Road Shows, vol. 1 (CD) / In Vienne (DVD)
(Doxy Records/Emarcy/Universal, Oct. 28, 2008)
Always a restless creative spirit, a constantly self-renewing citizen of the jazz world and one of the music’s leading lights, saxophone legend Sonny Rollins has long been ambivalent about, even averse to, the business side of music. However, since forming his own record label, Doxy, in 2005, Rollins has emerged as an inspired—and surprisingly assertive—entrepreneur.
Doxy’s first CD release, the 2006 studio recording Sonny, Please, earned a Grammy nomination for Rollins. Now Doxy is releasing an extraordinary double dose of Rollins-in-concert by way of a new live CD compilation entitled "Road Shows, vol. 1" and a DVD ("In Vienne") of a 2006 European festival performance.
Road Shows is the exciting inaugural release in a planned series of outstanding live Sonny Rollins recordings from the last 30-plus years. The seven tracks on the new CD, culled from the Carl Smith collection and Rollins’s own personal soundboard tapes, were recorded in the U.S., Canada, Poland, Japan, France, and Sweden. Featuring the saxophonist with a variety of sidemen—including, on one track, the Christian McBride–Roy Haynes trio that appeared with him at his 50th Anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 2007—"Road Shows" captures the Saxophone Colossus in full flight, dazzling audiences around the world.
"In Vienne" was produced by French television and offers an up-close glimpse at Rollins onstage—in high-definition video—as he unfurls a superb hour-long set before a euphoric crowd at the 2006 Jazz à Vienne Festival. The saxophonist, who famously spent two years (1959-61) practicing on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge, above the East River, finds that “playing out of doors is always great. But Vienne, with its Roman amphitheater, is a particularly photogenic place, a beautiful venue. The little town is on the Rhône River. And it was warm that night—just perfect weather.”
In the late 1980s, Rollins began to record many of his concerts for archival purposes with possible future release in mind, and also to circumvent bootlegs, which have been a long-standing problem for the artist. “I was much less intimidated by the tape at live concerts” than in the studio, he admits. When the tape was always rolling, “I stopped thinking about it, and it was much easier for me to get a natural performance.”
From the start the intention was to record all of Sonny’s concerts. Due to unforeseen technical problems or permission problems with venues, however, it was not always possible, according to Road Shows producer (and Rollins trombonist) Clifton Anderson. Of the approximately 600 concerts Rollins has performed since the late ’80s, Anderson estimates that as many as one-third are in their archive, in whole or in part.
“There were performances that at the time they were done, I thought they might be acceptable at a later date in case I chose to release,” says Rollins. “But I hadn’t really listened; I filed it in my mind, and later had to stir my memory as to which ones might be good.”
When the time came to program the new CD, says Anderson, “we both remembered that the concert in Toulouse was a pretty good show, and Sonny remembered that Tama was a good performance, so I went back and listened to those in particular. That’s how we arrived at our choices.”
Four tracks from the Rollins archive are included in Road Shows, vol. 1: “More Than You Know” (2006, Toulouse), which Sonny “brought out of retirement,” not having played it since the 1950s, when he recorded it with Thelonious Monk; “Tenor Madness” (2000, Tama City, Japan), whose last appearance on a Rollins disc was the live G-Man in 1987; “Nice Lady” (2007, Victoria, BC), the first recording of a new Rollins calypso; and “Some Enchanted Evening” (2007, New York City), from his 50th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.
Road Shows’ remaining three tracks were selected from Carl Smith’s collection—“Blossom” (1980, Umea, Sweden), a fascinating, little-known Rollins original that “came and went pretty fast in the repertoire,” says Rollins; “Easy Living” (1980, Warsaw), from Sonny’s first trip behind the Iron Curtain (“the people were starved for music”); and “Best Wishes” (1986, Tokyo), previously recorded on his 1982 Reel Life album.
For future Road Shows compilations, Anderson and Rollins will have not only their own archives and Carl Smith’s to draw from. “People have also submitted things to us,” says Anderson, “most recently a tape from Keystone Korner in the mid-1970s and a cassette from the Bottom Line. The bands are different, the material’s different; the one common denominator is Sonny killin’ through all of it.”
Doxy Records also plans to release a CD by Clifton Anderson entitled "Decade" in January 2009; and Rollins is looking forward to recording a new studio album of his own in the early part of the year.
For most of his career, Rollins reflects, “I was fortunate in having had my wife [Lucille] handle all this stuff I don’t like doing. At the time she took over my management, in the early ’70s, I already knew what I wanted to portray. Freedom Suite and Way Out West, for instance—those were my concepts.”
Rollins had experienced promoter problems during his career, which led him to hold certain convictions about the business. But Lucille’s involvement in his business affairs afforded him, for the first time, the benefits of effective artist representation—“and everyone had to be nice to her.”
His wife’s passing in late 2004 coincided with the expiration of his recording agreement with his longtime label, Milestone—and the establishment of Doxy Records. “I’m familiar with what needs to be done,” Rollins says, “so I’m trying to be as involved as possible. We in jazz have to adapt to the new technology.”
As Rollins told NPR’s Howard Mandel, “The corporate culture is anathema to jazz. We don’t like cookie-cutter everything exactly the same way. We’re about grace and thinking things at the moment, like life is. Life changes every minute. I mean, a different sunset every night—that’s what jazz is about.”
Walter Theodore Rollins was born in Harlem, New York on September 7, 1930, of parents native to the Virgin Islands. His older brother Valdemar and sister Gloria were also musically inclined but only Sonny veered away from classical music after his uncle, a professional saxophonist, introduced him to jazz and blues.
He gravitated to the tenor saxophone in high school, inspired in particular by Coleman Hawkins. By the time he was out of school, Rollins was already working with big-name musicians such as Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, and Roy Haynes. In 1951 he debuted as a leader on Prestige; his affiliation with that label also produced classics such as Saxophone Colossus, Worktime, and Tenor Madness (with John Coltrane).
In early 1956, until he went out on his own permanently as a leader in the summer of 1957, Rollins played in the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, one of the most definitive (and tragically short-lived) hard-bop ensembles of its day. Often with his own pianoless trio, Rollins then entered a tremendously fertile period during which he recorded major works such as A Night at the Village Vanguard, Way Out West, and Freedom Suite.
In 1959, Rollins took the first of his legendary sabbaticals. Living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he was often spotted on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge, deep in a rigorous practice regimen. “I wanted to work on my horn, I wanted to study more harmony,” he told Stanley Crouch in The New Yorker.
When Rollins returned to performing in 1961, he recorded "The Bridge" with Jim Hall and Bob Cranshaw, led a quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, and recorded with his idol Coleman Hawkins. He also received a Grammy nomination for his score for the popular film Alfie. At decade’s end he undertook one final hiatus, studying Zen Buddhism in Japan and yoga in India. While living in an ashram, he considered leaving music permanently in order to pursue spiritual studies, but a teacher persuaded him that music was his spiritual path, and an uplifting force for good.
In 1972, with the encouragement and support of his wife Lucille, who had become his business manager, Rollins returned to performing and recording, signing with Milestone and releasing "Next Album." (Working at first with Orrin Keepnews, Sonny was by the early ’80s producing his own Milestone sessions with Lucille.) His lengthy association with the Berkeley-based label produced two dozen albums in various settings—from his working groups to all-star ensembles (Tommy Flanagan, Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, George Duke); from a solo recital to tour recordings with the Milestone Jazzstars (Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner); in the studio and on the concert stage (Montreux, San Francisco, New York, Boston). Sonny was also the subject of a mid-’80s documentary by Robert Mugge entitled "Saxophone Colossus"; part of its soundtrack is available as "G-Man."
He won his first performance Grammy for "This Is What I Do" (2000), and his second for 2004’s "Without a Song" (The 9/11 Concert), in the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo category (for “Why Was I Born”). Sonny, Please was nominated for a best jazz album Grammy in 2006. In addition, Sonny received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004.
In June 2006 Rollins was inducted into the Academy of Achievement at the International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles, and in May 2007 was a recipient of the Polar Music Prize, presented in Stockholm.
Most recently, he was named best tenor saxophonist in the 2008 Down Beat Critics’ Poll and the Jazz Times Readers’ Poll, and by the Jazz Journalists Association in their June 2008 awards event. “I believe that jazz is the music which best expresses the stirrings of the human soul,” says Rollins.
A frequent visitor to Japan, Rollins returned there in spring ’08 and, while in the neighborhood, made his premiere concert appearances in Singapore, South Korea, and Australia (at the Sydney Opera House). He will perform three concerts in Brazil this fall—his first visit there in nearly 25 years—followed by a tour of Germany in November/December.
“I feel tremendously privileged to have succeeded to some extent in a music that includes the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller—all of these guys who I thought were such tremendous people putting out all of this positive music,” Rollins says. “It was all that I could ever dream—to be involved in this.”
Gary Giddins' liner notes for "Road Shows Vol.1":
"Sonny Rollins’s place in jazz has neither precedent nor parallel. He has been a recording artist for six decades. We can point to other jazz musicians who match or exceed his longevity and his artistic consistency. But no one else has represented as much concentrated change and reflection; nor has anyone else maintained for so long absolute centrality to the music’s development. He was 26 when a classic album forever baptized him as a Saxophone Colossus; and yet now, in his late 70s, he is a far bigger international star than ever before. His concert performances, often held in stadiums and parks before crowds numbering in the thousands, have become musical séances that transcend jazz—much as an open-air performance of Beethoven’s Ninth transcends classical music. He has reinvented the jazz concert, achieving a secular spirituality that, in the regal tradition of Louis Armstrong, sets as its goal pure pleasure and emotional catharsis.
Change in jazz can have various meanings: rebooting its fundamental context, breaking with convention, fusing jazz with other types of music. For Rollins, it means a personal growth animated by the belief that tomorrow he will play a better solo than he has ever played before. He recently observed that one cannot improvise and think at the same time, and his entire career can be viewed as the passage to an inexpressible perfection. He has prepared his audience to expect the unexpected while anticipating at least a glimmer of that perfection. Practicing constantly, Sonny is constantly reexamining what he can do with timbre, phrasing, rhythm, harmony, and melody; he never gives less than a hundred percent, but he would rather play poorly than dishonestly.
Sonny enjoys ruminating about his past and the legendary musicians he has known, but he does not enjoy listening to recordings that document his past. At a recent conversation we had on stage at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, he described the experience of hearing an excerpt from one of his 1950s albums as “excruciating”; a live recording from the 1980s was less painful, but he insisted, “I can do better.” It has been said many times that Rollins’s critics aren’t nearly as unforgiving of his work as he is. The first time we met, in the 1970s, he complained of a favorable review he had just received for what he considered a substandard performance.
But the concerns of some critics have little relevance to his music. Locked in Rollins’s past, they can’t fathom the magnanimity of his art, let alone the subtleties and nuances of his developing skills. They continue to think of him as a 1950s hard-bop tenor saxophonist, a role he abandoned almost half a century ago. The paradox of his genius, evident as far back as The Bridge (1962), is that he is, at once, a sublime melody player and an aggressively forceful avant-gardist who thinks music ought to make you want to dance. Much as I revere Sonny’s early work, I believe his greatest period begins in the late 1970s, when he resolved issues that had led him to experiment with his sound and framework, and mastered the distinction between records and live performances. This peak period is still in full flower.
Road Shows, the first volume in what promises to be a long series, is like no other recording. One of the things that makes it so remarkable, beyond the magnificence of the performances, is that the artist himself chose the selections—the selections gathered here measure up to Sonny Rollins’s own exacting standards. The project was triggered in part by a businessman and dedicated Rollins enthusiast, Carl Smith, who collected hundreds of recordings of Rollins concerts from around the world, offering them to Rollins to use at his discretion. When Clifton Anderson (the longtime trombonist in the band) began producing this album, he combined tracks from Smith’s archive with soundboard recordings he had made at concerts. The process of editing the album took months—as Sonny, between his current gigs, weighed, rejected, accepted, changed, and accepted again the final tracks. Road Shows, vol. 1 is one of the finest Sonny Rollins albums ever released. In the studio, every note counts. In concert, Sonny courts exultation. In concert, he pursues the thin line between beauty and danger. In concert, a nearly irrational spontaneous magic is permissible. This record is full of such magic.
It begins with a tour de force, “Best Wishes,” performed in Tokyo, in 1986, four years after Sonny introduced the tune on his album, Reel Life. The studio version sounds hesitant by contrast. The engaging riff tune is based on blues form with nimble harmonic substitutions. Sonny gambols through the 12-bar framework an incredible 35 times, playing the full range of the horn, doubling down on the time and the funk, shifting accents, briefly visiting the Hall of the Mountain King, and careening into a full stop. Sonny first recorded the Vincent Youmans ballad, “More Than You Know,” with Thelonious Monk in 1954. He revived it for a much deeper interpretation at a 2006 concert in Toulouse, beginning with a brief cadenza before stating the theme (Clifton Anderson takes the bridge and provides counterpoint), and paraphrasing the melody with long winding phrases. After Bobby Broom’s stylishly bluesy guitar solo, Sonny returns: With Bob Cranshaw’s bass laying down vivid harmonies, Rollins is free to push the harmonic envelope and is especially inspired on the bridge, which he reprises for a breathtaking cadenza that reworks the song as a tenor saxophone chaconne.
Carl Smith discovered the mysterious “Blossom,” recorded in Sweden in 1980, and for a while no one knew what it was—until Sonny recognized it as an original that had never been recorded. This is one of the most intricate Rollins performances you will hear anywhere. The theme, which has a movie score quality, has eight-bar sections with stop-time beats in the seventh and eighth measures of each section, and is played with an eight-beat Latin rhythm that varies in intensity. Sonny’s opening solo is a warm-up, leading to brief solos by Mark Soskin and Jerome Harris. When he returns, however, Soskin revs up the Latin rhythm and the ensuing tenor solo—nearly eight minutes long—is a marvel of explosive abstractions in a highly structured format, recalling “East Broadway Run Down” in its heady independence.
Rollins has long admired the songs of Robin and Rainger, and began playing their 1937 hit “Easy Living” in the mid-1970s—he made it the title track of a 1977 album. At a 1980 concert in Poland, he created this version and it is a masterpiece. Here is a supreme instance of his ability to clarify melody with his richly hued, tightly focused, utterly motivated timbre. He completes the theme statement with a delirious turnback to set up a fine twin-chorus solo by Soskin (note Harris’s interplay). And then returns: In his first chorus, he peaks on the bridge, threading a stunning arpeggio through the major and minor chords, prefiguring the miracle of his second chorus. This time he uses the bridge to launch one of his most lucid cadenzas on record, a rubato fantasia that keeps the song aloft while expanding it in every direction, before bringing it and the returning ensemble home in a four-bar reprise as only Sonny Rollins can do. Interestingly, he ends with one of Louis Armstrong’s signature closers. The Warsaw audience knew it had heard something for the ages.
“Tenor Madness” has a fabled pedigree, having originally premiered as a 1956 duet by Rollins and the little-known John Coltrane; Sonny recorded it again 30 years later on G-Man. But this 2000 performance from Japan is his most inspired take on what had become a blues standard—30 choruses, spinning ever-outward despite a handful of judicious quotations (not least “Doin’ What Comes Naturally”). After this gleeful romp, the album settles into a breezier but no less heady groove, with the premiere release of a calypso, “Nice Lady,” recorded during Rollins’s first visit to Victoria. No one else can set a mood like this, swaying and cerebral and deep. After the theme, Sonny passes the piece to Anderson, whose trombone trips lightly through four choruses, building to a solid finish. Sonny reprises the melody and sustains its lyrical feeling through half a dozen choruses, even as he splinters the melody, doubles the time, and stretches the chords. Following a solo by Kimati Dinizulu, he tap-dances out with a shave and a haircut.
The album closes with what may be its most surprising performance. In 2007, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his first Carnegie Hall concert, Sonny returned to 57th Street to recreate the trio selections he had performed there in 1957. A tape of the 1957 concert had recently been found in the Library of Congress, and the idea was to release the old and new sets on a CD. After listening to the 2007 recording, however, Sonny decided against releasing it. He found the performance substandard. I had to agree: While the evening was one of the most moving I have experienced in a concert hall—a star-studded audience showering Rollins with unconditional love—the performances seemed restrained. Yet requests from fans poured in, mandating another listen. Lo and behold, “Some Enchanted Evening,” the clear highlight of the evening, was far stronger than I had remembered.
Accompanied by Christian McBride, the leading bassist of his generation, and the incomparable Roy Haynes, with whom Sonny first recorded (on a Bud Powell session) in 1949, the year that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific debuted, Rollins creates an exceptionally tender interpretation of the show’s main aria. He plays the melody teasingly, making each note count, his intonation sure, his tone measured, his tempo achingly personal. Many notes and phrases are sustained longer than expected—at times, he hardly seems to be breathing. Haynes, who seemed to me reserved at the concert, is, in fact, wonderfully elegant and respectful, catching Sonny’s drift. After the tenor solo, Sonny spurs him into a delicate series of exchanges as McBride maintains a rigorous foundation. It’s a perfect closer: gentle, affectionate, profound."
Sonny Rollins / Road Shows, vol. 1 (Doxy Records/Emarcy/Universal)
Street Date: October 28, 2008
1. Best Wishes 9:26
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson—trombone; Mark Soskin—piano; Bobby Broom—guitar; Jerome Harris—electric bass; Al Foster—drums. Recorded at Kosei Nenkin Hall, Tokyo, Japan; May 25, 1986.
2. More Than You Know 8:44
(Eliscu-Rose-Youmans) Anne-Rachel Music/LSQ Music/WB Music-ASCAP
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson—trombone; Bobby Broom—guitar; Bob Cranshaw—bass; Victor Lewis—drums; Kimati Dinizulu—percussion. Recorded at La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France; May 15, 2006.
3. Blossom 12:27
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Mark Soskin—piano; Jerome Harris, electric bass; Al Foster—drums. Recorded at Umea (Sweden) Jazz Festival; October 25, 1980.
4. Easy Living 11:04
(Rainger-Robin) Sony/ATV Harmony-ASCAP
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Mark Soskin, piano; Jerome Harris, electric bass; Al Foster, drums. Recorded at Congress Hall, Warsaw (Poland) Jazz Jamboree; October 23, 1980.
5. Tenor Madness 7:50
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson—trombone; Stephen Scott—piano; Bob Cranshaw—bass; Perry Wilson—drums; Victor See-Yuen—percussion. Recorded at Pantheon Tama, Tama City, Japan; June 8, 2000.
6. Nice Lady 12:11
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson—trombone; Bobby Broom—guitar; Bob Cranshaw—bass; Steve Jordan—drums; Kimati Dinizulu—percussion. Recorded at the Royal Theater, Victoria, BC, Canada; June 24, 2007.
7. Some Enchanted Evening 9:56
(Rodgers-Hammerstein) Williamson Music-ASCAP
Sonny Rollins—tenor saxophone; Christian McBride—bass; Roy Haynes—drums. Recorded by Richard Corsello and Leszek Wojcik at Carnegie Hall, New York City; September 18, 2007.
All selections, except as indicated, composed by Sonny Rollins and published by SonRol Music-BMI. (“Tenor Madness” composed by Rollins and published by Prestige Music-BMI.)
Executive producer—Sonny Rollins
Produced for release by Clifton Anderson
Assembled and edited (and track 7 mixed) by Richard Corsello
(The Firehouse, Stamford, CT)
(Battery Studios, New York City)
Tracks 2, 5, 6, and 7 from the Sonny Rollins Audio Archives. Tracks 1, 3, and 4 from the collection of Carl Smith.
Design, cover art—Jamie Putnam
Booklet photos—John Abbott, Clifton Anderson
At the time of the performances heard on tracks 1-5, Sonny Rollins was under contract to Milestone Records.