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Sonny Rollins The Contemporary Leader

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Label: Proper Records

Year: 2014

Duration: 293 minutes

1 of 1 The saxophone colossus, Sonny Rollins
The saxophone colossus, Sonny Rollins

This four-CD set assembles 42 diverse tracks from Sonny Rollins, the so-called “saxophone colossus”, who is still blowing his tenor sax at the age of 83.

1958 was a great year for the ebullient player, he topped jazz polls  and he made some brilliant, innovative music. It is hard to comprehend at this distance how cutting edge his material sounded back then in the smoky clubs and joints of New York. People must have been swept away by those torrents of notes, amounting to a sound they could not even get a handle on.

Quite aside from his trademark, burbling, mellifluous style, he was adventurous too in his material, interpreting songs by Noel Coward - there is one here, But Not For Me - and popular favourites from other people’s hit parades, including Rosemary Clooney or Al Jolson.

The first three discs in this anthology feature live and studio performances from 1958 and 1959, when to the surprise and shock of his fans, he just walked away from it all. But he returned in 1962, the matter of disc four. He enjoys these days relative good health, is a trim, alert-looking figure, whose days of drink and drug addiction are well behind him.

So, the collection brings us the pre-and post-sabbatical Rollins and there is much to delight in, with studio and live sessions, mostly recorded in New York City. There are forays to Los Angeles, Massachussetts, Sweden, and  Aix-En-Provence in France.

Listen to his plaintive God Bless The Child, (forever associated with Billie Holiday), his questing tenor given light and shade by the gentlest of drums from Harry Saunders, wise and tender bass from Bob Cranshaw, and deeply sympathetic guitar from Jim Hall.

He was certainly blessed with his collaborators and Milt Jackson on vibraphone brings sparkle to the charming, bluesy swing of Bag’s Groove. Rollins imbues You Are Too Beautiful with a kind of sun-lit, optimistic touch. Throughout one is conscious of great instinct wedded to integrity and intelligence. 

A 32-page essay by Simon Spillett, includes quotes and choice archive photos. Spillett, clearly an authority, can lavish praise where needs be, but does not shy from  the difficulties and complications that have bedevilled this singular musical life.

Paddy Kehoe

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