Sonny Rollins, the great shape-shifting tenor saxophonist, is a well-travelled man. His performing life began back in the 1940s, and he continues to perform around the world today at the age of 78. So no lack of recorded material exists to choose from for his latest release, Road Shows, Vol. 1. Rollins is also a notoriously harsh self-critic and often the first to deride an imperfect performance. Given the dearth of material Rollins had to choose from and his sharp attention to quality, Road Shows, Vol. 1 represents some of the best music the saxophone colossus has released to date, which should come as no surprise.
Due to the range of personnel, the different eras in which the music was recorded and the song selection, an understandably wide-ranging mood exists on this album. The collection starts with a swinging “Best Wishes” from a 1986 performance in Tokyo. Rollins sets a fiery tone, a statement of intent it seems, that bleeds into the subsequent tracks. Rollins and his band downshift from the full-throttle “Best Wishes” into the meditative “More Than You Know”, which he and his band recorded in Toulouse in 2006. The contrast between the tracks proves striking, perhaps even more so given that 20 years had passed between the recordings. Rollins sounds no less engaged: His runs sound as intricate and precise as they always have. He proves unafraid to dip down into an almost free-jazz territory at times and beautifully mixes playful melody with a satisfyingly low-register skronk.
Rollins and his band then fall back to 1980 with a performance of “Blossom” in Sweden. With the knowledge he has assembled a solid group of backing players, Rollins encourages other members of his band to shine at just the appropriate moments. Mark Soskin’s piano journeys from a slow, contemplative sparseness to an quick, calypso-like strut and back again with the band locked in to every shift and variation. Rollins dips in and out like a boxer, alternately jabbing and wailing with precise dexterity. Although the longest track on the album, “Blossom”, doesn’t feel overextended due to the high level of connection and lively interplay between band and leader. Following a return to the theme and the pounding conclusion, the crowd reacts with justified, frenzied approval, making it perhaps the most engaging track on the album.
“Easy Living”, also from a 1980 performance, provides a smooth respite from the fury of “Blossom”. The push-and-pull pacing of the album proves an effective strategy, at least to these ears, for appreciating both the subtly of the slower tracks and the awesome technicality of the faster tracks. The solo improvisation from Rollins in the coda to “Easy Living” leads to a shimmering conclusion that brings the band and rapturous audience together in way that suggests the kind of audience-musician mind-meld that only the most accomplished of artists can attain.
A stoic “Tenor Madness” from 2000 is solid but not as enthralling as the previous cuts. Rollins and his band rebound with a recording of “Nice Lady” from 2007. This track and the ensuing “Some Enchanted Evening” (also from 2007) conclude the album in a fitting sequence. Rich with nuance and restraint, these performances illustrate the mastery of using space. Silence is often a powerful asset for Rollins throughout “Nice Lady” and “Some Enchanted Evening”. Ever thoughtful and with a delicate touch, these tunes showcase the most recent chapters of the Rollins odyssey in a manner befitting of his vast talents and years of experience.
Road Shows, Vol. 1 is a reminder that Sonny Rollins continues to travel and perform some of the world’s best jazz, and what a sweet journey it continues to be.