Friday, November 06, 2015
Hands off the wheel: The inspired madness of late Sonny Rollins
It is a great regret of mine that I've never seen Sonny Rollins play saxophone live. Two years straight, I've seen him appear at events where he has not played: last summer's Ornette tribute in Prospect Park, which Rollins opened with a warm introductory blessing, and the Jazz Foundation of America's 2015 A Great Night in Harlem concert, which featured a lengthy tribute to Rollins and beautiful remarks from the man himself. At this point, when Rollins seems to have retired from public performance, it doesn't look like I'll get the chance to remedy my oversight.
Until recently, I'd never been a Rollins obsessive. A Rollins admirer, sure. I bought Saxophone Colossus early on in my jazz listening journey and recognized its obvious joys and wonders, filling in the gaps later with the ’57 Vanguard recordings and other touchstones. But for a listener with my personal set of preferences, Sonny Rollins was easy to take for granted. It sounds strange for a jazz obsessive to say that they're sometimes ambivalent about solos, but that's the case with me. I love to hear great improvisation, but I'm more attuned to the overall framework and vibe of the music than I am to the foreground/background duality that has become more and more codified in mainstream jazz over time. On, say, a ’60s Blue Note recording by Andrew Hill, Grachan Moncur III, Wayne Shorter or Sam Rivers—a period that remains a gold standard for me—there really is no foreground or background, first because every player in every band is always a giant and second because bandleaders like these had a distinct compositional agenda. Like Mingus or Coltrane or Jarrett or Motian, they each crafted an entire soundworld for their small-group music.
You can praise Sonny Rollins in 1,000 different ways, but though he's written many standards, his contribution to jazz—at least as I see it—is not primarily compositional, not overly fixated on a complete soundworld. (I know that I'm being reductive here—Freedom Suite is one obvious counterpoint—but I'm speaking about the macro-level impact of Rollins in jazz, what he'll be best remembered for.) He is, maybe second only to Charlie Parker, the immortal soloist, the man who could take even the most mundane of source material—and, let's be honest, the most mundane of ensembles; unlike Coltrane and Miles Davis, his other rough contemporaries, though Rollins has often worked with outstanding bands, he's never had a truly stellar, sustained, identifiable working group to call his own—and spin it into gold with his superhuman prowess on the horn. Even more so than the early masterworks such as Saxophone Colossus and The Bridge, I'm particularly blown away by the Sonny Rollins of the ’80s, where he attained a level of command, power and sustained poise that I've never heard in any other saxophonist. Read ’em and weep: 1980, 1986. The bravado, charisma, mastery are just dripping off him.
I could watch performances like those for days. But they're not the Rollins that's turning me on most at the moment. In the days since the JFA event, I've been on a serious Sonny kick that's focused almost exclusively on the past 15 years or so. Rollins in the present tense is a much less "perfect" musician than the one seen in the clips above, and in my opinion a more fascinating one. Recent Sonny Rollins is a rejoinder to the idea that jazz is something to be mastered; it's a demonstration of how the further along you go with improvisation, the more questions you raise, the weirder and more distinctive you can sound. When I hear recent Sonny Rollins, I hear a total lack of fear or hang-up. It's not about dominance and mastery. It's about searching.
I'm particularly interested in the first two tracks above. "Sonny, Please," the title track to the 2006 Rollins album of the same name, is a perfect illustration of the weird alchemy of late Rollins. A straightforward vamp piece. A catchy but brief head. The band is there almost wholly as a backdrop. Around 1:40 is when I really snap to attention. Rollins's tone start to fray, his lines becoming both jagged and weightless—shards of scrambled notes, fluttering above the imperturbable rhythm. There is one thrilling passage, from about 1:54 to 2:09, where Rollins sounds as liberated as any other saxophonist I've ever heard, liberated from conventional ideas of mastery, where surface fluidity is equated with virtuosity. He sounds like he's inventing at the very edge of his imagination, producing a stream of pure thought, a brittle and mercurial sound. Not the sound of a colossus, a king; the sound of a seer. He gets going again at 2:30, tossing ideas into the air, attaining this sort of growling, fluttering momentum. If I heard the phrase from 2:51 through 2:56 in a blindfold test, I would never think "Sonny Rollins"—well, never before this recent listening jag. Evan Parker on tenor might be my first guess, for the way the lines have this paradoxical supple jaggedness, proceeding gruffly without evolving into a full on post-Coltrane scream. The solo settles a bit from there, as Rollins starts to sound like he's drifting with the song rather than wrestling against it. Then at 4:10, it again becomes choppy and violent. I love the harshness of these passages, the way they rub against the oppressive normalcy of the music around them, the way they exemplify the restlessness of the Rollins quest, his commitment to actually getting somewhere new with each solo, or at least trying to, a quest that seems to have grown ever more extreme in Sonny's later years.
"Biji" is a 2001 live recording from the intensely rewarding Road Shows series. As a song and a performance, it is even more mundane than "Sonny, Please." It's classic feel-good mainstream jazz, complete with an ’80s-sounding funk bridge, the kind one could easily write off as cruise-ship fluff. After the head, Sonny spars a bit with Clifton Anderson's trombone, then cedes the stage to his band. Long solos by Anderson and pianist Stephen Scott ensue. (I've never really been a Dean Benedetti–type jazz listener, but recent Rollins often has me fast-forwarding past his sidemen's solos in search of the good stuff.) We're six minutes into an eight-minute track before we get to the meat of "Biji," and for a bit, Rollins is playing along with the prevailing feel-good vibe. But listen to what happens at 6:56, how through around 7:18 Rollins sounds like he's driving a sputtering Harley through a polite dinner party, trailing noxious exhaust. There's a kind of willful derangement at work here, a bullish commitment to seeing the idea through no matter how abrasive or jarring. Sonny sounds like the lines are playing him rather than the other way around. It's not the imperturbable command of Rollins in the ’60s or the ’80s; it's the sound of man taking his hands off the wheel.
Late Sonny, in these moments of lift-off, embodies the true meaning of free jazz, not the phrase but the literal truth of the words—like Progressive Rock versus rock that's actually progressive. To go as far as Sonny Rollins has in order to achieve not a kind of ultimate comfort but a newfound recklessness, to have the courage to produce at this late-career stage a stream of sound that reminds the listener that jazz is not an equation to be solved but a tireless inward-directed journey, that to me is the real genius of the lifelong improviser's art.
The playlist above features a couple other examples of late Sonny at his wildest and most inspired—buckle up for the turbulence at 3:30–3:50 in "Nishi"—as well as an extended solo on a 1986 "Best Wishes" that harks back to the walking-on-air madness of the other ’80s clips discussed earlier in this post. Rollins's fierce solo on the 1980 "Blossom" is the perfect blend of these two approaches. This 1993 performance is another must-hear: The passage from about 50:00–50:40 is a feast of the kind of jagged, rapid-fire improvising that makes the more recent material so thrilling.