RCA Set Mines the Sonny Rollins Mother Lode

When Sonny Rollins signed with RCA in 1961, it represented a return to recording after a hiatus of more than a year. His absence from activity during the period was accompanied by endless rumors about what Rollins--arguably one of the two or three most admired saxophonists in jazz at the time of his brief retirement--had been doing.

Tales were heard about practice sessions on one of the bridges above Manhattan’s East River. And, when Metronome, a prominent jazz magazine of the period, published an allegedly fictional short story by writer Ralph Berton about a lone jazz musician playing on the Brooklyn Bridge, it was clearly a thinly veiled reference to Rollins’ unusual practice techniques (although Rollins actually worked out his saxophone licks on the Williamsburg Bridge).

What made Rollins take such an extended sabbatical at such a peak point in his career? He has never been particularly forthcoming with reasons, but one can argue that the rapid growing emergence of John Coltrane at the time, as well as the extraordinary media attention given to Ornette Coleman’s debut performances in New York City in the winter of 1959, may have had some impact upon Rollins’ thinking.

Whatever the case, he returned to action with a flair, signing with a major label rather than returning to a smaller jazz company, whimsically naming his first release “The Bridge.” Over the next two years, between 1962 and 1964, Rollins created six albums for RCA, as well as several selections for compilations, and material--including alternate takes--for French releases.

The music is, by any standards, an awesome example of one of the jazz world’s most brilliant improvisers, performing at peak form. “The Bridge” is a classic in which Rollins’ exchanges with guitarist Jim Hall approach legendary proportions. Rollins was a front-and-center improviser who essentially required that his accompanying musicians provide a platform for his far-roving musical excursions. No one did that better than Hall, whose empathetic support for Rollins, at the time, was only approached by the work of pianist Paul Bley (who performs on the “Sonny Meets Hawk” album, also included here).


On “Our Man in Jazz,” however, Rollins--perhaps more eager than he should have been to prove his musical diversity--takes an entirely different tack, working with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins (with Rollins’ regular bassist Bob Cranshaw), both of whom were members of the seminal group Coleman brought to New York. On a remarkable, 25-minute version of his own classic tune, “Oleo,” and two other numbers, Rollins makes his case for the range of his skills, dipping in and out of saxophone multi-phonics and assorted avant-garde techniques.

There are other endless riches in this collection--including the marvelously feisty interaction between veteran tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and Rollins on “Sonny Meets Hawk,” a gorgeous set of familiar tunes on “The Standard Sonny Rollins,” the Latin-oriented (in Rollins’ own unique fashion) improvisations on “What’s New” and a number of tracks in which he is backed by pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter.

Rollins’ live performances in the early ‘60s often involved Herculean solos, which could 30 minutes (and, in some possibly apocryphal reports, much longer). That Proustian Rollins is largely not present here, with the exception of the above-mentioned “Oleo,” and on an extraordinary, rambling tour through a 16-minute-long alternative-take version of “Now’s the Time.” But in those examples, his larger-than-life improvisational capacity to sustain constant interest, to create unfailingly varied musical landscapes, to reveal jazz music’s capacity to spontaneously illuminate, are on full display.

This is a collection that belongs in every jazz fan’s record library--and in the libraries of fans of other kinds of music as well. The one minor complaint about a production that has virtually no musical flaws is with the packaging. The track information is a byzantine collection of dates and names assembled in a fashion that transforms every attempt to find specific information into a baffling search. Nor are matters helped by the fact that the original LP programs are sometimes spread--"Now’s the Time” and “What’s New” are examples--across two individual CDs. But the music makes it all worthwhile.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).