Sonny Rollins: Post-Boppin’ With The Saxophone Colossus

Sonny Rollins, by Freddy WarrenOver the course of a lifetime, I have pursued music and music has, by degrees, pursued me. Part of my passion is predicated on a desire to share what I have learned with friends and colleagues alike. Thus over time, RADIO FREE CHIP: Sound Signatures has evolved from a series of downloads culled from my sprawling archives to an evolving blog format in its earliest stages of development.

Or as I like to put it, “I am a DJ, I am what I play.”  Still, I continue to derive pleasure from my small network of personal musical communiques. So when I discovered through my blogmeister, Bret Primack, The Jazz Video Guy—a champion of American music, who counts among his creative endeavors, stewardship of Sonny Rollins’s web site—that the tenor saxophonist had taken a sabbatical and was relaxing in his new home by listening to composers associated with Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg), I began supplementing Newk’s musical journey with 20th Century music by Bela Bartok, Charles Ives, Edgar Varese and Elliot Carter.

Sonny Rollins with Mohawk, by Lee Tanner

Eventually, in a decidedly swinging change of pace, I programmed a jazz compilation with Sonny’s mind in mind. My choices reflected that historical period between 1959-1961, when he withdrew from public performances to woodshed: expanding upon his already formidable command of the tenor, while deepening his awareness of harmony–an area where he’d adjudged himself to be lacking.

During this hiatus, Sonny famously spent a considerable amount of time on the Williamsburg Bridge, which connected his Brooklyn neighborhood with the Lower East Side of Manhattan, practicing his horn out in the open air (rather than unsettle his neighbors and their newborn baby). Ultimately Sonny rolled-out a provocative new working quartet, featuring the guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Ben Riley, as celebrated on their maiden voyage for the RCA label, THE BRIDGE.

It’s worth remembering that Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, inspired as they were by Charlie Parker, and having partnered with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, represented the cutting edge of the hard bop movement. Subsequently, when the jazz avant garde began to emerge with considerable force in the person of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Sonny and Trane embraced their exploratory verve with far-reaching implications for musicians of their generation and those to come.

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The Williamsburg Bridge

Sonny himself began pursuing a harmonically freer, more rhythmically expansive style in returning to the daring piano-less formats he pioneered on THE FREEDOM SUITE, LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, and WAY OUT WEST, collaborating with Ornette Coleman mainstays Don Cherry and Billy Higgins in a working band with bassist Bob Cranshaw (or Henry Grimes in the studio) on OUR MAN IN JAZZ, and subsequently partnering with Coltrane’s rhythmic ninjas, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, on EAST BROADWAY RUNDOWN.

Recorded in the summer of 1960, THE AVANT GARDE places John Coltrane squarely in the epicenter of Ornette Coleman’s music, teaming him with the innovative trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Ed Blackwell and bassist Charlie Haden (supplanted on three tracks by Modern Jazz Quartet bassist Percy Heath). While “Cherryco” is credited to the trumpeter, the previously unreleased tracks “Revolving Doors” and “All” from BEAUTY IS A RARE THING—THE COMPLETE ATLANTIC RECORDINGS OF ORNETTE COLEMAN, are plainly the same tune.

Cherry’s skittering, swinging solo has an oblique, blues-drenched melodic logic all his own, while Coltrane follows with a chanting aria that is unique in his recorded oeuvre. The tenor giant testifies in a series of dramatic repeated cadences that amplify the talking drum locomotion of the Blackwell/Haden groove, while evoking Trane’s deep North Carolina roots as the son of a preacher man.

Back in the mid-90s, I had occasion to engage the famous bassist Ron Carter in an interview for a MUSICIAN magazine feature I was then developing about his Blue Note recording, RON CARTER MEETS BACH. At one point, as an aside, I waxed nostalgic about the bass figure with which Ron and drummer Tony Williams brought “Gingerbread Boy” to its conclusion. Based on Ron’s reaction, I was left with the distinct impression that he never revisited this historic track after laying it down in the recording studio. So a few months ago, as an experiment, I transmitted him a download of this performance.

Ron’s e-mail response? “Wow!”

Did any band from that period manage to suggest the possibilities of a freely inflected, collective approach, while maintaining a dynamic connection to the rhythmic jet propulsion of bebop and beyond, quite like the Miles Davis Quintet did on MILES SMILES? On this anthemic interpretation of Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” Ron and Tony stretch a vamp and release form–simultaneously referencing both a vertical and a linear rhythmic reality–to the very outer limits of time and tempo in an elastic, interactive manner that inspires electrifying solos by Miles (very much in his Don Cherry mode), Wayne Shorter (like Lester Young taking a stab at late Coltrane) and Herbie Hancock (whose single-note lines unfurl as if tethered to a psychedelic barber pole).

Sonny Rollins’ signature tune, the calypso-inflected “St. Thomas,” references oral traditions deriving from his family’s roots in the Virgin islands, much as rock and funk emanates from Latin music and the Afro-Cuban tradition. Building upon Machito and Mario Bauza’s synthesis of big band swing with traditions grounded in their Cuban roots, Dizzy Gillespie’s recording of “Manteca” transformed the rhythmic landscape of jazz forever. And on this remarkable Paris studio session from 1973, Dizzy and tenor sax titan Johnny Griffin dial up a truly big time funk groove in a powerhouse reprise of the trumpeter’s 1947 hit.

Chip Stern and Dizzy Gillespie

Radio Free Chip & Dizzy

All the more remarkable because the drummer laying a layer of lard over every damn inch of this nasty-ass back-beat is none other than legendary expatriate Kenny Clarke, progenitor of the bebop approach to modern rhythm–in which the ride cymbal carries the primary pulse, freeing up the drummer to drop bombs and interact with the melodic instruments by deploying snare drum colorations and tom-toms accents all about the multi-percussion kit.

And whether rocking out or breaking into straight ahead swing, does the drummer known as Klook ever have a ball interacting with pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and percussionist Humberto Canto…with Gillespie and Griffin roaring and soaring over the top like cosmic wind-surfers in one of the most righteous, down-home versions of “Manteca” the trumpeter ever committed to tape.

Once, when hanging out with Papa Jo Jones, he played me an air-check of a Count Basie flag-waver entitled “Mutton Leg,” featuring some really ferocious, over-the-top lead tenor by Paul Gonsalves, who at one point made a daring ascent into the altissimo register of his horn that sounded more representative of Sam Rivers, circa 1970, than of the 1940s. Or as Papa Jo duly noted: “Paul Gonsalves played too many notes for Basie, so we gave him to Duke Ellington,” arching his eyebrows suggestively to make sure I dug where he was coming from.

Paul Gonsalves and Duke Ellington

Paul Gonsalves and Duke Ellington

Figuring that Sonny was already familiar with Gonsalves’ legendary 27-chorus tenor showcase on “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue” from the ELLINGTON AT NEWPORT recording, I instead dubbed him the audio from this Amsterdam Concertgebouw concert (as featured on the Jazz Icons DVD-release, DUKE ELLINGTON LIVE IN ’58). Gonsalves’ hoarse, expressive tone, technical facility, daring rhythmic phrasing and harmonic sophistication is mesmerizing, as one can glean from the enraptured expressions of audience members, and by Ellington’s enthusiastic high fives to “Paul Gonsalves, Paul Gonsalves.”

Speaking of rapture, on this joyous performance of “Folk Forms #1” Charles Mingus sets the tone with a jaunty melodic figure on the bass, keying a series of rhythmic/thematic variations answered in kind by Dannie Richmond’s astonishingly melodic drums and the speaking-in-tongues polyphony of alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Ted Curson, in a spirited post-modern emulation of a New Orleans second line.

This, my friends, is the blues writ large, played with a degree of emotional commitment that transcends melody and borders on pure speech, as the quartet extends collectively upon each others’ motifs with telepathic intensity until the effect is that of a vortex–of one continuous phrase. Dolphy imbues each and every note with unsurpassed vocal passion; the enormity of his sound, and the manner in which he brings things to a stand-up-and-shout catharsis is matched every step of the way by Curson’s incredibly expressive brass figures.

Finally, in the person of Julius Arthur Hemphill, we presented Sonny with a saxophonist who while clearly inspired by his music and that of Trane and Ornette, was truly beholden to no one. This native of Fort Worth, Texas, was a true American original; an extraordinarily distinctive composer, a fearless improviser and among the most visceral alto saxophonists you’ve ever heard—yet despite the acclaim he garnered as a founding member and primary composer for The World Saxophone Quartet, his legacy is largely neglected–likely because he took leave of us at the age of 54 back in 1995.

Julius Hemphill, 1980, Cropped, Deborah Feingold

Julius Arthur Hemphill
A Terrible Beauty

My first experience of Julius’ music on this performance of “The Hard Blues” (from the recent re-issue, DOGON A.D.), reminded me anew of my initial emotional response to Eric Dolphy–but if one were to liken Dolphy to a gaudy, bejeweled scabbard, Julius was naught but the hard, cold, steely reflection of light off of the cutting blade.

There is a cinematic dimension to Hemphill’s writing and a terrible beauty to his storytelling on the parched dream-scape of “The Hard Blues” that is supercharged by the taut minimalism of the ensemble, featuring cellist Abdul Wadud, drummer Phillip Wilson, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and trumpeter Bakida Carroll, suggesting as it does the folkloric urgency and vocal cry of delta bluesman Robert Johnson every bit as much as the painterly abstractions of a Sonny Rollins.

Which brings us, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to Sonny Rollins—who in a very real sense, is both inspiration for this playlist and author of the feast. Of whom we may thus conclude, with something bordering on Biblical certitude, that there will never, ever, ever be, another you.

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