Sonny Meets Roy!

I reviewed Sonny Rollins’ Carnegie Hall concert last Tuesday for the New York Times. Short version: The first half, when Rollins played in trio with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride, was wondrous; the second half, with his usual sextet, had its moments but was comparatively a drag. I only hinted at this in the review, but the concert typified the puzzle that is Rollins’ career: why, in the past 40 of its 50-plus years, has this titan of the tenor saxophone—the most inventive living improviser in jazz—chosen to play so often with musicians so clearly beneath him?

One could argue that, to a point, the quality of his rhythm section doesn’t much matter. Rollins’ art is the extended solo; on a good night, he soars to the stars, and the main function of his band is to keep the machinery humming—to lay down the chords and keep the beat steady.

And yet, one could have said the same thing about Charlie Parker, but he soared higher and brighter when he had Dizzy Gillespie flying alongside him and Max Roach gunning the rockets and flipping the ship in mid-orbit. The same was true of Rollins’ old friend and competitor, John Coltrane, who might not have reached such heights or plumbed such depths without Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison behind him.

There was a time when Rollins was open to new influences and played with musicians that kept him on his toes. In the late ‘50s, he was so floored by the new sounds of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman that he famously dropped out of the scene, at the peak of his career, and was seen practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge. When he came back in ’62, he went in several directions simultaneously, most popularly in a bossa nova tilt with guitarist Jim Hall, but he also formed a band with two of Ornette’s players (Don Cherry and Billy Higgins—a live recording with them at the Village Gate, Our Man in Jazz, is one of his most staggering albums) and another band with two of Coltrane’s (Jones and Garrison, with whom he made East Broadway Rundown, one of his most strangely riveting). He dropped out again in 1966—bent out of shape, some say, by Coltrane’s atonal flight to the stars. When he came back in ’72, he settled back into his original sound, as if the ‘60s had never taken place, adding an occasional pop (or at least undissonant) gloss. This period is often underrated; he was still an extraordinary player (as evidenced by the two-CD compilation of the era, Silver City, or any number of live concerts, some of them bootlegged); but it was a comedown from his heyday. And it’s worth noting that his best recordings from this period were with Jack DeJohnette and Tommy Flanagan—sidemen worthy of being mentioned in the same paragraph as Sonny Rollins.

I don’t want to overstate my point. I’ve seen Rollins play live maybe 20 times in as many years, and at three-quarters of these concerts, he unleashed at least one long solo—on some nights, two or three—that made jaws drop and eyes water, that sailed galaxies beyond what any other jazz musician today can do, beyond what all but a few could ever do. I’m not talking ancient history, either; this has happened at concerts in New York, with his usual sextet, just the past couple years.

But stasis can set in, even among the best artists, when there’s no one around to charge the batteries and clean the spark plugs. Coleman Hawkins, Rollins’ chief influence on the tenor sax, knew this. He rose through the swing age, adapted effortlessly to be-bop, and made an effort to keep playing with younger men who stretched him, most notably Thelonious Monk but also a young, hellbent Rollins (in a hair-raising 1962 album, Sonny Meets Hawk!). Duke Ellington spent his latter years playing the same tunes with his big band night after night (and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that!), but he took reprieves to record with the likes of Coltrane, Mingus, and Max Roach. Rollins himself used to stage concerts called “Sonny Rollins & Friends,” in which he played with fellow giants. The last one was with his boyhood friend, Jackie McLean, at the Beacon around 1997.

Until last Tuesday, when he took the stage with Roy Haynes—arguably the greatest living drummer, with whom he hadn’t played since 1958—and Christian McBride, a terrific young bassist. Not only that, he played with them in the most challenging format in jazz, a trio without piano or guitar, that is, without anyone laying down chords. It was simply magical, sheer genius, the art of the jazz trio incarnate. Then came the second half, where he played with five musicians who, while they’re not bad, wouldn’t be chosen as the B-team rhythm section by any jazz leader half the worth of Sonny Rollins. The leader wasn’t in sterling shape himself. And it was, predictably, so-so.

My fantasy is to see a reprise of Rollins and Haynes (at least that half of the concert was recorded and will soon be released on CD). I’d also like to see him play with some of the most creative musicians of a generation or two younger—Jason Moran, Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas, David Murray, James Carter, Greg Cohen, Ben Allison, the list could go on. I’d like to hear him in surroundings that push him to sound like what he is.

BLue Mikey's picture

See my photography blog "The Online Photographer" ( for a great concert shot of Roy Haynes, taken just a couple of day ago in St. Louis by photographer Kent Phelan. The entry is for 22 September 2007. Super shot.

AA's picture

Great post, my only quibble is that Ellington did the Coltrane and the Mingus/Roach CD's (both excellent) in November 1962. It's not as if he did a bunch of them, and it's a shame he didn't.

Warren's picture

And now Sonny won't release the recording of the show. Instead he releases a DVD of another show of his lame band? Odd, disappointing and totally in character, alas.