Sonny Rollins is one of the few musicians Ive seen twice in one year. In spring 96 he played in Cleveland. At this show another saxophonist, James Carter, made a surprise appearance, and I had the feeling that Carter might have been holding back a bit so as not to overpower Sonny. That fall, Rollins came to Oberlin, and I cant imagine anyone who could have overpowered Sonny at that show.
Of Rollinss contemporaries, the one saxophonist who some would mention as being competitive with Sonny is John Coltrane. Coltrane played long solos, as Rollins often does. But while Coltranes statements felt like something between fire-and-brimstone sermons and free-association therapy, Rollins is more like a raconteur who can access an unstoppable gush of stories, jokes and ideas.
Although Rollins doesnt solo at the extreme lengths of Coltrane, he has other quirks. He favors tunes that might have seemed dangerously schmaltzy in 1950, let alone 2008. He likes calypsos. He prefers a band that provides an unchallenging foundation for his work. When he can get the flow going that he achieved at Oberlin, these things dont matter. When the energy isnt there, as seemed to be the case in Cleveland, they do.
Like many others who are quirky, inconsistent, and inspired, Rollins has obsessed devotees. Where the Dead had Dick Latvala, and Phish has Kevin Shapiro, Rollins has Carl Smith. And he has Gary Giddins, who I just read today considers what I thought was a standard Rollins solo to be intriguingly uncharacteristic.
This is one of those things that makes me think I havent done as much to follow up on that great fall 96 experience as I should have. Recently, though, I checked out Rollinss most current CD, the studio effort Sonny, Please. The conventional wisdom on Rollins is that his recordings rarely capture the experience of an inspired concert. This one, though, comes close perhaps even closer than his official bootleg release Without A Song, from a legendary concert immediately after 9/11.
The title track of Sonny, Please matches calypso flavors with dissonance. After a quick theme, Rollins begins improvising. By the end of the solo, he is alternating playing the bass line and shooting off into numerous tangents, some agitated, some speech-like, some melodic. There are other solos, and then another Rollins statement that fades out. Most jazz improvisers struggle to find meaning in a set of chords. Rollins sounds as if he could go another hour playing over a one-note bass line.
The rest of the CD is nearly as good, but it includes more of the aforementioned quirks. Rollins quotes Oh Susanna on three different songs. Sax and drums trading solos on a ballad? It happens, on Someday Ill Find You, and while its an intriguing idea it continues too long after the novelty wears off. On the blues Nishi, we get a short guitar solo, followed by a long Rollins solo, followed by short drum and trombone solos. The Rollins solo is great, but the lopsided construction doesnt do the rest of the band many favors. While Coltrane didnt have this kind of humor and exuberance, he did more to galvanize his band.
When Rollinss energy is there, though, its enough to carry one CD and more. Its a good thing this disc captures the concert experience, since I see on his website that what could have been a great concert (last years Carnegie Hall appearance, when Rollins was joined not only by his band but by two of the best living musicians, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes) wont be coming out on disc because Rollins didnt find his performance satisfactory.
Rollins is a strange and inconsistent improvising voice, but a great one. It will be a sad day when this voice falls silent.