Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Sonny Rollins' "Road Shows, Volume 3"

In the universe of jazz tenor saxophonists, the relationship between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins is analagous to the one that exists between Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck in the universe of rock guitarists. One expanded the expressive potential of the instrument and died too soon; the other lived long enough to refine his art to the level of a Zen master. Now in his 80s, Rollins says he still considers himself a developing artist.

I was fortunate enough to see him perform once, at Caravan of Dreams, in 1992, the year I got out of the service. His band (the Clifton Anderson-Mark Soskin-Bob Cranshaw-Marvin "Smitty" Smitth lineup that appeared on the G-Man album and in Robert Mugge's Saxophone Colossus documentary) was adequate, but Sonny was revelatory, opening his set with one of his trademark walk-ons, playing as though he couldn't hold his torrential flow of melodic imagination in check long enough to make it to the stage and count off a tune.

After his masterful recordings of the '50s and '60s, his records always seemed to suffer in comparison with his live performances; the "lights-camera-action" pressure of the studio was not conducive to the in-the-moment invention that is the cornerstone of Rollins' art. (The best of his '70s and '80s sides are conveniently compiled on Milestone's Silver City.) In the Millennial decade, he abandoned studio recording altogether and initiated the Road Shows series, which draws from his extensive archive of recent live recordings. Unlike, say, Joe Henderson, who enjoyed a nice resurgence in the '90s but bridled under his producers' creative restrictions, Rollins has it his own way, releasing his work on his own Doxy label under the aegis of Sony's revived Okeh (!) subsidiary.

I got on board for the previous volume's agreeable collision with Ornette Coleman on "Sonnymoon for Two." Volume 3 includes four Rollins compositions, including the ebulliently swinging "Biji," the brand new modal canvas "Patanjali," and the signature set-closing calypso "Don't Stop the Carnival." "Solo Sonny" documents one of Rollins' famous extended cadenzas, which leads into a tour de force 23-minute exploration of Kern and Hammerstein's "Why Was I Born" that's the album's pinnacle. Bassist Bob Cranshaw, who joined Rollins in 1963, is present throughout, playing the electric bass that has been pissing off the purists since the '70s. More, please.


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