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Reviewers: Glyn Pursglove, Jonathan Woolf

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Sonny Rollins

Four Classic Albums (Second Set)


[78:53 + 75:21]



Tenor Madness
1. Tenor Madness
2. When Your Lover Has Gone
3. Paul’s Pal
4. My Reverie
5. The Most Beautiful Girl In The World

Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), John Coltrane (tenor sax, track 1 only)

Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly ‘Joe’ Jones (drums)

Rec. Hackensack (NJ) May 24, 1956
Way Out West
6. I’m An Old Cowhand
7. Solitude
8. Come, Gone
9. Wagon Wheels
10. There Is No Greater Love
11. Way Out West

Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Ray Brown (bass) , Shelly Manne (drums)

Rec. Los Angeles, March 7 1957

Newk’s Time
1. Tune Up
2. Asiatic Raes
3. Wonderful! Wonderful!
4. The Surrey With The Fringe On Top
5. Blues For Philly Joe
6. Namely You

Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Doug Watkins (bass),

Philly ‘Joe’ Jones (drums)

Rec. Hackensack (NJ), September 22 1957

The Bridge
7. Without A Song
8. Where Are You
9. John S
10. The Bridge
11. God Bless The Child*
12. You Do Something To Me

Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Jim Hall (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass),

Ben Riley (drums, except *), H.T. Saunders (drums, *only)

Rec. NYC January 30, 1962 (* only) & February 13 & 14, 1962 (remaining


Since at least the mid 1950s Sonny Rollins has been one of the most admired and influential tenor saxophonists in jazz. For, a while, in later years, that position was challenged by the flood of Coltrane imitators, but much that has been learned from Rollins can still be heard in the work of many young tenorists.

From 1956 onwards, when Rollins began to make recordings as a leader, until he took a self-imposed sabbatical to work on his playing (1959-1961), Rollins achieved a remarkable consistency in the recording studio. It is entirely reasonable that Avid should have issued a previous 2-CD set –Sonny Rollins: Four Classic Albums (AMSC965) – containingSonny Rollins Plus Four, Saxophone Colossus,Sonny Rollins Volume 1 (all three recorded in 1956) and Sonny Rollins Volume 2 (recorded in 1957). This ‘Second Set’ of Classic Albums is made up of albums recorded in 1956 (Tenor Madness), 1957 (Way Out West and Newk’s Time), plus The Bridge (the first album Rollins recorded – in 1962 – after the aforementioned break from public performance and recording. It is a measure of Rollins’ astonishing creativity in the late 1950s that all eight of these albums genuinely deserve the epithet ‘classic’. Both the Avid sets, or the original albums reissued thereon, should be on the shelves of anyone interested in modern jazz.

In terms of technique, Rollins was a virtuoso on his instrument, though this didn’t prevent his suffering from a good deal of self-doubt and a constant dissatisfaction with his own work. Rollins made great demands on himself, set himself very high standards. As a result, there is a constantly ‘searching’ quality to his playing, a desire to discover new musical territory. In the original sleeve notes to Tenor Madness, Ira Gitler says he was told by Philly ‘Joe’ Jones that after each number Rollins “would shake his head and say ‘Nothing’s happening’”. Yet, paradoxically, there is a quality of boldness to most of Rollins’ playing, as if it were the work of a man with supreme self-confidence. Could he really have been dissatisfied with his work on Tenor Madness? His inventiveness, rhythmically, melodically and harmonically, is remarkable – and his playing is emotionally communicative too. The album has always been admired (regarded as a ‘classic’) even if Rollins didn’t see it that way.

Way Out West is a classic too. It was unusual in the 1950s in being an entire album recorded by a pianoless trio of tenor sax, bass and drums. The increase in space created by the absence of the piano is filled by Rollins’ vivid musical imagination; his fascination with the manipulation of repeated, but gradually metamorphosing, patterns, notably on ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’ (Rollins became famous for his choice of improbable vehicles) creates a sense of joyous, liberated celebration. Yet (how often one has to qualify any statement about Rollins!) there is, for all the invention and interplay going on, an air of discipline, even restraint, in much of the trio’s work. The effect is one of intimate unity and conversation. Though not in the sense in which the phrase is usually deployed, this is great ‘Chamber Jazz’. A later reissue (1988) added 3 alternate takes, one each of ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’, ‘Come, Gone’ and ‘Way out West’, giving students of Rollins the opportunity for fascinating comparisons, but the non-specialist listener will, surely, get a great deal of pleasure from the original album, as reissued here.

Newk’s Time doesn’t seem to me to operate, at least not consistently, at quite the same absolute level of quality that permeates Way Out West. Yet Rollins, at this period, seems to have been incapable of playing that was less than very interesting. At least two tracks here are top quality Rollins of the period (which means top quality jazz tenor): ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top’ (a characteristic Rollins dissection and re-assembling of an improbable tune) and ‘Blues for Philly Joe’ (a fairly straightforward blues line, in the playing of which much that isn’t simply straightforward happens). ‘Wonderful! Wonderful’ is almost as good, though the remaining tracks sometimes seem (by Rollins’ standards) somewhat uninspired. Rollins’ rhythm section for this date is top class, most notably Philly ‘Joe’ Jones, who gives a recorded masterclass in appropriate percussive textures and unexpected rhythmic touches. Wynton Kelly, who could be very inconsistent, has a decidedly good day and bassist Doug is a model of solidity.

The odd-one-out on this 2 CD set is, of course, The Bridge, recorded after Rollins had taken a lengthy break from public performance. His own playing doesn’t actually sound radically different, though the group sound does – with no piano and the presence of guitarist Jim Hall. Indeed, the musical dialogue between Rollins and Hall is one of the most impressive features of the album and Hall also takes some good solos. Rollins’ two originals (the title track and ‘John S’) are striking and Rollins’ plays especially well on them. But the reading of ‘God Bless the Child’ has an oddly disturbing quality as if Rollins didn’t really want to be in the studio at all, or is inhibited in his playing for some reason. The Bridge is not an easy album to feel comfortable with – its title refers to the fact that during his break from performance, Rollins had done much of his practising on the Williamsburg Bridge (so as not to annoy his neighbours), but perhaps it also incorporates Rollins’ awareness that this was a transitional album. It is also interesting to read, in George Avakian’s notes, the statement that this new group rehearses “to an extent that is rarely heard of in jazz combos”. For whatever reason, some of the music on The Bridge doesn’t have that exciting sense of liberated invention so audible on the other three albums on this set. But it remains a recording of which most jazz musicians would be proud. Though, for me, it made – and makes – a less immediate impact than, say Saxophone Colossus or Way Out West, The Bridge reveals some hidden depths with repeated hearings.

A major set of reissues of prime Sonny Rollins.

Glyn Pursglove


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