Did You Hear Sonny Rollins?

The One You’ve Been Waiting For

Split between originals and standards, the album also includes "Did You See Harold Vick?" and "Charles M." The former, dedicated to the tenor saxophonist who died young in 1987 and was primarily associated with soul and organ groups (including nearly five years with Aretha), is a typical Rollins diptych of a piece (actually AABBA), with the second section a stop-time gambit. It's more than nine minutes long and it is all Rollins, most of it a trio improv backed by Cranshaw and drummer Perry Wilson. Scott strolls with them for about 16 measures, then lays out as Rollins deliberates his way through six choruses, including the album's le quote juste, "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (twice). Other melodies are also jimmied in, yet this is his most outré invention on the date, a vigilant, lucid saunter—the old Sonny, making it up as he goes along. The Mingus tribute is also vintage Sonny, a dilatory, back-in-the-pocket blues, nailed at every step by Cranshaw, and the only track with a round-robin of solos, by Rollins, Cranshaw, Scott, and trombonist Clifton Anderson, who picks up nicely Scott's insistent closing riff and uses a mute for understated plunger effects. Rollins finishes it off with a straight-bourbon reprise.

No jazz instrumentalist has a more capacious appreciation of classic songs and obscurities than Rollins. His '90s albums have offered a few surprises—"Tennessee Waltz," "Delia" (Lehar's "Vilja, O Vilja"), "Cabin in the Sky"—but most of his choices have been familiar standards. Two of the three on the new CD will restore memories of the man who adapted "Shadow Waltz," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Wagon Wheels," and "To a Wild Rose." Each of the three—"Sweet Leilani," "The Moon of Manakoora," and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square"—was introduced between 1937 and 1940, when Rollins was a small boy, and all of them made an impression on his parents' generation. He plays them with tremendous feeling, putting them back in contention.

"Sweet Leilani," though taken at a snail's pace, is played with a backbeat and tracked with great finesse by Cranshaw and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who appears on all the ballads. For the theme, Anderson's trombone recapitulates Lani McIntyre's obbligato from the original Bing Crosby record, and Rollins colors the melody with a full palette of cries, sighs, sputters, and rumbles, turning his phrases precisely on the beat. The second chorus of his improvisation is especially imaginative, but the song is always there no matter how elaborate a trellis he constructs around it. Ultimately, he makes it a blues—a conceit extended by Scott and then redoubled by Rollins. "A Nightingale Sang" was the musical equivalent of lend-lease in 1940, an English stage hit adapted by American performers in a display of anti-isolationist sympathies. Rollins attacks the first phrase with bluff command (you can hear a hint of "Rockin' Chair" in his paraphrase) and limns the tune with an eloquent modesty. The tune was written as 38 bars, with each of the 10-measure A sections ending on a bar of instrumental filler. Rollins strips the second 10 of one bar, moving it along that much faster. Scott inserts Monk's "Friday the 13th" and DeJohnette keeps the time loose enough to let him get away with it.

"The Moon of Manakoora" is, for me, the prize of the lot. One of the first successful songs with a Frank Loesser lyric, it was composed by Alfred Newman for the score of John Ford's The Hurricane. Rollins plays the theme as a laid-back waltz, crooning the 16-bar theme twice before embarking on a five-chorus solo that opens with short fragmented phrases drawn into a melody. He phrases with utter ease, gliding over the rhythm, employing canny riffs and surprising embellishments, all so casual it seems effortless—exuding a reserved magnificence, like Ben Webster in his later years. We are witnessing something new in jazz: the triumph of the AARP musician. Through most of jazz history, elder statesmen were prized for continuing to play well, while the main focus was on younger players whose energy opened new channels. But who today plays with more energy, originality, and purpose than Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers, and Sonny Rollins? And which young tenor terror will make an album as strong as This Is What I Do?

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