Recently released as part of the third series in the 23 title Jazz Icons DVD collection, Jazz Icons: Sonny Rollins Live In '65 & '68 is another must-see for serious fans. The Jazz Icons DVDs present a treasure trove of live performance footage from around the world, capturing jazz legends in their prime.
Not to be mistaken for documentaries, this series regularly unearths rare concerts that have never been released on a home video format and serves them straight up. There are no voice-overs or interviews – just the music. In some cases the material hasn't been seen since the day it aired on television in its country of origin, if it was ever broadcast at all. One of the greatest and most influential tenor saxophonists in jazz history, Sonny Rollins is featured here in two performances for a total running time of 87 minutes. Fair warning should be provided for the uninitiated: while it isn't wildly experimental advant-garde, this isn't necessarily the most easily accessible music. Despite Rollins' adherence to melody and form, the untrained ear may even find some passages unmusical. But for devotees of jazz, this DVD is essential.
Rollins was well established as a leading figure in jazz music when these performances were taped. The first, and longest, set comes from the 1965 Copenhagen Jazz Festival in Denmark. Backed by Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Alan Dawson on drums, the trio run through a challenging five-song set that lasts nearly an hour. Rather strikingly photographed throughout, with a nearly film noir shadowy style, the opening shot is from behind the drum kit looking outward into a pitch black void. We see Rollins from the back, playing to an audience that remains unseen throughout the show. The tune is "There Will Never Be Another You," lasting a relatively brief four minutes or so.
For those unfamiliar with Rollins' piano-less approach, first adopted in 1957, the overall sound will take some getting used to. In jazz combos that include a pianist or guitarist, the listener's ear is guided through the song's structure via the 'comping' that a chordal instrument contributes. In this case, however, we hear only a rhythm section during Rollins' extended saxophone solos. The result is a stark soundscape, one that requires a great deal more concentration from the listener.
Next up is Rollins' signature tune, and the one most likely to be recognized even by non-fans, "St. Thomas." This composition, with its instantly memorable calypso melody, has become a jazz standard. Featured here in a rollicking twelve-minute version, Rollins plays a bouncy, inventive solo before shifting the focus to Pedersen on bass. During Pedersen's fluid solo, Rollins whispers sax embellishments in the background. It's a fun, engaging performance. The centerpiece of the set follows, a twenty-minute-plus medley of two Rollins tunes: "Oleo" and "Sonnymoon For Two."
Brilliant as it is, this is an example of what often gives inexperienced listeners the false impression that jazz is little more than aimless, endless noodling. In truth, there is a world of difference between blowing a bunch of random notes and constructing an intelligent, creative solo. Many casual listeners are easily fooled by faux virtuosity if they don't have at least a basic understanding of the mechanics behind improvisation. Anyone can scribble a long sequence of numbers on a piece of paper, but it takes some knowledge of mathmatics to write actual equations. During this piece, Rollins stretches out for nearly ten minutes on a solo that varies wildly in mood and feel. It takes a true master to run through so many ideas without becoming monotonous.
When he passes the baton to Pedersen, it isn't because he's run out of steam – he seems able to carry on indefinitely. Pedersen's bass work is hypnotic, but in contrast to Rollins he does appear to eventually run dry as his solo sputters to an abrupt ending. Dawson gets off to a slow start as he picks up where Pedersen left off, but works up a full head steam for an energetic solo. A short rendition of the standard "Darn That Dream" is next, with Rollins transitioning to the finale by playing unaccompanied for a couple of minutes. "Three Little Words" is the set closer, featuring Rollins and Dawson trading fours to great effect. Towards the end, Rollins leans down to his sax mic to thank the audience. He then concludes with another brief but adventurous solo, playing outside the changes at times, before trotting off the stage.
Taped three years later, again in Denmark during, the second set features a very noteworthy difference. Pianist Kenny Drew is part of the group this time, giving the sound a fuller, more traditional feel. Pedersen is again on bass, and the drummer this time out is Albert Heath. The playing is excellent, but I found it a little less exciting than the preceding set. Not a knock against Drew, as his solos provide many highlights here, but the addition of the piano makes for a comparatively conventional approach. That said, newcomers may want to begin with this part of the program. The DVD makes it very easy as either set can be separately selected from the menu.
For thirty minutes, the quartet play in a television studio without an audience. "St. Thomas" repeats here, and this was my personal favorite selection of the three-song set because it provided an intriguing contrast to the 1965 piano-less rendition. Kenny Drew's work is extraordinary, his piano adding a dimension absent from the equally impressive earlier version. Also performed are a lengthy work-out on the standard "On Green Dolphin Street" and Miles Davis' "Four." The camera work in this 1968 concert is a bit more active than in the 1965 footage, with a wider variety of angles and close-ups.
Jazz Icons: Sonny Rollins Live In '65 & '68 fully lives up to the high standard of technical presentation established by the Jazz Icons series. Though a few minor imperfections pop up now and again (an unavoidable result of forty-year-old videotape), the black-and-white footage is remarkably pristine. Even more importantly, the audio quality is flawless. Of course it isn't the surround sound mixes of today's concert releases, but that should go without saying given the age of this material. The sound is full and clear, with each instrument easily distinguishable from one another.
Another hallmark of the Jazz Icons series is the information-packed DVD booklet, and this one does the Sonny Rollins legacy proud. An impressive amount of background information is included, as well as detailed notes examining the two concerts found on the DVD. Along with rare photographs and new comments about these performances from Sonny Rollins himself, everyone from hardcore fans to those completely new to Rollins will likely be satisfied.