I spent a few hours re-listening to six great sax solos on Friday. Here's the historic list, followed by some thoughts...
Charlie Parker's Parker's Mood
Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul
Lester Young's Oh, Lady Be Good
Paul Gonsalves' Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue
Wardell Gray's Twisted
Sonny Rollins' More Than You Know
Parker's Mood (1948) remains a powerful blues, filled with trepidation, melancholy and confidence. Just when you think Bird is about to lose his way on the melody line, he surprises again and again.
Body and Soul (1939) is as pretty as ever, with Hawk sliding forward and backward seamlessly through the changes, pausing here and there for dramatic effect while double-timing the entire way. I forgot just how delightfully oily Hawk's sound is on this recording.
Oh, Lady Be Good! (1936) was even more amazing than I recalled. There's a special energy to Prez on this recording as he runs idea after idea through that tenor sewing machine of his. His solo is both relaxed and impatient, with Basie leaving plenty of space for you to think about what you just heard.
Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue (1956) is from the famed Ellington at Newport 1956 album. It features a nine-minute-plus solo by Paul Gonsalves and is breathtaking for its marathon drive and build. It's a bit too much of a great thing, in retrospect, one of those "you had to be there" moments. Still great, to be sure.
Twisted (1949) has Wardell Gray weaving in and out of the tune with a bop-infused Prez-like tone. There's always a wonderful carefree spirit to Wardell's playing, and this solo is one long stream of wiggles and hairpin turns. It's as bouncy as can be, with Wardell dropping down to the bottom of his horn and springing back up to the top in signature fashion a number of times.
More Than You Know (1954) features Sonny Rollins playing with Thelonious Monk, and it's a tour de force of ideas, a departure of tone and a completely new sax sound that breaks free from swing and bop. The pace is beautiful—almost like inhaling and exhaling—and Sonny, even on a ballad like this, is spring-loaded for action.
And the winner is...(I know I'm going to take heat for this)...More Than You Know. Sonny's solo is so fresh, so alive and so different than anything else that came before it. It's not Prez, it's not Hawk, it's not Bird, it's not Ben Webster—it's Sonny, distinct and in charge.
The song even ends wonderfully offbeat. Listen as Monk tries to mess with Sonny's head and have the last musical word, squeezing off a series of stumbling notes—like a drunk purposefully bumping into someone who has artfully made it across the room flawlessly with a pair of overfilled drinks. But Sonny won't have it, and with his absolute last breath, pushes his last bit of air to get the last note out, shoving Monk back into his seat. Lovely! This is exactly what makes great jazz such a delight.
So, until someone convinces me otherwise, my vote is for More Than You Know as the best sax solo of the historic lot. Yes, they all were significant. And yes, of course, they all broke new ground when recorded. But there's a freshness about Sonny's solo that for me stands out. It's pure, liberated from the trappings of its era, and different from an intellectual standpoint. Sonny adds smarts to the prowess and passion, which makes the solo a tad more interesting and special for me. Take a listen to them all and see what you think.
Wax tracks: You can find More Than You Know at iTunes on The Best of Sonny Rollins. Unfortunately you'll have to download the entire album to get the 11-minute recording.
My suggestion is to go here and buy an import of Moving Out or here and spend $8 on Prestige Profiles: Sonny Rollins, which features all remastered gems (plus a second CD of samplers of other artists from the same series).
Wax clip: Go here to see Sonny in all his glory playing Weaver of Dreams (1959). To fully absorb his genius, watch it once and then let it play a few times in the background as you write or work on your computer. Sonny sounds so darn good during this 1954-1959 period. He's also magnificent to see. (Be sure to listen carefully as Newk sneaks in a quote from the Dorsey-Sinatra ballad hit of 1940, All This and Heaven Too.)