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Music Review: Sonny Rollins – Way Out West

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From the hilarious cover art, through the amazing music of the Sonny Rollins Trio, Way Out West is a stone classic. Sonny was definitely on a roll in March 1957, when recording of the album took place. Having just issued such landmarks as Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, and Tour de Force, Rollins was at an early peak in his career. Strangely enough, Way Out West was initially viewed as little more than a gimmick initially.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. As a Depression-era youth growing up in Harlem, the movies provided an escape for him. “Westerns took me away from reality,” says Rollins, “They took me to another place, and gave me hope that a Utopia did indeed exist in life.”

The sincerity Sonny felt towards the subject matter is apparent right from the start. “I’m An Old Cowhand” finds drummer Shelly Manne tapping out the beat like the clip-clopping of a horse before Sonny steps in. His tenor sax articulates the quirky lyrics composer Johnny Mercer originally utilized, right down to the immortal “Yippie-yi-o-ki-yay.”

The choice of the great Duke Ellington ballad “Solitude” as the next cut is an odd one at first glance. The sophisticated Duke may seem out of place on a record like this, but Rollins knew what he was doing. In utilizing such a song, he points up the essential loner status of the cowboy. It also presents a great opportunity for Rollins to explore the depth of tone inherent in his playing. The bass solo from Ray Brown late in the tune is especially entrancing.

Sonny’s own “Come, Gone” ended side one of the original LP in an energetic manner. On this track, Rollins is very much the “saxophone colossus,” as he completely dominates the song in a post-Bop frenzy.

The longest track on the record is up next, the ten minute “Wagon Wheels.” It is certainly the most cinematic of the six sides. Beginning with some relaxed bass and drum figures from Brown and Manne, Rollins takes his time coming in. When he does, it is as if the tumbleweeds are slowly tumbling along, nothing is rushed. The space Sonny takes is reminiscent of the wide open spaces of Monument Valley, where so many classic Westerns were filmed.

“There Is No Greater Love,” is another fine ballad, notable for Sonny’s fluency, and a nice bass solo from Brown. Finally, we come to the title track, “Way Out West,” written by Rollins. It is his own take on the genre, and evokes sort of a “Home On The Range” feeling, again reminding us of the infinite vistas of the Old West.

The recording of Way Out West took place in one marathon session which began at 3 a.m. March 7, 1957 — and stretched into the late morning hours. Besides the original six tracks released on the album, there were alternate takes of “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Come, Gone,” and “Way Out West.” The Original Jazz Classics 24-bit remastered release includes these alternate versions, which are all worthwhile in their own right.

Way Out West is one of the most unique recordings in the extensive Sonny Rollins catalog. It is also one of his finest.

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