Age is inescapable. When you’re young, no matter how brilliant or talented, you are hampered by a lack of perspective. With time comes wisdom, but gone are other ineffable qualities. If you are lucky, in the middle somewhere there is a golden period of confluence.
In jazz, these truisms are embodied by the giant of the tenor saxophone, Sonny Rollins. Born in 1930, Rollins is in every respect the last of a generation of jazz titans—a contemporary of and collaborator with the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. To this day, Rollins is considered one the greatest living saxophonists. Indeed, he is often hailed as the greatest musical improviser on the planet, a man whose horn is a pure extension of his heart. But no discussion of Sonny Rollins can avoid the question of how time has changed his art.
Conveniently for critics, Rollins himself has chopped his performing life into obvious chapters. In the early ‘50s he was a valued sideman (with Davis and Monk, among others) and a promising composer. His emergence as a leader in 1956 was definitive: he recorded the all-time classic Saxophone Colossus at 25 and then pioneered the piano-less saxophone trio shortly thereafter. By 1959, however, he went into a self-imposed sabbatical period, famously practicing nightly on the Williamsburg Bridge to regain his sense of musical purpose. He returned with a newly adventurous spirit—stirring it up with a guitar-based band, Latin music, the avant-garde—only to “retire” again around 1970. His return in ‘72 brought an engagement with pop rhythms and textures, but also a fascination with solo saxophone playing.
In recent decades, tickets to Rollins’ annual New York concerts have been prized even as his recordings have descended into predictable patterns that only hint at the great man’s prowess. Live—sometimes in flashes and sometimes at astonishing length—Rollins can seem like he has passed beyond music and into something else, something higher. But too often, his bands seem wan and his playing descends into a gruff self-pastiche.
If you had to pick a choice era for Rollins, the mid-‘60s would be hard to beat. Or so the evidence suggests on the Jazz Icons DVD Sonny Rollins, Live in ‘65 and ‘68. Here are two concerts, filmed for Danish television in Copenhagen, presenting a jazz improviser of dazzling fluency and imagination. In his mid and late-30s, Rollins was playing with the intelligence of age but the still blazing heat of youth.
The 1965 concert is with a trio, completed by Alan Dawson on drums and a young Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson. It’s grand to see Rollins play with a trio, and this particular performance is thrill-a-minute good. The band was not a regular trio, and so there is some genuine sense of risk as you hear Rollins spontaneously call the tunes (and sometimes change his mind on the fly), letting the rhythm section follow with confidence. As a rule, the saxophone playing here is fecund with ideas. Not only does Rollins, famously, latch onto certain licks and then fiddle with them and worry them and spin them into woven gold, but he also finds himself playing great cascading runs that can define the song’s harmony as well as break free from that harmony.
Though the DVD suggests that there are five tunes during this concert, that is a matter of debate. One performance seems to begin with the opening phrases of “I Can’t Get Started”, but then charges directly into Rollins’ old tune “Oleo”. Rollins’ own solo here is as melodically restless as possible, referencing “52nd Street Theme”, “Alfie” and several other tunes. Coming out of the drum solo, Rollins swings it into “Sonnymoon for Two”, but with jumps back to “Oleo” in double-time because—well, why not?
The version of Rollins’ calypso classic, “St. Thomas” is taken at a significant clip, light and playful at first, and then increasing punchy and rhythmic. Rollins plays beneath the bass solo very quietly, making the trio sound just a little bigger. Then, coming out of the solo, Rollins calls on the band to shift from the calypso groove to swinging 4/4, at which point he starts to blow well beyond the proper harmony of the tune. Lessons learned from Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry sound every much in evidence.
There is a brief “Darn that Dream” played as a ballad of sorts, but Rollins moves into an unaccompanied cadenza after two minutes—one of those Rollins moments that takes your breath away with its drama and unpredictability. The saxophonist wanders for a bit, trying out different keys and different fragments (including a splash of “O, Solo Mio!”) before landing on a satisfying “Three Little Words”. While Pederson and Dawson get solo space and acquit themselves admirably throughout , the frontman is pure joy and invention. He swings with the kind of freedom that one hopes every jazz player can achieve. He’s not hemmed in by the “rules” or chords, and yet it is undeniable that his played is steeped in the tradition as he absorbed it from the masters. Which rank, by this point in his career, he had already joined.
In 1968, Rollins’ trip through Denmark brought him into a TV studio with two then-expatriate jazzmen—Kenny Drew on piano and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums—as well as Pederson. Rollins’ playing is somewhat less restless, perhaps, but just as logical and free as in the 1965 concert. They begin with a nice-n-easy version of “On Green Dolphin Street”, which climaxes with an outstanding set of traded four between the leader and Heath. On the closing cadenza, Rollins is at his certain best, capable of outlining shifting harmonies with his runs, yet still utterly free to chase down melodic ideas as they occur to him without any sense of being hemmed in.
Here, as elsewhere in these concerts, Rollins’ tone is a perfect balance between the rumbly gruffness that would define him in later years and the speed-demon agility of youth. The “St. Thomas” in the 1968 taping finds his tenor bobbing and weaving like a middleweight, having fun, but not without gravity. Drew is all lightness and flutter in solos, fingers flying, technically outstanding. Pederson, by ‘68, is soloing with more soul and assurance. It’s a fun calypso, but the 1968 Sonny Rollins imbues everything with a certain driving gravity. The disc closes with a version of the jazz standard “Four”, a tune that Rollins works toward with a searching solo introduction that wanders through “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”, a folk melody, and “I Can’t Get Started” (among other intriguing segue-ways) before landing on the repeated lick of “Four”.
The production for both concerts is in a nicely shadowed black-and-white, with expertly established shots of the musicians and near-perfect sound. The 1965 spot is a live performance before an audience, with the trio facing outward and caught on video in close proximity. Close-ups of the leader and his horn are outstanding—Rollins is sporting a hip turtleneck and blazer, with his head shaved and a short chin-only beard. In 1968, the quartet is arranged in a circle in a studio with no audience, but the camera angles are terrific. Rollins is in a beret with a full beard, and the black suits and skinny ties have given way to patterned shirts and open collars.
Beyond the music, the DVD contains no frills or features, but who needs them? The included booklet is chock-a-block with useful essays and information. But you will mainly get lost in the music. Fans of mainstream, post-bop jazz will be heaven, and saxophone obsessionists will have their fill.
This, simply put, is one of the top few saxophonists in jazz at his sure peak. The genius of 1956 was brilliant, and the icon of today is an elegant wonder, but the Sonny Rollins of the ‘60s was the Sonny Rollins you want captured forever at a true peak. Feast on it.