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Three From
Sonny Rollins

Review by Raymond Chowkwanyun
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Stock Number: Various, see below

 

  At the tender age of 70, Sonny Rollins wins a Grammy for his album This Is What I Do. What can a 70 year old man do? He can honk like no one else. The Trane may have purer tone, Wayne Shorter more lyrical ideas, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk more pure craziness, but no one, absolutely no one can honk like Sonny. When he blows a big one, the sound just grows out of the bell of his horn and fills the auditorium to the rafters. A primal scream if ever there was one.

To celebrate Sonny's Grammy, let's take a look back at his career with an album from the early, middle and late stages of his life. I'm going to review them backwards and start with the latest one - the one he got the Grammy for.

 

This Is What I Do
CD: Milestone MCD 9310-2

This album starts with the rollicking "Salvador" in Sonny's trademark calypso style. The way he bends the notes makes you hunch your shoulders and dance along with the music - even if you're sitting down. Of course, it helps to have a master drummer like Jack DeJohnette working behind the tubs, supplying a subtle, flexible rhythmic underpinning. His cymbal work is especially delicate and tasty. Sonny has found a youngster by the name of Stephen Scott on piano who plays with the same fire as his seniors. This guy really rings the changes, before Sonny re-enters and rips off another flurry of notes.

Next, Sonny switches gears and plays an equally trademark slow ballad, "Sweet Leilani". Same great calypso feel. Scott provides another long inventive solo. The tempo picks up again with "Did You See Harold Vick?" The funk in this number is so strong, you'd have to be made of ice not to bop along. Different drummer on this number: Perry Wilson. He plays more straight ahead than DeJohnette. By now I should have mentioned Bob Cranshaw on bass who also contributes mightily to the funky feeling on this cut. Gad, it makes me consider crossing the continent to see Sonny live again.

"A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" finds Sonny in pensive mood as the tempo slows. Gone is the calypso feel, to be replaced by one of sweet melancholy with Sonny hanging on to the notes like he doesn't want to let them go. Once again, Scott comes through and matches Sonny's mood perfectly. DeJohnette gives a clinic on how to play tasteful drums, with exactly timed accents dropped in at just the right places. The cool feeling continues and intensifies in "Charles M." - a tribute from one giant to another. Here Sonny shows he can play the cerebral stuff too. Naturally, the bass player gets to strut his stuff on this number and plays a solo chock full of double stops of which Mr. M. would have approved. To this point, the trombonist, Clifton Anderson, had been largely missing in action, but he more than makes up for it with a lovely muted solo.

The album ends with "The Moon of Manakoora", a nice relaxed number to bring us down after all the exertions that have gone before. Nothing too taxing here, just a real genial feeling like putting on a comfortable old sweater after wearing a tux. An excellent album that shows just what Sonny can do while also harking back to his calypso roots.

This CD sounds tremendous with Sonny's big fat tone fully captured. I have to attribute this to the fact that this album was recorded with a Studer analog deck. There is none of the anemic washed out sound one finds all too often on digitally recorded albums. I've always contended that the way to go is to record in analog and then transfer to CD using the best analog to digital conversion technology then available. This album is Exhibit A. Nice too, to see George Horn at the mastering controls and Richard Corsello at the mixer. It's almost like meeting a bunch of old friends.

 

Falling In Love With Jazz
CD: Milestone MCD 9179-2

All the usual suspects are here: Bob Cranshaw on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums - at least for two thirds of the album. And for the rest, an even older suspect, Tommy Flanagan turns up on piano.

The first cut, "For All We Know", finds Sonny playing with the young Turk of the moment, Branford Marsalis. It's definitely a duet and not a duel. You could say of Sonny that he plays well with others. The melodies on this cut have an autumnal melancholy that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Sonny treats us to some rapid fire playing that is noticeably absent from the later "This Is What I Do". This contrast continues through the next cut, "Tennessee Waltz", where Sonny crams more notes into his solos. The feel of the album is also different because here he uses a solo guitar (the talented Jerome Harris) instead of the piano as the other lead instrument, the keyboard being limited to a rhythmic role. Jack DeJohnette is once again in fine form, treating us to his trademark rolling drums. Everyone is more active on this album than on "This Is What I Do". Where the later album is merely excellent, here we are in the realm of greatness.

Sonny shows another side of himself on "Little Girl Blue" - the ability to wail. He plays a long elegiac solo based on the Rodgers and Hart number full of long extended notes . They say Rodgers never was as inventive with Hammerstein as when he was partnered with Hart and this excursion certainly backs that up. Rodgers' tune inspires both Sonny and Jerome on to a tremendous effort. "Falling In Love With Love", another Rodgers and Hart number, certainly puts the capper on that argument. Sonny digs even deeper and comes up with a blistering solo. Dig the way he occasionally inserts a honk into the flow of the song.

On "I Should Care", DeJohnette once again shows he is a master of the cymbals. What an awesomely light and delicate touch that man has. Marsalis appears again and his breathy tone makes a nice contrast with Sonny's more hollow sound. Tommy Flanagan plays with understated ease and plops in some tasty chords in the background before he gets the spotlight to himself on a thoughtful solo.

The mood finally turns lighter on Sonny's own composition, "Sister". DeJohnette provides a delightful stutter step beat and Cranshaw falls right in on bass. The combination of Sonny's sax and Anderson's trombone lets us revel in a big blatty sound. The pianist Soskin gives us a solo full of great rumbling chords a la McCoy Tyner. This is followed by a note bending solo from Jerome on guitar. One hot number where everyone shines.

The album concludes with "Amanda", another Rollins original. Soskin's synthesizer provides a curtain of sound that gives this song a considerably different feel. A bit of the calypso sound that is noticeably absent from the rest of the album creeps in here. Anderson plays a sunny bouncy solo on trombone.

Overall there is just a lot more going on in this album than in the latest "This Is What I Do". That could account for my initially feeling let down by the later album. It is sparser that what I'm used to from Sonny.

This CD was recorded on a Mitsubishi X850, probably the best digital machine available at the time but the sound is noticeably flatter than on the later analog based This Is What I Do. Guess it's a case of going backwards to get perfect sound forever. On Falling In Love the instruments all sound more two dimensional and less palpable than on This Is What I Do.

 

Saxophone Colossus
LP's: Prestige 7079 and DCC LPZ 2008

If This Is What I Do represents excellence and Falling In Love is merely great, then with Saxophone Colossus we are now in the realm of the sublime. Truly we have risen to the very pinnacle of the food chain. This has to be one of the best jazz albums ever recorded.

To start with, we have the immortal Max Roach on drums, although my secret belief is that he's really firing off 45 magnums, such is the explosive whip crack sound of his drumbeats. We start with the syncopated blast of "St. Thomas" which will have you bopping in your chair. Did I mention that Sonny can honk? Great, long, sustained high-energy honks so full of electricity you will feel you are about to be invaded. Tommy Flanagan on piano cools things down before your stereo melts.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" is a heartfelt ballad. Sonny builds layer upon layer of sad melodies. This lover is in pain as his wails attest. You want to know what jazz is? This song is it. Inventive, intricate improvisations that speak to the human condition. Well, enough of this downbeat stuff, with "Strode Rode" we are back in the high-energy realm of "St. Thomas", only faster. Inspired by Sonny's red-hot sax playing, Tommy Flanagan comes out of his shell, to deliver a blistering solo.

"Moritat" is a ten minute rumination on the suave "Mack the Knife" theme from the "Threepenny Opera" by Weill and Brecht. Sonny interweaves spiraling improvisations in and out of the base melody. Each player pushes the music to a higher energy level. Roach's drum solos are wild polyrhythmic rumblings that push Rollins on to equally wild honking. It's genius the way Roach slows down the beat just a hair. So intense are Roach and Rollins that your listening room will decompress when Flanagan and Watkins launch into an extended piano and bass duet. Closing out the album is Sonny's eleven minute atonal, "Blue 7". Watkins and Roach build a firm rhythmic foundation on which Sonny begins to spin his magic with some breathy playing. The mood is cool. Flanagan picks it up with a coolly insouciant solo. Roach probes and explores the limits of what a drumset can do - all the time maintaining a rock steady beat.

Should you shell out for the audiophile version from DCC or be content with the commercial release from Prestige? The DCC offers a softer, plumier sound. For me, it knocks some of the edge and excitement off the attack of the instruments - especially Roach's drums. Give it a bell boost around 12 KHz and see if you don't agree with me. Generally speaking, I have not been impressed with the offerings of the audiophile labels, preferring the judgments of the commercial mastering engineers.

What? You're still reading this? Whaddya waiting for? Go on out and get this album. It'll explode from your system and slay you from note one.

 

Album

Enjoyment

Sound

This Is What I Do

85

85

Falling In Love

90

80

Saxophone Colossus

Prestige

DCC

 


95

80

 


85

80

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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