Tag Archives: Sonny Rollins

Jazz Festival Preview: Sonny Rollins

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The Lion In Winter: Sonny Rollins, the last best hope of Hard Bop

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Sonny Rollins, who headlines this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival, was born in New York City on September 7, 1930. His arrival is a triumph for local jazz fans who’d lobbied for his inclusion for years, perhaps as long as the festival itself has been in existence. I know that, in my ongoing conversations on the subject of jazz with Bob Bednar, host of WJCT’s “This Is Jazz” program (and recently a member of the festival’s Hall of Fame), Rollins’ name was in circulation since the late-1990s. We’ve both mentioned his name repeatedly, not that doing so was necessarily necessary, due to his legend status—but, then again, it’s only happening in 2012, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have had the chance for so long.

In the years just after Charlie Parker’s premature death in 1955, Rollins emerged as the dominant new saxophone star of the jazz world. He was then a member of the great Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, sharing the front-line with Clifford Brown, whose meteoric rise was halted by a 1956 car-wreck that also killed the group’s pianist, Richie Powell—whose older brother Bud Powell was in fact one of Rollins’ old employers. When Max Roach pushed through his grief to reemerge with a new band, just a few months later, Rollins was key to its sound. Max Roach + 4 found Rollins out-front with Kenny Dorham, one of the most underrated trumpeters ever, with Roach now taking unprecedented amounts of solo space; the Max Roach that most jazz fans think of today really began in 1956.

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Rollins’ work on Roach’s seminal Jazz In ¾ Time helped cement the drummer’s place as a leading figure in the jazz mainstream, while adding further shine to Rollins’ reputation, which even then, in his 20s, was approaching mythic status. The years 1956-‘62 saw him cranking out a string of perfect records: Sonny Rollins+4, Newk’s Time, Tour de Force, etc. For the newcomer who wishes to hear the purest distillation of Sonny Rollins at his peak, one is advised to immediately get ahold of Live At the Village Vanguard. It was his first time recording in what would become, in time, his ideal setting—the trio.

Also, Tenor Madness featured a rare recorded meeting between Rollins and John Coltrane, who was also then beginning to get a serious push as well. Theirs was not a rivalry, so much as it was a case of two relentless perfectionists evolving on parallel tracks. Saxophone Colossus was the Rollins sound encapsulated; “Blue 7” features a solo by Roach that is a masterpiece of minimalism. Way Out West sees Rollins reinventing shopworn tunes of the Old West, while drummer Shelly Manne turns in one of his all-time finest efforts.

The Freedom Suite marks Rollins’ first experiments recording in a more expansive style, a form he’d return to often in later years. His trio includes Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford, in one of his last major efforts before dying just a couple years later. It also led to a favorite musical curiosity: While waiting for Rollins to arrive at the studio, Roach and Pettiford jammed on the standard “There Will Never Be Another You”, which is 1) the high-point of Pettiford’s recorded legacy, 2) one of the greatest bass solos ever recorded in jazz, and 3) one of only a handful of recordings documenting Max Roach’s singular style when playing brushes.

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Rollins returned from sabbatical with a new band built around the sumptuous harmonies of guitarist Jim Hall, who’d spent the previous period making key contributions to two of the most unique groups (in terms of their sound and approach to composition—Chico Hamilton’s quintet and the original Jimmy Giuffre Trio. The title-track of the group’s first record, The Bridge (1962), sounds exactly like what it is: a formal announcement that Sonny Rollins was back, and ready to reclaim a tenor crown that Coltrane effectively abdicated with his brilliant but polarizing excursions in the stellar regions of free jazz.

One of the true jewels in Rollins’ output, and one that doesn’t get enough attention, is his 1966 collaboration with master post-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, East Broadway Rundown. The 20-minute title track evokes “The Freedom Suite” with its length—which wasn’t nearly as big a deal by then, just four years later; credit Coltrane for that—but the sound was completely different. Typically for Rollins, there is no piano; he probably became convinced of the value of this approach while working with Roach, who abandoned the piano chair entirely in ’58. This quartet also includes bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, who were at that time also the backbone of Coltrane’s quartet—surely no coincidence. The sound is also reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s quartet, circa Change Of the Century.

Incredibly, there may be many jazz festival fans for whom Sonny Rollins is actually an unfamiliar name. When dealing with a man who’s recorded at least 38 albums to date (not counting the copious live sets, bootlegs and sideman gigs), one may be challenged to find an appropriate jumping-in point. While any record makes for a good jumping-off point, the essence of Rollins’ artistry can be gleaned from an excellent double-disc set released by the Concord Music Group to commemorate his 80th birthday in 2010. The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary includes 21 of the key tracks recorded between 1951 and 1958, including “Blue 7”, “Tenor Madness” and “the Freedom Suite”.

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Rollins’ most recent album is Road Shows, Vol. 2, released last September. Rollins has continued to record and tour into his ninth decade, winning three Grammys in the 21st century so far. For those of you who are truly newbies to Rollins’ music, there is no better place to start than the Main Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library, which has almost every major recording by or featuring Sonny Rollins; you can check out his entire career, fit it all into a canvas tote, and (if so inclined) load it all up onto your computer. It’s some of the best music ever made.

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sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 16, 2012

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Top Billin’: Sonny Rollins booked for 2012 Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

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Mayor Alvin Brown was the star at a press conference held Thursday morning, Feb. 9, to formally announce the 2012 Jacksonville Jazz Festival, which will be held downtown May 24-27. The big news coming out can be summed-up in just two words: “Sonny Rollins”. Jazz fans will need no further embellishment, but for the uninitiated (and becoming a hard-core jazz fan is kind of like an initiation): With the sole exception of Dave Brubeck, Rollins is the world’s greatest living jazz musician, a man whose influence permeates almost the totality of the music in the 60+ years since he first made his name in post-bop New York.

One must note, also, the presence of two other masters among a lineup that is still being finalized: Chick Corea and Terence Blanchard. But the booking of Rollins, who at age 82 does not play concerts that often anymore, and rarely outside the areas more epicentric to the music, is a major coup of historic proportions. He is probably the most important musician to work our festival since those peak years when Dizzy Gillespie headlined multiple festivals toward the end of his life. But that was the ‘80s—a whole different world. The idea of Sonny Rollins appearing in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012 will, for some, be interpreted as a sign of imminent apocalypse; a heavy cynic might wonder if the world is destined to end the day before.

By attaching his name to the festival, Brown does it a service by basically making the festival brand symbiotic with his own. This is a great move, for his own interests, and it also puts a bit of pressure on him to make sure the festival’s long-term momentum is maintained. There were deep initial concerns about its very future coming into this year. Funding for Office of Special Events (which also oversees things like the World of Nations festival and Veterans Day parade) had been in some jeopardy during the last few years of budget battles; while truly significant cuts were not made, the specter of such cuts—and their disastrous effect on the city’s cultural identity—was often invoked by the Peyton administration in its later years.

Those fears, stoked by Peyton, caught fire soon after Brown succeeded him. Those now-infamous staff cuts last year hit the OSE hard, resulting in the elimination of its two top people. Theresa O’Donnell-Price and Christina Langston-Hughes were two of the unsung heroes of city government in the first decade of this century, skillfully implementing the mayor’s mandate to restore the vitality of a festival that had seen better days. Last year’s festival turned out to be their last at the OSE and, headlined by Herbie Hancock and Roy Ayers, one of the best ever. But Brown, at that point less than a month in as Mayor-Elect, was on vacation at the time, so he missed seeing what they could actually do—and within a few months, they were shown the door as unceremoniously as everyone else.

Losing them both, simultaneously, was the biggest blow to the festival as an institution since the scandalous staff cuts at WJCT that led directly to the collapse of the festival under its direction in the late-‘90s. It was a dark day for local jazz fans, that’s for sure, and anxiety about the future has only built-up since. Initial buzz on the 2012 festival has already gone a long way toward assuaging many of these concerns, but more can be done. In a nutshell, there should be a heavy representation of local artists at the festival, the businesses of the Urban Core need to be better-integrated into the overall experience, and the City should take the lead in establishing an even stronger presence for the festival in media, both in terms of social media, as well as trying to strengthen relationships with local and national media.

After WJCT basically washed their hands of the logistics, and the country caught its first taste of the post-9/11 economic instability, it was a gamble to invest public money in the Jazz Festival. (Bear in mind, there are people who oppose its public funding even now, despite the overwhelming evidence of disproportionate upside, in terms of economic impact. If all public monies could generate such direct and visceral return on investment, the whole world would be different right now.) But Peyton did it anyway, in early signs that he was far more moderate than he ever got credit for, and I think we can all agree that the gamble paid off.

It’s entirely likely that, had anyone else become mayor in 2003, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival would have never survived into the 21st century—the third century of jazz music, which was born in Storyville, New Orleans, in the late 1800s. For this, Peyton will surely someday join Jake Godbold among former mayors enshrined in the festival’s Hall of Fame. At this rate, Brown may end up there, too. He’s got a real gift for the kind of retail politics that work so well in the south, and initiatives like this put those skills out-front.

Having written more about the festival’s modern incarnation than any other reporter (if not all of them, combined), I can say that he’s done the two things I’ve always recommended the political leadership do: 1) Take advantage of the festival’s ability to bridge gaps among citizens, and 2) Bring Sonny Rollins to town. It will be curious to see if the national jazz media gives the festival a bit more hype now; we’ll see about that.

CD review: Max Roach, “Candid Roach”

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The first CD I ever got was the self-titled debut by a band called Rage Against the Machine. That was Christmas 1992 (also the occasion on which I got my first CD player), and for the subsequent 18 years at least one CD has found its way into my pile of  holiday swag. Some years CDs (or money to buy them) were basically the only things I got, or actively wanted, but other years were like this one. I didn’t ask anyone for anything this year–couldn’t really think of anything–and as a result only got the obvious gifts, like practical items of clothing, or gift cards for business I’m known to frequent. There was only one CD bestowed upon me: Candid Roach, by the great Max Roach.

This was pure serendipity, the internal logic of which makes perfect sense. The CD was a gift from my uncle. He is a huge jazz fan himself; in fact, he helped wean me onto the music many years ago. He and my aunt have also bought me a number of jazz CDs over the years, of which several were Max Roach products. So, using Amazon to do their buying, of course the computer probably recommended Candid Roach, and since this compilation was only released last year, its selection was certainly the right one. But, from there, it gets slightly weird.

The last time they bought me a jazz CD, it was last Christmas, and my take (which instantly became the stuff of personal legend) included two CDs by Baby Dodds, the first Warne Marsh/Pete Christilieb tenor summit, a trio of albums from the Candid label: Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Advance (which I mostly dropped, other than the exceptional “Rick Kick Shaw” and a cool version of “Bemsha Swing”), The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (which is strictly epic, start-to-finish) and an album that I’d been seeking out for years, without ever actually buying: Max Roach’s seminal We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. That album marked the high-point of his collaboration with then-wife Abbey Lincoln, who died just a few months ago; it also included legends like trombonist and long-time collaborator Julian Priester, the ill-fated Booker Little and Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins, of course, was one of the first established jazzmen to lend his stamp of approval to the new music, then called “bop”, in 1943.

So, the sessions that birthed that masterpiece, as well as the sessions collected on Candid Roach, were all produced by the label’s A&R guy, Mr. Nat Hentoff, who is a legend in his own right–not only a jazz world whose aural and literary legacy he helped shape, but also in the journalism industry. He was the first alt-weekly columnist, joining the Village Voice in 1955; after being fired a couple years ago, his Voice column still runs monthly, and is the only one in the country that is, without question, better than mine. The man is a legit hero of mine for two completely different reasons, linked only by our common interests.

Like the old-school pro that he is, Hentoff has kept his office number listed for years, appended at the end of his column on the backpage of JazzTimes magazine. Of course, I’ve called him several times over the years, whether trying and failing to land an internship in his office, or seeking his help (which he provided) tracking down primary sources for a book on Max Roach that I could never get a contract to actually write. Imagine my shock, surprise and sublime satisfaction a couple months ago, when he called me for the first time! I was sitting at a local bar, Birdie’s, when he called to thank me for a review of his latest book, At the Jazz Band Ball, which was published at Ink19Online. We spoke for a few minutes, but the thrill will last forever. And then, not too long after, I happened to get one of the albums he produced as an unsolicited Christmas present. Again, serendipity.

That said, the story of how it came into my life is better than the album itself. Candid Roach is a collection of tracks from five sessions that Max Roach led for Candid between August 1960 and April 1961–mostly mid-tempo vehicles for blowing, sharper versions of the work that came out of the late-Mercury Records period just preceding them. “Freedom Day” is a key track on We Insist! “Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah” offers up a trumpet battle between Dorham and the underutilized Benny Bailey; “When Malindy Sings” is a tour de force for Mrs. Roach, whose work during this period merits an upward critical appraisal. For me, the highlight is Booker Little’s “Cliff Walk”, which offers the only known recording of Max Roach and idol Jo Jones (from the great Count Basie band) playing together.

This was a period of peak productivity for the truly fearless leader. The deaths of Clifford Brown and Richie Powell in 1956 shattered what had been one of the pioneering hard-bop groups; he quickly emerged with a harder, faster, even more complex sound than before, aided and abetted by young lions like Kenny Dorham and the “Saxophone Colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins. The recordings he made between 1956 and 1959 are landmarks in the music, conveniently amassed on a stellar box set from Mosaic Records.

By 1961 he’d begun to flesh out his harmonic vision, adding the unsual sounds of Priester’s trombone and Ray Draper’s tuba; he even brought back the piano role he’d abandoned for years. The result was music of unusual complexity, to match a renewed focus (which some might call a fixation) of socio-cultural matters. We Insist! was a landmark, the end of five years of delirious activity; while he remained active, making excellent music, it was not until the 1970s until he was generating the kind of serious buzz he’d had a decade earlier. By the 1980s, as jazz was mainstreaming itself with electric instruments and smooth jazz, while people like the Marsalis Brothers were initiating a New Traditionalism, Roach was forging his own centrist path, collaborating with b-boys, free-jazz titans, chamber groups and classical ensembles of all stripes.

He was an elder statesman with enough energy to outpace men one-third his age, and he remained a marvel of strength, finesse and timing right up until the very end. At no point in his career did Max Roach ever give any sign of losing a step. When illness finally forced his retirement, he stopped while still vital; his last recording, Friendship (a collaboration with the perdurable nonagenarian Clark Terry), could have been the work of any rising young lion, but the leaders totaled 160 years of age. Thanks to all those whose efforts coalesce in allowing me the opportunity to write about Max Roach yet again!

Courtesy University of Californa Press

Sonny Rollins: the Freedom Suite

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Sonny Rollins is one of a handful of artists universally regarded as a master of the tenor saxophone. Only John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (who put the instrument on the map back in the 1920s) outrank Rollins on the totem pole of tenor men, and many fans will offer credible arguments for why Rollins belongs at the very top of any such list. Even contemporary players like Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis fall well short of the standard set by Hawk, Trane and Sonny–and they would be first to say so.

The phrase “silent weapons for quiet wars” reminds me, oddly, of the battle waged between Rollins and Coltrane for the top tenor spot in the 1950s. Trane, of course, had spent a formative few years working with Miles Davis, who set him up for his epochal run with Thelonious Monk in summer 1957, while Rollins had broken in as part of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach unit. After Brown’s death, Rollins hung around to record Max Roach +4, one of the best albums to come from Roach’s recorded peak, before launching his own solo career, which caught fire pretty quick. Comparing the albums recorded under their names in the 1950s, the Rollins stuff is vastly superior to Coltrane’s; this included masterpieces like Way Out West and Saxophone Colossus. It wasn’t until Coltrane began his run with Atlantic Records (documented on the appropriately-titled box set The Heavyweight Champion) that he achieved true creative parity; by the time he died in 1967, his legacy as the greatest tenor player of all time was secure.

Rollins’ career is now in its sixth decade, giving him unprecedented longevity to match a tone that reveals itself as his from the first note. His post-9/11 live album Without a Song introduced Rollins’ music to a new generation of fans, many of whom could be forgiven for thinking he is no longer among us. Thankfully, he still is, and shows no signs of slowing down as he marches toward 80. While we wait for a new album from him, we can slake our thirst for his music by reviewing some of his older, classic titles.

The Freedom Suite was recorded in March and April, 1958 for the Riverside label. Concord Records, which bought out Riverside some time back, has rereleased the album as part of the fifth series of their “Keepnews Collection”. Orrin Keepnews produced the album and helped run the label; he returns to oversee remastering an provide some “inside baseball”-type anecdotes for the liner notes. As such, the series could be viewed as analogous to Blue Note’s “RVG (for Rudy Van Gelder) Collection”. This record, like Saxophone Colossus, was recorded as a trio, with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach, who is inexplicably labeled on the back of the CD as the trumpeter for a session with no trumpet. These two make for one of Rollins’ most sympathetic rhythm sections, and listening to them makes one appreciate the excellent job Rollins has done in picking sidemen and collaborators over the past half-century.

Assuming that the CD sequencing (bonus tracks aside) matches that of the original record, then “Freedom Suite” took up side one, running nearly 20 minutes, while “Someday I’ll Find You”, “Will You Still Be Mine?”, “Till There Was You” and “Shadow Waltz” take up side two. While the whole record makes for credible hard-bop, it is the title track that deserves the listener’s focus. Rollins was one of the first to really exploit the freedoms afforded by LP technology to play at extended lengths–the sort of thing now synonymous with Coltrane. “Freedom Suite” arrived shortly after the sublime “Blue 7”, and nearly a decade before his East Broadway Rundown record with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

The hero of this album is Pettiford, who would be dead within two years. Pettiford was one of the top three bass players of his time, alongside Mingus and Paul Chambers, and Freedom Suite offers the best setting for appreciating his work that I’ve ever encountered. One of the three bonus tracks is a duet take of “There Will Never Be Another You” that he and Roach recorded while waiting for Rollins to arrive. It was my introduction to Pettiford’s playing, nearly 15 years ago, when it appeared as a bonus track on Roach’s Deeds Not Words album, and it still sounds fresh today. The poignancy of the title, when one considers that it was one of his last sessions, makes it the definitive Pettiford, and a key part of Roach’s recorded legacy, as well.

The Freedom Suite marked the beginning of an intensely political period in jazz music. Artists had already begun to follow Art Blakey’s lead in converting to Islam, and the civil rights movement offered the first real chance for serious expression of the African-American “situation” since “Strange Fruit” 15 years earlier. By 1960, Roach was releasing his We Insist! Freedom Now Suite for Candid, while Charles Mingus was offering the first substantive challenges to the mostly white-run music industry. This album would be a classic by any name, but its organizational concept raises it up to seminal status.