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Sonny Rollins

Instrument: Saxophone | AMT Products Used: Wi5

“You don’t have to be a legend to sound like one.” – Sonny Rollins

Born in Harlem on September 9, 1930 Sonny Rollins began his career in music at an early age, studying piano and alto saxophone from age 11 and eventually taking up the tenor saxophone in 1946. Growing up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem Rollins’ teenage running mates included future jazz masters Jackie McLean, Arthur Taylor, and Kenny Drew with whom he had a band in high school. Situated in both the time and place where be-bop was being formulated, Rollins and his teenage cohorts were greatly intrigued and inspired by the innovations being made in the new jazz idiom. They grew up idolizing those musicians, only slightly older than themselves, at the helm of the new music like Charlie Parker,  Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Rollins was the first of his peers to reach a level where he could join some the older bop players and beginning in the late 1940s Rollins recorded and performed with Parker, Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis among others. In fact, Rollins first appearance on Blue Note was on a Bud Powell date recorded on August 9, 1949 which also featured be-bop stalwarts Fats Navarro on trumpet, Tommy Potter on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. Shortly thereafter, throughout the early 1950s, a frequent associate with whom Rollins worked as a sideman was Miles Davis and in 1955 he replaced Harold Land in the tenor chair of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet. Rollins remained with the pioneering bop drummer after Brown’s untimely death, playing in his group throughout 1957.


It was during his tenure with Max Roach that Rollins began to record as a leader, making albums for both Prestige and Blue Note. Thus, it is only fitting that Roach be behind the drum set on Rollins first album recorded for Blue Note. The December 16, 1956 date which eventually came to be title simply Sonny Rollins, Volume One also featured trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Wynton Kelly, and bassist Gene Ramey. While this is certainly a memorable date with Rollins’ rich, husky timbre in good form, more notable is the session done a few months later. Recorded on April 14, 1957, Sonny Rollins, Volume Two is of special interest because of the presence of two of the most important- but drastically different stylistically – pianists in the history of modern jazz. While hard bop progenitor Horace Silver is at the piano chair for three of the selections, the very unique Thelonious Monk accompanies Rollins on a beautiful rendition of his ballad “Reflections”. Moreover, on what could be considered Monk’s most famous and important composition, the haunting blues line “Misterioso”, Thelonious and Horace share the piano chair with Monk accompanying Sonny at the beginning and end of the song and Silver taking over in the middle. Here, in one song an intriguing contrast between two bebop innovators is witnessed. On the one hand there is Monk’s jutting, discordant style in contrast with the bluesy, soulful stylings of Silver. The piano presence notwithstanding let us not forget the performance of the session’s leader as Rollins playing throughout is superb. One example is his extraordinary solo on “Misterioso” where his improvisatory ideas appear to be limitless.

Rollins final two sessions for Blue Note were recorded in close proximity to one another roughly five months later. The first was a studio date entitled Newk’s Time recorded on September 22, 1957. This quartet date featured Wynton Kelly on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. A loosely constructed blowing session by nature, Newk’s Time is notable for the strong performance by Rollins as well as the solidity of this rhythm section. Miles Davis’ “Tune Up” for instance is given a whirlwind treatment with Rollins displaying in his ingenious solo what was dubbed by music historian Gunther Shuller as “thematic improvisation”, a improvisatory style invented by Rollins which consists of the spontaneous reworking of an initially stated theme or motif. Newk’s Time is also representative of Rollins aesthetic code in that it exemplifies his penchant for giving jazz treatment to hackneyed popular material. On this record Rollins turns to the popular show tunes “Wonderful!Wonderful!” and “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top”.

While Newk’s Time is an important record on these counts, Rollins next and final recording for Blue Note proved to be his most significant output for the label. Moreover, this recording is considered by many one of Rollins finest recordings of his career. A Night At The Village Vanguard (Volumes 1 and 2) is significant first because it was Rollins only live record done for Blue Note and; furthermore, because it has come to epitomize and define live jazz recordings at their very finest. Recorded during the afternoon and evening sets on November 3, 1957 at New York’s famed Village Vanguard, this record captures the essence of jazz conveyed upon hearing the music live in its spontaneity, intellect, energy and feeling. The live session is also notable because Rollins mastery of improvisation is at its highest level given the extended format of the club date. Here Rollins is not confined to the time restrictions of the studio and; thus, truly stretches out producing lengthy and brilliantly constructed improvisations. Lastly, A Night At The Village Vanguard is a landmark record because it captured Rollins’ pioneering idea of the jazz unit in the pianoless tenor saxophone trio. This minimalist approach gave the rhythm section a emptier, freer feel as accompaniment for Sonny’s blazing tenor. Lastly, the date is interesting because it includes Rollins with two different trios. The afternoon session featured bassist and Donald Bailey and drummer Pete La Roca while in the evening Sonny was accompanied by Wilbur Ware on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.

Rollins output for Blue Note is notable because it was during this period that he became widely regarded as the most talented and innovative tenor saxophonist in jazz. At this time Sonny became the most influential and widely-imitated jazz saxophonist, establishing himself as the most outstanding saxophonist since Charlie Parker (and later superseded by John Coltrane). However, a year and a half after the Village Vanguard session he withdrew from public life as a result of personal and musical frustrations. A little over two years later, however, Rollins re-emerged out of seclusion with an expansion of his already fortuitous technique. Throughout the 1960s, Rollins also began to experiment with avant-garde jazz movement of the period, free jazz. From 1969 to 1971 Rollins took another public hiatus, but in 1972 he resumed playing once more, leading groups of various young musicians but this time performing in a more commercial vein. Nonetheless, Rollins allegiance to the hard bop tradition has endured throughout the 1980s and 90s as he continues to perform and record his own personal interpretation of the idiom he both mastered and helped define.