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. In the second installment, we looked at 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. This time, we’ll be exploring 1977’s Easy Living, 1979’s Don’t Ask, and 1978’s Milestone Jazzstars in Concert, a supergroup album featuring Rollins alongside McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Al Foster.
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Easy Living was recorded in early August 1977 and released before year’s end. The band included George Duke on piano and electric piano; Charles Johnson on guitar; Paul Jackson on electric bass on most tracks; and Tony Williams on drums. The album opens with a version of Stevie Wonder‘s “Isn’t She Lovely,” which features Byron Miller subbing in on bass and Bill Summers on congas. (Side note: Johnson, who also played with Stanley Clarke, Duke, and Al Jarreau in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is now the man behind the political blog Little Green Footballs.) Rollins plays soprano on two tracks, the standard “My One and Only Love” and the original “Arroz con Pollo.” On the latter, he blows so forcefully it’s easy to believe he’s playing an alto. The long, dying-duck moans of earlier soprano efforts are gone. Easy Living is a decent record, worth hearing at least once. Johnson delivers some surprisingly potent guitar work, and Williams’ drumming, especially his solo on “Arroz con Pollo,” can be pretty thunderous. It’s not full-on R&B/funk like Nucleus, but its vision of jazz is very ’70s.
When Rollins released 2016’s Holding the Stage, the latest (to date) installment of his Road Shows live anthology series, some reviewers were bemused to find included a 1979 recording of a piece called “Disco Monk.” Well, the studio version is on Don’t Ask, and for good or ill, it lives up to its title (the track, not the album as a whole). The opening “Harlem Boys” is another disco-jazz number, and the album ends with “And Then My Love I Found You,” an uptempo R&B tune. Ultimately, having heard him attempt it on several albums in this listening journey, I don’t think disco was really Rollins’ métier. If you want to hear someone attempt this fusion with slightly more success, I recommend Eddie Henderson‘s Comin’ Through and Mahal. Still, there are a few interesting moments on Don’t Ask. “The File” and “My Ideal” are duets between Rollins and guitarist Larry Coryell, and the former is some wild blindfold-test material; Coryell (overdubbed at times) is hitting the strings as fast and hard as John McLaughlin, and Rollins’ phrases are as forceful as a boxer’s strikes. (The rest of the band includes keyboardist Mark Soskin, bassist Jerome Harris, drummer Al Foster, and Bill Summers on percussion.)
In 1978, Milestone Records assembled three of its most bankable artists — Rollins, McCoy Tyner, and Ron Carter — into a supergroup, with Foster on drums, dubbed the Milestone Jazzstars. They recorded a double live album, as one did in 1978; it was simply called Milestone Jazzstars In Concert. Rollins and Tyner each contributed two tunes, and Carter one; they also performed the standards “Willow Weep for Me,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Alone Together.” Each man had new material to promote; Tyner had released Supertrios in 1977 (on which Carter played), and the bassist put out two studio albums in 1978, Peg Leg and A Song for You, both of which featured unorthodox instrumentation and arrangements. Anyway, the live recordings abandon all the experiments each man had been conducting in the studio and with their own bands, in favor of florid, hard-swinging post-bop tunes that frequently go past the 10-minute mark (the version of Tyner’s “Nubia” lasts a full quarter hour). This is Jazz with a capital J. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a duo between Rollins and Tyner that’s quite beautiful. When it was released on CD in 1989, the version of “Willow Weep for Me” had to be cut for time, but in 1998, a Japanese 2CD edition came out that restored it, and added five bonus tracks. Neither version is on streaming services, but this album is well worth digging up, as this clip of the opening version of Rollins’ “The Cutting Edge” proves.
So that’s it for Sonny Rollins in the 1970s. Not all of these albums are great, but every one of them offers at least one or two tunes worth hearing. So dive in.