In a recent article in The New Yorker critic and jazz cheerleader Stanley Crouch confronted the great knock on Sonny Rollins. Mr. Rollins, it is often said, hasn’t made original or brilliant music in decades. Those who make it to his live performances, however, tend to come back deeply exhilarated, having just seen one of the few remaining original architects of jazz, a tenor saxophonist who may be the world’ greatest living improviser. Mr. Crouch asked the question: Sonny Rollins—washed up or simply studio averse?
In writing his article, Mr. Crouch had the privilege of hearing a series of live recording that, apparently, will soon be coming out. The critic was blown away. While he admitted that Mr. Rollins’ recent bands hardly do him justice, he promised us—particularly those of us who haven’t seen the Saxophone Colossus recently—that the live stuff lives up to the legend. The last of the hipmen ain’t dead. Sonny lives!
So, does his new album, Without a Song—a live concert in Boston during the week after the 9/11 attack on New York and DC—support Mr. Crouch’s view?
Eh. Kinda-sorta. At times.
Don’t get me wrong—Sonny Rollins is a mountain of jazz. Whether it’s hard blowing in the ‘50s with Max Roach, semi-out playing with Don Cherry in the ‘60s or a live concert from 2001, the cat can play. The gruff tone of recent years sounds great here (not too-too croaky), and his rhythmic flexibility suggests some kind of tantric superpower that way too few elder jazzmen ever achieve. On Without a Song, Mr. Rollins’ own prowess as a player is never in question. He operates like a master who has never been more frisky to have fun—and so his own solos bristle with vitality and the desire to communicate.
So, you assume I’m going to take a swing at band then? Not really. There’s nothing shoddy about Rollins’ band. For quite a while he’s been playing with Stephen Scott on piano, a not-so-young-anymore guy who swings like mad and plays with conviction in the tradition. Bob Cranshaw—even if he is exclusively on electric bass—is a pure class act. And Sonny’s nephew Clifton Anderson is by now a solid if unspectacular presence on trombone, mostly soloing or playing obbligato on the heads as Rollins—properly—dominates all statements of theme. I don’t know the percussionists (Perry Wilson on drums and Kimati Dinizulu on hand percussion), but they stir the pot just fine.
So, if Rollins is great and the band is fine, then what is lacking? For me, it’s in the program and ultimately in the spirit. They start with “Without a Song”, swung at mid-tempo, then play the inevitable Rollins calypso, in this case “Global Warming”. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is taken at a ballady mid-tempo lope, then “Where or When” is swung also at a medium jaunt. The only relief from this approach is on “Why Was I Born?”, a treatment that cuts to the heart of the matter, particularly with 9/11 less than a week old. On all the mid-tempo tunes, the band swings deliciously, and the solos are inventive, but it sounds like a million other jazz records you’ve already heard—pleasant, alive with talent but maybe a little common. Anderson and Scott solo puckishly—madly quoting from various familiar tunes (my favorite being Scott’s quote of the Jeopardy theme on his “Without a Song” solo)—but without real gravity. It’s nice, and I’m sure it was a great way to spend an evening in the wake of the 9/11 nightmare, but it’s not a classic.
Though there is that ballad on “Why Was I Born?” It starts with a vintage Sonny Rollins unaccompanied cadenza. When Sonny plays all by himself, you hear jazz breathing through the brass of his horn—history turned into a pulse as he feels the melody rather than plays it. Even on a CD, there is a sense that the audience has stopped breathing as it waits for each note, and the tumble of melody seems truly invented on the spot—not a series of stock licks or a run of practice patterns from an etude book. In fact you have stopped breathing as you listen to it. When the band finally enters, they’re different somehow. No more clever quotes or vibrant lounge swing: now they’re really playing with a master.
Maybe on other nights—on nights settled to digital data on the discs that Stanley Crouch has heard—the Sonny Rollins band gets closer to a full set of “Why Was I Born?” I have no doubt that Sonny could coax that out of them, and you wouldn’t want to miss it. Without a Song is part-great, and it makes you hope for those other records. Or: better yet, why no try to catch Sonny some time soon? He’s still out there performing—a living legend and the world’s greatest of a sort: master improviser and American griot. Saxophone colossus. Catch him live.