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Sonny Rollins - Sonny, Please Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    6
release year:    2006
label:    Doxy
reviewed by:    Scott Yanow

ImageChances are that any knowledgeable list of the four greatest and most significant tenor-saxophonists of all time would consist of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Hawkins was the instrument’s first master, turning what had originally been a poor substitute for the trombone (playing repetitive rhythmic phrases) into a major instrument by the mid-1920s. Hawkins had a giant sound, was a master at chords and was harmonically sophisticated, while more basic in his rhythmic attacks. When Lester Young began to emerge in the mid-to-late 1930s, he sounded as if he were playing a different instrument altogether. His floating tone was lighter than air and he implied more than stated rhythms, while being a much more melodic player than Hawkins. A decade after the bebop revolution of the 1940s, both John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins emerged with their own unique sounds and approaches. Coltrane’s tone, halfway between Hawkins and Young, was distinctive, and he took chordal improvisation to the breaking point (particularly on “Giant Steps”) before, in the 1960s, switching to playing the maximum possible over two-chord vamps.

Sonny Rollins originally took Coleman Hawkins as his role model, especially in his early sound, but he was a major figure by 1955. Rollins loved to play with time, he enjoyed playing the most unusual songs (sometimes taken from obscure movies or from Al Jolson’s repertoire) and he could caress a simple melody over and over again (as he did in the 1970s with Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”), altering it slightly each time. He was also among the first to perform calypso in a jazz setting.
Just as there is occasionally a debate over the qualities of “young Elvis” and “old Elvis” or comparisons of Chet Baker in the 1950s and in the 1980s, Sonny Rollins’ evolution has generated much discussion in the jazz world. Rollins’ string of classic recordings during 1955-59 set a pinnacle so high that it is difficult for any musician to touch. He retired in 1959, dropping out of the music world for three years before making a complete comeback in 1962. In the 1960s he evolved from hard bop to an eccentric form of the avant-garde, utilizing the same sound and wit as earlier but in much freer settings. In 1966 he retired again, this time avoiding live performances for six years. In 1972 when he returned, he signed with the Milestone label and within a couple of years had changed once again.

Rollins’ sound became harsher than earlier, almost R&B-ish, and he now preferred to have a regularly working band that served as a backdrop for his lengthy solos. While many in the jazz world wish that Rollins played with all-star groups, he prefers his more basic outfit which, although it has had turnover since the 1970s, has continued serving a similar function. It leaves Rollins free to do what he wishes and, although there are times when inspiration fails him, at his best, Sonny Rollins is still one of the leaders of jazz.

With Concord purchasing Fantasy, which owned the Milestone label, Sonny Rollins has formed his own record label, a company named after one of his early original songs, “Doxy.” Rollins has always been reluctant to listen to his own recordings and has complained about how he hates to make studio records (even though many of his sessions are now considered classics), so it is interesting to note that Sonny, Please is a studio set. Rollins utilizes his working band which has his nephew, the J.J. Johnson-influenced trombonist Clifton Anderson, guitarist Bobby Broom, his longtime electric bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. While there are solos along the way for Anderson and Broom, in reality they are just filler before Rollins returns.

The repertoire is typically eclectic. Rollins contributes four originals including the passionate “Sonny, Please,” a medium-tempo blues (“Nishi”) and a tribute to the late pianist Tommy Flanagan, “Remembering Tommy,” that recalls “Take the ‘A’ Train” in spots. Of the three standards, “Someday I’ll Find You” is a wonderful if obscure Noel Coward song from the early 1930s play “Private Lives.” “Stairway to the Stars” is a vintage ballad and the haunting “Serenade” is an Italian folk song with a melody that Rollins loves to play repeatedly, and a delightful jazz waltz.

Sonny Rollins, at the age of 75, is heard in top form throughout. His solos would be lengthier in some cases if the music were taken from a live concert, but he gets his message across and shows plenty of passion. Is it as good as his late 1950s albums? That is for the music world to debate, but taken by itself, this is excellent music that contains plenty of exciting moments.

While the sound quality is decent, there are some muddy moments. The blend between Rollins’ guttural sound and Anderson’s trombone on the uptempo tunes is not always pleasant (though it works well on the ballad “Stairway to the Stars”), while the rhythm section often has Cranshaw’s electric bass sounding louder than Broom’s guitar. Howeve,r this is how the band generally sounds live so one cannot expect the engineers to make the ensembles prettier than they are. The music has a rough feel to it which musically is a strength, although soundwise it is a bit of a weakness.

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