Sonny Rollins might be the greatest tenor saxophonist who ever lived. But in the 21st century, his reputation mostly rests on the albums he made in the 1950s and 1960s, on the Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige, RCA, and Impulse! labels. His 1970s and ’80s albums are often overlooked or forgotten these days. Well, in this series, we’re going to remedy that, and dig into every one of Rollins’ albums from the ’70s, twelve in all, ten of them for the Milestone label, where he was signed from 1972 to 2001. This string of releases includes some of his most pop-friendly material, but it also includes some truly uncompromising work, as well as some unexpected sounds — Rollins can be heard playing the soprano on several of these records.

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In 1965, Rollins signed with Impulse! after several years with RCA. He’d made some of his most forward-looking recordings for RCA, including 1962’s Our Man in Jazz and 1963’s Sonny Meets Hawk! with Coleman Hawkins. On Impulse!, by contrast, he made relatively constrained albums like On Impulse and the soundtrack to Alfie. But he ended his tenure on the label with 1966’s East Broadway Run Down, a sprawling exploration that’s as close as he ever got to truly free playing. And after its release, he vanished for six years, during which time he spent several months studying yoga and Eastern philosophies at an ashram in India.

In 1972, he came back. He signed with Milestone, one of the most important jazz labels of the time (they also had McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Woody Shaw, Gary Bartz and Joe Henderson on their roster), and reappeared with Sonny Rollins’ Next Album. The title was a demonstration of Rollins’ humility, a quality that comes through every time he speaks about his art. (I’ve interviewed him twice.) It gave no indication that he’d been away for six years; on the contrary, it was a shrugging description, as though he’d been putting out an album a year all along and this was just the latest one. Musically, though, it’s very different from what he was last heard doing — the raucous, gutsy free jazz of East Broadway Run Down. The band included George Cables on electric and acoustic piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, either David Lee or Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Arthur Jenkins on congas and percussion. The album included three new original compositions — “Playin’ in the Yard,” “The Everywhere Calypso” and “Keep Hold of Yourself” — and versions of “Poinciana” and “Skylark.”

On the opening “Playin’ in the Yard,” Cables is on electric piano and DeJohnette is playing a strutting R&B backbeat, with Cranshaw on deep, Barney Miller-esque electric bass and Jenkins’ congas adding subtle but important rhythmic accents. Rollins gives the band plenty of room to stretch out; it feels like he’s only heard on about half of the piece’s 10:25 running time, with Cables and DeJohnette taking extended solos, the latter of which is more like a breakbeat master class. The next piece, “Poinciana,” is an even bigger surprise. In the early ’70s, both Rollins and Dexter Gordon added the soprano saxophone to their arsenals, something they’d never done before. Perhaps they were inspired by Wayne Shorter, who knows? In any case, “Poinciana” has a dreamlike quality, with Rollins’ keening soprano floating over Cables’ electric piano, Cranshaw’s rubber-band bass, and DeJohnette’s shuffling drums. “The Everywhere Calypso” has the rolling waves of energy that always manifest anytime Rollins plays with that form, and his lines are long and discursive without ever seeming to meander. “Keep Hold of Yourself” is a John Coltrane-ish piece that starts out of nowhere and sprints along, a short but potent interlude. The album ends with a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that features extended passages of pure, unaccompanied Rollins; he’s on his own for the first minute, and the last three and a half. Overall, Sonny Rollins’ Next Album was a great way to come back. His playing was as good as it had ever been, and he sounded locked in with his band in a way he hadn’t on some of his more avant-garde releases, good as they were. It boded well for whatever came next.

A couple of the same players — Bob Cranshaw on bass, and David Lee on drums — returned for 1973’s Horn Culture, but the rest of the band was new. Walter Davis Jr. was in the piano chair, Yoshiaki Masuo was on guitar, and Mtume (also in Miles Davis‘s funk-rock septet at this time) was the percussionist. Rollins is again operating in a somewhat R&B-ish mode, tilting into fierce hard bop at times but absolutely engaging with the state of jazz as it existed in the early ’70s. On the opening track, “Pictures in the Reflection of a Golden Horn,” Masuo is stark and fierce, Davis’s piano has a barrelhouse clang, and Lee and Mtume build a head-nodding funk groove, but what’s really interesting is that Rollins is overdubbed, playing with, around, and even against himself at times. The second tenor saxophone line really turns this piece into something amazing. Unfortunately, the next track, “Sais,” is…well, for one thing, it’s close to 12 minutes long, and Rollins punishes the listener with one of the worst soprano saxophone solos I’ve ever heard. It sounds like the death groans of a gut-shot mallard, and it seems to go on for-fucking-ever. The other players, particularly Masuo, do what they can to salvage the piece, but the damage is definitely done. There’s some really good stuff in the album’s second half, including the funky, almost jazz-rock original “Notes for Eddie” and versions of “God Bless the Child” and “Good Morning Heartache.” But ultimately, Horn Culture is a mixed bag.

In September 1973, Rollins, Masuo, Cranshaw, Lee and Mtume went to Japan on tour, and recorded a live album that has only ever been released in that country. In Japan includes versions of Rollins classics like “St. Thomas,” the theme from Alfie, and “Moritat,” as well as one new tune, “Powaii,” named for the Indian city where he studied yoga and meditation during his sabbatical. It’s a nearly 19-minute piece played with fierce, questing intensity, and it sets the tone for the whole thing. The band is on fire throughout. I wish this record was more available — there aren’t even any tracks from it on YouTube. In 2010 it was reissued as a two-CD set, with a full hour’s worth of bonus material added, including a 29-minute version of “Sais” that, even though it’s still a showcase for Rollins’ exploration of the soprano, stomps all over the studio version. Get your hands on a copy if you can. As rare as it is, it’s essential Rollins.

The Cutting Edge, recorded in July 1974 at that year’s Montreux Jazz Festival and released a few months later (they used to turn projects around quick in the old days), features a six-piece band: in addition to the core unit of Masuo, Cranshaw, and Lee, Mtume is present on congas and Stanley Cowell is on piano, and on the final track, a nearly 15-minute version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” bagpiper — yes, you read that right — Rufus Harley guests. The band premieres two new Rollins compositions, the title track and “First Moves,” both of them aggressive in an early ’70s jazz-funk sort of way. Masuo’s guitar has plenty of sting, and the saxophonist’s playing is heavy and muscular, if somewhat repetitive. On a version of “To a Wild Rose,” a ballad he’d favored for many years (he also plays it on There Will Never Be Another You, an album we’ll get to later in this series), he takes one of his trademark solo cadenzas. The set’s second ballad is a version of Dionne Warwick‘s “A House is Not a Home.” Rollins and Harley spend the first three minutes of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in duo, the bagpiper creating deep, keening drones but also whipping through some shockingly fleet melodies. Harley was an under-recognized but brilliant player, and he adds a tremendous amount to this piece, both in the early going and with the rest of the band behind him. He takes the first real solo, as the sextet offers a gospel-rockish take on the song that honestly sounds like something Elvis Presley‘s TCB Band might have played in Las Vegas. The Cutting Edge may not fully live up to its title — this is not avant-garde music — but holy shit, there were moments when this band was on fire.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk about two studio albums and two live albums, one of which was recorded in 1965 but took 13 years to emerge.

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