SONNY CLARK – Great news, the independent Tompkins Square label has put out a 2LP, yes, vinyl, of Sonny Clark music. Sonny Clark Trio: The 1960 Time Sessions With George Duvivier And Max Roach is due out on November 24. It boasts several outtakes of Clark’s session at Bell Sound Studios in NYC in January, 1960, a session that would lead to the first album of compositions written solely by Clark. It preceded Blue Note’s Leapin’ And Lopin’, Clark’s swan song as a leader, also a recording that showed the fulfillment of Sonny Clark as a composer. The story of how this new release came about on Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square label is surprising and has something to do with comedian Judd Apatow… Read an illuminating article on Sonny Clark and the new release by Nate Chinen of WBGO here.
Sandwiched between the colossal Saxophone Colossus and future landmark albums Way Out West and A Night At The Village Vanguard, Rollins Plays For Bird is a mildly disappointing homage to Charlie Parker from, paraphrasing Gunther Schuller, the central figure of the erstwhile renewal of jazz.
Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Wade Legge (piano), George Morrow (bass), Max Roach (drums)
on October 5, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
as PRLP 5097 in 1957
Bird Medley: I Remember You / My Melancholy Baby / Old Folks / They Can’t Take That Away From Me / My Little Suede Shoes / Star Eyes
I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face
It would be hard to top the Colossus, of course. One of the classic jazz albums of all time, it displays Rollins at an early peak, inventing new possibilities for jazz and the tenor saxophone: the exuberant and structurally logic improvisation of Blue Seven, the knack of turning unconvential material like Moritat into simultaneously complex and accessible gems, the introduction of exotic (West-Indian) roots and rhythm in the unforgettable calypso tune St. Thomas (A tune credited to Rollins, but actually a traditional that was first recorded by Randy Weston as Fire Down There in 1955) and the exploration of the tenor’s full range in ballads like You Don’t Know What Love Is.
Little of that on Rollins Plays For Bird, a recording of the Sonny Rollins Quintet, which was actually the line-up of The Max Roach Quintet shortly after the passing of trumpeter Clifford Brown and pianist Richard Powell. It feels rather as if Rollins is treading water and not getting to the point one would hope for in the case of a tribute to one of his major musical forebears, Charlie Parker. The Bird Medley that takes up the full 23 minutes of side A does possess a relaxed, swinging vibe and a tacky structure where Rollins, Dorham and pianist Wade Legge subsequently guide us through the themes. Dorham’s sweet-tart tone and fluent, unhurried phrasing are assets. The confident flow of Rollins’ lines is evident, the finest moments coming when he playfully explores the low register of the tenor sax in They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
However, considering Bird, the choice of repertoire hardly does justice to the modern music giant. Indeed, Parker regularly played these tunes but one would expect songs that he wrote himself or configurations of standards that have become iconic. Moreover, a medium tempo (excluding a short double-time section) is maintained throughout, interspersed with formulaic theme-solo-theme sections and trading of fours between drums and soloists. Attention easily drifts elsewhere. Compared with the commanding title track of Freedom Suite, the cooperation of Rollins with Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford of five months later, a medley of varied Rollins originals that also takes up the whole of side A, the Bird Medley comes up a decisive second. In favor of the latter, it consisted of one spontaneous take, while the Freedom Suite was glued together from seperate tracks.
I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face is a solid if not extraordinary ballad rendition, and a common choice of Rollins, who otherwise was revered for digging up obscure or unlikely standards. The Rollins original Kids Know, like the medley also played in medium tempo, has a frolic, catchy theme. Alas, Max Roach, seemingly not in the best of moods, practically drags it to death.
Just one week later, the clouds parted considerably and the quintet (including Ray Bryant) delivered the sprightly, inspired album Max Roach + 4. Six months later, Rollins delivered on the promise of Rollins Plays For Bird with the A Night At The Village Vanguard album, reviving standards and Parker contrafacts with a level of spontaneity and experimentation that has set a standard to this day.
Considering a giant like Rollins, expectations run, and ran, high. In this respect, Rollins Plays For Bird underachieves considerably.
The title track of Sonny Rollins’ provocative 1958 album Freedom Suite takes up the whole of side A. Does anybody ever care to continue listening to side B’s set of Broadway and pop reworkings in one sweep? I would guess not. Notwithstanding the merits of those intriguing pop interpretations, the Freedom Suite is just too overwhelming. It begs to be relistened once the needle is off.
Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Max Roach (drums)
on February 11 & April 4, 1958 at WOR Recording Studio, NYC
as RLP 12-258 in 1958
The Freedom Suite
Someday I’ll Find You
Will You Still Be Mine
Till There Was You
Nowadays, the place of Freedom Suite in the pantheon of influential musical statements of black consciousness is safe and secured. Back then, it was a bold stroke from a successful, innovative jazz artist who allegedly had trouble finding a decent apartment in New York City due to white racism. The message is hard to overlook. In the original sleeve notes, a statement from Sonny Rollins is included:
“America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as its own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”
The image of Sonny Rollins on the front cover might be explained as the visual companion to his written words. Rollins, half-naked, cast in shadows, with a hurt, yet defiant countenance, looks purported to resemble a slave. It connects with the parts of the suite that bear an eerie resemblance to chain gang songs.
First and foremost, Sonny Rollins lets the music speak for itself. The Freedom Suite (the title track) combines the harmonic daring and fervent drive of Rollins and the controlled fire and melodic finesse of his companions Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford. It’s built on three movements of similar, short melodies and fascinates from start to finish. In the opening melody, a tacky, jingle-like cluster of phrases that show Rollins’ affinity with the playful, quixotic themes of Charlie Parker, Rollins takes seven minutes to explore every angle of the melody. Pushing or pulling the beat, veering between registers by way of an assertive flurry of arpeggio’s, Rollins glues together heartfelt sweeps and humorous asides. Oscar Pettiford sternly pushes along the loping rhythm. Max Roach concentrates almost as much on melody as Rollins; constantly favouring snare and toms above cymbals, Roach ferociously mirrors the instant gems Rollins cooks up. It’s a spontaneous, exciting group performance.
After a pause, the trio sets in the rollicking theme that sounds like a chain gang or slave boat song. Paradoxically, it also has the giddy-up bounce of a cowboy song. Via a couple of a capella Rollins phrases, it segues into a beautiful ballad. It’s not a blues, but blues feeling is at its core. The husky delivery of Rollins is supported succinctly by Roach and Pettiford. They take plenty of room, as in the first movement, to display their excellent solo qualities. Roach and Rollins shared a lot of experience, having collaborated in the Max Roach/Clifford Brown quintet and on a couple of Rollins albums, among them the landmark album Saxophone Colossus.
After another chain gang bounce intermezzo, Rollins thrusts himself headlong into a short melody at breakneck speed. It’s the Sonny Rollins of Live At The Village Vanguard 1 & 2, elaborating on bebop principles with fresh, harmonic elan. The near-anarchic Rollins is in top form, beginning and ending phrases where you least expect them to. The piano-less endeavor has clearly worked in Rollins’ favour. Freedom Suite possesses a rugged beauty. Before Freedom Suite, Rollins had recorded succesfully with piano-less trio’s on Way Out West and the beforementioned Village Vanguard albums. He would continue displaying his fascination for the format with The Bridge in 1961.
Rollins is admired for his knack of finding and transforming often obscure Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and pop melodies. The interpretations on Freedom Suite have that typical Sonny Rollins sound of surprise, but lack the bliss of renditions such as There’s No Business Like Show Business (from Worktime) The production doesn’t work in his favor as well. The sound of the rhythm section is pretty flat and dry – listening to Max Roach cardboard box sound, one feels inclined to assume that it must’ve been Riverside’s objective to re-create the demo sound of a live gig at Minton’s Playhouse in the late fourties.
Of these reworkings, Will You Still Be Mine is the most interesting. The intricate rhythm work of Roach and Pettiford intensifies the mood of Rollins, who reacts with an extravagant climax. The call and response between Rollins and Roach on Someday I’ll Find You is an attractive asset to a pretty melody. Till There Was You – also recorded by The Beatles in 1962 – is a sax-bass duet for the biggest part. Rollins succesfully avoids its corny character. The only time Sonny Rollins doesn’t seem up for his task is on Shadow Waltz. He sounds detached, unable to get under the skin of the melody.
Sonny’s statements in the sleeve notes ring through. Both daily life (housing, employment) and law (the victory of Brown vs Board Of Education backfired) still put blacks in disadvantage around 1958. Racism persisted around the country. A disproportionate number of poor blacks had died in the Korean war. But being a musician, being the continuously inventive Sonny Rollins, the music of Freedom Suite is what speaks most eloquently. Rollins doggedly met the challenge of the experimental title track and showed what jazz is all about.
Stanley Turrentine swings impeccably on his 1960 debut as leader Stan ‘The Man’ Turrentine, but his style isn’t as fully formed as on his later albums for Blue Note.
Stanley Turrentine (tenor saxophone), Tommy Flanagan (piano A1, A3, B2-3), Sonny Clark (piano A2, B1, B4), George Duvivier (bass), Max Roach (drums)
in January 1960
as Time 52086 in 1960
Mild Is The Mood
Time After Time
My Girl Is Just Enough Woman For Me
High quality sidemen Sonny Clark, Max Roach and George Duvivier recorded Sonny Clark Trio for Time Records in the same year. They bring a natural flow to Turrentine’s session, that also saw the more lighthearted Tommy Flanagan replace Sonny Clark; the latter adds Bud Powellesque twists and turns to Sheri. Stolen Sweets, a pretty Wild Bill Davis shuffle, is a highlight on this album.
This date is also issued by the same label as Let’s groove under leadership of legendary drummer Max Roach. (Picture sleeve addicts will undoubtly prefer this French copy to Stan ‘The Man’ Turrentine.) Exploitative practices of this kind are not uncommon. One wouldn’t expect chief of Time Records, Bob Shad, (best known for the Mainstream label’s polished 300 series) to go for a fast buck. However, it looks ‘shady’, to say the least.