Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. Rollins’s expression of Jazz as being in an inescapable feedback loop with its environment, is most powerful when dealing with the humans who populate it. Sit in a room, and get in between this music and the space it occupies. Hopefully with another. Always with another.

“Tenor Madness” is from the album Tenor Madness, recorded in May of 1956. It features both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane playing tenor saxophone for 12 minutes. In connection to these two being rather good on the old sax, the track is a bit good. “I’ve Found a New Baby”, appears on Rollins’s final album before his hiatus, Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders. Recorded in late 1958, it is the latest recording featured on this set.

“I’m an Old Cowhand” written by Johnny Mercer, repurposes the cowboy aesthetic into something urbane, and as Courtney Pine says, dangerous. “Instead of his Colt 45, he’s going to smoke you out with a tenor saxophone.” More dangerous: Freedom Suite. Recorded in 1958, Rollins’s only record with Riverside, it contains this most forthright and pointed message on its liner notes:

“America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms; its humor; its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”

“Someday I’ll Find You” appears from Freedom Suite, which is in many ways a statement of principles. Not simply in the words that adorn the album cover, but in the musical philosophy which informs the work of Rollins, Max Roach, and Oscar Pettiford.

“There’s still a lot of racial problems in the States, and I’m sure in other parts of the world, England and other places, but I think now we have to look at it in even a bigger picture than that. And for me to say that as a black person, still I feel that there is a wider picture, a planetary picture. I mean, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on. So my hope is that the music, at least my hope what I want to do, I want to try to play a music which somehow can address some of these problems.
—Sonny Rollins from BBC Arena’s Beyond the Notes documentary

Sonny Rollins has spent a large portion of his 81 years reaching people through these mysterious sounds. Through shaping the environment in which people live, sleep, and die. Get in this music and let it shape you. It might not create world peace, but it is as good a place to start as any.

The Very Best of Sonny Rollins was released by Concord Music Group on June 12 and is available to order from their website.

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