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Tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins is an unsurpassed master of time who can subdivide a beat into almost subatomic intervals while maintaining hurtling momentum. His latest foray into his vast archives, Holding the Stage: Road Shows, vol. 4, captures a different facet of the saxophonist’s temporal command. Despite encompassing some 33 years, with performances cherry picked from 1979 to 2012, the album coheres with all of the compelling logic and narrative force of an extended Sonny solo. Slated for release on his Doxy Records label as part of a distribution agreement with Sony Music Masterworks and its jazz imprint OKeh Records, the album is truly a treasure chest that includes tunes Rollins has never before recorded and musical relationships previously undocumented.
Rollins says that he didn’t set out to create an album that flows like a concert, complete with obscure ballad and calypsonian closer. “It just turned out that way,” he says, noting that engineer and co-producer Richard Corsello deserves credit for matching the sound quality of tracks drawn from different venues and eras. “We go back and forth how to sequence it and the final decision is mine. You know my reputation as being very self-critical, so the hardest part is listening to all of this stuff. This album consists of various periods of my career, with something for everybody. It’s who I am, and the music represents just about every aspect of what I do.”
The album opens Duke Ellington’s immortal “In a Sentimental Mood,” a soaring rendition that centers on Rollins’s magisterial unaccompanied statement of the melody. In the first of several tunes that offer a hat tip to a valued colleague, he delivers the premiere of a recent (circa 2011) composition “Professor Paul.” A funky tribute to saxophonist/arranger Paul Jeffrey (who died last year at the age of 81), the performance includes some pleasingly tart guitar work by Peter Bernstein.
Rollins didn’t compose the tune to evoke a particular aspect of Jeffrey’s musical personality. Rather, after writing the sinewy groove he decided to dedicate the piece to “a good friend who also a confidant to Charlie Mingus and Monk, somebody in the intelligentsia who was engaged in the inner workings of some of the minds who created this music of ours,” Rollins says. “I’ve known Paul since the 1950s. He helped me in my quest in many ways, and I figured it would be good to recognize him.”
He doesn’t reserve his tributes to players who flew under the radar. A sleek and soulful blues, “H.S.” summons the spirit of Horace Silver, with whom Rollins played in the band of Miles Davis in the early 1950s. Introduced on his 1995 Milestone album Sonny Rollins + 3 (and occasionally used as interstitial music on the public radio show Fresh Air), the tune “has sort of an elemental tone and I thought a little bit of Horace’s music. We both broke through in the 1950s and I always liked Horace. As I look back, I’ve done a lot of homages to different musicians I’ve worked with. I like to celebrate some of these people.”
Like several tunes on Holding the Stage “H.S.” remained in Rollins’s repertoire for many years through various personnel changes. One of the album’s most exquisite numbers is an obscure ballad that Rollins has never performed in public. Written by little-known composer Stuart Louchheim, “Mixed Emotions” was a minor hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1951, though Rollins came to the song via Dinah Washington’s version. His duo rendition with veteran New York guitarist Saul Rubin is a brief snippet captured in Prague.
“Saul is a very fine musician and if we were still working together I’m sure I would do the whole song,” Rollins says. “I always loved the song and I put that in the repertoire but we never ended up performing it.”
The album’s oldest track is another revelation. Rollins wrote “Disco Monk” during the height of the dance music’s popularity in 1979. A couple of months after he recorded it on the album Don’t Ask, he toured with a stripped-down version of the same ensemble. The title might seem dated, but with its compelling melody the tune is far more Thelonious Sphere Monk than Saturday Night Fever. Rather than trying to ride the disco bandwagon, Rollins conceived the tune “as an antidote to all of the disco that was so omnipresent then. We only played that for a while. Some material I played depended upon the musicians who were working with me. I don’t think I ever played ‘Disco Monk’ with another group.”
From the serpentine fun of “Disco Monk,” the album takes a solemn turn with the gorgeous Johnny Green/Edgar Heyman ballad “You’re Mine You,” which features a particularly brilliant solo by pianist Stephen Scott. Written by the same composer/lyricist team responsible for “Body and Soul,” the song is drawn from the storied Berklee Performance Center concert Rollins gave in the bleak, disorienting days following the 9/11 attacks. Though he’s never recorded it before, “it’s one of those songs that sticks in my mind. That’s how it is with music. It gets in your mind like an infection and I can’t get rid of it. I played it with some other lineups, but it didn’t stay around forever.”
The album closes with a searing medley from the Berklee concert of September 15, 2001. Rollins released most of the evening on his last Milestone album, the Grammy Award-winning Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, but space limitations prevented him from including the entire performance. The old Bing Crosby vehicle “Sweet Leilani,” which Rollins recorded the year before on This Is What I Do, sheds its lush Hawaiian air as he tears through the melody in surging 6/8 time. With its dizzying succession of quotes his unaccompanied solo rewards repeated listening, while the concluding “Don’t Stop the Carnival” has never sounded quite so dangerously ecstatic.
From beginning to end, Holding the Stage makes another incontrovertible case for the value of an artist seizing control of his own output. It’s been a decade now since Rollins launched Doxy, and the label has provided the jazz world with a sure and steady flow of Rollins at his best, which is to say music at its most profound and powerful. Doxy’s first CD release, the 2006 studio recording Sonny, Please, earned a Grammy nomination. In 2008, Doxy issued In Vienne, a DVD of a dazzling 2006 European festival performance, and Road Shows, vol. 1, the first omnibus of live tracks culled from an international archive compiled by Carl Smith and Rollins’s own personal soundboard tapes dating back to 1980.
With its glittering cast of guests, including Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, Roy Hargrove, and Roy Haynes, Road Shows, vol. 2 documented Rollins’s bracing 80th-birthday celebration at the Beacon Theater in 2010. And 2014’s Road Shows, vol. 3 hinged on an epic 23-minute excavation of Jerome Kern’s “Why Was I Born?” a stunning performance that answered the titular question in no uncertain terms. Sonny Rollins has made musical exploration his life’s work.
Walter Theodore Rollins was born in Harlem, New York on September 7, 1930, of parents native to the Virgin Islands. His older brother Valdemar and sister Gloria were also musically inclined but only Sonny veered away from classical music after his uncle, a professional saxophonist, introduced him to jazz and blues.
He gravitated to the tenor saxophone in high school, inspired in particular by Coleman Hawkins. By the time he was out of school, Rollins was already working with cutting edge modernists such as Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, and Roy Haynes. In 1951 he debuted as a leader on Prestige; his affiliation with that label also produced classics such as Saxophone Colossus, Worktime, and Tenor Madness (with John Coltrane).
In early 1956, until he went out on his own permanently as a leader in the summer of 1957, Rollins played in the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, one of the most definitive (and tragically short-lived) hard-bop ensembles of its day. Often with his own pianoless trio, Rollins then entered a tremendously fertile period during which he recorded major works such as A Night at the Village Vanguard, Way Out West, and Freedom Suite.
In 1959, Rollins took the first of his legendary sabbaticals. Living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he was often spotted on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge, deep in a rigorous practice regimen. “I wanted to work on my horn, I wanted to study more harmony,” he told Stanley Crouch in The New Yorker. When Rollins returned to performing in 1961, he recorded The Bridge with Jim Hall and Bob Cranshaw, led a quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, and recorded with his idol Coleman Hawkins. He also received a Grammy nomination for his score for the popular film Alfie.
At decade’s end he undertook one final hiatus, studying Zen Buddhism in Japan and yoga in India. While living in an ashram, he considered leaving music permanently in order to pursue spiritual studies, but a teacher persuaded him that music was his spiritual path, and an uplifting force for good. In 1972, with the encouragement and support of his wife Lucille, who had become his business manager, Rollins returned to performing and recording, signing with Milestone and releasing Next Album. (Working at first with Orrin Keepnews, Sonny was by the early ’80s producing his own Milestone sessions with Lucille.)
His lengthy association with the Berkeley-based label produced two dozen albums in various settings—from his working groups to all-star ensembles (Tommy Flanagan, Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, George Duke); from a solo recital to tour recordings with the Milestone Jazzstars (Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner); in the studio and on the concert stages (Montreux, San Francisco, New York, Boston). He was also the subject of a mid-’80s documentary by Robert Mugge entitled Saxophone Colossus. Part of its soundtrack is available as G-Man.
Rollins won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000), and his second for 2005’s Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), in the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo category (for “Why Was I Born”). Sonny, Please was nominated for a best jazz album Grammy in 2006. In addition, Sonny received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004. In June 2006 Rollins was inducted into the Academy of Achievement at the International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles. In May 2007 was a recipient of the Polar Music Prize, presented in Stockholm, and in 2009 he became the third American (after Frank Sinatra and Jessye Norman) to be awarded the Austrian Cross for Science and Art, First Class. Which isn’t to say that Rollins isn’t equally honored at home. In 2011 President Barack Obama presented him with the Medal of Arts at the White House, and the following year Rollins was named a Kennedy Center Honoree.
Rollins isn’t ready to rest on his laurels. “I want to return to live studio recording,” he says. “I had a little health issue, and that might be alleviated soon. I’d like to do some Sonny Rollins à la 2016 rather than doing these archival things.”
Every jazz fan can say “Amen!” to that, while savoring another finely wrought program handpicked by the maestro’s most exacting critic.