Sonny Rollins' Magnificent Road Shows, Vol.3

Road Shows, Volume 3 (on Okeh Records) might be Sonny Rollins' greatest album ever. Certainly it's the album that most closely supplies the sensation of a live Sonny Rollins concert—or the best moments of several live Sonny Rollins concerts, which is what the whole Road Shows series is meant to be.

Rollins famously dreads the deadness of studios, so it's no surprise that some of his best albums, I think, have been live dates (Our Man in Jazz, A Night at the Vanguard, and a standout from the otherwise spotty 1980s, G-Man). A decade ago, he started listening to old concert tapes—some made by his own sound crew, some taken down by a bootleg collector named Carl Smith. When he started releasing selected tracks, the anticipation was enormous: it's well known that Rollins, a ferociously self-critical artist, can't stand listening to his performances; so if he found these tracks decent enough to share with others, they must be great. And, it turned out, they were.

Road Shows, Vol.1, which came out in 2008, covered a wide swath, with Rollins fronting a variety of bands, from 1980 till just the previous year. Vol.2, released in 2011, focused on his breathtaking 80th birthday concert at New York's Beacon Theater in 2010, where he played with lots of friends and guest stars (including one mind-bending duet with Ornette Coleman). Vol.3 spans the first dozen years of the new century, Rollins backed throughout by his steady sextet (with only minor variations). Maybe he's getting more comfortable with listening to himself, and therefore more adept in the role of curator: whatever the reason, this the most consistently wondrous collection to date, as a showcase for Rollins as both a bandleader (rarely if ever have his associates sounded so lively) and a soloist.

His solos are what Rollins is known for. As I wrote in my blog post on Vol.1, he is "the last heroic figure of jazz—the soloist (usually a horn player) who unleashes his soul through the frantic majesty and force of his long improvisation, much as an Action Painter would on his canvas." Vol. 3 unveils some of the most amazing Rollins solos on record. Those who have never heard him live will find this album a revelation.

The highlight is the fourth of the album's six tracks, simply called "Solo Sonny," an eight-minute cadenza, unleashed at a concert in St. Louis in 2009, in which Rollins glides, rips and roars through fragments of over a dozen standards ("The Nearness of You," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "O Susanna," and beyond), spinning each through a prism, refracting its lyrical charm and rhythmic essence, lacing them seamlessly—or, to switch metaphors, splashing them up on a canvas of kaleidoscopic colors, with exuberant precision, that amounts to his own spontaneous masterpiece rendition of the 20th century songbook.

As he did with Vol.2, Allan Tucker mastered the tapes, and the sound quality, for some reason, is pretty good—by far the best of the three volumes so far. I can't wait for Vol.4!

volvic's picture

Great recommendations just like the Decca Sound box set. Thanks again Fred Kaplan. Keep em comin'