Last August, at Lincoln Center Plaza, 70-year-old Sonny Rollins gave one of the most exhilarating, inspired, go-for-broke, don’t-look-back performances I have ever seen. OK, I’ve probably written something like that before, but having missed maybe three of his New York engagements over the last 35 years, I rate this one very high—in the top five, anyway. For one thing, he played two hours and 15 minutes without a break. You can tell right off when Rollins is feeling cramped because he can’t get out of the heads; on this night, he could scarcely wait to eject himself into improvisational flight. His infallible time reflected a wary, boplike sagacity, a witting agility; as the rhythm section hammered down the beats like pickets in a fence, he alternately stepped back to launch parabolas and charged forward hugging the ground—Calypso Joe roaring and guffawing. For another thing, he introduced more new music than usual: tributes to Harold Vick and Charles Mingus and two forgotten trade-winds ballads so unlikely that no one else would have dared. As hundreds stood waving like wheat stalks, a woman asked no one in particular, “Did you ever think you would be grooving to ‘Sweet Leilani?’ ” Not like this.
All of that material is on Rollins’s new album, a candidate for the year’s best, This Is What I Do (Milestone). In 1972, when he resumed recording after a six-year sabbatical during which he was constantly asked when he would make his next album, he issued Sonny Rollins’ Next Album. The next 15 years were a slough of searching but spotty records. Cries went out for The Sonny Rollins Album You’ve Been Waiting For, a fantasy construct released in excerpts, as demonstrated by the 1996 anthology, Silver City.
Long before the anthology, however, it was evident that the new Sonny was making peace with the old Sonny in what now seems like a CD quintet, bookended by a full-bore rampage, G-Man (1987), and a pinnacle of poetic paraphrase, +3 (1995), and enclosing three increasingly powerful steps toward rapprochement: Dancing in the Dark, Falling in Love With Jazz, and Old Flames. Still, a viral cynicism had come to infect old-time Rollins fans, the complaints often focusing on the bow-taut electric basslines of Bob Cranshaw. This Is What I Do may serve, not only for those who came of age with the ’60s RCAs and Impulses, but even for those who refused to let Rollins age beyond 1958, as, well, the Sonny Rollins album they’ve been waiting for. Cranshaw is still electric, but superior engineering mixes him down to where the bass ought to be, making it easier to appreciate what an iron man he is and why, for nearly three decades, he has played a role with Rollins not unlike that of Freddie Greene with Count Basie.
Rollins’s 1998 Global Warming alienated many by putting a pop veneer on some of his most avant-garde playing in years—”Clear Cut Boogie” harks back to the days of East Broadway Rundown. It is marked by an ironic tentativeness, a stretching out of notes past the border of conventional pitch, a dry sound, and a discursive attack. Even on “Mother Nature’s Blues,” he puts himself through woolly locutions to get to the more comfortable blues-bop payoffs. On his ballad “Echo-Side Blue,” he appears yoked to the theme’s wryly nostalgic yearning, as though stuck in an uneasy mode between past and present. Most themes are short, as though he can’t wait to play, yet his solos feel truncated; he plays five superb choruses on “Global Warming,” but leaves off just as he’s kicking into overdrive.
This Is What I Do is Global Warming‘s reverse counterpart. Rollins’s sound is warmer and fuller and focused in the midrange, less grainy than on +3. He makes much use of grit and grain and shouts and cries, but always for accent, to italicize specific notes in a phrase. His virtuoso aim in this regard is stunning, even for Rollins—for example, his second solo on “Salvador,” where inflections underscore the rhythmic muscle of his overall conception. The result is a return to supernal authority, touched with nostalgia validated by on-the-beat assurance and producing a melodic joy and humor that—though removed from the euphoric Rollins who whips ballads until the cream runs over and stomps calypsos until you feel foolish for sitting—comes closer to the Rollins concert experience than most of his studio albums.
Take “Salvador,” as richly songful a calypso as he has recorded—not just the theme, but the whole performance, the almost indivisible logic between head and solo, underscored by buoyantly thematic phrases that parse his improvisation. The 40-bar theme (the bridge is 16) has built-in hesitations that spur Rollins’s turnbacks through three solo choruses rife with lush embellishments, charged riffs, and a climactic final bridge. Stephen Scott, Rollins’s most distinctive regular pianist since Stanley Cowell if not Ray Bryant, follows with three of his own, which also massage the theme and build to a heated bridge; his second chorus, fixed on a single chord, includes a turnback that recycles the piccolo obbligato from “High Society”—a conscious nod, I presume, to New Orleans second-line ecstasy, which Rollins sustains in his follow-up.
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?