Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tenor gladness

When I got out of the Air Force and moved back to Fort Worth in 1992, I treated myself to Sonny Rollins live at Caravan of Dreams. I went by myself, since my wife at the time didn't like jazz, and realized that I couldn't really afford to be there when I glanced at the menu and eavesdropped on the conversations of the people around me, many of whom apparently went there every weekend, regardless of who was playing. Still, Rollins did his habitual walk-on from the kitchen and played amazingly. The band in this clip from Robert Mugge's 1987 documentary Saxophone Colossus (some music from which was released as G-Man, Robert Christgau's favorite record of the '80s) is largely the band I saw: trombonist Clifton Anderson, pianist Mark Soskin, and Sonny's bassist for 50 years, Bob Cranshaw.

Sonny's version of "There's No Business Like Show Business," from his very first album as leader, 1955's Worktime, feels _complete_ the way only a few other recordings in jazz do. (For proof, see clip below.) He went on to front the Clifford Brown-Max Roach unit to good effect on Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and introduce John Coltrane to the mass-ass jazz audience on Tenor Madness. Then he started making masterpieces, starting with 1956's Saxophone Colossus.

Probably my favorites are the records he made with pianoless trios in 1957, the year of my genesis. Way Out West was recorded in L.A. with a West Coast rhythm section and a Western-oriented selection of tunes. Sonny's version of "I'm An Old Cowhand" from that album inspired John Sinclair's hilarious "Cow," which the poet/ex-MC5 manager recorded on his Full Circle album with Wayne Kramer on guitar.

Even better were the 1957 trio recordings from the Village Vanguard in New York, which featured a then-little-known drummer from Pontiac, Michigan, named Elvin Jones. Coltrane must have been listening. These sessions, now collected on a double Blue Note CD, A Night At the Village Vanguard, are like a deep well of musical invention you could drink from for days. At the end of the '50s, as Coltrane was emerging, Sonny went away for a couple of years to practice on the Brooklyn Bridge. He returned in 1962 with a quartet that featured guitarist Jim Hall and recorded The Bridge, maybe his most accessible album.

Then in 1963, he formed another quartet with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins from Ornette Coleman's "classic" quartet, which alienated a lot of people at the time, when free jazz was still generally considered "weird," but only seems iconic now (making it difficult to understand why Our Man In Jazz, the album they cut together, isn't more widely available Stateside).

When Coltrane died in 1967, Sonny went into retirement for another five years. Since he came back in '72, his records haven't had the same luster as they had back in the '50s, although his live performances can be transcendent, which makes me glad I got to see him the time I did.

I was primed to hear Sonny back then from listening to Joe Henderson, another tenorman who'd just made his big comeback on Verve with beautifully executed tribute albums to Billy Strayhorn and Miles Davis that I was somehow able to buy at the Air Force base exchange (along with Charlie Haden's great Haunted Heart on the same label). Henderson originally emerged in the early '60s, playing in every context Blue Note Records had to offer, including Andrew Hill's Point of Departure and Larry Young's Unity as well as Horace Silver's hit "Song For My Father" and Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder."

In 2004, when I was on the road with Dave Karnes in Nathan Brown's band, Dave pulled my coat to his own two favorite Henderson recordings: Four and Inner Urge. The former is a live recording from 1968 that Verve didn't get around to releasing until 1994, on which Joe was backed by Miles Davis' old rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb (the way Wes Montgomery was on Smokin' At the Half Note) and alternated "inside" and "outside" choruses on his solos. The latter was a classic Blue Note from '66, on which he was backed by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones from Coltrane's "classic" quartet, along with -- wait for it -- Bob Cranshaw on bass. Full circle. Now, where'd I put that Booker Ervin CD?


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