Sonny Rollins is in San Francisco tonight for a gig at Davies Symphony Hall. Suffice it to say, whenever Rollins comes to town it is an event.
I will not attempt in this posting to encapsulate Rollins’ artistry, his contributions to jazz or his impact on generations of players and listeners. Simply put, I am in no way qualified to render any such appraisal of the man or his art. Instead, I will limit myself to a few thoughts and a few must-hear recordings.
I initially encountered Rollins work about a decade back. I had, by then, been listening to jazz for a number of years but my sax vision was fixed primarily on Coltrane. It was only after having Trane thoroughly fill my ears – and a biography or two fill my mind – that I began to actively listen to Rollins.
The two men are very different in many respects but the shared quality that draws me to both is their mix of intensity and integrity. They can blow, to be sure, but there is an individual soulfulness and seriousness behind their sound. Rollins may be more likely to crack a wry smile but both men – in their own distinct way – seem be fully aware of the fact that are imbued with a remarkable talent. Impressive stuff, needless to say.
I never got to see Coltrane, of course, but I have caught Rollins twice at the Monterey Jazz Festival and those shows remain highlights of my dozen years there.
All that said, let me throw at you a few of my favorite Rollins releases. They tend to run toward acknowledged classics, true, but there’s a reason they’ve attained that status.
“Moving Out” (1954): The saxophonist’s second album as a leader finds him working with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, Percy Heath, Art Blakey and Art Taylor, among others. The results are wholly satisfying, although the listener is aware that Rollins is still evolving as a studio artist.
“Tenor Madness” (1956): This is easily among my favorite jazz albums for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the presence, on the title track, of Rollins and Trane. You can sense both rivalry and respect as they blow for all their worth and there is a palpable sense of history in the whole thing. Another standout track is the Rollins original, the jump-swing “Paul’s Pal.”
“Saxophone Colossus” (1956): Perhaps Rollins’ greatest achievement, this disc is simply among the most influential of its era. It kicks off with “St. Thomas,” which still serves as the saxophonist’s signature tune, and includes some great blues (“Blue 7”) and his idiosyncratic take on “Mack the Knife” (“Moritat”).
“Vol. 2” (1957): Pair this Blue Note release with “Vol. 1” and you’ve got a remarkable testament to Rollins’ artistry but even given that this set stands out. That’s due in least in part to the presence of pianists Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk; indeed, they double up on this album’s take on Monk’s “Misterioso.”
“The Bridge” (1962): No Rollins collection is complete without this disc. Its background is part and parcel of the Rollins story: “In 1959, feeling pressured by the unexpected swiftness of his rise to fame, Rollins took a three year hiatus to focus on perfecting his craft. A resident of the Lower East Side of Manhattan with no private space to practice, Rollins took his saxophone to the Williamsburg Bridge to practice alone and his first recording after his return to performance took its name from those solo session.” The result is an epochal album marked by – not surprisingly – a more meditative tone as well as great guitar from Jim Hall.
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