The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, Riverside, and Contemporary is an unwieldy title for a concise summary of the jazz legend’s early recording career. Twenty-one classics fill up two CDs, beginning in 1951 with a cut from Rollins’s first session as a leader and carrying through to 1958. For new or casual fans, Concord Music Group has assembled a valuable compilation.
Sonny Rollins, who recently turned 80 years old, has outlived most of the jazz legends he played with on these recordings. Early in the collection, a pair of tunes finds Rollins backed by the Modern Jazz Quartet (two different line-ups, the first featuring Art Blakey on drums). A trio of Rollins’ originals from the classic Miles Davis album Bags’ Groove follows, all recorded in 1954. “Airegin,” “Doxy,” and “Oleo” are all jazz standards, essential to any collection of music from the era. Thelonious Monk joins Rollins for a sly take on “The Way You Look Tonight” from the same year.
Most of the compositions on The Definitive Sonny Rollins are Rollins originals. For jazz neophytes, his warm tenor sound and supreme melodicism make for an ideal point of entry to this often intimidating style of music. Many of his melodic statements provide a hummable, memorable hook for listeners unaccustomed to hearing improvisational music. For many pop and rock fans, hearing extended soloing over frequently complex chord changes can take some getting used to. But tunes like “Valse Hot,” “Pent-Up House,” and “St. Thomas” provide strong original melodies, perfect for “breaking in” the curious listener testing the jazz waters.
That’s not to say Sonny Rollins should be thought of as a “pop” musician, far from it. Rollins was, and continues to be, an explorative artist. His often playful and whimsical style makes him uniquely accessible for non-jazz fans, many of whom consider listening to jazz equivalent to doing homework. Check out “Tenor Madness,” the only recorded collaboration between Rollins and fellow tenor giant John Coltrane, for a study in contrasting approaches.
Late in disc two listeners are treated to 1958’s “The Freedom Suite,” a nearly twenty minute piece featuring Rollins backed only by the incomparable rhythm section of Oscar Pettiford on bass and Max Roach on drums. This is an example of the type of performance that so confounds newcomers to the genre. “The Freedom Suite” demands the listener’s attention, presenting extended improvisation without the harmonic guide of a chord-capable accompanist. For an example of even greater minimalism, that piece is preceded by a totally unaccompanied reading of the standard “It Could Happen To You” from 1957.
All of this material is presented in crystal clear audio quality that barely betrays its age. An essay by Bob Blumenthal offers a crash course in Rollins’ early work. The booklet also provides detailed session information for each track, with recording dates and personnel. The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, Riverside, and Contemporary can’t be faulted in any way as a gateway into the artist’s musical world.