Way Out West is a jazz concept album. It was conceived by Sonny Rollins in 1957 as an homage to the Wild West and the Westerns of his youth. But for years, some thought the recording was an imposition on Sonny by kitschy West Coast commercial interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. On tour in Los Angeles in 1957 with Max Roach, Sonny was approached by Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records, a label that specialized in newly emerging West Coast jazz artists. Koenig gave Sonny free rein to do as he pleased on the session. Sonny opted for minimalist structure (tenor sax, bass and drums), themed songs (mostly Western-oriented tunes) and a clip-clop feel.
Way Out West was an odd card in Sonny's deck. By March 1957, when the album was recorded, he had come off a jaw-dropping recording streak. In the 12 months preceding Way Out West, Sonny had recorded Sonny Rollins Plus Four with Clifford Brown, Tenor Madness, Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins Plays for Bird, Brilliant Corners, Tour de Force and Sonny Rollins. And yet today, Way Out West is as mighty and as personal as any of those previous releases. Turning a childhood fantasy into a work of art came with high risks, of course, exposing Sonny to potential ridicule. But Sonny didn't care, and the result is an ecstatic recording that connects with the listener's inner child and esthetic sensibility.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Sonny on the Wild West and Way Out West, the saxophone legend talks about the concept, the songs chosen and why he used Ray Brown and Shelly Manne instead of Max Roach and George Morrow:
JazzWax: You recorded Way Out West during your first visit to California in 1957. Why?
Sonny Rollins: What do you mean?
JW: California in 1957 wasn’t really the Wild West. It was pretty well settled.
SR: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know. Living in New York all my life and making my first visit out there inspired me. California was so different for me. Los Angeles might not have been quintessentially Western, like Arizona or someplace. But the openness of the place at the time suggested that to me.
JW: How did the Western concept come up?
SR: Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records asked me to record an album, and he left the choice of material completely to me. I was out West, and I had these Western songs in mind. Just being there was enough to stimulate the romance of the Wild West for me.
JW: How did Koenig react?
SR: He said, "Pick whatever you want." I said, "How about Western themes?" He said, "Great." Les was a big fan of mine and had been listening to me for a while. Ray [Brown] and Shelly [Manne] got the whole feel. Oh man, Shelly was great. Looking back, it was a privilege playing with both of those guys. [Photo of Shelly Manne by Herman Leonard, (c)Herman Leonard Photography LLC]
JW: What’s the message of Way Out West?
SR: It’s a tribute to independence and being self-sufficient, which is what the West really means, at least in Westerns. I was so moved by the West that I wanted to record songs that expressed how I felt and how much those movies I saw as a kid meant to me.
JW: There’s a real sense of quiet on that album.
SR: What do you mean?
JW: There’s just you, Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. The whole album sounds like you’re playing the saxophone while riding in the saddle of a slow-moving horse.
SR: [Laughs] I’m glad to know that. I think we did get that feeling. It did sound like that. All of the things in my past from watching those movies were in there. I was really living out my Lone Ranger thing [laughs].
JW: How did you pick the songs?
SR: All the songs I knew. By going to the movies so much as a child in the 30s, I was tuned in to Western popular music themes. Even today, people credit me for having an encyclopedic knowledge of what’s called the American Songbook. Included in there are Western songs, and Country music, too. When I was offered the date by Les, I said, “Let’s make a concept album about the West," which would evoke my feelings and the whole Western thing.
JW: The entire album was recorded in one session, from 3 a.m. until around 8 a.m.
SR: We did it late at night because Ray [pictured] and Shelly were doing studio work during the daytime and grabbing gigs in the evening. The only time to record was after everyone was through working. That was OK with me. It was a big fun meeting.
JW: Why wasn’t Max on the date?
SR: I was playing with Max's band [the Max Roach Quintet] when we went out to California in 1957. But I wasn’t under contract to him or any record label. So I was free to do as I pleased. It’s funny, when the record came out Max asked me, 'Why didn’t you put me on that date.' I didn’t really think about Max for it.
JW: Did Koenig insist on Shelly and Ray?
SR: No, no. No one dictated that it had to be Shelly or Ray. Les Koenig didn’t select Shelly or insist I use him. He was just one of the guys who was on the scene and was brought to my attention.
JW: So leaving Max out wasn't a slight?
SR: No, no. I thought that because the music was going to be a big departure from what I had been playing with Max [pictured], it would be appropriate to use someone else. I didn’t use George Morrow, Max’s bassist, either. I wanted to use Shelly and Ray because I was out West and they were based out West. They would just go better with the whole surroundings. I thought it would be more fitting and enough of a departure. This was something separate from what I had been doing with Max.
JW: Was there an element on your part of showing these West Coast studio guys a thing or two?
SR: [Laughs] Well, there might be something to that, but not really. Both of these guys were really East Coast musicians, and I had an early admiration for Ray from Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Shelly was a great drummer who had played with Coleman Hawkins. I had great respect for Shelly and Ray, and I was very anxious to play with them. I wanted to play with anyone who had played with Coleman.
JW: So Way Out West is really a Sonny Rollins' musical Western.
SR: [Laughs] Yes, I suppose you could say that. Westerns make you feel great. That was a big part of it. We need that kind of reinforcement, about justice and optimism today. These elemental stories really bring it down to where it’s supposed to be. They offer great lessons, and I’m still trying to live by them. The music was evocative of the West. I’m very happy that Les asked me to do it.
JW: Whose idea was it to go down to the Mojave Desert to photograph the cover?
SR: That was William Claxton's idea. It was very evocative of my vision of the West.
JW; Which came first, the photo session or the recording?
SR: The recording. Many people thought wrongly over the years that I was asked to pose that way or that the material was forced on me. Because California was thought to be a movie place and a commercial place. Not true. I was given complete control. There was some controversy about the Western outfit. I recall that it was my idea to pose with the hat and holster. But Claxton later told people it was his idea, so maybe I remember that incorrectly.
JW: Where did you get the cowboy hat and holster?
SR: From Les. They were props. [pause] I mean there wasn’t a store where you could go buy 10-gallon hats, holsters and bullets and such [roaring laughter].
JW: Was it hot down there that day?
SR: I don’t remember. I just remember driving down to the Mojave Desert in Claxton’s [pictured] Porsche. He saw the steer skull there and decided it was the perfect place to photograph me.
JW: So the skull wasn’t placed there as a prop?
SR: Oh, no.
JW: On the cover, there's a glint in your eye under the hat's brim that tells me you were having a lot of fun with the whole thing. True?
SR: I was. I suppose I wanted to leave the impression that I was the top gun in town. Like Ken Maynard.
JazzWax clip: Here's an audio clip of Sonny's Way Out West, an original composition for the album. It's pure Sonny, with plenty of edge and bravado. But dig the playful loping Western undertone...