A keystone of the new Prestige and Riverside “Best Of” series (Best of Wes Montgomery reviewed here, Best of Milt Jackson here), The Best of Sonny Rollins covers ’51-’56, years the young tenor saxman was coming into his own as a leader while still working as a sideman for mentors Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
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, 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 fully expresses his true greatness, but he has laid down a fair track or two.
Among the highlights of this exceptional single-disc introduction to early Rollins are his (if he has one) signature tune “St. Thomas” (from his ’56 breakthrough album Saxophone Colossus), Rollins’s practically-perfect-in-every-way tribute to the calypso of his ancestral West Indies, with a simple, indelible melody line upon which Rollins flies on ebullient AND sly improvisations, and propulsive yet subtle drumming from Max Roach, who also solos on top of his own hypnotic backbeat.
“More Than You Know” (’54) is almost 11 minutes of blissful ballad work from Rollins with Monk in an exquisite support role; Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” (’53) is similarly luxuriant, with sympathetic backing by the Modern Jazz with Milt Jackson on vibes, who rolls a mellifluous, succinct solo of his own. Rollins’s rapport with bop trumpet great Clifford Brown is telepathic on the very fleet but never rushed-sounding “I Feel a Song Coming On” (’56).
Satisfying and often astonishing, The Best of Sonny Rollins is very fine indeed, even if the title isn’t literally true: the greatest moments from ’56-’58, arguably the geatest period of Rollins’s career, are captured on a five-CD collection on Riverside 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.
And see El Bicho’s review of The Sound of Sonny here.