The Jazz.com Blog
November 10, 2008 · 0 comments
Thomas Cunniffe, who recently published an in-depth article on Mel Tormé & Marty Paich's Dek-tette on jazz.com's virtual pages, now turns his attention to saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Fans of this artist have reason to celebrate: new DVDs add considerably to the video documentation of the tenorist's work. Read more below. T.G.
Before last month, Sonny Rollins’s available video performances were limited to three sources: a 1962 episode of Jazz Casual, the 1973 performance film Sonny Rollins in Laren and the 1986 documentary Saxophone Colossus. With the September release of the Jazz Icons DVD Sonny Rollins Live in ’65 & ’68 and the October release of Doxy Records’ Sonny Rollins in Vienne, we now have nearly twice the footage (regrettably, without any film of Rollins during the 1950s). [Author's postscript: I stand corrected. The bonus disc for series 3 of the Jazz Icons set includes two Rollins performances from a 1959 European tour. I did not receive that disc in time for this review, but Jazz Icons has provided it to me and I will review it in the near future. T.C.]
The 1965 performance from Copenhagen’s Tivoli Hall represents Rollins at peak creativity. Accompanied only by Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and Alan Dawson on drums, Rollins plays brilliantly, his solos bursting with fresh ideas. Although this was a pick-up group, Rollins thought of it as a cooperative, with all three musicians equal partners. Nowhere is this more evident than on “St. Thomas.” After Rollins’s opening solo, Pedersen begins his improvisation while Rollins plays short phrases as accompaniment. Clearly wanting to emphasize the interaction of the group, Rollins stays out front instead of retreating to a spot behind the bass and drums. In an all-too-rare example of dynamics in jazz, Rollins and Dawson bring the volume down to pianissimo, keeping the interaction going while letting the bass solo be heard. When Pedersen finishes, the volume goes back to forte and the beat changes from calypso to swing. Rollins launches into a breathtaking solo, as noteworthy for its amazing rhythmic drive as for its seamless combination of thematic improvisation and avant-garde ideas, thus linking his past and present in one solo.
Rollins was back in Copenhagen in 1968 and he filmed a set at the Danish TV studio with pianist Kenny Drew, drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and Pedersen returning on bass. There’s a version of “St. Thomas” here, too, and the differences are remarkable. While Rollins was energetic and inspired at the trio date, interacting freely with the other musicians, he looks bored at the quartet date, delivering good (but not great) solos, and not playing at all behind the other musicians. It’s Drew who finally livens things up when he quotes the two-note downward motive that Rollins had developed on his “St. Thomas” solo from the Saxophone Colossus LP. When the song ends, Rollins—finally feeling inspired—rips into a cadenza which quotes several songs before launching the group into a spirited performance of “Four.” While Rollins’s playing on “Four” represents his best work of the 1968 date, all the viewer needs to do is stay tuned for the credits—using footage from the 1965 “St. Thomas”—to be reminded of the superiority of the earlier performance.
We are fortunate that Rollins continues to play and explore today, and if the tenorist's performances seem to be a mixed bag nowadays, perhaps it is because Rollins is looking deeper for inspiration and sometimes not finding it. At times, the search is as rewarding as the discovery, but that is not always the case. His 2006 concert in Vienne, France shows both sides of the equation. There are two calypsos, which take up nearly half the running time of the DVD. On both, Rollins plays on and on, seemingly looking for some musical nugget but never finding it. The crowd cheers like mad, but perhaps more in recognition of the sheer endurance rather than due to anything Rollins plays. After 13 minutes of the dull calypso “Global Warming,” Rollins leads the band into the modal “Sonny Please” and when Rollins solos here, it sounds like he’s on his game again, finding the most intriguing notes in the scales and devising unique melodic ideas around them. Next up is the standard “I See Your Face Before Me” and on several occasions, it seems as if Rollins is poised to play a great ballad solo; instead, the saxophone solos are short introductions to contributions by the percussionist, guitar, bass and trombone. The tune ends without a Rollins solo and with an opportunity missed. Nothing personal against the members of Rollins’ band (which includes Bob Cranshaw & Victor Lewis), but it is Sonny who we really want to hear, not the sidemen. Oddly enough, it’s a live recording of “Remembering Tommy” which plays under the credits that features Rollins at his most melodic. We need more performances like that and fewer of the endless calypsos.
Doxy is also releasing the CD, Roadshows, Volume 1 next week. Cherry-picked from live recordings spanning 1980-2007, the disc offers abundant examples of late Rollins at his creative zenith. The album’s bookends are especially noteworthy: a stunning 35-chorus blues solo on “Best Wishes” from a 1986 Tokyo concert, and an understated “Some Enchanted Evening” with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes from Rollins’ 2007 Carnegie Hall concert. All 7 tunes on the CD come from different concerts, but the applause is cross-faded to create the illusion of a single concert. While there are a few audio defects in some of the source recordings, the sound is quite consistent throughout.
SONNY ROLLINS LIVE IN ’65 & ’68 Jazz Icons 2.119011. 87 minutes.
Copenhagen, October 31 or November 1, 1965: Rollins (ts); Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b); Alan Dawson (d). There Will Never Be Another You; St. Thomas; Oleo/Sonnymoon For Two; Darn That Dream; Three Little Words.
Copenhagen; September 20, 1968: Rollins (ts); Kenny Drew (p); Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b); Albert “Tootie” Heath (d). On Green Dolphin Street; St. Thomas; Four.
SONNY ROLLINS IN VIENNE Doxy/EmArcy 0602517675483. 78 minutes.
Vienne, France, June 29, 2006: Rollins (ts); Clifton Anderson (tb); Bobby Broom (g); Bob Cranshaw (b); Victor Lewis (d); Kimati Dinizulu (perc). They Say It’s Wonderful; Global Warming; Sonny, Please; I See Your Face Before Me; Don’t Stop The Carnival.
SONNY ROLLINS–“ROADSHOWS, Vol. 1” Doxy/EmArcy B0012165. 72 minutes.
Various locations, 1980-2007: Collective personnel: Rollins (ts); Clifton Anderson (tb); Mark Soskin, Stephen Scott (p); Bobby Broom (g); Jerome Harris, Bob Cranshaw, Christian McBride (b); Al Foster, Victor Lewis, Perry Wilson, Steve Jordan, Roy Haynes (d); Victor See-Yuen, Kimati Dinizulu (perc). Best Wishes; More Than You Know; Blossom; Easy Living; Tenor Madness; Nice Lady; Some Enchanted Evening.
This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe