Sonny Rollins Dominates His Own Jazz Party

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FALLING IN LOVE WITH JAZZ / COOTS: For All We Know1. KING-STEWART: Tennessee Waltz2. RODGERS-HART: Little Girl Blue2. Falling in Love With Love2,3. WESTON: I Should Care1. ROLLINS: Sister2,3. Amanda2,3 / Sonny Rollins, t-sax with 1Branford Marsalis, t-sax; 3Clifton Anderson, tbn; 1Tommy Flanagan, 2Mark Soskin, pn; Jerome Harris, 2el-gt/1el-bs; 2Bob Cranshaw, el-bs; 1Jeff Watts, 2Jack DeJohnette, dm (no drums on Little Girl Blue) / Milestone MCD-9179-2

This is one of those mid-late-period Sonny Rollins albums that has fallen through the cracks. Recorded in June and August 1989, it features veteran giants Rollins and Flanagan with young buck Branford Marsalis and Marsalis’ drummer, Jeff  “Tain” Watts. The other musicians are all well-known players of that time. The choice of tunes is surprisingly conservative for Rollins, leaning heavily on music of the 1930s and ‘40s (For All We Know, the Rodgers-Hart classics, Tennesee Waltz and I Should Care) with only two new pieces by the leader. It’s almost like a “comfort zone” set, as if he and these musicians were playing at a New York jazz club for an audience that talks and smokes (yes, folks, they still allowed smoking in those days) while the musicians play.

Yet Rollins maintains his edge as an improviser, followed closely in quality by Marsalis. Flanagan is good but seems to coast a bit more in places. In the two selections featuring both saxists it’s interesting to hear the difference between them: Branford plays beautifully (as he always does) with that rich tone of his, the ideas flowing naturally and logically, but Rollins…oh, my goodness, Rollins sounds so modern and avant-garde that it’s almost startling. His mind is constantly thinking ahead every second he’s playing, so completely rewriting each tune not only in melodic contour but particularly in rhythm and even harmonic choices, that only the most astute listener can keep up with him. And, sadly, many of the other musicians, skilled professionals though they are, simply aren’t in his league, particularly not electric guitarist Jerome Harris, who plays well enough to satisfy those imaginary jazz club patrons but not well enough to keep up with the leader. Thus, without really meaning to, the album becomes The Sonny Rollins Show with special guests, the Sonny Rollins singers and dancers. Thank you very much, tips are welcome, please drive home safely.

The question then begs itself: with the exception of Marsalis and Flanagan, and not counting the drummers who keep time well but do not really contribute much to the texture of each tune, what were these musicians doing on this session anyway? Certainly, they had to know who they were playing with and how great his stature as a creative musician was. Would they have played in just as ordinary a way if John Coltrane had still been alive and the centerpiece of this album? Somehow, I think they would have. What a shame that this session didn’t have musicians of the caliber of McCoy Tyner or Don Pullen on piano, Charlie Haden on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Now, that kind of band would have really cooked.

Of course, when you look at the title of the album, Falling in Love With Jazz, you think that just maybe Rollins wanted a “feel-good” session to perhaps introduce himself to a new generation of jazz listeners who, at that time, were grooving on the retro sax playing of Scott Hamilton. But Sonny Rollins could no more restrain his genius in a setting such as this as could Earl Hines, who even as an old man could run rings around many a younger colleague. Sonny Rollins has always been one of my favorite tenor saxists precisely because he has always sounded so fresh, modern and inventive regardless of era that he takes you by surprise and grabs you by the throat. I mean, just listen to his playing on Falling in Love With Love, where he runs a few of those Nicholas Slonimsky chromatic circles of notes and channels his inner Coltrane. This is playing so good that even the most experienced jazz lover would need to listen to it a couple or three times to catch all the invention and nuance he puts into it. To his credit, Harris is a bit more fired up on this track than the others and contributes his best solo on the album, but he’s not even in the same zip code with Rollins. Thank goodness Marsalis makes a return on I Should Care to at least provide some creative balance…in his own very different style, but still inventive.

I was a bit surprised when one of Rollins’ own tunes, Sister, began. Here, Rollins plays the opening chorus along with trombonist Clifton Anderson, and the melody sounds much like the hard bop of the ‘50s…except that, during the solos, the rhythm becomes a bit funkier. Anderson does his level best to play in Rollins’ sandbox, and comes close but not close enough. Interestingly, pianist Mark Soskin, who replaces Flanagan on this and a few other tracks, actually makes a good stab at keeping up with the leader’s invention…not bad at all, really. Conversely, the electric guitar solo here is genuinely pathetic. It sounds like it was dropped in from a third-rate R&B recording. Even Sister Rosetta Tharpe played better than this.

The last track, Amanda, is the most “modern” sounding of the lot, meaning that it has that pseudo-disco-type sound and beat that was still popular at this time. This may be your cup of tea, but it’s not mine, so let’s draw the curtain on it.

So is this album a waste of time? HECK NO! If you love Rollins as much as I do, you’ve simply got to hear how good he was here. Just don’t expect the same kind of genius from the others and you’ll be fine.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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