Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Secret to the Greatness of Sonny Rollins

Sonny in his heyday
Typically my interest in jazz has been driven and inspired by piano players.

Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Hancock are some of the classic fellas I really like...more contemporary artists would include Matthew Shipp and Jason Moran; pianists who are really pushing the envelope a
nd jazz into new directions these days.

My interest has also involved trumpet players...Mil
es Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lee Morgan, to name a my all-time personal favorite, Clifford Brown.

However, I've never really embraced the saxophone players...and I've never really figured out why.

I think it might be partly John Coltrane's fault...and I say that with unequivocal acknowledgement an
d respect at how Coltrane influenced jazz and how he's one of the all-time jazz giants.

While I
love Coltran's earlier work such as Blue Train and his work in the 1950s Miles Davis Quintet, his latter material takes some getting used to...sorta like getting used to the idea of liking it when the baby wails ceaselessly. I understand with Coltrane it's a spirituality thing that's going on...and while I can appreciate that, I find it really difficult to make it work for me.

Unfortunately, my hit and miss explorations of Coltrane's work made me run from saxophone players for awhile...and especially the sax players out of the 60s, where I'd have the preconceived notion if they were even distantly associated with the avant garde style that was typical at the time, I'd be getting something you'd hear from the sax that was akin to the styles of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, or Albert Ayler...again, I love these guys, but only if I'm in the right mood. Despite being more accessible than these prior artists I've mentioned, Wayne Shorter even skirts the precipice

That's not to say non-avant garde sax players aren't out there, clearly they are. You can noodle through the catalogs of players like Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Henderson, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, or Ben Webster....however while these are fine sax players, I don't necessarily see them as great innovators and as uniquely distinct in sound as the artist of focus in this post. This is just my personal opinion, and I'm sure I'm opening myself up to debate with folks who know more about these artists than I do.

The problem for me, in finding a sax player that appeals to my taste, i
s that classic great ones seem to be fewer and farther between and less accessible on this particular instrument than, say, piano players or trumpeters. I find myself having to go back to the big band material of Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins, however you start getting into sound quality issues with their catalog.

21st Century Jedi Master: Sonny and his sax

Receiving the 2010 National Medal of the Arts award
However, there's one fella in my mind who stands apart from the rest...who has the most interesting and accessible sound of any saxophone player out there and has endured for nearly 60 years -- all the way from the early 1950s to this very day.

Enter Sonny Rollins.

Sonny is the saxophonist who romanticized the instrument. He's the player who inspires that iconic image of the lone sax player practicing under the bridge because he, well, at one time DID practice under a bridge in NYC after being banned from the local club circuit for a number of years (see the Ken Burns jazz documentary for more details).

Sonny can do it all...he can play soft cool sounds to relax to, or he can jam...but he never wails like a baby (at least from what I've heard), thank God...or he can even be silly, which can be interpreted in his deliberate repeated stops at the beginning of "Freedom Suite," or in something like the math-jazz sensibilities and increasing hurriedness in his cover of Thelonius Monk's "Brilliant Corners"...and I've never heard a recording that does something like that.

Certainly his tone and sound are unmistakable. However, most of all, Sonny Rollins has an AMAZING sense of melody, and I believe that's where his greatness lies.

If you want to explore Sonny Rollins, start with Saxophone Colossus, and then move onto Newk's Time or Tenor Madness...but, many of you might already have him on record and you don't realize it. If you own Tattoo You by the Rolling Stones, you can hear him solo on the sentimental classic "Waiting on a Friend," the last track on the recording.

If you find a liking to him, the bulk of Sonny's extensive cannon can be found through his Prestige, Blue Note, and Riverside/Contemporary box set collections -- two of three of which are very reasonably priced, and all worth getting for this iconic saxophone player. I'd then work through his Milestone recordings, and work your way from there chronologically up to the present day.