Sunday, December 20, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 159: Sonny Rollins

Nowadays, the recording of jazz drummers is a master craft, and if you're interested in trying it, the Internet has any number of sources that will tell you how. But it was not always so. Baby Dodds was one of the all-time great jazz drummers, but what he could do on record was severely limited. Recording in those days was done directly onto a wax master, and the crash of drumsticks on a drum head could make the needle jump out of the groove, so Dodds was limited to playing on a wooden block.

By the 1940s, recording techniques had made major advances, or where would Gene Krups's career be? By the time Bob Weinstock started recording jazz artists in 1949, a drummer was able to use a whole kit, but unless he was Krupa he still wasn't heard much. With one mike, the horns that would be doing the soloing were placed closest, the piano farther back, and bass and drums off to one side. The musicians heard them, the record buying public not so much.

That changed with Rudy Van Gelder, and other great jazz recording engineers who followed. But this is the first recording on Prestige, though not the first ever, to make the drum solo so central to the sound.

Max Roach had paired with Clifford Brown to form one of the most memorable quintets of the era, and his full partnership in solo space can be heard on their albums for EmArcy. A website called Twelve Great Moments in Modern Jazz Drumming highlights his contribution to their recording of Cherokee:
Max blurred barlines, interacted with soloists, and added deceptively complex ideas and polyrhythms to the bebop drummer s vocabulary -- and all with impeccable cleanliness. After years of landmark recordings and performances with Bird and Diz, Max's two-year partnership with Clifford Brown marked one of the essential collaborations in jazz. Max's drum solo on  "Cherokee"  brilliantly represents the idea of a melodically constructed drum solo with a beginning, middle and end.
One of the highlights of my jazz listening life came in 1977, when I heard Max Roach play in a club in New York, and I experienced, indelibly, a melodically constructed drum solo with a beginning, middle and end. It was right after the jazz world had heard the news of the death of Paul Desmond, and Max announced a tribute that he called "Five for Paul." It was his unaccompanied drum solo version of "Take Five." I still get goosebumps remembering.

Sonny Rollins had joined the Brown-Roach Quintet not long before this recording, and not long after his recovery from heroin addiction. Rollins credits the clean-living Brown as one of his inspirations:  "Clifford was a profound influence on my personal life. He showed me that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a good jazz musician." And this was something that Rollins had feared. Like so many other young musicians of his era, he had come to connect heroin use with creativity -- young people thinking they were imitating Charlie Parker, although Bird himself warned that there was no connection.

For this Prestige date under his own name, Rollins brought along not only Max Roach but also bassist George Morrow. Morrow had played with many of the important West Coast jazz musicians (including Charlie Parker during his coastal sojourn). He later accompanied Anita O'Day, and then, in the mid-1970s, tired of life on the road, he joined one of the house bands at Disney World. So the next time you're taking your grandkids on an Orlando vacation, and you hear a band playing "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work We Go," or "I Wanna Be Like You," or "Happy," before you scoff, consider: there may be someone in that band who played with Sonny Rollins. Or Max. Or Bird.

I kept trying to pick a favorite drum solo from this session, and I can't. Every one I listen to becomes my favorite.

"There's No Business Like Show Business" announces its anthemic theme with a drum roll, but this is no ordinary drum roll. Its syncopation sets the tone: driving yet complex. Which is what Rollins delivers. He belts the melody in a manner worthy of Ethel Merman, preserving its anthemic qualities, but letting the listener know that this is the bebop business, and in the hands of Rollins, Roach and Ray Bryant, there really is no business like the bebop business. And Roach's extended solo does all of the above, including the melodic part.

"Raincheck" would be another choice. Building on an irresistible tune by Billy Strayhorn, Rollins and Roach trade off percussion and melody in a role-bending way that's also irresistible.

Or the way the delicate stickwork behind Ray Bryant on "It's All Right With Me" explodes into a call-and-response duet with Rollins.

In other words, all of it.

This session, which was Rollins's return to recording with his own group after the recovery from addiction, must have showed him--certainly showed the world--that Clifford Brown's lesson was the right one: you could be clean and sober, and have all the creative inspiration, plus a lot more energy. The album was released by Prestige as Worktime, and it was. Time to get back to work. It was later rereleased as Worktime! but the music itself is its own exclamation point.

Rollins would continue to play with the Brown-Roach quintet until the deaths of Brown and pianist Richie Powell, in a 1956 auto accident, put an end to it. He would continue to stay clean, and to produce, to this day, some of the best jazz ever made.

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