Walter Theodore Rollins,known primarily as Sonny,remains one of the few surviving members of the original bop era of jazz. Starting out with musicians like Jackie McLean, the native New Yorker really began to set off the hard bop/soul jazz revolution. This is evident in the song that I myself (and many others) associate closest with him: “St. Thomas”. This song brings in the Carnival styled percussive drumming and rhythmic sax playing whose roots lay in Rollins’ roots from his US Virgin Island native parents. This Caribbean instrumental vibe would always remain a staple in the saxophonists music.
Having recently been covered regarding a recent volume of his Road Shows live CD series by one of my blogging partners Ron Wynn,its come to mind just how natural it was for Sonny Rollins to evolve into the funk end of jazz. This occurred gradually on his albums for Milestone from 1972 onward. His final studio album of the 70’s was called Don’t Ask. It found Rollins strong embracing funk with the Headhunters Bill Summers along with Mark Soskin,Al Foster and bassist Jerome Harris. The one song that really says it all for the funk (to me anyway) on this particular album is its opener entitled “Harlem Boys”.
Summers and Foster get the groove heated up from the start with a grooving drum/percussion stomp-with the rhythms accented by Soskin’s and Harris’s dancing foundational bass line harmonizing piano melodies. Then Rollins starts playing the choral melody, while Soskin plays a bouncing piano solo. The bridge of the song breaks it down to Bill Summers percussion mixed high with Al Foster’s drums-featuring Rollins improvising his melody right over it. After that the songs slowly concludes with its main them. Rollins plays an atonal,bop style solo before the song closes out on his solo alone.
This song stands as a powerful,rhythmically heavy dance/funk tune performed acoustically by a group of seasoned jazz/funk players. From the piano to Rollins’ thick and phat sax tones,everything on this song manages to be melodically AND rhythmically strong (and very funky) all at the same time. Something tells me this period of Sonny Rollins musical output isn’t too well known. Yet the hard bop style he helped pioneer the entire framework for the jazz/funk sound this song embraces. So its wonderful to hear Sonny Rollins arrive at an important checkpoint of his own musical path.