In 1959, Sonny Rollins retired from active participation in jazz, reemerging in 1961. Four records have been released under his name since then, and while each deserves greater consideration than can be given here a brief assessment of their general direction is overdue.

In an interview soon after his return, Rollins spoke of his admiration for orchestral saxophonists Sigmund Rascher and Marcel Mulé. Indeed all his records since 1961 have shown that his retirement, like his previous withdrawal in 1955, was devoted to the perfection of instrumental technique rather than to the development of new musical ideas. On all his four latest records Rollins displays an enriched tone and often makes use of slap tongueing and other tonal effects to a greater extent than before. He has also developed a method of playing two notes together which, he says, relates to the overtone structure of his instrument and which sounds more reliable than Coltrane’s method. Later records show that he is attempting to control the use of high harmonics and incorporate them into his effective range. These devices are usually employed with intelligent dramatic effect.

This concentration on instrumental problems has probably caused some disappointment among younger listeners and critics who, having become involved in the wealth of advance that took place during Rollins’s absence and in the mythological currents which came to surround him in those years, expected Rollins to re-appear either very much under Coltrane’s influence or with some parallel innovation. It is not surprising, though, that such a shift did not occur and the assumption that it would was based on insufficient knowledge of Rollins’s previous work. Firstly, one should note that Rollins, although he was one of the first musicians to borrow and develop aspects of Thelonious Monk’s playing—from which so many recent advances are ultimately derived—and although he has influenced many younger musicians, has never been one of the most important innovators in jazz, in the sense of contributing new harmonic or rhythmic elements to its vocabulary. It seems certain that John Coltrane will affect jazz in this way much more than Rollins has done. Secondly, Rollins’s style was clearly mature before his retirement and one should neither expect nor hope that such a rich and personal mode of expression would fall apart with the appearance of Coleman and Coltrane.

Rollins’s major achievement has always lain not in what he has introduced but in his development of an uncommonly variegated melodic and rhythmic repertoire and his ability to detach himself from his material and integrate its diverse elements. Several of his pre-retirement solos (especially Blue seven, Esquire 32–045) show, in his restructuring of melodic fragments from the theme, one way of maintaining formal unity in long improvisations. What one would more reasonably expect, therefore, is that Rollins would respond to the playing of recent innovators by increasing his basic vocabulary and exercising his architectonic ability in even wider areas of rhythmic and tonal freedom. It looks however, as if his recorded output has not given us a full picture of his response to the contemporary scene in these terms.

It is not surprising that no awareness of avant-garde currents is detachable on his first record: presumably Rollins did not hear much jazz during his isolation. The Bridge (rca lmp/slp–2527), on which Rollins leads Jim Hall (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Ben Riley (drums), shows us Rollins’s technique and an inventiveness and emotional richness similar to that a his best work before retirement (Newks Time, Blue Note 4001). His solo on John S, in which a complex and highly organized statement evolves from a single repeated phrase, is of particular interest. Hall, though not as interesting a soloist as Rollins, is a very sensitive accompanist; perhaps the only fault of the record is that a freer rhythm section would have led Rollins further.