The Sound of Sonny Rollins

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Sonny Rollins, Los Angeles, April 2002

Though he ranks alongside Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as one of the greatest jazz saxophonists in history, no one knows why exactly Sonny Rollins hasn’t recorded a first-rate studio album since the 1960s. Some say that his style was irreparably damaged by years spent experimenting with funk, disco, and fusion in the Seventies and Eighties. Yet anyone who has seen Rollins perform on a good night knows that, even at eighty-two, he is still capable of playing with the same brilliance that first made giants like Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk take an interest in him in the 1950s. And if there were any lingering doubts, the news that Rollins won three major jazz awards this summer should dispel the notion that his best years are behind him.

In spite of his advanced age, Rollins remains one of jazz’s most talented improvisers. He has almost inexhaustible stamina, complete control of his instrument, and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of musical knowledge (ranging from jazz standards and pop to folk songs and classical music), to say nothing of his decades of experience playing with almost every major figure in jazz. More important still, he has an impish and ironic sense of humor. He also has a keen appreciation of his audience; when performing he often walks into the crowd as he plays, hoping to draw inspiration from them.

In his newest album of live performances, Road Shows Vol. 2, there are moments when all this can be heard firsthand. A compilation of two recent live shows, including his eightieth birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York, the record captures Rollins playing with the energy of someone half his age. Particularly noteworthy is the twenty-minute version of his classic twelve-bar blues, “Sonnymoon for Two,” on which he is joined by the multi- instrumentalist genius Ornette Coleman, whose free jazz heavily influenced Rollins in the 1960s. This is the first time the two have been recorded together, and though they do not connect in the way that one might have hoped, to hear Coleman playing side by side with Rollins is nevertheless a historic occasion. Perhaps more remarkable simply for the quality of playing is his performance of “Rain Check,” an old Billy Strayhorn song. As he and the forty-two-year-old trumpeter Roy Hargrove begin to trade fours—that is, exchange four-bar improvisations—Rollins’s relentless exuberance overtakes the young trumpeter, whose playing improves audibly the more he interacts with Sonny.

These kinds of moments should awaken listeners to a musician who is still, in Stanley Crouch’s words, capable of “summoning the entire history of jazz.” He was born in Harlem in 1930, the heyday of swing bands. Duke Ellington was a neighbor, and Louis Jordan, the father of R&B, inspired Rollins to pick up the alto saxophone as…

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