Friday, July 22, 2016

Listening to Prestige 196: Sonny Rollins

Am I getting too much 1950s jazz? Is it all starting to sound alike?

No, and no.

Every album, every recording session, has been a unique and uniquely satisfying experience, and I continue to find this one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken.

Obviously, I can't say that some sessions have been more uniquely satisfying than others, not if I have any respect for the English language. Each has been unique; each has given me something new and significant in my understanding and appreciation of jazz. But some have leapt out at me with particular force. Like the one before this, making me appreciate the richness of Tadd Dameron's compositions, made all the more special because he recorded so seldom.

On the other hand, I'm very familiar with Sonny Rollins's gifts as a composer and an improviser, and Lord knows his recording career has been prolific. But this one leapt out at me nonetheless. Why? Just because. Because his playing is so hot on this session: so creative, such high energy. Another reason could be that this is my farewell to Sonny on Prestige. He'll move on to a number of different labels: Blue Note and Riverside in New York, Contemporary on the West Coast. He'll record for RCA Victor for a while, and for various European labels. Then for Impulse, for Milestone, for lots of other folks. Anyway, I only found this out after I started reading background stuff, so it wasn't part of my immediate response.

The session contains three compositions by Sonny, and three songs by others. The Rollins compositions are the ones where the energy level really goes through the roof. "Ee-ah," in particular, combines the honking urgency of rhythm and blues with the creative daring of bop. I love it. 'B Quick" and "B Swift" are, if anything, taken at an even higher level of intensity, propelled by an unflagging and unforgiving Max Roach, over an incredible nine minutes for the first number. I like to imagine a spectator in the booth, drenched with sweat and exhausted just from listening to what these cats are doing, saying, "I betcha you can't do that again." "I betcha we can," Max retorts..."but maybe a little shorter this time." "B Swift is just as intense, but clocks in at five minutes."

And so to "Sonny Boy," which does what only jazz can do--it takes a familiar melody and turns into something entirely new. Screenwriter William Goldman, in his fascinating book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, discusses a screenplay he wrote for Gene Hackman, about a druggist who tries to break up an affair between his son and a married woman, but ends up having an affair with her himself. Goldman points out that the story is what it is because of a set of decisions that could as easily have gone in different directions. Instead of being a drama, it could have been a bedroom farce, which lovers hiding in closet s and under beds. If, instead of Gene Hackman, the producers had cast Faye Dunaway as the lead, it would have been story of a wife having to juggle not just one lover, but two, and then finding out that they were father and son. Or they could have cast John Travolta as a boy whose Oedipal problems take on a whole new twist. Or maybe they could cast Robert Duvall as the husband, a macho firefighter who loves his wife but has neglected her...

"Sonny Boy" was written by Tin Pan Alley stalwarts DaSylva, Brown and Henderson as a tearjerking vehicle for Al Jolson, and the emotional center of the song is the doting father. But in Sonny's version, we've changed the focus. Jolson as kindly, sentimental old father figure is no longer the star. Now it's Rollins as Sonny Boy, and he's not climbing up on anyone's knee. The song is completely transformed. It's macho, it swaggers...and it works. A number of jazz musicians, most notably Lester Young, have said that they always hear the words of a ballad when they play it. My guess is that Sonny pretty much tossed out the words when he did this one.

The two Earl Coleman cuts don't work quite as well, Coleman had cut loose from his Billy Eckstine roots in his last outing for Prestige, and was really beginning to develop as a contemporary jazz singer. Here, in spite of having Rollins, Drew and Roach to inspire him, he's back in the Mr. B. groove.

He's also working with not the best material. Every now and then, Prestige would give a contemporary hit ballad to one of its jazz acts, and they do that here with "Two Different Worlds," a 1956 chart hit for Don Rondo. The Great American Songbook had mostly closed by 1956, and a lot ballads from those years simply weren't that good. "Two Different Worlds," written by Al Frisch, known for not much besides this song (he did write "Broadway at Basin Street," an early Cannonball Adderley recording) and Sid Wayne, known for writing most of the really second rate songs that weighed down the Elvis movies, is one of those not very good ballads, and maybe a lush Mr. B-type approach is all you can do with it.

His second song is "My Ideal," written by Richard Whiting, one of the A-list tunesmiths. It's become a standard, and there have been some great jazz recordings, but for me the version that stands out is the one by Whiting's daughter Margaret, with the pure and lyrical innocence of a young girl yet to find her first love. That's not Mr. B., and it's not Earl Coleman.

Perhaps Bob Weinstock was looking for a cover record to Don Rondo's hit (Roger Williams / Jane Morgan and Nat "King" Cole also covered it), but if so, he must have changed his mind, because Coleman's numbers never were released on 45. "Ee-Ah" was, with "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from the Bird tribute album on the flip side. Let's hope that got some play on the rhythm and blues stations. It deserved to.

"Ee-Ah," the two "B" cuts, and the two Earl Coleman cuts were released in 1957 as Tour de Force. The same tracks plus "Sonny Boy" and minus Coleman came out as Sonny Boy" in 1961. Also on the latter album: "The House I Live In,"  written as a leftist anthem by Earl Robinson but co-opted as a patriotic ditty by Columbia and Frank Sinatra, and recorded earlier in 1956 by Rollins on the Bird session.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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