Tuesday, November 17, 2015
As it happens: Sonny Rollins at the Village Gate, 1962
This has been a year of major ’60s-era finds in jazz. Garth Caylor's Nineteen + shook up my world back in April, and I'm currently fixating on this behemoth, which fits in nicely with my ongoing Sonny Rollins obsession. I'd like to thank Phil Freeman for alerting me to the existence of this set—an exhaustive six-disc issue of the entire 1962 Sonny Rollins–Don Cherry–Bob Cranshaw–Billy Higgins Village Gate run that yielded the severely truncated three-track Our Man in Jazz LP—because I haven't read a single mention of it elsewhere. I'm not sure what rights issues are at play here (this is the first I've heard of Solar Records, who seem to specialize in complete reissues of sessions already put out either in full or in part by other labels)—maybe we're looking at a quasi-bootleg. Even so, I can't look away.
I feel that if this set had come out on, say, Mosaic, it would be one of those landmark archival jazz releases that gets unanimously heralded as the precious find that it is—the 2005 Monk/Coltrane CD, for example. Like the many other great jazz boxes that immerse you in the life of a band during a particular phase—e.g., Miles's Plugged Nickel box or the first two Bootleg Series releases—Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 feels like an object for lifelong study. It's huge and sprawling and untameable and, as Phil's write-up suggests, nearly impossible to digest in any single sitting, but it's the kind of release that gets inside your head and takes you over. Having spent a couple weeks savoring the set in pieces, it now feels to me like an essential part of the Rollins canon, as well as a key document of the extended Ornette Coleman family and the development of free jazz in general. Beyond all that "historical significance" business, it's simply a source of enormous aural pleasure—an extended document of four great, distinctive improvisers conversing.
I find myself gravitating in particular to the many lengthy pieces here labeled "Untitled Original" (distinguished with the letters A, B, C and so forth), many of them taken from sets played on July 29 and 30 of ’62. According to the liner notes and from what I can tell, these are examples of straight improv, and the results are remarkable in their variety and extremity. This music doesn't simply sound like Rollins stepping into the Ornette world, nor does it sound like Rollins bringing Cherry and Higgins into his world. (The set is a valuable reminder that these players were already unified—as I'm reading in Eric Nisenson's valuable Open Sky, Rollins had practiced with Coleman and Cherry for years before the Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins band's public breakthrough.) It often sounds like, in a very stark way, exactly what it is—these four guys stepping onto that stage on those nights and simply starting to play, sometimes achieving a magical sort of communion and sometimes feeling around blindly in the dark. As Freeman writes, "This is music that's all about the moment." Given that some of these tracks run more than a half-hour, it's not surprising that there are lulls and dead ends, but there are these moments where the music turns a corner and hits upon something startlingly fresh, either in general or in the realm of what we've previously known from Rollins and Cherry, separately or together.
"Untitled Original C" begins with approximately two minutes of weightless, sound-based improv, the borderline-unsettling kind that I associate with early days of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as documented on the ’67/’68 Nessa box. As is often the case on this set, it's Higgins who pushes the music onto a rhythmic grid—throughout these performances, it's fascinating to hear how the rest of the band reacts to his penchant for hard, propulsive groove, sometimes jumping on the train and other times resisting the momentum. Here, we get a tantalizing bit of the former, but then the bottom drops out again and we're back in this sort of one-sound-at-a-time murmur zone.
In its nakedness and frank experimentation, this music is as radical as what Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray would play in Copenhagen seven months later. It's such a pleasure to hear Rollins and Cherry conversing in this sort of private, unhurried way. The music makes perfect sense, but there's no rush to make it make sense, to hurry the process of the improvising, to deliver to the audience anything other than a succession of unfolding sonic phenomena. As "Untitled Original C" progresses, the music enters a sort of march cadence, then leaves it; becomes an uptempo freebop battle, with Rollins and Cherry trading phrases, overlapping them. (In a lot of ways, I hear this band as a direct precursor to the CRHB band discussed here, and to Mu and Old and New Dreams, as much as it's a descendant of anything Ornette had done prior—given the existing bond between Rollins and Coleman, one has to assume that OC was in attendance for some of these performances, or at least that he heard Rollins/Cherry/Cranshaw/Higgins at some point, either live or on record.) Higgins steps on the gas and then stops. Rollins is playing what sounds like a classical etude. The horns trade riffs with the drums. Musical events occur; the band discards them.
Things get even rawer on "Untitled Original E/Untitled Original A #3," with Rollins juggling Morse code bleats and ragged fanfares, turning off the brain and just sound-making. And then, on a glorious, nearly 40-minute "Oleo" on the last disc, a performance that deserves legendary status: pure, hurtling abandon, Rollins racing along like liquid steel.
This set is glorious or it's tedious, depending on where your head is at, what you're asking of the music at that time. But objectively, as a document of these artists at work, Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 is essential. We get to sit with this band, watch them grind through the process, sweat it out, have fun. There's a conspiratorial glee about the best of these recordings; you can almost sense Rollins breathing deeply the air of freedom*. We get to savor these players' beautifully idiosyncratic voices, separately and together, as we would those of great actors whom we'd known as individuals, but not as a unit—at least not as well as we do now.
We accept the phrase "free jazz" as though it means one thing, as though the music of say The Shape of Jazz to Come bears any real relationship to that of Spiritual Unity, other than that they're both wonderful and both share certain instrumentation and common inspirational roots. But were the Who really anything like the Beatles, once each had achieved a mature style? When I hear Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962, I hear an all-in kind of improvising. Rollins led the band, but he wanted the band, the situation to lead him. These players swing and they suspend time; they jell and they clash. They do what they do in the order that they do it, for as long as they happen to, and that's the music for that set, that night.
You can cling to the notion that Rollins, on one hand, and Cherry and Higgins, on the other, were musicians from different schools. You can worry about what it "means" for these supposedly disparate artists to have shared the stage. Or you can accept that all it means it what it sounded like—not an unbroken string of profundity, but a search, that thing that Rollins has been about all along. The revelations, yes, but also the fits and starts, the muddles and the missteps along the way. Sound, just like life, as it happens.
*"I use a variety of systems… What I'm trying to do is get to the point where I can have a really complete expression of what I'm thinking about… I'm trying to play jazz, creative jazz, where you play things in the moment, at the moment that I get it—it comes into your mind and you're able to play it… I might use any kind of technique or harmonic system… Everything is going in the service of trying to reach Sonny Rollins and play myself." —Rollins in Eric Nisenson's Open Sky