Music

Sonny Rollins: Without a Song

Will Layman

The Tenor Titan presents a live program of typical strength but also typical... typicalness?"


Sonny Rollins

Without a Song

Label: Milestone
US Release Date: 2005-08-30
UK Release Date: Available as import
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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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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