It is almost received truth among Sonny Rollins’s legion of fans that the isolated environment of the recording studio inhibits the man known as the Saxophone Colossus from scaling the Olympian heights to which he often ascends when playing for an audience. Consider, for example, Without a Song (Milestone), a 2005 document of a Rollins performance at Boston’s Berklee School of Music five days after the collapse of the World Trade Center (a quarter mile south of his Manhattan apartment), which captures about 20 minutes of improvising that is as transcendent as anything in the 78-year-old tenor saxophonist’s entire oeuvre. For Rollins connoisseurs, however, Without a Song, which concluded Rollins’s contractual relationship with Milestone, was a kind of tease, representing only one of hundreds of privately recorded concerts on which Rollins fully accesses his muse. On these, he reveals himself to be the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory that span the entire jazz timeline, and to morph them into stunning, spur-of-the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture while navigating the highwire, always swinging with ferocious joie de vivre. On Roadshows, Vol.1, the first of a projected multi-disc release on his imprint label, Doxy, Rollins presents material from this heretofore untapped mother lode. He cherry-picks three tracks from the ’80s and four from the ’00s and sequences them into a virtual meta-concert, juxtaposing rompers with ballads, varying key signatures and beat structures, taking the bulk of the soloing yet making sure to represent his band members. His time feel is unparalleled, his tone heroic without excessive vibrato, and he unfailingly goes for the sound of surprise, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos. It is the strongest Rollins recording since the ’60s, which is also to say that it is a must-buy, one of the most thrilling recordings in the entire jazz canon.
About the Author
Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz for various publications, including DownBeat and Jazziz, as well as the website www.jazz.com. He's presented it on WKCR-FM in New York City since 1985. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article "Smalls Universe," published by DownBeat.