Sonny Rollins: Essential Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years

Sonny Rollins
Essential Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years

For the second time in as few months I’ve got a selection of Sonny Rollins for review. The previous set sampled his earlier days with Prestige, Saxophone Colossus and so forth, from the middle 1950s. Rollins dropped out of music for the two to three years before 1962-64, his “RCA Years”, when that company recorded him. In 1967 he dropped out again, before the resumption of performance that continues to this day, though without such consolidated achievements in the recording studio as marked his earlier years.

Rollins’s interests have always been in live improvisation, perhaps one reason for the superior interest of earlier items among his recordings. Perhaps the way in which sessions were then planned has something to do with that interest, too, beside the fact that over the second twenty of his now seventy-five years, Rollins continued to extend his capacities as a soloist in ways he no longer needs to. For a long time he has been extending his capacities within each solo, each one itself a story. He was always a major player, nonetheless, and right back to his recorded debut was doing enough already to command attention and huge admiration, regardless of what he’d yet to accomplish.

In a brilliant encapsulation of Rollins’s achievements before 1967, Max Harrison compared him to Charlie Parker, with the remark that while Rollins never had Parker’s tragic intensity, he may never have wished for it. It should also be said that a very considerable emotional range is encompassed in the massive achievement that is Rollins’s earlier discography, and in the RCA recordings that are part of it.

A different “Best of the RCA Years” set exists and is included in a list of Rollins RCA issues in the present set’s booklet, itself a condensed version of The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. That box of six CDs with all his RCA recordings isn’t all that expensive, as further consideration for ‘Do I want this present set?’ How much of the whole lot can you do without? Vinyl and other much earlier issues of the material that 6-CD box collects have justly been called messy, and the same term applies to the latter-day Essential, Best of and at least one other 2-CD set. They overlap ridiculously. Whether it’s worth checking out the track listings of the others, and checking reviews to see what you’d be doing without, is up to you, and probably any of the 2-CD sets is as good as any other for most people’s purposes. Severe 2-CD compilations of much more recent Rollins recordings would also be welcome.

As to what you get here, Jim Hall can be heard through the first five tracks on CD 1, with Bob Cranshaw on bass and Ben Riley on drums (except on the marvelously moving “God Bless the Child”, where Harry T. Saunders sits for Riley), and on “Junguoso”, Candido Camero’s congas.

Presumably a lot of it sounded more novel when new, but it can’t have sounded much better. There was probably also less occasion at the time to observe that, throughout the ages, Rollins’s music owes depth to a continuing regard for older and continuing jazz values. His use of more radical or even avant-garde procedures differentiates him alike from both the wilder and from the less adventurous avowed innovators in its maintenance of older values.

“The Bridge” has an interesting title, maybe something to do with his having spent a long time in withdrawal from public performance, sitting or stalking in high isolation among girders of New York’s Williamsburg bridge, meditating and playing. The opening theme of “The Bridge” sounds ultra-modern, a complex device of inversion of harmony and telescoping of theme, almost a ‘hide that tune’ with the ancient jazz vehicle whose harmonies emerge in the lengthy improvisation (albeit with a tumbling movement after the bridge section).

Jim Hall can play in conventional style, or far out, and was an ideal partner, substituting where a pianist would have had immense problems matching Rollins’s further extensions of solo development rhythmically and harmonically; like beginning a new chorus (in effect) before the band has finished the preceding one. Such an extreme shift in timing (before the bar, rather than just before the beat) is in scale with what Rollins does harmonically and in other respects. The bossa rhythm of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is way down below as Rollins, like a bird way aloft, executes spirals or follows spiralling currents to a point where he’s in remote relation to the theme or melody. It’s not always clear exactly how he got there, but he can get back at will. “If Ever I Would Leave You” maintains an amazing sense of the melody, in a thematic development really all about extending the scope of ballad improvisation, then going into a fun passage at the end.

“Don’t Stop the Carnival” is down to earth with its West Indian singing chorus and trio of extra percussionists in the theme statement. “St. Thomas”, another reference to the Rollins family Caribbean heritage, is represented on the second CD, with Ron Carter on bass and Roy MacCurdy on drums. St. Valentine’s Day, 1964: Herbie Hancock was also on the date, not on that title, but on Parker’s “Now’s the Time”, serving as a handy ensemble partner — and like Hall elsewhere, contributing very beautiful solo passages on ballads (especially “‘Round Midnight”). Hancock seems to be less a member of the rhythm section than was Hall, and more restricted to something like a front-line hornman’s contributions to ensemble.

“Doxy” is a live recording from the Village Vanguard (the sole title from Our Man in Jazz, with Cranshaw, Billy Higgins on drums, and the glancing, oblique, even Monkish fragmented phrasing of Don Cherry on trumpet). Cherry’s solo is nice, and his obliquity perhaps appealed to Rollins both in its own right and as encouragement of his own pursuit of new directions. Cranshaw takes a few nice choruses, Higgins is really inspired in drum solo, and the closing choruses with Rollins and Cherry deserve their applause. Unfortunately, in the course of those performances, Rollins’s own solo rather drifts. A better inclusion by nearly the same quintet — Henry Grimes replacing Cranshaw on bass — is “There Will Never be Another You” from early 1963 (the sole title here from 3 in Jazz), Rollins being well supported in an inversion of the theme.

The standards repertoire is kept with for the next three, all from Sonny Meets Hawk, Cranshaw back, with Roy MacCurdy on drums, Paul Bley piano, and Rollins’s longtime hero Coleman Hawkins sharing front-line duties. While on “Junguoso” Rollins did play some Hawkian passages, and was never that far from the old master’s approach, some kind of shock was set up by the two of them recording together (following a workout at a Newport Jazz Festival). Perhaps the new always draws some hyper-aesthesia. They were from remote eras?

“All the Things You Are”, “Lover Man”, and “Just Friends” were excellent choices for the Hawkins set, and when this set includes Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, and John Lewis’s “Afternoon in Paris” from a set named for the Parker tune — and the last three titles of the present 2-CD set are from The Standard Sonny Rollins (“The Ship”; “Love Letters”; “Travelin’ Light”) — you can see a deliberate predictability was attempted (especially since the track I’ve not yet mentioned is a Miles Davis composition, “Four”). The set could almost be titled The Familiar Sonny Rollins.

“Travelin’ Light” is, however, something of a (very musical indeed!) novelty. It has Hall and Hancock with Stu Martin on drums and Teddy Smith playing bass in the wonted jazz manner. But there’s David Izenson plying the bow on his own bass, too, in an almost fiddle-like obbligato, perhaps inspiring Rollins to produce more cello-like, which is to say Hawkins-fashion, phrasing. I forget who composed the Dizzy Gillespie standard “Two Bass Hit”, but I like that too. I am, however and dammit, seriously considering the acquisition of the complete RCA recordings by Rollins. These reissues have been just too untidy!

RATING 8 / 10