Sonny Rollins – Newk’s Time — music review
Posted on October 21, 2005 by Kris Nelson
I guess I was an unconventional jazz enthusiast because I inadvertently imbued it with certain rules, even though I felt jazz should remain carefree. I believed it was sacrilege to own any recording of it. Jazz should be listened to live or at least serendipitously, I protested. I guess it felt like lepidoptery (butterfly collecting); trapped on a cd at one’s beckon call is just not right. I was never into “smooth jazz” or repeats; I coveted original tied ensembles, not necessarily by the über famous ones. I may seem difficult to please, but I tell you Sonny Rollins satisfies all of my wacky unwritten criteria. Not only is his oblique material choice refreshing, but his energetic performances are “pee-your-pants” sublime.
Sonny’s weapon of choice is the tenor saxophone (same as the popularized John Coltrane) which he took up when he was sixteen, foregoing alto sax and piano practice; perhaps possible parental prodding intervened. His success vaulted quickly due to his talent and being in the right place at the right time. He grew up in highly influential Sugar Hill Harlem where Bebop blossomed, and within a few years, he was performing partner to Thelonious Monk, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Miles Davis and Bud Powell. Thelonious Monk became his mentor, Charlie his buddy, Miles Davis his fan. It was with Powell that he recorded his first Blue Note record in 1949. He was nineteen years old.
Miles Davis idolized Rollins and nicknamed him “Newk” due to his resemblance to (then Brooklyn) Dodgers’ Don Newcombe. Rollins even played along when baseball fans mistook him for the famous pitcher, and Davis makes good use of this memory in his autobiography, where he also lovingly recollects:
[P]eople loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thing–he was close. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas. I loved him back then as a player and he could also write his ass off.
— Miles Davis
Newk’s Time, his 1957 Blue Note release, is where I luckily began my exposure to Rollins and it remains my favorite. It is an adventurous mix of calypso, generous improvisation and spirited sound. Like I mentioned before, Rollins’ selections are energetic, agile, dynamic, vivid and just very very different from whatever your main perception of jazz may be. This ain’t jazz to Sunday nap to. While ‘Blues for Philly Joe’ is the only album track Rollins composed, the other five tracks combine classics such as ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ and Miles Davis’ ‘Tune Up’ are offered in unique interpretations. While it is obvious that his accompaniment is often left in the shadows, Rollins shines through to prevent you from really noticing. It is his creative flair that keeps repeat plays far from redundant. You remain enthralled by his bouncy nuances and bold strides.
Recorded a little over a month after Newk’s Time came A Night at The Village Vanguard (Volumes 1 and 2), his final Blue Note album. It was also the only live album he did for Blue Note and is hailed by critics as his masterpiece. He stripped away the piano accompaniment, allowing for broader improvisation and an uncluttered aura.
I guess Sonny soon felt the lepidopterists’ curse, as he recoiled from fame a year and a half following the Village Vanguard release. Two years later he emerged from his chrysalis better than ever, having taken time off to hone and experiment with a new style at the time, free jazz. But he seemed to continue to shrink socially: he preferred solos and from 1959-1961 refused public performances. In 1969 he hibernated again for a couple of years, always his harshest critic, but more a critic of the demanding music industry.
Rollins just wanted to preserve his individualism: “I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way. I wasn’t going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time.”
In 1966, his disappointment forced him into reclusion once again:
I was getting into Eastern religions. I’ve always been my own man. I’ve always done, tried to do, what I wanted to do for myself. So these are things I wanted to do. I wanted to go on the Bridge. I wanted to get into religion. But also, the Jazz music business is always bad. It’s never good. So that led me to stop playing in public for a while, again.
During the second sabbatical, I worked in Japan a little bit, and went to India after that and spent a lot of time in a monastery. I resurfaced in the early 70s, and made my first record in `72. I took some time off to get myself together and I think it’s a good thing for anybody to do.
— Sonny Rollins
Last month, Sonny Rollins celebrated his 75th birthday along with a brand new album release. If he’s retrospective, he can certainly commend himself for helming over 60 compilations and 89 albums, a few of which I have collected and now proudly bust out whenever I’m on one of my baking rampages/personal kitchen dance-offs.
“Sonny Rollins helps make tart crust flakier” is my new mantra because you have to move fast when listening to something so inspiringly perky. It doesn’t matter anymore if it’s warbling from a cd, in some instances it even sounds better due to tedious remastering. For some reason, the jazz greats have been liberated thanks to this process, I’ve freed myself from the frivolous “rules” and my quiches have never tasted better.
Now, any time can be Newk’s Time.