Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sonny Rollins

  • The Cutting Edge [Milestone, 1974] B
  • Nucleus [Milestone, 1975] A-
  • Don't Stop the Carnival [Milestone, 1978] A-
  • There Will Never Be Another You [ABC/Impulse, 1978] A
  • Sunny Days, Starry Nights [Milestone, 1984] A
  • G-Man [Milestone, 1987] A+
  • Silver City [Milestone, 1996] A+
  • A Night at the Village Vanguard [Blue Note, 1999] A-
  • Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000] A+
  • Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert [Milestone, 2005] B+
  • Road Shows Vol. 1 [Doxy/Emarcy, 2008] A+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Cutting Edge [Milestone, 1974]
Rollins is one of those certified geniuses who didn't pan out for me when I had the time to investigate jazz, and although I hoped for belated paydirt from his first live album in years, more careful examination reveals that the straight melodies do get dull and the improvisations aren't rich enough to invite deep digging, just like all the jazz metallugists warned me. B

Nucleus [Milestone, 1975]
Eat your heart out, Grover Washington (Archie Shepp) (yeah, King Curtis too). This is as rich an r&b saxophone record as I know, combining repetition and invention, melodies recalled and melodies unimaginable, in proportions that define the difference between selling out and reaching out. This man says more with his tone than most musicians do with a full set of chops (which he also has, of course). If you really believe you don't like "jazz," this is as good a place to start as any. A-

Don't Stop the Carnival [Milestone, 1978]
I've always felt that Rollins's Caribbean airs and easy expansiveness were well-suited to his fusionoid recording ideas of recent years, but the only album that has broken through for me is Nucleus. Even on this double-LP it's the relatively mournful standard, "Autumn Nocturne" and the relatively austere Donald Byrd (!) theme, "President Hayes," that tempt me past the dancey magic of the title cut, a tune Rollins has been playing for 15 years. And a good thing, too--the meat of the album is sustaining if not exquisite, jazz food that anyone can digest. A-

There Will Never Be Another You [ABC/Impulse, 1978]
But this much knottier 1965 session is the Rollins I keep going back to. The man is expansive here, too--casually interpolating rapt modal runs into his thoughtful thematic improvisations on the 16-minute title tour de force, for instance--but the context is more angular, with continual commentary by Billy Higgins (who shares the drumming with Mickey Roker) that erases the memory of Tony Williams's work on Don't Stop the Carnival. Also knotty is the question of who owns this music--Rollins has claimed in court that ABC had no right to release it. A

Sunny Days, Starry Nights [Milestone, 1984]
Not owning any Sonny Rollins records is like not owning any Aretha Franklin records--his sheer physical presence is something no aural sensualist should live without. Not that the sound hasn't proved malleable and even protean, but its direct, expressive warmth and raspy power is unmistakable even to noninitiates like me. His most accessible and uncompromised album in more than a decade is soaked in the swinging pan-Caribbean "calypso" that's been his special pleasure since the '50s; despite drummer Tommy Campbell's elaborations it moves the rock and roller in me. A

G-Man [Milestone, 1987]
The live soundtrack to Robert Mugge's Saxophone Colossus is jazz for rock-and-rollers to cut their teeth on. It's exciting, fun, a gas, all that stuff great rock and roll is supposed to be and so rarely is these days. Title track is fifteen minutes of Rollins at a peak--a showman who never shows off, a virtuoso who's never pretentious or (in this situation) even difficult. It's like what some teenager might imagine both "free jazz" and "a honking session" sound like from reading LeRoi Jones or John Sinclair--riffs jumping and giving long past their breaking points, notes held so long it's a wonder Rollins hasn't passed out. Elsewhere are ten-minute workouts on two proven flag-wavers, "Don't Stop the Carnival" and "Tenor Madness" (the latter CD-only although the vinyl runs under thirty-five minutes, my only objection to the package). Everyone else in a quintet accelerated by the amazing Marvin Smith feels the spirit, although their inventions are more strictly harmonic and rhythmic where Rollins's are always sonic as well. Free jazz and honking sessions rarely get this good. I haven't enjoyed a record so much all year. A+

Silver City [Milestone, 1996]
I was all set to call my man Giddins and ask whether this two-CD set could possibly be as unerring as I thought when I learned that most of the choices had been put forward by Gary himself, for the Voice's Rollins issue. So moan all you want about conflict of interest. This is the shit--funny, tortured, profound, romantic, carnivalesque. Surprisingly for a modernist of fabled young alienation, Rollins adds to the easeful, virtuosic majesty of his mature sound an enlightenment that takes the entire vocabulary of the saxophone, from follow-the-notes melody reproduction to squeaks and blats that know no tonal referent, as a sound-palette that is its own reason for being. Hence he may come off too well-adjusted for the what-you-got rebels of rock's supposedly alternative nation. But if you feel about rock and roll the way Rollins does about the saxophone--that it's all one structure of feeling from howl to croon, bubblepop to jungle, Mariah to Polly Jean--you should forget your singing habit and sign on for one hell of a ride. A+

A Night at the Village Vanguard [Blue Note, 1999]
This 1957 date is the Rollins virtuoso fanciers fancy: two-plus hours on the Sunday of Sputnik 2, the tenor colossus braving the harmonic void in the closest thing to free jazz a bebop saxophonist essaying Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and his beloved Hammerstein can rev into. Backed by retro-rocketing Monk bassist Wilbur Ware and a young Elvin Jones testing his launching capacity, Rollins is charged with venturing far out from these tunes without severing the harmonic moorings normally secured by a piano. He does it again and again--but not without a certain cost in ebullience, texture, and fullness of breath. Impressive always, fun in passing, his improvisations are what avant-garde jazz is for. The drum solos are a club convention that let him idle his engines a little. A-

Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000]
Epitomized in 11 flawless 1954-1966 tracks is jazz's greatest living improviser as questing modernist, before he settled into his seigneury at Milestone. Almost every player is a titan trying: Davis and Gillespie and Brown, Hawkins and Stitt, Silver and Flanagan and Bley, Clarke and Roach and Jones. Yet Rollins owns every track. On straight bebop and postmodernism crossing the bridge, "Body and Soul" and "St. Thomas" and "I'm an Old Cowhand," his fluid, muscular, sardonically confident sound justifies his omnivorous appetites and vitalizes his twistiest abstractions. I'm not literate enough to explain what "Alfie's Theme Differently" has to do with "Alfie." But I bet Burt Bacharach thought about it for a good long time. A+

Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert [Milestone, 2005]
I counted: pianist Stephen Scott and trombonist Clifton Anderson solo for 15-plus minutes apiece on this 72-minute album, which documents a 9/15/01 Boston concert down to the introductory remarks and standing ovations. Understandably, the material includes three meditative standards, and unsurprisingly, Rollins meditates up a storm at several speeds. The historical moment only intensifies his religious feelings about music; he's humble and masterful, questioning and joyous, swinging and polyrhythmic. Scott fits in, running changes with a satisfying physicality. But the heightened circumstances make clear that Anderson's main job in this band is to give the boss breathing room. And under the circumstances, there's too much of it. B+

Road Shows Vol. 1 [Doxy/Emarcy, 2008]
As definitive as the Silver City comp in a different way, this decades-spanning live album, which looked like the first of an endless series of exhumations, remains the most recent release from the still-active 80-year-old, although a second volume is expected in the fall. It's living proof of the truism that his Fantasy studio output didn't do justice to what happened in concert enchanted evening after enchanted evening, and demonstrates in addition that just like Louis Armstrong, Rollins was as invaluable in his audience-pleasing mature period as in his questing youth. Beyond the top-drawer drummers--Al Foster, Roy Haynes, Steve Jordan--are such serviceable sidemen as bassist Bob Cranshaw and electric (!) piano player Mark Soskin. But because the concept foregrounds melody and straight-ahead swing, this may even be a plus, because it leaves the focus on the star of the show. His tenor sound grown huge and warm without a hint of corn syrup, Rollins is more inventive and risk-prone than the older Armstrong. But since his audience expects nothing less, his astonishing cadenzas and unaccompanied improvs are the most generous kind of high shtick. Seven tracks, the shortest 7:50 and the longest 12:26, make you feel that he could do this forever. He can't, of course. But that's where he wants to leave you. A+