Today at 2:25 PM
Music fans in general, and the jazz world in particular, have not had the opportunity to hear the great Sonny Rollins perform since 2012 due to respiratory problems. At 85, it is clearly up in the air whether he will ever return to the stage, though anyone who’s ever marveled at the wondrous sound generated from his tenor (and occasional soprano) dearly hopes he can make it back to performing live again. A Sonny Rollins solo has always been something special, even on the most mundane or constantly played numbers. His dynamic approach, ability to deconstruct and recreate within the boundaries of song structure, and an imagination that sees him sometimes even surprise himself, are things that are not just a special part of the jazz experience. They are an artistic wonder, something to savor, especially if you’ve ever heard him in a totally solo concert.
Sonny is among the last of the great jazz sax titans who came of age in the ’40s and ’50s, helping to shape the modern sax vocabulary. He’s played with every major name imaginable, but cites his experiences with Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane among others as vital to helping him shape his sound, as well as stints in studio and on tours with Max Roach and Miles Davis. He’s made seminal recordings, especially “Saxophone Colossus,” “East Broadway Run Down,” “Way Out West,” “Newk’s Time,” “The Bridge” and a host of others. Though many will cite his ’50s and ’60s output as his best material, and there’s no question there were some rough moments in the ’70s, Rollins’ legacy is such that you can still find impressive numbers and moments on almost everything he’s ever done.
The latest Sonny Rollins is “Holding The Stage: Roads Shows: Vol. 4,” the latest in a collection of live and studio recordings that he’s putting out himself in a partnership Okeh and Doxy. He also served as a producer on this date alongside Richard Corsello, and picked out the 10 selections that cover a time frame goin back to 1979 and forward to the most recent offerings, two from 2012, “Professor Paul” and “Keep Hold Of Yourself.” The former is dedicated to the late saxophonist/professor Paul Jeffrey, and includes a classic Rollins’ technique, juxtaposing within the main melody elements of the tune “Without A Song,” which he cut back in 1961. By contrast, “Mixed Emotions” is the shortest work on the disc at 1:50, a still memorable elaboration on a number done in 1951 by Dinah Washington.
My favorite cut on the disc is the last one, “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” which is also the single longest track at almost 11 minutes (10:58) and the wrapup of a three-song medley that also includes a fine rendition of “Sweet Leilani,” taken from the 1937 fillm “Waikiki Wedding,” and a solo piece that segues into “Don’t Stop The Carnival.” Other than “St. Thomas,” his finest calypso, “Don’t Stop The Carnival” has always been a marvelous marriage of improvisational technique and Caribbean flavor, and he swings through it with fervor.
Otherwise, the disc has its ups and downs, though there’s nothing that merits being absolutely dismissed. “Disco Monk” has some interesting sections, and is more notable for the clever way he intersperses Monk’s “Nutty” into the fabric. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the LP “Don’t Ask,” which is when it was initially introduced, but he puts plenty of passion into this treatment. “H.S.” is another session high point, an powerful eight-minute blowing date, which also incorporates bits and pieces of other songs, most impressively “The Jumping Blues.”
There are alternating sets of accompanists throughout “Holding The Stage.” There used to be widespread disagreement regarding the abilities of some of his band members, and my own preferences run towards pianist Stephen Scott, guitarist Bobby Broom, longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw and either Al Foster or Victor Lewis on drums, though all the musicians present do very solid jobs. I’ve listened to “Holding The Stage” many times now, especially after reading that Rollins went through every available recorded performance, and these are the ones he picked. Knowing his reputation for never being satisfied with his playing, the fact he did find these satisfactory to record is significant and something to keep in mind, even when a couple of them might not seem as memorable (“You’re Mine You” for instance). If they satisfied Rollins, then he heard something in the playing that merits closer inspection from the listener.
I dearly hope that Sonny Rollins will somehow make one more concert swing, and that I’m fortunate enough to see him one last time. But having been privileged enough to see him in both group and solo settings, should that not happen there are plenty of epic recordings available that reflect his greatness, and that coupled with personal memories of his majestic sound, will fill (to some extent) the void left by his absence from the stage.