Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sonny Rollins' "Road Shows Vol. 2"

As much as I love Sonny Rollins' '50s records like Worktime, Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, and A Night at the Village Vanguard, and as impressed as I was by Sonny when I saw him live at Caravan of Dreams a few weeks after I got out of the Air Force, I've never bought a new Rollins record until this one. I was skeptical of Robert Christgau's effusive praise of 1987's G-Man, although I finally understood it when I saw Robert Mugge's documentary Saxophone Colossus (the source of those recordings) on video earlier this year. But my pal Phil Overeem pulled my coat to this release, tantalizing me with the prospect of hearing an encounter between Rollins and Ornette Coleman, and I had to check it out.

The critical consensus on Rollins since he returned from his second musical hiatus in 1972 is that his records don't do justice to the quality of his live performances. To remedy this, in 2008 he initiated the Road Shows series, designed to present highlights from his archive of decades of live performances. But then a funny thing happened: Rollins was so pleased with the results of his 80th birthday concert at NYC's Beacon Theater that for the second volume, he selected four numbers from that date, along with a couple from a Japanese tour a month later.

On all but one tune ("Sonnymoon for Two," where Sonny and Ornette are sympathetically supported by Christian McBride on bass and the great Roy Haynes on drums), the backing is by Sonny's current touring outfit, which includes bassist Bob Cranshaw, who first performed with Sonny on The Bridge in 1962. (He's also in the Mugge documentary, and was in the lineup I saw at Caravan in '93.) Jim Hall, who played guitar on The Bridge, was a guest artist at the Beacon and here gets featured on a curiously Rollins-less "In A Sentimental Mood." Dallasite Roy Hargrove plays trumpet on "I Can't Get Started" and Worktime highlight "Rain Check," and is a worthy stand-in for the spirit of Clifford Brown, with whom Rollins memorably collaborated in the mid-'50s.

The real story, though, is Rollins, whose melodic imagination and physical stamina were as impressive in 2010 as they were in '87 (the year of Mugge's documentary) or '57 (the year of my genesis, when Sonny waxed the records of his that I most revere). Only when he speaks can you hear the ravages of his age. And the meeting with Ornette on "Sonnymoon for Two," a blues that Sonny first recorded at the Vanguard the year before O.C. cut his first sides for Contemporary in L.A., delivers everything that the idea -- our greatest composing improviser locking horns with our greatest improvising composer -- promises.

Some folks will tell you that Rollins' first "retirement" in 1959 was to "make room" for Ornette (and John Coltrane). Whether or not that's true, Sonny was definitely affected (as were Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and lots of others) by Ornette's emergence, and in 1963, Rollins surprised the jazz world by hiring Don Cherry and Billy Higgins from Ornette's "classic" quartet and paying them to play his music Coleman's way. But until 2010, the two men had never performed together.

On the Beacon Theater "Sonnymoon," Sonny starts out essaying the tune in his trademark theme-and-variations style, then announces Ornette's presence in the house without naming him. You can hear the crowd go wild when Ornette -- always a distinctive dresser -- appears on stage and begins to solo, taking a more oblique approach to the tune's tonality with his searching sound and unique blues cry. Then Sonny returns and takes another solo, in Ornette's style, that's both a nice homage and a surprising stretch from his comfort zone for an 80-year-old "developing musician." It's a stunning performance, and proof positive (as if any more were needed) of the continuing vitality of both jazz as an art form and these two amazing octogenarians. More, please.


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