By Gili Malinsky
By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
Believe it or not, Albert Goldman once had a good idea. Uninterested in rock except as a form of cultural pathology, the author of demeaning biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon was a lifelong jazz buff who despised his subjects for stealing glory from master craftsmen like Elvin Jones and Zoot Sims. Jazz was flatlining commercially post–Sgt. Pepper's, and Goldman thought he knew how to shock it back to life. Inasmuch as the essence of jazz was improvisation—laying everything on the line in the heat of the moment—why not capitalize on that? Forget studio recording altogether, and instead of issuing live albums to commemorate specific engagements, trail a chosen musician from gig to gig, all the while releasing the best stuff at regular intervals on LPs that would have the eavesdrop appeal of that era's Dylan and Stones bootlegs.
I could offer a strong counterargument in favor of studio recording, but this isn't the time. Independent of Goldman or anybody else (except maybe an audiophile and virtual doppelgänger named Carl Smith, who made available his stash of clandestine concert tapes), Sonny Rollins this year seized on a similar idea to overcome his well-known wariness toward recording, studio or otherwise. But leave it to Rollins to take his sweet time culling. The never-before-issued performances on Road Shows, Vol. 1—voted Record of the Year in the third annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and my top choice as well—span 27 years, not to mention the globe, ranging from a pair of 1980 performances in Europe and Scandinavia to the spartan trio version of "Some Enchanted Evening" with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride that had me walking on air at Carnegie Hall in September 2007.
Road Shows isn't perfection. The audio quality varies from location to location, and the accompaniment is rarely up to the level of that provided by Haynes and McBride on the lone performance from Carnegie to make the cut. But just be grateful. Rollins is on fire throughout, and although the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is as magnificent as I remembered, here it's merely the obligatory encore—the track I keep returning to is "Best Wishes," the blistering opener from Tokyo in 1986, with Rollins racing a riff through a labyrinth for chorus after chorus. For close to four decades now, since he returned from his third and final sabbatical in 1972, we've judged each new Rollins release wanting, not just compared to his '50s and '60s albums, but also measured against what experience tells us he's capable of live on any given night. Yet more often than not, we also come away from his concerts disappointed, haunted by the memory—or maybe just the inherited memory, but one way or the other, the expectation—of an even better night. Rollins is notorious for holding himself to an even more impossible standard, and Road Shows is his dream of the best of all possible nights—and our dream now, too.
Road Shows outpolled alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen, the surprise runner-up, 208.5 to 118.5 (those nagging half-points residue from a handful of ballots listing 10 choices alphabetically, rather than in order of preference), and the margin might have been even wider if not for a philosophical disagreement. A little bit of backstory is necessary here: In 2005, the average age of the top three finishers in JazzTimes magazine's annual year-end poll—Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane—was deceased. Downbeat, fearful that the winners' circle in its mid-year poll the following summer also figured to read like an R.I.P. list—sending a message to potential subscribers that jazz itself was dead—changed its rules to divert votes for previously unissued vintage material into the reissue category, which it renamed "Reissue/Historical." JazzTimes did likewise the following year.
I see the logic, but unlike "reissue," which can be defined precisely, "historical" leaves an awful lot of wiggle room—and, in any case, what sense does it make to treat as a relic an album by a living artist featuring two performances from just last year? Nevertheless, I gather this is how JazzTimes is categorizing Road Shows, and several critics who vote in both polls wanted to play by that publication's rules. My greatest concern in disallowing votes for it as a reissue—besides the fact that it plain isn't—was to prevent the absurdity of it or any other album finishing in the top tier of both categories, but first in neither. In protest, several voters left it off their ballots altogether.
Did I sense in all of this a desire to kick Rollins upstairs—a move to declare him unfair competition? A poll in which he bests the nearest competition almost two to one, even with a handicap, suggests he might be. But in the months leading up to this year's presidential election, how often did we hear that an opinion poll is merely a snapshot of prevailing sentiment at any given moment? A poll such as this one doesn't so much predict what lies ahead for jazz as it reflects what critical consensus happens to be right now. Sonny Rollins's greatness is about all that we agree on; if the rest of the figures confirm an absolute lack of consensus regarding anyone else, so be it.