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Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation

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Every biographer of a musical figure, indeed every writer about music, must deal with the issue of conveying the essence of one medium through the use of another: the “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” conundrum.

While we seem to have no trouble feeling the abstracted meaning of music, its essence, conveying that meaning intelligibly through words is another story entirely. We tend to become either pedantically descriptive or abstractly emotive, or both. It is the rare writer who can both describe music so that it can be clearly understood intellectually, and empathetically convey his emotional reaction to that music. Eric Nisenson, author of other books on jazz including ‘Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis, has done both brilliantly in his biography of jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Open Sky.

Sonny Rollins, born to a musical family of Caribbean heritage in Harlem in 1930, isn’t as familiar a name as others in the very first rank of jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, or Charlie Parker. Yet within the jazz world, Rollins is considered, along with John Coltrane, one of the two most important saxophonists of the last 50 years. Reasons for his relative obscurity outside of jazz include the fact that Rollins has never been strongly identified with a given jazz movement (as are Goodman with swing, Gillespie and Parker with bebop, and Coltrane with free jazz late in his career), nor has he extended his personality outside of jazz as have Armstrong, Davis, Gillespie, and Holiday. Sonny Rollins has never become an entertainer.

Through the many phases of his 50-year career, Rollins has remained stubbornly himself, pursuing with a fierce intensity the music of his soul and the expression of that soul through unfettered improvisation. Due to Rollins’ commitment to pure expression, and the internal and external sensitivities required to find and deliver that expression, a kind of musical Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (the act of observing or measuring a body invariably alters it) has borne down particularly hard upon him while recording. As a result, Rollins has never made a record that reflects his true greatness, a record that reflects the highest expression of his musical “open sky” of the book’s title.

Nisenson begins the book with a description of a typical Sonny Rollins live performance, and the description is almost as riveting as the performance he describes – an instance of form beautifully meeting function: “Being able to actually watch Rollins as he improvises is a fascinating spectacle; there is a powerful physicality in the way he produces sound through his tenor saxophone. The fierce determination that he devotes to producing his flow of sound brings to mind the image of Ahab trying to kill his quarry. The great slabs of sound Rollins produces are so viscerally compelling that they seem to have physical properties.”

The remainder of the book is an essentially chronological telling of Rollins’ life in music, with an emphasis on his artistic maturation in the years from his first recordings as a 19-year-old Charlie Parker-influenced sideman on sessions led by the singer Babs Gonsales, trombonist J.J. Johnson, and the great bop pianist Bud Powell; through his mentoring by pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis, who encouraged him to be true to his own voice; and on to the creation of his classic recordings in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Nisenson had Rollins’ full cooperation in writing the book, and much of the story is told in Rollins’ own words, which provides a fascinating counterpoint to the author’s voice as fan and biographer. We learn of, but don’t revel in, Rollins’ struggles with heroin in the early ’50s, and feel his quiet triumph as he finally overcomes the addiction and leaves behind the lifestyle it generated to become the kind of man and musician he knew he could be.

The greatest moments from an especially fruitful period of Rollins’ career, ’56-’58, are captured on an five-CD collection on Riverside released to coicide with the publication of this book, called The Freelance Years. Included are works from two of his most important albums, The Freedom Suite featuring the great long-form title track, and the fabulous Way Out West, highlighted by Rollins’ audacious jazz take on the old Western tune, “I’m An Old Cowhand,” one of the great moments in recorded jazz history (in spite of Heisenberg).

Rollins’ latest album, This Is What I Do, recorded when he was 70, is brilliant as well, winning his first Grammy. His classic, Tenor Titan, featuring the orginal recording of his signature tune “St. Thomas,” has just been reissued.

Rollins is, even at 72, a stunning live performer. Catch him live while you still can, even if you have to take a trip to Europe:

10/11 Teatro Dell’Opera, Rome
10/13 Tempodrom, Berlin
10/15 Alte-Oper, Frankfurt
10/17 Musikhalle, Hamburg
10/19 Zenith Theater, Nancy, France
10/23 Olympia Theater, Paris

2003:
3/7 Verizon Hall, Philadelphia
3/14 McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ
4/12 Berklee Performance Center, Boston
5/16 NJ Performing Arts Center, Newark
6/6 Discover Jazz Festival, Burlington, VT

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About Eric Olsen