Today, Sonny Rollins releases the first in a series of live albums unlike any other in his already vast catalog. The album, Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 1, is a compilation of stage performances culled from his own private tapes and those of Carl Smith, one of the country's leading collectors of unauthorized Sonny Rollins recordings. A DVD, Sonny Rollins in Vienne, also is being released today.
Smith, a Maine attorney and lifelong Rollins fan, has amassed hundreds of recordings of Sonny's concerts from around the world and has offered them to Sonny to use as he wishes. Apparently, there's a major sub-rosa market for bootleg Sonny Rollins recordings that are purchased and swapped like ivory or antiquities. Fortunately, Smith is the first Newk dealer to make these recordings available to Sonny, and three of them are on the new CD.
To choose the Road Shows tracks, producer and long-time band trombonist Clifton Anderson [pictured] reached deep into Sonny's stock and Smith's trove for tracks recorded between 1980 and 2007. Hats off to Anderson; his choices are superb. To create cohesion, engineer Richard Corsello wisely blended the applause between tracks so the result sounds like a single concert featuring Sonny at different points in time.
The result is a fascinating concept album that all of Sonny's fans will find astonishing. In large measure, Sonny's fans are fiercely loyal and adoring of the saxophonist's creative energy and output. But even among his most ardent fans, Sonny has had mild detractors of late who have felt his recent recordings have been somewhat rambling and repetitive. Even Sonny has been keenly sensitive to this, which is why he resisted releasing a live recording of his 2007 Carnegie Hall appearance.
JW: When you were at Carnegie Hall last fall, what did you think of the recording? Is it coming out?
SR: No, it’s not coming out. I didn’t like the recording after I heard it, so I’m not going to put that out.
JW: Was it the sound of the recording or the playing?
SR: I didn’t really feel that I was playing up to a level that I wanted, as a 50th anniversary recording. So I didn’t think it was ready to be put out, you know. I’ll be putting out other records.
So Road Shows in many ways is a critical entry for Sonny. If the CD had simply unloaded similar versions of what already exists, there was a real risk of Sonny becoming pegged as a "peaked legend," a risky place to be as the country's preeminent jazz artist. To Sonny's and Clifton's credit, they know full well that simply turning out albums that don't advance Sonny Rollins' art can work against him and his reputation.
After giving Road Shows 10 complete listens, I'm gratified to report that it is one of Sonny's most interesting and significant albums in years. What you hear is the result of long hours spent critically evaluating archived recordings of Sonny's concert performances and assembling a careful mix that roars with excitement and risk-taking.
For starters, I'm positively overwhelmed by the album's warm fidelity. Even with all of the newfangled technology on the market to make music sound rich today, Road Shows is a cut above. The album's sonic quality is so vivid and dimensional that Sonny sounds as if he's in the room with you. What's more, the up-close feel of the recordings makes you forget these are live dates. I don't know how they did it, but there's virtually no ambient noise, except for the applause at the end of each song. Imagine dislodging your theater seat and placing it on stage, in a choice location, and you get the picture.
As evidenced by these tracks, Sonny thrives in public. He's energized by the open space, free to roam with his horn, and stoked by the feedback of roaring crowds. Word is that a studio date is next for Sonny in 2009 followed by Road Shows Vol. 2 in 2010.
There are seven tracks on Road Shows Vol. 1, and each is a steamroller of creative force. Fans will certainly be pleased to see a track from the Carnegie Hall concert of 2007. Word is Anderson put together two versions of the album, one with Some Enchanted Evening from last year's performance and one without. Sonny chose the former.
Above all, Road Shows is a smart, tasteful collection of standout Sonny Rollins performances. Instead of rigidly lining up the tracks in chronological order, which would have been a mistake, Anderson has shuffled the deck. By doing so, the album avoids the "hear Sonny change over time" trap, forcing the listener to just, well, listen. In the process, the myth that somehow Sonny was better at one period or another is dispelled, since you can't actually tell which Sonny is playing unless you consult the CD case.
Sonny's 28-year output on this album is electrifying:
Best Wishes—was recorded in Japan in 1986 and appeared originally four years earlier on a studio album called Reel Life. Listening to the two versions, you realize they have completely different attitudes. This one, from Carl Smith's collection, is much more dynamic and forthright, not to mention cognizant of where it's going and what it hopes to achieve. The rendition leaps out of the speakers onto your chest like an uncaged tiger.
More Than You Know—is from a live 2006 performance in France. Sonny's sound is firm and soulful as he orbits the standard again and again before diving in at the end for a solo run-down of the track. Sonny first recorded the standard in 1954 on a leadership date with Thelonious Monk for Prestige.
Blossom—is an original composition that Sonny never recorded before or after this 1980 debut performance in Sweden. This Latin-jazz fusion track comes from Smith's collection and features Sonny's fondness for edgy lines coupled with Caribbean rhythms. There's a Last Tango in Paris feel about Blossom that's both dangerous and inviting.
Easy Living—was captured in Warsaw in 1980 and also comes from Smith's collection. Sonny takes this ballad apart and reassembles it as a supercharged woolly standard. His speed-bag workout on the melody line at the end is one of the album's breathtaking high points. He first performed this song live during a TV segment filmed in Italy in 1976 and recorded it in the studio a year later for an album of the same name.
Tenor Madness—is taken from a performance in Japan in 2000. Sonny reworks this original from 1956 with a tip of the reed to John Coltrane, his tenor-mate on the original album. Sonny has a lot of fun here, including tagging Doin' What Comes Naturally from Annie Get Your Gun.
Nice Lady—this upbeat original was recorded for the first time in 2007 in Victoria, B.C. in Canada. It's a stealthy Calypso reminiscent of Brownskin Girl and Don't Stop the Carnival from the album What's New (1962).
Some Enchanted Evening—comes from the famed 2007 Carnegie Hall concert, and Sonny performs it almost like a lullaby. Sonny had recorded the South Pacific tune 50 years earlier at the hall, so he was obligated to reprise it last year. Sonny sounds bored stiff by the lackluster melody line, and rightfully so. You sense here that a great artist was forced to play what he doesn't feel in his heart was worthy of his time or effort. The beauty of live music, of course, is that you can't take it back. So you get to hear a slightly subdued and frustrated Sonny struggle to enter a passionless and dated tune. The anatomy of a creative struggle is what makes this track so fascinating. What's more, you get to hear Roy Haynes, whose brushwork continues to amaze.
As for the DVD, Sonny Rollins: Live in Vienne, the 2006 performance was produced by French television and places the viewer in an enviable spot: On stage with Sonny as he performs in a large amphitheater. The surprising camera angles tell you the crew was running all over the stage while the performance was under way. To grow comfortable with such company and to staunch rampant bootlegging, Sonny had many of his performances taped. This is one of them.