Top 10 Favorite Sonny Rollins Tracks

What a gift that a soul as wise and deep and creative as Sonny Rollins has been around for 90 years as of today and is still with us, playing retirement notwithstanding. Even if he never played a note, I would be moved by his approach to art and his wise words about life. But fortunately for us he did play notes, sometimes lots of them. I’m reticent to describe his style in a setting like this, but his mixture of stunning fluency (on the horn and with harmonic structures) and relentless pursuit of idea-development is incredibly inspiring, and if you add to that his robust sound and the extreme clarity of his articulation, the results are incredible. And I mean that literally – I listen to Newk sometimes and think “how is this even possible for a human to come up with this?” I can confidently say (and, mind you, I would cite John Coltrane as my favorite musician, period) that no greater saxophonist has ever lived than Walter Theodore Rollins.

His career as a player had both breadth and depth that make a Top 10 list particularly challenging. With athletes, sometimes people talk about and compare their overall cumulative production versus their “peak” years. Sonny is amazing on both fronts – I seriously considered having just a list for things he recorded in 1956, and even THAT would be hard to narrow down to 10 tracks, and if you left that year out altogether, it would also be challenging. So here are ten tracks that have particularly inspired me and continue to do so to a high degree (sorry “Waiting on a Friend”), weighted towards his earlier years but dipping into his later work as well.

1 ) “Let’s Call This” from Monk by Thelonious Monk (1953)

It was hard to leave out the seminal 1949 Bud Powell sessions, but I had to include something from his early work with Thelonious Monk. To my ear, the full-on Sonny sound crystallized as he married the bebop fluency he gleaned from Bud (and of course Charlie Parker and others) with the angularity and thematic development that ultimately allowed him to be an important contributor to Monk’s music over the three year or so period that began here and culminated in Brilliant Corners.

2 ) “Airegin” from Bags’ Groove by Miles Davis

I recognize that not many of Sonny’s compositions that have become “standards” for jazz musicians are represented on this list. Several important ones (such as “Oleo” and “Doxy”) were first recorded while he was a member of Miles Davis’ group, and this one is no exception. As was true with Coltrane subsequently, his saxophone provided a perfect foil for Miles, and we can hear him flow effortlessly on this challenging tune.

3 ) “I’ll Remember April” from At Basin Street by Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet (1956)

At the risk of overusing sports analogies, and with all due respect to the great Harold Land, Sonny joining this band represented the formation of a real “super-team.” It’s always a treat to hear Clifford and Sonny egg each other on, whether playing back to back solos or trading phrases with one another, both of which happen here to stunning effect. The whole track is of course buoyed by the amazingly effortless groove of Roach, in whose band Sonny would remain as an important contributor for several albums after Clifford’s untimely passing, with Max Roach But Four being a particularly significant example of both Rollins’ and Roach’s mastery of bright tempos.

4 ) “You Don’t Know What Love Is” from Saxophone Colossus (1956)

It takes about 3 seconds of this song (or “St. Thomas” or any other tune on this record) for me to flash back to my childhood bedroom and remember the first time I popped the cassette of this album, borrowed from my friend Jimmy Greene, into my stereo. I can’t overstate how much of my nascent conception of ballad playing was shaped in that moment (and subsequent moments) of hearing this performance, particularly Sonny’s ingenious solo and his gorgeous interpretation of the melody, plus Tommy Flanagan’s sensitive accompaniment.

5 ) “Freedom Suite” from Freedom Suite (1958)

It was agonizing to omit some of the seminal examples of this era that demonstrate the early days of Sonny playing in a group without a chordal instrument, such as the saxophone-bass-drums trios on Way Out West, the classic double-album A Night At the Village Vanguard, and his duo with “Philly” Joe Jones on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” from Newk’s Time, all from 1957. I just picked one, though, and this one has it all – a variety of tempos, a capacity to alternately fill in the “empty” space or savor it, a wonderful synergy with Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford, and of course Sonny’s contribution to the discourse on civil rights, something that hadn’t yet caught on in jazz by that point.

6 ) “ There Will Never Be Another You” from Sonny Rollins Trio in Stockholm 1959 (1959)

Here is one more example of that instrumentation, here showing the incredible flow of Sonny’s playing prior to his first “retirement.” This relatively succinct performance alongside Pete La Roca and the recently departed Henry Grimes is a wonderful and subtle example of his mastery of time and harmony.

7 ) “God Bless the Child” from The Bridge (1962)

Some were disappointed when Sonny returned to playing and hadn’t totally reinvented himself in the interim like some mad scientist emerging from his laboratory. I suppose I get that on some level, but holy cow is this a gorgeous album, featuring a young Ben Riley on drums, Jim Hall on guitar (beginning their important relationship), and Bob Cranshaw on bass, who would be a significant contributor to Sonny’s music (and eventually a regular touring member of his band) for the subsequent fifty years. Sonny’s elegant lyricism on ballads is clearly intact and beautifully matched with Hall’s gentle and sensitive playing.

8 ) “Alfie’s Theme” from Alfie (1966)

This extended romp is the centerpiece of Sonny’s contribution to the soundtrack of a British film, and it begins with the song’s theme and hard-swinging solos from Kenny Burrell on guitar and Roger Kellaway on piano before the main event, five and a half minutes of gnarly yet swinging Sonny soloing. I was ambivalent about omitting some of his more experimental work from this decade such as East Broadway Run Down, but this one is such a tour de force and I love his playing here so much (which reflects a similar spirit, albeit in a more straight-ahead context), so here we are.

9 ) “G-Man (Live)” from G-Man (1986)

This live performance, recorded for a documentary on Sonny, features a particularly characteristic Sonny solo from a live performance – characteristic in the sense that he keeps going and going and you keep thinking “surely this man is going to run out of ideas and start repeating himself . . . or at least topple over from the sheer physical exertion” and it keeps not happening – more flow, more ideas, more ingenuity, holy cow this is still burnin’ after 15 minutes!  Longtime trombonist Clifton Anderson interjects the core melodic phrase of the song with Sonny from time to time, and the rhythm section of pianist Mark Soskin, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith and his longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw keeps the energy high.

10 ) “Salvador” from This Is What I Do (2000)

Yes, I omitted “St. Thomas” and “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Hold ‘em Joe” (did I mention 10 Newk songs isn’t many?) but rest assured I would not go this whole list with zero calypso tunes. Here, accompanied by drummer Jack DeJohnette, the working pianist in his band, Stephen Scott, and (of course) Bob Cranshaw. This grooves like crazy and 69-year-old Sonny can still be heard flowing effortlessly.

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