The Best Album of 2008
Rollins, still strong and agile at 78, remains not only the “saxophone colossus” (as he’s been dubbed since his album of that title 51 years ago) but also the last heroic figure of jazz—the soloist (usually a horn player) who stands at the front of the bandstand and unleashes his soul through the frantic majesty and force of his long improvisations, much as an Action Painter would on his canvas. (Rollins might be considered the de Kooning of modern jazz, in that both kept their focus on form—de Kooning on life figures, Rollins on songs. Parlor game: Identify parallels between modern jazz and modern art. Ornette Coleman=Pollock, Monk=Picasso, Cecil Taylor=Gerhard Richter… what are your picks?)
A truism about Rollins is that he’s more thrilling live than in the studio; most of his best albums have been recorded live (A Night at the Village Vanguard, Our Man in Jazz, G-Man…). For many years, a fan named Carl Smith has been collecting bootleg tapes of Rollins concert tapes. Rollins once kept Smith at a distance; a few years ago, he started bringing him into the tent and listening to some of those tapes. He also began to play back tapes that he himself had been making at concerts.
Road Shows Vol. 1 consists of seven tracks—from live gigs around the world, between 1980 and 2007—that Rollins himself has selected personally. This itself is eyebrow-raising. Rollins is famously his own worst critic; he thinks that almost everything he’s ever played falls short. One can assume, then: If Rollins finds these tracks at least acceptable, they must be sensational—right?
As it turns out, yes, very right. I’ve seen Rollins play live maybe 20 times in as many years. Often he’ll take some time to build up in the course of a set, repeating some passage over and over, with slight variations, until suddenly he locks into some pulse of the universe and the magic takes hold. It’s unfathomable (to me anyway) exactly what he’s doing, but it has both nothing and everything to do with what’s going on around him, it goes beyond modes or chord changes yet rides the music’s rhythm and tempo without a skip and, when he pops out of his spell and glides back down to earth, he does it seamlessly, as if he’s been here all along. It’s a great night if he gives us 15 minutes of this magic. This CD is like—well, it is—the best of a half-dozen such great nights.
The final track is “Some Enchanted Evening,” taken from his concert last year at Carnegie Hall with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride (I reviewed that concert at the time, in this blog and in the New York Times), and the effect is something different. Rollins is no longer in heroic mode; he’s playing with peers, engaging in an equilateral trio, the three great musicians bouncing ideas and phrases off one another and listening to them ricochet back. It’s breathtaking, intimate, and a perfect way to wrap up this nearly perfect album.
The sound quality is, well, less than perfect, as might be expected of a live concert that wasn’t meant to be released. The four tracks that were recorded straight off of the band’s mixing board are better—richer, better-balanced, warmer—than the three tracks taken from Carl Smith’s collection; but on all of them, Rollins’ horn is a bit honkier than it really is, perhaps because he likes to walk around while he plays and so attaches a microphone to the bell; we’re hearing the mic as much as the horn.
More good news, though: This is, notice, Vol. 1. There’s much more where this came from, and from every phase of his long career.