10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

Ten Sonny Rollins Tracks I Can’t Live Without…by Liam Noble

In LJN’s ‘Ten Tracks I Can’t Do Without’ series, where jazz musicians write about their inspirations, Liam Noble writes about Sonny Rollins:

Liam Noble writes: You can’t chose your family, nor the order in which things happen to you. This list is necessarily limited, insufficient, has holes in it. But this is what happened, in the order it happened to me.

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The first time I heard Sonny Rollins was on “Saxophone Colossus”, and his playful, joyful assertiveness was immediately something I aspired to. I once met him, in 2009, along with my friend Dave Wickins and his son Benjamin, who at the time was about 14 and playing alto. “When you play the saxophone” said Sonny, towering over us in a coat that appeared to be made of some kind of spun silk, “you can forget about all the bad things that people do to each other in the world.”

Ah, you as well, I thought.

Uplifting art conceals a struggle. His music sounds like it’s trying to get beyond, beyond even the dizzy heights of his expression. Had Icarus had better advice on aerodynamics, perhaps he’d have caught a glimpse of the ozone layer on his way to the sun and thought, damn, one more flap of the wings, I might just make it to space. As it was, he didn’t quite have his chops together. Rollins, on the other hand, has technique to die for but sometimes seems intent on subverting it, is reluctant to rely on it. Maybe, unlike Icarus, up wasn’t the only way forward.

He could make difficult things sound easy, and vice versa. One note played over and over again can have a painful intensity, yet his dipping and bending lines seem to emerge almost carefree and at terrifying speed. It’s an incredibly practiced illusion, but an effective one, the ease of the automatic contrasted with the intense evocation of something new. The study of jazz has inherited, from musicians like Rollins and Coltrane, this intensity of practice as a necessary part of becoming an improviser, but often not, it would seem, the transcendence of that practice. Painstaking preparation doesn’t change the fact that on the other side of everything we know, all the notes we can hear and play, there is the unknown. Rollins could hear a hell of a lot of notes, and play them too. His famous periods of intense study saw to that. For him, the “cry” of the new thing in the sixties seemed a logical deepening of technical mastery, not an alternative to it.

One more flap of the wings.

1 St Thomas (Saxophone Colossus)

My first ever Rollins track. Rollins is just so greedily prolific here, blowing on Max Roach’s iconic groove then, after the drum solo, coming back for more, swinging and buoyant, making hay in the sunshine. Tommy Flanagan plays so delicately in the solo that follows, so much air around every phrase. Rollins didn’t need support, he wanted freedom, and here he gets it because this band knows restraint. I look at the clock as Flanagan’s solo finishes….five minutes….so much has happened and it’s not over yet!

2 Wail: (The Amazing Bud Powell Vol 1)

That first phrase of his solo. The straight repetition. It’s new. Rollins is just out of high school and already has that swagger. Charlie Parker’s otherworldly alto influenced everybody, but Sonny’s tenor turns it into something, to my ears, more guttural, earthy almost. Rollins was into speed in these early recordings, but they’re so soulful.

3 Softly (Live At The Village Vanguard, second version)

This is a tune everyone learns at college – ideal to study, difficult to enjoy. Rollins makes it rock somehow, and this tempo would never be the same again for me. Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones give it a heaviness, the former digging hard into the big beat whilst the latter dances around it, a perfect balance. Rollins recasts the tune, it bounces…and that sets the scene for the incredible interplay that follows.

4 Wonderful Wonderful (Newk’s Time)

The only other version I could find of this tune was by Johnny Mathis, almost Mancini-ish in its smoothness. Like Monk, Rollins has always taken unlikely themes to improvise on, here he’s more interested in the anatomy of the tune rather than it’s chords, contrasting swooping mutations of the melody with inimitable torrents of notes. The melody, with its impressionistic glide, gradually permeates the whole of his solo, never leaves his focus.

5 I’m An Old Cowhand (Way Out West)

Another giant in the discography. Shelley Manne and Ray Brown are so groovy beneath Rollins, who, to my ears, is already playing modally here in places, predating “Kind Of Blue” by a couple of years. He’s so organised, each part of the lopsided sequence tied to a particular way of navigating it, yet what comes across is the spontaneous joy he found in playing. This album was made at night, while normal people slept. Another snapshot making history.

6 He’s Younger Than You (Alfie)

The original film soundtrack was apparently largely improvised in the studio, but the music was well established by the time they remade it for this US recording. That explains the “lost” feeling of this track, Sonny seeming to improvise over a chord sequence that is still finding itself as they both meander together. There’s no centre to this theme except for the faltering, expressionistic urgency of Sonny’s sound and the wandering tonal centre mirroring the broken morality at the film’s heart.

7 John S (The Bridge)

Emerging from a two year stint practising under Williamsburg Bridge, “The Bridge” isn’t the revolutionary album some fans might have expected. But Rollins seemed to be going through a kind of individuation, finding and renewing himself through the music. This tune is utterly original, although the stop-start theme and its surprising lurch into a fast tempo has, perhaps, a whiff of Ornette about it. Launching his solo, Rollins dares himself to repeat that note one more time, opening out eventually into a typical burning series of phrases, yet often allowing himself to drift off into absent minded forays like a cat suddenly stopping mid run to clean its paws and just look around.

8 If Ever I Would Leave You (What’s New?)

It has to be my favourite of them all. There’s something about the starkness that shows off the Rollins imagination, it’s perfectly framed. Ben Riley’s opening bars set the pattern from which he never deviates – almost never – the change of cymbal moving from Jim Hall’s stunningly pithy solo to Sonny’s is one of my favourite moments in rhythm section history. Sonny’s warm, almost operatic, in places, but the trademark slides into fearsome changes playing are especially joyous on this groove. I love how he plays everything low down in the melody, getting that cello-like fullness on the one hand, the barking attack on the other. It couldn’t be anyone else.

9 All The Things You Are (Sonny Meets Hawk)

One of the most uncomfortable listens in the jazz canon. Who knows what Hawkins thought as Rollins comes in like a sick dog behind his statement of the theme? Paul Bley is making his own mark on history here too. The Rollins’ solo, in contrast to Hawkins’ eloquent navigation, is bat shit crazy, “experimental” in the sense that he simply observes the results, avoiding coming to any conclusions. No one who hears this recording will ever think of that “old standard” the same way again. As if shrugging its own shoulders, the piece fades out…I imagine no one knew how to stop it.

10 The Cutting Edge (The Cutting Edge (Live))

Rollins parties on a single chord, pulling the theme this way and that as his razor sharp imagination works its wonders. The themes seem to get simpler in the 70s, the backings are dense and lush, and Rollins is more “inside” the band’s sound, but his rat-a-tat lines remain as awe inspiring and surprising as ever. In the new post-Coltrane modal landscape, Rollins is his own man, seeming to have arrived at a way of working that suited him for many years to come. There’s a certain satisfaction in hearing him relax, but he’s pushing still, and the way he spins the theme up and down retains that same questing spirit. It’s a party, and Sonny is the eccentric guy holding forth in the kitchen.

LINK: Liam Noble’s blog

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