Sounds Like: Sonny Rollins, which makes sense, because it’s Sonny Rollins.
Why You Should Care: It’s about time you were reminded of what it was like when the saxophone was a respected instrument.
When people say they hate the saxophone, they usually mean they hate David Sanborn, the purveyor of all that cheesebucket, open-shirted dreck that polluted so many TV shows and movies in the 1980s. Or they mean they hate Kenny G, who presented soulless and overly technical acrobatics on a soprano sax and had the utter balls to call that jazz. Or they mean they hate Jay Beckenstein, who is both the founder of Spyro Gyra and the Dr. Oppenheimer of the “fusion” movement. Or maybe they mean whoever that asshole was who played on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.”
I hate that shit, too. These folks all took the saxophone in unbearably hokey directions and did serious damage to the reputation of the instrument. But when people say they hate the saxophone, there is no way that they are talking about Sonny Rollins.
Sonny Rollins is one of the few remaining musicians of the classic era of be-bop from the 1950s. Pick a name of any jazz great out of a hat, and Sonny Rollins has played with them. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Elvin Jones. McCoy Tyner. Dizzy Gillespie. Max Roach. Art Blakey. The guys who looked so cool on those Blue Note or Prestige or Columbia album covers. Any of them. All of them.
When Rollins came onto the New York scene in the early 1950s, be-bop had been under the sway of Charlie Parker for over a decade, which meant that soul and personality had taken a backseat to blinding speed and an ability to improvise. This wasn’t necessarily Parker’s fault, any more than Green Day was responsible for all of those terrible, booger-eating pop punk bands of the late 1990s. But the end result was that Parker set a fairly dominant trend in jazz, and that trend was velocity. Sonny Rollins rescued jazz from the limiting idea that fast automatically equals good.
He also went a long way towards making be-bop accessible without compromising its principles. Sonny Rollins has never looked down his nose at hooks. Witness “St. Thomas,” for instance, or else “Alfie’s Theme.” Those opening riffs are catchy and memorable, and give people who are unfamiliar with the form something to hang on to while they get used to the improvisation and soloing that happens throughout the songs.
He’s been doing this for about 60 years now. He stops for a few years every now and again, but then re-appears and blows everybody’s mind with a string of concert appearances or an occasional new album. Rollins’ Road Shows series is a compilation of live shows collected since 1980, and as great as most of his studio albums are, Rollins goes into a higher gear when he’s playing in front of people.
Road Shows Volume 3 covers live appearances between 2001 and 2012, which means that all of this was recorded when he was in his 70s and 80s. But don’t mistake this for a nostalgia trip where the old guy is carted out and his diminished skills are tactfully overlooked by completionists and fanboys. Considering his age, the strength of Rollins' tone is remarkable, and he can still kick your ass. In fact, the first track on the album (“Biji”) shows that Clifton Anderson, (Rollins’ trombone player) is having a hard time keeping up, and Rollins has about twenty-five years on him.
Also interesting is that Rollins is willing to step out of the traditional jazz format. “Patanjali” sounds like something the Buddy Rich big band would have been doing in the mid-70s, drifting almost (but not quite) into funk territory.
Then there’s “Solo Sonny,” which is exactly what it says...for 8 minutes. There’s a trip up and down a scale, then hey - that middle part goes into Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls.” And then, fuck it - why not just throw “Polly Wolly Doodle” in there? And then a bit of “Oleo”? It’s like he’s cleaning out a refrigerator in the back of his subconscious.
Listen - when you say you hate the saxophone, I get it. I really do. But give Sonny Rollins a chance to remind you what the saxophone is capable of and how the sax used to be played before all these fusion dinguses turned filet mignon into a McDouble on the Dollar Menu.