Friday, March 25, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 175: Sonny Rollins

If Prestige records in general have been underserved by critics and historians, there are exceptions, and this album would have to be one of them. It was released under the title Saxophone Colossus, and if Rollins was still only on the verge of meriting that distinction, this recording cemented the deal. Saxophone Colossus he became, and saxophone colossus he remained, and remains to this day. It became the title of a 1986 documentary by Robert Mugge (half of it filmed at a concert at Opus 40).

The recording has remained to this day a favorite of jazz fans and of Rollins fans. Many consider it his best work, and it ranks high on virtually every list of top jazz albums of all time.

The one track that stands out even in this all-around stellar session is "St. Thomas," which has become virtually a signature song for Rollins. The tune is based on a Caribbean folk song which in tune was based on an old English folk song. It had previously been recorded in a jazz version as "Fire Down There" by Randy Weston, and was a staple of the repertoire of a young calypso singer called The Charmer, who would later become much better known as Louis Farrakhan.

The composer credit for "St. Thomas" is given to Rollins, although he has disavowed that, and has said that he would have preferred not to take composer credit, but the management of Prestige insisted.

Well, we know that composer credit in American popular music is a weird business. Performers added their names to songs that they recorded (Elvis Presley adding his name to Mae Axton and Tommy Durden's "Heartbreak Hotel"). Music industry professionals like Alan Freed and Mo Levy did it regularly, taking shared composer credit, and more importantly, publishing rights, in return for a record deal or the promise of radio promotion.

Jazz musicians wrote new melodies over existing chord progressions, and since chord progressions are not copyrightable, there was no plagiarism issue. Tunes or riffs brought into the studio for recording at a particular session were sometimes given the session leader's name for composer credit, no matter who had brought it in. Often that didn't much matter -- the finished product was a group effort, and the tune wasn't likely to be re-recorded anyway.

Sometimes it did. It seems pretty clear that Jackie McLean wrote "Dig" -- Miles Davis has even acknowledged this -- but Miles has the composer credit. McLean looked into bringing a lawsuit, but was told there wasn't enough money in it to make it worthwhile.

And "St. Thomas"? That is so completely a Sonny Rollins tune that it's hard to imagine giving credit to anyone else.

Latin rhythms have always been a part of jazz, going back to Jelly Roll Morton's assertion that all true jazz needed a Spanish tinge, through Artie Shaw doing the Carioca, through Charlie Parker with Machito and Dizzy Gillespie with Chico O'Farrill, through Joe Holiday's mambo jazz. through the girl from Ipanema and James Moody inviting "Tito Puente you can come on in and you can blow now if you want to." The island rhythms of calypso were getting to be a craze in the mid-50s, as Harry Belafonte's classic album became the first LP to sell a million copies. Rollins's parents came from the Virgin Islands, and he grew up with the infectious island rhythms that he would continue to explore in tunes like "Brown Skin Girl," "Hold em Joe" and "Don't Stop the Carnival." The challenge of "St. Thomas" was to sustain the joyous lilt of calypso with the sophisticated musical demands of bebop, and its enduring popularity shows how how successful he was.

Prestige captured both Rollins and John Coltrane at moment in time when both were becoming recognized as the preeminent tenor saxophonists of the day, and a time when both were getting ready to move on to new stages of their careers. They match up musically and stylistcally on "Tenor Madness;" in the next decade they would have found it difficult to play together.

Coltrane would go his own way. Rollins would stay closer to the mainstream, but still forge new musical paths, in clubs, on record, and under the Williamsburg Bridge, where he was to retreat a couple of years after this recording, dissatisfied with his music and wanting to rediscover himself before he recorded or played in public again.

The new Coltrane was probably not going to be playing "Traneing In" or "Blue Train" on the same set with "A Love Supreme." The new Rollins would still play "St. Thomas," but it would be metamorphosed into the new Rollins.

This is probably one of the advantages of being a jazz musician. The disadvantage, of course, is that you don't make the money a rock star does. But you're allowed to go on evolving. If you're someone like, say, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, then as long as you go on touring you're going to have to keep singing "Ain't Got No Home" every night, and make it sound exactly the way it did on the record. Rick Nelson said that if memories were all he sang, he'd rather drive a truck, but he never did go into truck driving, and his audiences went on wanting to hear "Hello Mary Lou."

Sonny Rollins could play "St. Thomas" differently every time he played it. A friend remembers hearing him with Jim Hall in the mid-60s, and the rhythm had become bossa nova. It could go on changing, reflecting his evolving musical understanding, and still remain a fan favorite.

But the version on Saxophone Colossus remains a jazz icon, preserved on record like Dorian Gray in reverse.

An important part of the reason for the iconic status of the tune, and the album, is the presence of Max Roach, at an amazing midpoint of his amazing career.

Roach was 32, compared to compared to Rollins's 26 (Tommy Flanagan was also 26; Doug Watkins was 22). Those six years encompassed a lot of experience, and a lot of jazz history. He had been one of the pioneers of bebop, playing on 52nd Street and at Minton's, recording (in the days when limitations in recording technique severely limited what a drummer could do) on many of the seminal sessions of modern jazz. With Clifford Brown, he had formed one of the most influential quintets of the early 50s. He had been the natural choice for "the greatest jazz concert ever," the one given at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953, featuring Roach with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus.

Rollins and Roach had become partners when Sonny joined the Brown-Roach ensemble, and they continued together after Clifford Brown's tragic death. They are certainly partners on this session, with Roach setting the tone as well as the tempo with his lead-in to "St. Thomas," and remaining a force throughout.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" has become a jazz standard, but it has an odd genesis for a ballad associated with the Great American Song Book. It was originally written (by Don Raye and Gene dePaul) for an Abbott and Costello movie, but was cut from it, and eventually saw daylight in an even less likely debut for a beautiful ballad, a movie featuring the Ritz Brothers. It's one of the other places where Rollins and Coltrane touch base with each other. Trane recorded it in 1961 on his first album for Impulse. Five years was a generation in the jazz of this era, and Trane, with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, was already exploring new dimensions. This album, Ballads, was his first for Impulse, and he may have been taking a break from the avant-garde to give them something that might sell a few copies, but it still makes a striking contrast to Rollins in 1956.

"Strode Rode" is a riff-derived composition that's become something of a standard, and well-deserved. It's very nearly as catchy as "St. Thomas." Gary Bartz has recorded it, and so have a lot of contemporary jazz musicians, particularly Europeans. Rollins revisited it in 1990, with George Duke, Stanley Clarke and Al Foster.

I wonder if Rollins had known what a worldwide hit song "Moritat" was going to be, if he would have approached it differently. The first statement of the theme is reserved, as if someone had managed to reconfigure Miles Davis's Harmon mute for the tenor saxophone. By mid-improvisation, though, he's found the swagger that one expects from Mack the Knife.

"Blue Seven" has also been covered a number of times, which is interesting in that it doesn't really have a melody or main theme. It builds off a long bass intro by Doug Watkins, and has all kinds of good playing by everyone in the quartet. The title? Perhaps it was a long day in the studio, and they finished up with a seven o'clock blues.

Saxophone Colossus was the album. Two singles were released on 45: "St. Thomas" and "Moritat."

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