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
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 (Newk’s 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.
Although Rollins had previously shown a fondness for Latin American material, he seems to have been dissatisfied with the arrangement of What’s New (rca lmp–2572), where the above-mentioned group is augmented by four percussionists, including Candido Camera, and (on two tracks) by a turgid and affected choir. Only on Jungoso, where Rollins is released from all accompaniment save bass and conga drum, does he produce an interesting solo exercising all the ferocity of his increased tone colour with great rhythmic ingenuity. Though his solo playing is cohesive on all the other tracks he seems less interested and less inventive than usual. Since this record was incorrectly designated as a bossa nova production and was timed for release at the height of the bossa nova craze, one may assume that it reflects rca’s intentions more
It is also hard to work out whose intentions are expressed in Sonny Meets Hawk (rca lpm–2712), the latest of these four records. As on so many ‘jazz greats’ records, the personnel, consisting of Rollins, Hawkins, pianist Paul Bley, Bob Cranshaw and Henry Grimes alternating on bass, and drummer Roy McCurdy, is inhibited by the occasion. Both soloists have shown their power to sustain creativity and excitement throughout long solos but here solo space is often too short to allow for the proper development of their ideas. Rollins, being more accustomed to the rhythm section, comes off better than Hawkins; his improvisations on All The Things You Are, Just Friends and Lover Man are among his most interesting and deserve detailed consideration. However, a better account of his musical intelligence could have been given if he had had sole command of the group. As so often, records by each saxophonist leading his own rhythm section would have been preferable.