Monday, December 01, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 55: Sonny Rollins

The good thing about this Prestige blogging project is that I always have some new and exciting recording session to look forward to. The only bad thing is leaving a session behind when you really want to keep listening to it, whether it's a new discovery like Joe Holiday or a full fledged legend like Sonny Rollins, who I've been listening to for the last two days. But I have twenty years of music ahead of me, so best to keep going.

A last note on Joe Holiday, though -- from Artie Shroeck on the Be Bop Fans Facebook page: "I knew Jordin as Jordin Fordia, he was a wonderful jazz composer. I played with Joe Holiday at Sugar Hill in Newark NJ opposite Jordin. His band included Lou Donaldson."

Artie is a fine jazzman himself -- piano, vibes, vocals. Check him out on YouTube.

Bob Weinstock packed a lot of recording sessions into the month of December, 1951. This session was booked only four days after the Joe Holiday session, and it was 21-year-old Rollins's first real session as leader -- he had been the nominal leader for one song on the Miles Davis January 17 session, when Miles gave up,the leader role he'd had for the rest of the session, and sat in on piano for a Rollins quartet session.

For Rollins' real debut as leader, he chose Kenny Drew for piano -- a reunion of sorts: the two had
first played together in a high school band. Drew was just 23, and had made his recording debut two years earlier with Howard McGhee, but since then he had been in nearly constant demand. In 1950, he recorded with Sonny Stitt, Lester Young (multiple sessions), Charlie Parker. In 1951 Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis and Paul Quinichette, before the Rollins session. Art Blakey was already a veteran, and had become, along with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, one of the real drum innovators of the bebop movement-- and of the most prolific drummers of his time. This would be his 9th session for Prestige. Both Blakey and Percy Heath would, of course, become associated with two of the most legendary groups of this golden age of jazz -- Blakey's own Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Drew would leave the United States in 1961 and settle in Denmark, removing himself from the mainstream of the jazz world, but continuing to make great music.

It was a tough time for Rollins. After impressing the jazz  community, including Charlie Parker, with his musicianship, he fell into the trap that claimed too many admirers of Parker in those years: heroin addiction. In 1951, as he made his way back into the recording studios, he had just been released from serving 10 months of a three year prison sentence for armed robbery, to support his habit.

So, let's look at the session --  the first of many great recording sessions for Prestige and other labels. He opens with a ballad -- one of four standards on this session, and each one of them a beauty -- inventive and lyrical. "Time on My Hands" is the one tune on this session where Sonny stays out front the whole time, and we really get to hear him develop an idea fully. Then -- did the mambo craze come home to Prestige in time for Christmas? Sonny gives his own twist to the Latin rhythm, with some significant assistance from Kenny Drew, who would continue to figure prominently throughout the session. Here we have Sonny showing the instinct for drawing on unexpected rhythmic and melodic sources that would continue through the calypso masterpieces of his later career.

And he keeps it going with "Shadrack," which is kind of a corny pop tune pastiche of a gospel number, although it's been recorded by a number of jazz masters, including Louis Armstrong (and a number of gospel groups) and turns it into a virtual bebop anthem. It would be hard to pick a favorite cut from this album, but certainly this one could be it.

He finishes with two originals, "Scoops" and "Newk's Fadeaway," both of which feature short but powerful solos by Art Blakey. Blakey had the chops and the flamboyance to dominate any session he chose to, but here he doesn't hold back on flamboyance, but the solos flow organically out of each piece as a whole.

Note -- you'll see these two songs -- and others from this session -- often attributed to Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet, but that's because they were part of a reissue called, misleadingly, Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet, but actually packaging a few different Prestige sessions together, including the one with the MJQ.

"Newk's Fadeaway" takes it's title from the nickname given to Sonny because of his resemblance to the Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe -- they both had the same prominent nose. It's worth mentioning because while history reminds of what an incredible role Jackie Robinson played in baseball and American society as a whole, the players who came right after him -- Larry Dobyfor the Cleveland Indians, Newcombe and Roy Campanella and Dan Bankhead for the Dodgers -- were trailblazers too, and to be linked with Don Newcombe was no small thing. Robinson was hailed in song -- Count Basie recorded "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?", and Chuck Berry played tribute to the brown-eyed handsome man who won the game with a high fly into the stands. Newcombe gets a nod here, though an odd one -- Big Newk was famous for his high hard one, not his fadeaway, and Sonny scarcely fades away here.

"Mambo Bounce" and "Shadrack" both became the A sides of singles -- looks like just 78 RPM, I don't find them on 45. The session was released as a 10 inch LP and on a few different 7000-series reissues.

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