Sonny Rollins - Alfie

Sonny Rollins Alfie (Impulse 1966)

Alfie, the Sonny Rollins soundtrack of the prize-winning English movie starring Michael Caine, deserves to be ranked alongside Saxophone Colossus and A Night At The Village Vanguard as one of the tenor saxophonist’s major achievements. Largely on account of his unbelievable improvisations in Alfie’s Theme.

Sonny Rollins - Alfie

Personnel

Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Bob Ashton (tenor saxophone), Phil Woods (alto saxophone), Danny Bank (baritone saxophone), J.J. Johnson (trombone A1, A2), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone A3 B1-3), Roger Kellaway (piano), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Walter Booker (bass), Frankie Dunlop (drums), Oliver Nelson (arranger, conductor)

Recorded

on January 26, 1966 at Rudy van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as A-9111 in 1966

Track listing

Side A:
Alfie’s Theme
He’s Younger Than You Are
Street Runner With Child
Side B:
Transition Theme For Minor Blues Or Little Malcolm Loves His Dad
On Impulse
Alfie’s Theme Differently


In the years preceding Alfie, Sonny Rollins had developed into a top-rank performer able to bid a high price for his beloved art form. A lucrative contract with RCA after the tenorist’s legendary, mysterious sabbatical ‘under the Williamsburg Bridge’ from 1959 to 1961 led to a series of five albums for the major label, starting with The Bridge, ending with The Standard Sonny Rollins. In the early and mid-sixties, Rollins, always the contemplative intellectual, self-critical to the point of exhaustion and switching between sidemen continuously, was on a constant search for new means of expression. Keeping it fresh, tryin’ or dyin’, elusive as far as style is concerned, Rollins defied a sound definition of his personality. Albums with standards and the sole bossa tune alternated with extremist free jazz outings like Our Man In Jazz in 1962 and the intriguing, endearing cooperation with Coleman Hawkins on Sonny Meets Hawk in 1963. 1965’s adventurous On Impulse preceded Alfie, which was followed up by the full-blast avantgarde effort with John Coltrane’s famous associates Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison plus Freddie Hubbard, East Broadway Run Down, a high-level album that, however, didn’t fully delivered on its promise. On the other hand, Alfie becomes more beautiful with every turn on the table.

Given the sensitivity and critical attitude of Rollins in regard to obtrusive sidemen, particularly pianists, it is remarkable that the large ensemble context of Alfie works so well. Oliver Nelson’s flexible, spot-on arrangements keep Rollins on his toes. If there is one let-down on this album, it is the fact that the couple of major league colleagues in the reed chairs, Phil Woods and J.J. Johnson, aren’t allowed solo space. Kenny Burrell and Roger Kellaway have ample room to make their mark, and, admittedly, make the most of it. Kellaway’s gentle touch contrasts nicely with the forceful Rollins and the pianist performs particularly well in Alfie’s Theme Differently, building on the dying notes of Rollins’ off-centre bits with zest. Burrell is peppery throughout, switching between fluently archetypical blues lines, shimmering clusters of notes and crunchy chords.

The bit of undercooled, breathy balladry of Rollins in He’s Younger Than You Are is a genuine nod to Coleman Hawkins. But before you know it, Rollins has ended the tune with a sweeping arc of majestic wails. Rollins, the rhythm king, is in evidence on Street Runner With Child, a collage of romantic solo piano, fast-paced blaxploitation flic-type flights and the recurring reference to Alfie’s Theme, is the only tune on the album that reminds us of the fact that Alfie is a soundtrack. The free playing of Rollins, mixed interestingly with a constant eye on the melody, is most evident in Alfie’s Theme Differently and Transition, while the contrast between the lithe rhythm and meandering lines of On Impulse (a title made up on impulse while Sonny was thinking about his album On Impulse also on the Impulse label the year before?) ignites a dreamy vibe.

Rollins in a great mood. It’s getting even better, because, without the shadow of a doubt, Alfie’s Theme is the albums’s hors d’oeuvre. The large ensemble transports the catchy line to the terrain where Ray Charles drove his tunes home to in the fifties. Drive. Propulsion. Courtesy of Oliver Nelson’s fleshy, well-timed horn sections and the probing rhythm tandem of bassist Walter Booker and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Burrell and Kellaway flourish, but Sonny Rollins is the star of the show, performing one of his all-time great solo’s. In a structured exploration of the basic theme, Rollins grabs the melody by its sleeve. Then he pauses deliberately for a while, like a girl that’s playing hard to get, indulges in a rumble of percussive blocks of short-ringing notes, lingers on new notes like a guest savoring a star restaurant dessert, wanders off into the avantgarde jungle, subsequently swings back into bop mode, alternating double timing, honks and forceful wails, moving into scales with the flick of a, highly skilled, tongue and continues to blow confidently over the sounds of the repeated brass and reed statements. Rollins explores every corner of the melody, rhythm-wise, harmony-wise, returning to it almost every few bars and all the while displaying his big, imposing sound. Rounding off the proceedings in style, Rollins ends his solo with an explosive note.

Lots of proteines in the meal of Sonny, which after all, maybe, wasn’t a high-brow dinner but a reinvigorating eggs and sausage and a side of toast, coffee and a roll, hashbrowns over easy, chili in a bowl, with burgers and fries (now, what kinda pie?)… Full stomach tenor! Sonny Rollins at his best, speaking eloquently to both mind and soul. And as a natural consequence, a peak moment in jazz.

Sonny Rollins - Rollins Plays For Bird

Sonny Rollins Rollins Plays For Bird (Prestige 1957)

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 - Rollins Plays For Bird

Personnel

Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Wade Legge (piano), George Morrow (bass), Max Roach (drums)

Recorded

on October 5, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as PRLP 5097 in 1957

Track listing

Side A:
Bird Medley: I Remember You / My Melancholy Baby / Old Folks / They Can’t Take That Away From Me / My Little Suede Shoes / Star Eyes
Side B:
Kids Know
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.

freedomsuite

Sonny Rollins Freedom Suite (Riverside 1958)

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.

freedomsuite

Personnel

Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Max Roach (drums)

Recorded

on February 11 & April 4, 1958 at WOR Recording Studio, NYC

Released

as RLP 12-258 in 1958

Track listing

Side A
The Freedom Suite
Side B
Someday I’ll Find You
Will You Still Be Mine
Till There Was You
Shadow Waltz


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.