It’s strange, the way a brief moment in a long career—a detour, even—can become the object of intense focus after the fact. An album that isn’t seen as a landmark, or a triumph, when it’s first released can assume outsized importance years, even decades later, when a new audience discovers it. Miles Davis’s On the Corner could be seen in this light; the subject of critical derision upon its release in 1972, it sold poorly and went out of print soon afterward, but beginning in the 1990s, its reputation began to improve, and now it’s seen in some quarters as one of Davis’s most important albums, even described as a masterpiece.

But when Davis released On the Corner, he was trying to make a statement. He meant the album to indicate a wholesale shift in his sound—and it did. Indeed, it’s possible to infer that he put so much energy into it that when it was rejected, by critics and the public, it sent him into a kind of artistic retreat. After all, those sessions in the summer of 1972 were the last time, before his 1975 retirement, that he went into the studio with the express purpose of making an album. Everything after that was either a live recording of his road band, or a gathering up of pieces recorded as much as four or five years earlier—an eternity in Miles Time.

Sonny Rollins has never seemed to attach the same weight to his albums as Davis or, say, John Coltrane did. Since the beginning of his career, Rollins’ albums have frequently had a tossed-off quality, like they were made as obligations, because that’s what you do—you make records, then go out on the road to support them. This doesn’t make them disposable, by any means. Albums like Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, Newk’s Time, and even later titles like East Broadway Run Down and On Impulse! are great, featuring top-shelf collaborators and some brilliant playing. But as Rollins himself will freely admit, he’d rather be on stage than in the studio, so most of his best work can be heard on live recordings. The recent Road Shows series, now up to three volumes, contains some incredible playing, and preserves some truly historic moments, like the time Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes shared the same stage for the first time ever, at Rollins’ 80th birthday celebration (I was there).

Our Man in Jazz, originally released in 1963, is one of those live albums. Recorded in late July 1962 at the Village Gate, it finds Rollins joined by Don Cherry, who had recently left Ornette Coleman’s quartet, on pocket trumpet; they’re backed by the saxophonist’s bassist of choice, Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Billy Higgins, also a veteran of the Coleman band as well as about a million hard bop sessions for Blue Note and other labels.

This was primarily a live band, and a short-lived one. Rollins, Cherry and Higgins, accompanied by bassist Henry Grimes, would enter the recording studio together in February 1963, tracking three tunes—“You are My Lucky Star,” “I Could Write a Book,” and “There Will Never Be Another You”—for a multi-artist compilation, but that was the extent of their studio output. That spring, they undertook a European tour, from which multiple bootleg recordings have appeared over the years; then the band split up, and all involved moved on (except for Grimes, who disappeared from public life for three decades).

The original Our Man in Jazz featured only three tracks—a side-long exploration of “Oleo,” and versions of “Dearly Beloved” and “Doxy”—and was not regarded as a landmark Rollins album, even though it was one of the first things he released after a hiatus that had begun in 1959. Now, though, a box has emerged, on the Solar label out of Spain, that adds 18 previously unreleased recordings, and the full-length “Dearly Beloved,” from the band’s four-night stand at the Village Gate, expanding the album to a six-CD set. Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 (get it from Amazon) is similar to Miles Davis’s 1995 box Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965, in that it documents a band at work over multiple nights, allowing comparison between multiple performances of the same book of tunes. But the Davis quintet would stay together until 1968, its sound evolving from year to year, its studio albums building one on top of the other until they became one of the most beautiful and brilliant discographies in jazz. The Rollins/Cherry band, on the other hand, was a comet, rocketing across the scene and vanishing nearly as fast as it arrived.

The most immediately notable thing about these performances is their length. When these guys dug into a tune, they kept on digging. Two of the four versions of “Oleo” here are more than a half hour long, and even the released take is nearly a full minute longer on the box than it was on Our Man in Jazz. The “shortest” version of the tune runs more than 17 minutes. The album edit of “Dearly Beloved,” included here on Disc One, was eight minutes and change; the full version, found on Disc Three, runs 18:41. Other tracks, like versions of the Duke Ellington ballad “Solitude” and a series of untitled pieces apparently improvised in the moment, run between 15 and 30 minutes.

Of course, the quality of the music is also impressive as hell. The original album can seem overly loose at first listen; the opening version of “Oleo,” which is also the first thing recorded during the band’s three-night stand, drops you into a world that’s initially hard to navigate. The melody, one of Rollins’ most powerful (that’s why it’s become a standard), is rendered in an oblique and digressive manner, with the saxophonist and the trumpeter talking past each other as Cranshaw and Higgins push and shove. There’s a visceral, bluesy swing to the rhythm, with the drummer attacking in an almost martial manner at times, but it almost feels like there are two separate conversations going on, one up front and one in back.

But the deeper you get into this set, the more you absorb the band’s collective language, the clearer it becomes. A few critics have claimed that Rollins and Cherry were incompatible, that they weren’t capable of deep communication. But I think what was really going on was, people were used to hearing Cherry next to Coleman, whose style was built around extrapolations of a song’s melody. And Cherry could do that really, really well; there’s almost a giddiness to their interplay on albums like This Is Our Music and The Shape of Jazz to Come, like you’re listening to two little kids making up a song together. Rollins, though, was on the surface a more traditional jazz player, who improvised (and still does) by building on the chord structure of a tune, occasionally (okay, frequently) throwing in apposite quotes from other songs, sometimes as punctuation, other times seemingly as filler to allow him to gather his thoughts. The fuller, heavier sound of the tenor saxophone is the ideal tool for this job, just as the alto’s lighter, floatier tone is great for loose, wandering melodies.

So there’s a relative dearth of unison melodic statements here—Rollins and Cherry aren’t lining up side by side, the way, say, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan might. Instead, one will handle the melody while the other tosses in little interjections or sidelong comments. Rollins murmurs, Cherry chirps. Also, every member of the ensemble gets a surprising amount of unaccompanied solo time. This was not a band that charged forward as one; it was a band that let each member make his own statement, and occasionally came together, mostly to launch pieces or to bring them to an end. This is especially true of the tracks listed as “Untitled Original” A through E on the set, which are some of the most exploratory—the word “meandering” might also apply here—of Rollins’ entire career. But they even adopt this fragmentary approach when tackling pieces like “St. Thomas” or “Three Little Words.” This is music that’s all about the moment. If what Rollins, or Cherry, or Cranshaw, or Higgins is playing at any given instant is interesting, then that’s success. Turning it into a cohesive piece with a beginning, an end, and structure in the middle isn’t the point. Thus, the best way to listen to Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962—which any Sonny Rollins fan should absolutely do—is to drift along with it, for maybe an hour or so at a time (the full set runs just under seven hours), and let the moments of brilliance catch your ear. Get it from Amazon.

Phil Freeman

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2 Comment on “Sonny Rollins

  1. Pingback: Répertoire/des écoutes : septembre 2016 | Quatrevingt-treize

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