Sonny Rollins - Without a Song - The 9/11 Concert
The occasion of a new Sonny Rollins album is unlike anything else in jazz. A true saxophone colossus, now perhaps more than ever, Rollins towers over every other improvisor in jazz. His magisterial performances actually ARE the stuff of legend, in an era where that word is so often overused. Thus the release of Rollins' new album, which comes out August 30th, just days before his 75th birthday is likely to cause quite a commotion. I was lucky enough to obtain an advance copy this week, and have some observations to share about what surely must be the most eagerly anticipated jazz release of the year.
First of all, Sonny is in such a class of his own, it's not even funny. You can count on your fingers the number of other improvisors in jazz history who deserve to be ranked with the man they call "Newk" - and Sonny is the only one alive, someone truly on par with Armstrong, Coltrane, Monk, Tatum and Parker. People have often complained that Sonny doesn't play with musicians who are "up to his level." Of course they totally miss the point that NO ONE is up to Sonny's level, and if anything Rollins' seemingly endless creativity and inventiveness seems to make the disparity even more vast. I'm sure many fans get one of his cds, listen to Sonny's solo, then hit the scan button, until Rollins returns, heck, even I'm guilty of that! It's kind of like Barry Bonds making the rest of the San Francisco Giants lineup look like a washed up collection of A-ball talent (steroids aside, Bonds is dominant in his field as Rollins is in his), and you certainly don't get up from your seat to get a soda or beer when Bonds is at the plate. The same goes for Rollins. This new record, which features pianist Stephen Scott , trombonist Clifton Anderson, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Perry Wilson, and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, won't do anything to to change the minds of those people who complain about the setting Rollins puts himself in. Scott is the most remarkable, and on any other record, with any other leader, would steal the show. He's very inventive and has some nice solos, even playing one tune on kalimba. Clifton Anderson has some nice, but unremarkable solos that remind me of Curtis Fuller at times. The rhythm sections holds things down, and lays down the groove for Rollins, (who better to do this than Cranshaw) and doesn't get in the way. It's a different sort of group than, say the quintet Rollins played in with Max Roach and Clifford Brown. Rollins is the focus, without a doubt, it's his show.
The concert on this new cd, (Rollins first live session in 20 years of so since "G-Man") was recorded at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, four days after the attacks of 9/11/2001. Rollins, who lived blocks from the World Trade Center was seen on CNN that day being evacuated from his apartment building, and witnessed the tragic events of that day. His wife Lucille conviced him to follow through with the concert plans in Boston, and it was recorded, both directly off the sound board, and via some sort of amateur recording from the audience, (more on this later). Listening to the concert, the somber tone of that week isn't readily apparent from the music, though if one closes ones eyes, and remembers what those days short after the attacks felt like, it helps put the sometimes surprisingly happy music in context.
Rollins opens with what is likely his best performance on the record, the title track, Without A Song, which he recorded on his famous RCA debut album, The Bridge. Rollins' glowing, brassy tone is in fine form, as he logically and methodically lays down a solo as only "Newk" can. The shortest track on the album is 10:00, but Rollins never bores the listener, he's always finding something new to say, building upon his initial exposition, and the melody of the song itself, throwing in a playful quote here and there, including even "Oh Susannah"! I really like the title track, though the second tune, Global Warming, isn't quite as memorable. It's another Rollins calypso, and while good doesn't seem to have that special quality of the previous track. Rollins follows with introductions of the band (he has a "unique" speaking voice!) and then goes right into an emotionally heart wrenching version of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.
Rollins continues with a long solo introduction to an uptempo sixteen minute version of Why Was I Born, which generates the biggest reaction from the crowd of the record. After the head, Rollins begins to solo, only to fall back to "comping" behind Stephen Scott, who turns in another fine performance. Why Scott doesn't have a recording deal today is one of the great mysteries of the jazz world. Rollins really smokes on this track, and turns in what may be his best performance of the record. The title track will likely get more radio airplay, and is more "composed" with it's more relaxed tempo and it's less complex solo, but Why Was I Born it the real tour de force. Like with the previous track, Rollins doesn't bother to play the out chorus, wisely, his solo ends the song, to what sounds like a standing ovation. What more can you say!
The concert closes with a medium uptempo version of Where or When, with a typically deconstructionist (yet still swinging) solo by Rollins. Yet again, here is something unique. Instead of starting out with a simple melody fragment and building upon it, evenutally winding up with a torrent of notes, Rollins does the reverse, and slowly reveals the melody in a relatively short solo that reveals why he is so revered as "the last of the titans" of jazz. Here's to many more excellent recordings and concerts by this unquestioned "heavy weight champion" of the art of improvisation. Without doubt, this is THE album of the year, it's not perfect, it's not some grand conceptual project, or even innovative mix of tuvan throat singers, hip-hop and jazz, being touted as "the next big thing." There's simply no one better than Sonny Rollins at his best, and this is as close to his best as we've heard in a long time.
A note on the recording quality. This concert was not recorded with the intent that it would be released commercially. There were two tapes made - one apparently direct from the sound board, and another made by a friend of Rollins and a collector, (with the saxophonists permission), made with what sounds to my ears like a stereo condenser mic plugged into a consumer grade DAT or Minidisc recorder. The album uses both of these sources, they are mixed together quite well, but those who fancy themselves as audio experts will get a kick out of figuring out where one tape merges and (somewhat) seamlessly meets the other. For example, the concert starts with Rollins (off mic) with an announcment to the crowd about the opening song. This comes from the audience tape, and has a definite "bootleg" sound to it, with plenty of room echo, etc. They continue to use this source as the band plays the melody of Without A Song, slowly, very slowly, bringing in the house system, which is in 100 percent by the time Rollins solo begins. That's probably the most obvious case on the record of a transition from one source to another. All in all, I think they did a pretty good job. It's preferable to using the house system recording 100 percent, which I suspect had some distortion problems at times, and doesn't sound like it picked up any of the audience applause of room ambience, not to mention, think the drums might not have been mic'ed well, given the concert nature of the recording. It's not a "perfect" recording like something Al Schmitt would produce, but it's better than some of the recent live albums I've heard where the effort is to make them sound like studio sessions.