May 23, 2024

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Sonny Rollins and Max Roach: An essential new Rollins biography: Video, Photos

Aidan Levy’s invaluable new biography of Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus: The Life And Music of Sonny Rollins, will undoubtedly be the standard text on Rollins for decades to come. 

It’s a long book— over 700 pages— but it moves along briskly, always keeping Sonny tethered to precise dates and locations. Rollins has something of an otherworldly streak—departing from the scene for years at a time, traveling and studying as the spirit led him, etc— so it’s enchanting to learn his exact coordinates at any given moment. The net effect of all the Sonny tracking is to firmly plant Rollins’ unparalleled achievements in the here-and-now. The Sonny Rollins that emerges from the book is both the supreme jazz musician and a very human being.

Sonny Rollins: Ten Colossal Albums article @ All About Jazz

Bravo Aidan Levy, long live Sonny Rollins!

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For weeks, I’ve been listening to Max Roach recordings, sensing his influence everywhere; while writing about M’Boom, and then spending a few moments with Billy Hart and Nasheet Waits, Mr. Roach was a presence, despite his 2007 passing. I await the full-dress biography of Max Roach; until then, I’ll appreciate Levy’s close tabs on him as he moves in and out of Sonny’s orbit1.

Sonny entered Max’s circle when Rollins was a teenage Charlie Parker acolyte. But it wasn’t until the fall of 1955, at the Beehive, in Chicago, when Rollins joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach group (replacing Harold Land, who was attending an ailing grandmother in Los Angeles) that Rollins and Roach became professionally associated.

In 1955, native New Yorker Sonny Rollins was living in Chicago, working a variety of odd jobs, conquering a drug addiction, biding his time until he was off parole, and practicing, sometimes with pianist Harold Mabern and trumpeter Booker Little2. Finally, one night in September, Rollins went to hear Brown and Roach at the Beehive and brought his horn. The rest is history.

Roach and Rollins are a perfect combination; they seem to imply each other. Max’s commitment to clarity and precision enabled Sonny to develop his legendary rhythmic flexibility, while Sonny was politically engaged and publicly speaking out against racism alongside Max. Musically, Rollins impetuous spirit is perfectly balanced by Max’s measured, patient demeanor; this contrast, in part, is what enabled Rollins to develop his long, continuously evolving solos.

Sonny Rollins | Jazzwise

Basically, all the iconic mid-50’s Rollins improvisations are inconceivable without Mr. Max Roach, as either a participant or guiding light. Max’s gravitas and almost didactic attitude are softened and put to use by Rollins’ humor and expansiveness. In a sense, Roach and Rollins are salty and sweet; two contrasting worldviews that come together to create something extraordinary.

Are Max Roach and Sonny Rollins the first iconic tenor/drum partnership in jazz, the seed from which so many flowers grew?

I’d never thought about just how much music Max and Sonny made together in the late 50’s. Looking at only the ‘official’ releases:

Clifford Brown and Max Roach: Live At The Beehive (I have the Columbia LP released in 1979; this and other versions are streaming on YouTube), November 7, 1955.

Sonny Rollins: Worktime (Prestige), December 2, 1955.

Clifford Brown and Max Roach At Basin Street (Emarcy), Jan and Feb 1956.

Sonny Rollins: Plus 4 (Prestige), March 22, 1956.

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (Prestige), June 22, 1956.

Max Roach: Plus 4 (Emarcy), September 1956.

Sonny Rollins: Plays For Bird (Prestige), October 5, 1956.

Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (Riverside), October 9, October 15, and December 7, 1956.

Sonny Rollins: Tour De Force (Prestige), Dec 7, 1956.

Sonny Rollins: Volume One (Blue Note), Dec 16, 1956.

Max Roach: Jazz In 3/4 Time (Emarcy), March 1957.

Kenny Dorham: Jazz Contrasts (Riverside), May, 1957.

Abbey Lincoln: That’s Him! (Riverside), October 28, 1957.

Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite (Riverside), February 27 and March 7, 1958.

Obviously, this doesn’t even address the gigs. A sample from Levy’s book gives an idea of the intense pace of their working life:

john farley on Twitter: ""St Thomas" 1956. Sonny Rollins / Max Roach /  Tommy Flanagan & Doug Watkins.Timeless BeBop????????????????  https://t.co/ckBO72kifw https://t.co/EF1IXzgvc0" / Twitter

On November 15th [1955], they [Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet with Rollins] were at Music City in Philadelphia. Then they were at the Showboat in Philadelphia Thanksgiving week, through November 26; at Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge in Washington DC, starting November 28; at the Las Vegas club in Baltimore, December 13-18; at Basin Street in New York from Christmas to New Year’s; at Philadelphia’s Blue Note through January 7, 1956; back at the Las Vegas in Baltimore from January 10 to January 16; at George Wein’s Storyville in Boston starting January 23; and at Basin Street January 27 and 28 opposite the Errol Garner Trio.3

By the time the reader gets to the summer of 1959, about a hundred pages later—pages which chronicle hundreds of gigs, the highway deaths of Clifford Brown and Richard Powell, the nearly-lethal attack on Miles Davis by NYC law enforcement, personality conflicts and unstable bands, exploitive practices by booking agents, etc etc— Sonny’s decision to stop performing and practice on the Williamsburg Bridge seems like an obvious choice.

This is an incredible achievement by Levy; without any heavy-handed psychological speculation, simply by presenting the facts of Rollins’s life at the time, the reader (or at least this reader) is practically begging Mr. Rollins to take a break and stay alive.

Max Roach, a Founder of Modern Jazz, Dies at 83 - The New York Times

There’s much to enjoy about Levy’s great book. His description of Sonny and his music in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s brought me to the album Silver City, a Rollins retrospective released in the 90’s. There’s great music here, with fascinating drumming from Marvin Smitty Smith, Tommy Campbell, Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Tony Williams, and others; a survey of Sonny’s Milestone and Road Show albums would make a great study.

While I’m at work on a series of new research/listening projects (Gerald Cleaver, Terri Lynne Carrington, Dave Tough, Jo Jones), in the flush of excitement after finishing Levy’s wonderful book, it was time to listen to Rollins and Roach.

This is music for a lifetime: respect and gratitude.

“Hot House”, Clifford Brown and Max Roach: Live at the Beehive. The medium Basie-ish tempo isn’t one we associate with Max Roach, yet here it is. Max’s front-leaning time feel works perfectly with Brown’s virtuosity. Brown stretches out for chorus after chorus, and the beat gains weight; Roach starts shuffling at 6:49, and keeps it up, more or less, for the remainder of Brown’s solo. (I was shocked when I first heard this years ago— a shuffling Max Roach was startling.) When Rollins enters, the temperature changes, and the universe expands: Max opens up, abandons the shuffle, and starts creating space for Rollins.

“The Pleasure Is Ours”, bootleg of Clifford Brown-Max Roach with Sonny Rollins, posted on YouTube by Bret Primack, ca. Spring 1956. This is Max’s tempo: the beat shimmers, breathes, and glows. Clearly, Sonny is at the height of his early brilliance. As Rollins works through chorus after chorus (the changes are Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy”), Mr. Roach simply plays the beat, giving Sonny a blank slate to work from. Much is made of the brilliant architecture and virtuosity of Max’s solos; less commented upon is his selflessness within the ensemble. Here, Max commits to playing time, letting Sonny reach the heights. Max is saying to Sonny: “I got it. You do you. I GOT it.”

“Pent-Up House”, Sonny Rollins Plus 4. Max’s bass drum fill in the measure before Clifford’s first chorus is sublime; his broken time and basso profundo floor tom roll at 2:48 announce Sonny’s entrance. The Rollins/Roach affinity is perfectly illustrated in that moment— it’s hard to imagine Max making a similar choice with Charlie Parker, Booker Little, etc.

“Blue 7”, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus. A commonplace of the hard bop era— a long, casual medium-tempo blues to fill out the time requirement of an LP— becomes a forum for motivic development, interaction, and experimentalism; human culture and sympathy take a significant step forward. Mr. Roach’s drum solo is as equally concerned with balance, theme & development, and contrast as Rollins’s justly-celebrated choruses. At first, Max plays four choruses of time with variation; at long last, the ‘feathered’ bass drum is clearly audible. Eventually, Roach comes off the ride cymbal and develops his familiar patterns, letting the energy build— towards what? The piece has no melody, no theme beyond what Rollins played at the beginning, and no arrangement. Max embraces the openness, and builds toward….Sonny Rollins4. “Blue 7” is an encapsulation of the rapport developed between Rollins and Roach.

Max Roach | National Endowment for the Arts

“The Freedom Suite” Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite. This is a major work by Rollins, as a composer, soloist, and bandleader; a piece that merits more words of appreciation and analysis than I’m able to devote at this time. A 20-minute suite of four discreet, contrasting, gently interconnected themes, artfully arranged, with sublime, for-the-ages performances by a trio of Rollins, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach, “The Freedom Suite” is one of the essential jazz recordings. I think Sonny sensed that only Max Roach could provide the gravitas and intensity needed to pull off such an ambitious, unprecedented work.5 If you haven’t heard it, or haven’t heard it in a while, now’s the time.

Tonight and tomorrow night I play with cellist and composer Hank Roberts and his great sextet, featuring my friends and colleagues Brian Drye, Mike McGinnis, Dana Lyn, and Jacob Sacks, at IBeam in Brooklyn; Hank’s music requires total openness, intense focus, and a sense of humor. (I wrote an appreciation of Joey Baron here with a few paragraphs on Hank’s classic Black Pastels album). I’m sure there will be a positive musical influence from the recent listening….…but more importantly…

After finishing the Sonny Rollins biography, and spending some hours listening to Sonny Rollins and Max Roach, a cumulative effect is occurring. It might seem frivolous or New Age-y, but music is powerful: I’m learning—from their music— how to live, what life is all about.

As always, all respect and deepest gratitude.

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