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

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.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

craw, booked

Received physical proofs for the 200-page bound books that will come packaged with the upcoming craw vinyl box set. Contents include a complete, previously unpublished oral history of the band, newly proofed lyrics, tons of photos and ephemera, etc.

Couldn't be happier to see this dream project—20 years in the making, all in all, and my eat/sleep/breathe obsession for the past couple years—become a reality. Thank you to all Kickstarter backers, Aqualamb and Northern Spy. (And to Ben Young for crucial inspiration.)

Can't wait to send 1993–1997 out into the world.