[JPL] Sonny Rollins Strips for Action ...complete text....

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 17 18:38:37 EDT 2007

September 16, 2007
Sonny Rollins Strips for Action 
SONNY ROLLINS didn’t just influence other saxophone
players. He produced a half-century of close
listeners. The long, idiosyncratic tenor saxophone
solos that he started developing around 50 years ago —
bulging sacks of brilliant thematic improvisation, as
well as slangy humor and quotations — became a genuine
American rhetoric, delirious and ecstatic; audiences
reoriented their imagination, and their sense of
patience, around them. But his greatest work from the
1950s and ’60s trained many of them to want what he
was later unwilling to give. 

Some would like him to play small rooms every once in
a while, so they could hear his tone better; or to
perform into a standing microphone, without a clip-on
microphone on his horn; or with no amplification at
all. Some want him to play fewer calypsos. Some want
him to banish the electric bass from his stage.
Perhaps the most abject hope has been that he simplify
things and play again the way he often did in the late
’50s and ’60s, with only a bassist and drummer. These
fantasy-league visions have never stopped, and he has
never paid them much attention. 

So when Mr. Rollins, who turned 77 this month,
announced this summer that he would play at Carnegie
Hall on Sept. 18, and that for part of the concert he
would play in a trio with the bassist Christian
McBride and the drummer Roy Haynes, all those who
watch jazz closely stepped back and took a deep

What’s so special about Sonny Rollins and trios?

When Mr. Rollins decided not to hire a pianist while
making the record “Way Out West” in March 1957, jazz
shifted a little bit, if mostly in his direction. 

“What I got out of it,” he explained in an interview a
few weeks ago, “was that, for better or for worse, I
had an opportunity to play what was in my head. I was

The veteran tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin was in his
late 20s and living in Philadelphia when he first
heard Mr. Rollins play in a trio. “It had a huge
impact,” he said. “It set the basis for what I was
trying to do as a young man. I had the greatest jazz
experiences I ever had while listening to Sonny in a
trio.” He quickly tried it himself, and leads a
saxophone trio today. “You try to become part of the
drum set, become part of the bass,” he said.

Most of the tenor saxophonists who have followed Mr.
Rollins in leading trios — that list would include Mr.
Tabackin, Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman,
Branford Marsalis, David Murray and David S. Ware —
have had to think long and hard about his example. 

Though only a small portion of his discography uses
the saxophone-bass-drums format, it encompasses some
of his very best records, and some of the best records
in all of jazz. After “Way Out West” Mr. Rollins kept
at it. In early November 1957 he played at the Village
Vanguard in New York with the bassist Wilbur Ware and
the drummer Elvin Jones; some of the music was
recorded and released as “A Night at the Village
Vanguard.” In February 1958 he recorded “Freedom
Suite” with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. He played
lots of trio music after that until 1966, live mostly.
Afterward he rarely returned to the form.

Among those great trio recordings was one that has
gone largely unheard: the three songs Mr. Rollins
played during his first performance at Carnegie Hall,
on Nov. 29, 1957, with Wendell Marshall on bass and
Kenny Dennis on drums. The show was recorded by
Carnegie Hall as part of a multiple-artists benefit
concert; the tapes from that night, discovered at the
Library of Congress in 2004, have already yielded the
superb CD “Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane
at Carnegie Hall.” 

Next week’s concert at Carnegie Hall will take place
nearly 50 years after the 1957 show. If all goes
according to plan, he will play the same songs he
played in 1957, record the concert and subsequently
release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a
single CD, through his own label, Doxy. So the CD will
contain the same three loose frameworks for
improvising — “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Some Enchanted
Evening” and “Moritat (Mack the Knife)” — performed 50
years apart. 

Mr. Rollins likes the symmetry of the idea, and the
discovery of the old Carnegie Hall recording gave him
a reason to revisit the trio format. (He admitted,
though, that given his propensity for excessive
self-criticism, he hasn’t been able to bring himself
to listen to the 1957 tape just yet.) Outside of that
he was not especially conscious of doing anything
different then. As he put it, he was “always trying to
experiment with some other ways of getting closer to
my best performance expression.” 

“Playing by myself, and hearing all the instruments in
my head, was not something unknown to me or unusual to
me,” he explained. “I had always been a person that
liked to practice by myself. I found great comfort and
enjoyment in it. I was able to play for hours and
hours alone, and I used to go to secluded places to
practice.” Those places included the Williamsburg
Bridge walkway in New York City, and the long solitary
sessions helped him develop himself as a long-form
improviser capable of leading a band without another
horn player. 

“When I was playing with Miles Davis” — who first
hired Mr. Rollins in the late ’40s — “I remember we
used to do a thing we’d call stroll, where we’d have
the piano lay out so that just drums and bass played
with the horn player,” he continued. The absence of
the piano, a naturally dominating instrument, let Mr.
Rollins assume a much different role in the band. 

“One horn player is almost compelled to follow the
pianist,” he explained. “There are exceptions, but
generally the pianist plays a more than equal role to
the horn player.”

Branford Marsalis, who has played a lot of saxophone
trio music, said he thinks Mr. Rollins’s best bands
were trios or other pianoless groups. “It’s really
hard to find piano players with imagination,” he said.
“A lot of piano players tend to go home and practice,
then play what they practice, which has a certain
preordained feeling. A guy like Sonny — really more
than anybody in jazz — can’t really be around that
kind of stuff. He can’t be locked in a box. When you
think about the way he plays, it’s completely logical
that he would play in trio. He’s such a
stream-of-consciousness player. So he gets to set the
harmony, he can make the chords be whatever they want
to at any given time.” 

What made Mr. Rollins’s saxophone trio so special in
1957 wasn’t just the lack of a piano. (Gerry Mulligan
had a quartet with no piano in 1951, but it made very
meticulous music, with two horns, baritone saxophone
and trumpet, creating contrapuntal harmony.) Nor was
it the number three. (Nat King Cole’s group, with
piano, guitar and bass, had been famous since 1940,
and in the late ’40s Mr. Rollins himself used to lead
a trio with piano and bass when he opened shows for
Miles Davis.)

It was those particular instruments. Without a chordal
instrument (piano or guitar) or any other front-line
player, the saxophonist in charge has more elastic
possibilities. The absence of chords, which bind and
determine the harmony, let the saxophonist play a
greater range of ideas without fear of clashing. And
though by the late ’50s the tenor saxophone was
already linked to a kind of American masculine
charisma — there had been Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster
and Dexter Gordon, all playing the role of threshers
in the long grass — the tenor saxophone trio
encouraged a new level of solitary stamina in jazz:
developing a narrative across long stretches of time,
ultimately being heroic. 

All of that requires an unusual amount of energy. Mr.
Marsalis first tried trio playing in 1988, when the
pianist in his quartet had his own record to promote.
“I finished a solo,” he remembered, “and I realized,
‘O.K., what do we do now?’ ”

Then Bob Hurst, the bassist, took a solo, “and I
figured, I never did like that formatted thing where
everyone plays a solo on every song,” he continued.
“So then I said, damn, I have to play longer. It hit
me immediately that the second player is a foil. And
when the foil is gone, it’s just you.”

Mr. Tabackin, interviewed a few weeks ago, was about
to travel to Japan to play 15 gigs in 16 days with his
trio. “It’s really physically demanding,” he said.
(Mr. Tabackin is 10 years younger than Mr. Rollins.)
“You have to cover a certain amount of space, almost
physical space. It’s mainly the breathing thing that’s
the problem. But if you play every night, it gets
easier.” He paused. “I’m saying that now. In a few
years I might have to change my mind.”

Mr. Rollins, typically, is philosophical on the
subject. He acknowledges that there can be more space
to fill during trio performances. But he maintains
that it’s up to him to decide how much to fill it. 

“Strange as it seems,” he said, “sometimes I’ve found
it easier, less physical, to play with a trio. With
other instruments, one would think, gee, I’ve got
others to help support me, to take up some of the
space, so I don’t have to play everything. 

“But actually it works to the reverse. On the
occasions when I’ve done the old favorite of drums and
bass, I end up less physically fatigued and more


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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