All the Things You Are

Unchained melody: A young Sonny Rollins

In the realm of jazz music, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is like water: indispensable, omnipresent, and too often taken for granted. The inimitable tone that pours out of his horn is infused with an oceanlike depth and a salty buoyancy. Set loose on one of his signature calypsos, Rollins unfurls wave after wave of thunderous passages. On a ballad his notes linger and sparkle in the air like mist at daybreak, refracting the song's harmony and melody into a prismatic rainbow. Even when he is just playing the head arrangement, or accompanying a band member's solo turn, Rollins fills every nook and cranny of space available to him. Reflexively seeking his own level within the context of a tune, he courses with a rhythm so logically inventive and organic that it feels like a force of nature.

Most remarkable, Rollins invariably creates his best work on the fly. He is indispensable because for decades he has been the premier improviser of a music whose essence and identity is based upon improvisation. He is omnipresent not only because of all the concert tours and recording sessions he has undertaken during his prolific 51-year career, but for his pervasive influence on at least two generations of jazz musicians. He is taken for granted for a variety of reasons. Unlike John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, Rollins didn't die young, at the ostensible prime of his career. Unlike Duke Ellington's or Thelonious Monk's, his primary legacy isn't bound up in compositions, which can be readily studied and reinterpreted by others. And unlike Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, Rollins doesn't possess a particularly charismatic public persona. Aside from a couple of well-chronicled furloughs from jazz in the late Fifties and late Sixties, he is best known as a relatively humble, doggedly disciplined artist whose spur-of-the-moment magic onstage is almost always superior to his studio recordings.

Now, in anticipation of the saxophonist's 70th birthday in September, Rollins is the subject of a biography and a five-CD boxed set, neither of which offers a complete portrait of the artist and his music. The book, Open Sky (St. Martin's Press), by Eric Nisenson, works best as an analysis of Rollins's central place in the jazz canon. Nisenson's previous three volumes have been bio-analyses of Coltrane and Davis and a polemic against the neoconservative movement led by Wynton Marsalis, and the author has enough knowledge and passion to provide lively and informative commentary on Rollins's historical significance. He amplifies the widely held and accepted theory that by improvising upon the melody, and not just the harmonic changes, Rollins served as a crucial bridge between bebop and the pianoless, "free jazz" innovations of Ornette Coleman and others. He also correctly emphasizes that the saxophonist's 1958 album Freedom Suite was an important precursor to the raft of records addressing civil rights and other areas of social consciousness during the Sixties.

Nisenson interviewed Rollins at length, but he doesn't present a particularly compelling rendering of his enigmatic subject. There's precious little insight, for example, into why the saxophonist's perverse disdain for studio recordings has increased over time while his quest for spontaneous combustion continues to produce frequently stunning concerts. Part of the problem is that Rollins is obviously saving his juiciest anecdotes and more profound revelations for an autobiography he has said he hopes to write someday. Yet Nisenson, who does warn us in the introduction that he is not attempting "a definitive biography," doesn't even try to fill in the gaps. Instead, he studies the music more rigorously than the man--and not all that rigorously at that--drawing only the most apparent connections between the two.

Organized mostly as a straightforward chronology, Open Sky lacks the necessary precision in its dates and details to ground the reader. For instance, Nisenson says on page 130 that "the next time Sonny recorded" after Freedom Suite was for the Verve label. On page 131, he claims, "Sonny's next recording project after Freedom Suite was another album for Blue Note." Adding to the confusion, Freedom Suite itself was recorded on Riverside.

This hopscotching of record labels, an especially common practice among jazz artists during the Forties and Fifties, is implied in the title of Milestone's five-CD package, The Freelance Years, which covers some of the saxophonist's output from December 1956 to October 1958. Unfortunately, Milestone has access only to Rollins's Riverside, Contemporary, and Period catalog from that propitious period in his career, when the saxophonist was also producing significant records on other labels, particularly his live albums from the Village Vanguard on Blue Note. The collection does include two albums--Way Out West and Freedom Suite (previously available elsewhere)--that should be owned by any jazz fan, both for their historical significance and the durable pleasures they impart.

West is an early showcase of Rollins's improvisational prowess in concocting solos that blend joyful abandon and structural integrity. Freedom's interplay between Rollins and drummer Max Roach is among the richest examples of rhythmic telepathy ever produced in jazz. But in an effort to beef up the package (and its price), producer Eric Miller has added more than a few recordings where Rollins was just a sideman. The inclusion of all four ensemble tunes from Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners reveals a range of textures (Monk on celesta, Roach on timpani) and are instructive in demonstrating how capably Rollins can wrestle with, finesse, and eventually soar through the most difficult charts in Monk's repertoire. But there's not enough that's distinctive about Rollins's work with trumpeter Kenny Dorham to justify including Dorham's entire Jazz Contrasts LP, or ten tracks (including two alternates) of Rollins blowing an occasional solo behind singer Abbie Lincoln and her anachronistic paean to gender subservience ("That's Him!").

Another five-disc box of Rollins from almost exactly the same period, The Complete Blue Note Recordings, is on balance a better purchase. But the shrewdest strategy for noncompletists would be to cherry-pick the best records from both: Way Out West, Freedom Suite, Newk's Time and A Night at the Village Vanguard. While you're at it, pick up the mesmerizing G-Man live CD from 1986, or pick up a ticket when Rollins comes to town in 2001. If Rollins can't quite back up his claim, alluded to in Open Sky, that he is getting better every day, it's only because his septuagenarian tsunamis don't land with quite the same force as the best tracks on The Freelance Years.

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