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, eleven in all, nine 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.

In the first installment, we discussed 1972’s Sonny Rollins’ Next Album (at the time, his first release in six years), 1973’s Horn Culture and In Japan, and 1974’s The Cutting Edge. This time, we’ll be exploring 1975’s Nucleus, 1976’s The Way I Feel, and two live albums: 1978’s There Will Never Be Another You, originally recorded in 1965, and Don’t Stop the Carnival.

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Nucleus, recorded at the beginning of September 1975 and released before the year was out, features a larger ensemble than usual for Rollins. On most tracks, he’s joined by Bennie Maupin as a second saxophonist, Raul de Souza on trombone, George Duke on keyboards, Blackbird McKnight and David Amaro on guitars; and Mtume on percussion. There are two rhythm sections: four of the album’s seven tracks feature Chuck Rainey on electric bass and Eddie Moore on drums, while the other three bring in his longtime live bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Roy McCurdy. Rollins wrote five new pieces for Nucleus, with Mtume contributing one. The album ends with an updated take on “My Reverie,” itself based on a piece by Claude Debussy. The simplest way to explain Nucleus is just to say that it’s not a jazz album; it’s a funky instrumental R&B album with longer-than-usual solos. De Souza’s trombone playing recalls Fred Wesley (of the JB’s) more than, say, J.J. Johnson, and McKnight’s guitar solo on “Gwaligo” comes straight from his days with Funkadelic. On “Azalea,” both Maupin and Rollins take tenor solos. On the title piece, Rollins’ tone is so harsh — over some deep ’70s funk — he almost sounds like Peter Brötzmann.

The Way I Feel was recorded between August and October 1976: presumably a main tracking session, with overdubs later. The core band featured Patrice Rushen on a variety of keyboards, Lee Ritenour on guitar, two different bassists (Charles Meeks on four tracks, Alex Blake on three), Billy Cobham on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion. Four of the album’s seven tracks also feature a nine-piece horn section: three trumpets, two trombones, two French horns, tuba, and one guy handling soprano sax, flute, and piccolo as needed. Rushen wrote one tune, and George Duke wrote two others. Two pieces, “Asfrantation Woogie” and “Happy Feel,” are straight-up disco tunes, which feels like a waste of Billy Cobham. (They’re also the shortest tracks on the album, which suggests that maybe he felt that way, too.) The opening and closing pieces, “Island Lady” and “Charm Baby,” are decent, but there’s really only one absolute keeper on this album: “Shout It Out,” which features Rollins’ most impassioned soloing and a truly disgusting (in the best way) Charles Meeks bass sound.

There Will Never Be Another You was released (on Impulse) in 1978, but it documented a live performance at the Museum of Modern Art in June 1965. This was at the height of Rollins’ flirtation with out jazz, and while the set is all standards and weird show tunes nobody but he remembers anymore — “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Three Little Words,” “Mademoiselle de Paris,” “To a Wild Rose,” and the title track — the band tore them apart and rebuilt them every bit as energetically and wildly as Miles Davis‘s quintet was doing at the same time. Rollins has Tommy Flanagan on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and two drummers, Mickey Roker and Billy Higgins, and nobody lets up for an instant. The album starts in medias res, fading in on “On Green Dolphin Street,” and the first three songs make up a continuous suite. The sound quality is a little rough; there are a few moments where Rollins wanders off-mic, and the drums clatter and bash. But hearing Roker and Higgins in rough unity is a thrill, particularly on the nearly 17-minute title track. This is a relatively obscure record (and one Rollins actually fought with the label over at one point, claiming they didn’t have the right to release it), but one well worth seeking out.

Don’t Stop the Carnival is a double live album, recorded in San Francisco in June 1978. Five of the nine tracks feature trumpeter Donald Byrd; the rest of the band includes pianist Mark Soskin, guitarist Aurell Ray, bassist Jerry Harris, and drummer Tony Williams. As with The Way I Feel, it’s kind of an interesting choice for Rollins to pull in a drummer capable of fantastic complexity — Billy Cobham on the earlier album, Williams here — and then keep him relatively constrained. Williams delivers a whomping beat throughout the opening calypso track, crashing the cymbals over and over. The second piece, “Silver City,” begins with an extended solo saxophone passage, and the third, “Autumn Nocturne,” leaves him out there alone for four of its six minutes. His solos are fast and fierce, proving that despite his affection for punchy R&B vamps, he hadn’t lost a step and could spin out frantic bebop lines anytime he felt like it. Indeed, as the album goes on, and especially once Byrd joins the band, the music heads much deeper into the realm of hardcore jazz. Soskin, Ray and Harris, all relative unknowns, do a decent job of holding the tunes together, but this is definitely Rollins’ and Byrd’s and Williams’ show.

That’s it for this time. Come back for the third and final installment of this series, where we’ll discuss the studio albums Easy Living and Don’t Ask, and the supergroup live album Rollins made as one of the Milestone Jazzstars, alongside pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster.

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