At WSJ on the new Sonny Rollins Recording

Sonny-Rollins_cover_news-cut-314x233The new Sonny Rollins recording, Road Show Vol 3 (Doxy/Okeh/Sony Music Masterworks) isn’t as good as the previous Rollins disc, Road Shows vol 2. But it’s still an amazing disc.  Rollins now compiles his best live performances and releases collections of them from time to time.  It’s the optimal arrangement (sic).  Here’s what i said in WSJ about it.


The Return of Sonny Rollins ‘Road Shows’

May 7, 2014 4:52 p.m. ET

Sonny Rollins Corbis

There is little consensus in the often-contentious world of jazz, but most fans and critics agree that Sonny Rollins is the greatest tenor saxophonist alive. And, at age 83, Mr. Rollins is still in peak form. For decades, attendance at his concerts has taken on the solemnity of a pilgrimage. But for many of those years, none of his recordings were a match for the classics like “Saxophone Colossus” (Prestige, 1956), “Freedom Suite” (Riverside, 1958) and “East Broadway Rundown” (Impulse!, 1966) that established his reputation. The newer recordings lacked the intense probing on up-tempo numbers and the poignancy on ballads. Six years ago Mr. Rollins found the right approach to recordings—releasing compilations of his live work. Now his albums prompt a similar hushed level of anticipation as his performances.

On Tuesday, Mr. Rollins released “Road Shows Vol. 3” (Doxy/Sony Music Masterworks), and it is the equal of its heralded predecessors “Road Shows Vol. 1” (Doxy/EmArcy 2008) and “Road Shows Vol. 2” (Doxy/EmArcy 2011). Each volume has a distinctive identity. Volume 1 spans 27 years of Mr. Rollins’s career; it includes the tracks of his remarkable 2007 concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of his first Carnegie Hall appearance. Volume 2 comprises material from 2010, the year of Mr. Rollins’s 80th birthday, including the superb Beacon Theater performance where he was joined by guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Roy Haynes, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Christian McBride and—in a complete surprise to the audience—saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The new recording features material since the turn of the century, and its best parts reveal the strengths of Mr. Rollins’s working band rather than guest stars joining the performance.

Mr. Rollins combines a commanding tone with a ferocious, intense appetite for melodic exploration in his solos, and each volume is highlighted by an extended presentation of this tendency. Unlike “Blossom” from the first “Road Show” or “Sonnymoon for Two” on the second, the highlight of the third, “Someday I’ll Find You,” is a ballad. It also reveals Mr. Rollins’s newfound willingness to reconsider his previous work. The song was written as a ballad in 1930 by Noël Coward for his play “Private Lives,” but when Mr. Rollins first recorded it in 1958 he performed it up-tempo. Here, it is returned to its original pace. Following a terse, pungent solo by guitarist Bobby Broom, Mr. Rollins begins a lengthy exploration of the tune’s melody—working chorus after chorus, playing one affecting passage after another, building toward a remarkable finale. Such are the moments that have made Rollins concerts so esteemed. Fans can often cite particular shows where the saxophonist played a tune, perhaps an original or a staple of the American songbook, with extraordinary depth and intensity.

Other highlights of Volume 3 include the rugged but catchy “Patanjali,” named for the compiler of the yoga sutras. (Mr. Rollins’s interest in yoga predates the current fad by decades.) “Solo Sonny” captures a unique trait of Mr. Rollins’s playing. Performing unaccompanied, he seems to quote a dizzying series of tunes ranging from movie themes to Tin Pan Alley numbers to children’s songs. It’s the sort of madcap sequencing and pacing that usually requires the latest technology, but Mr. Rollins needs only a horn and a stage.

The most consistent criticism of Mr. Rollins’s concerts is that he cedes too much solo space to his bandmates, and that tendency mars the recording’s longest track, “Why Was I Born,” which quickly turns into an exchange between the saxophonist and drummer Steve Jordan. The percussionist’s part of the dialogue grows repetitive after a few minutes, though Mr. Rollins storms on, playing one inventive phrase after another.

Mr. Rollins is notoriously self-critical; in 1959, after releasing several widely hailed recordings, many of which are now regarded as classics, he retired from the music business until 1962; he felt he needed to work on his sound, and he was occasionally heard practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge. He is also dedicated to performing. In 1986, during a concert in upstate New York, he jumped off of a 6-foot-high stage and broke his heel, yet he continued to play. Mr. Rollins and his wife, Lucille, who died in 2004, lived in Tribeca, not far from the World Trade Center, and had to be evacuated the day after the 2001 attacks, yet he insisted on making his performance in Boston three days later. That appearance was documented on “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert” (Milestone, 2005).

Perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Rollins is still going strong just a few months shy of his 84th birthday. During an interview in the mid-’80s, he told me that “the glory isn’t in grasping the ring; the glory is in reaching for it.”

At the time, I thought it was a veteran musician giving a young journalist a nifty quote. But evidently it really is Mr. Rollins’s modus operandi.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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