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Sonny Rollins Biography

Theodore Walter Rollins, 7 September 1929, New York City, New York, USA. Although an older brother played violin and, at the age of nine, he took piano lessons, Rollins was destined for the saxophone. In 1944 he played alto saxophone in high school and when he left in 1947 he began gigging round New York on tenor. His first inspiration was Coleman Hawkins, but he was well aware of the beboppers, many of whom lived in his neighbourhood. His first recording session was with scat-singer Babs Gonzales for Capitol Records in 1948. Soon he was recording with Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson, who recorded his first composition, ‘Audubon’. Rollins’ assured version of Charlie Parker on tenor was embraced by the top jazz artists: in 1949 he played with Art Blakey, in 1950 with Tadd Dameron, in 1951 with Miles Davis and in 1953 with Thelonious Monk. In 1954 Davis recorded with Rollins, including in the set three important Rollins compositions: ‘Airegin’ (Nigeria backwards - a salute to the newly independent African state), ‘Oleo’ and ‘Doxy’ (all three are now established jazz classics). However, Rollins left for Chicago and Davis chose John Coltrane when he formed his new quintet. In January 1956, when the Clifford Brown / Max Roach quintet lost its tenor (Harold Land) in Chicago, Rollins stepped in, and played with them for 18 months. After that, Rollins began leading his own groups. In May 1956 he recorded Tenor Madness for Prestige, with the Paul Chambers / Philly Joe Jones rhythm team from Coltrane’s group. The title track consisted of a mighty ‘tenor battle’ with Coltrane himself, Rollins’ melodious expansion contrasting with Coltrane’s pressure-cooker angularity.

In April 1956 Rollins recorded Saxophone Colossus, generally regarded as his first masterpiece. However, the advent of Ornette Coleman caused a deal of self-reflection and he retired for two years (1959-60), amid rumours that he was practising on Williamsburg Bridge. In 1961 he re-emerged to work with Jim Hall and then with two musicians associated with Coleman: trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins. Our Man In Jazz shows him taking on the new freedoms with confidence and passion; the 20-minute ‘Oleo’ was a tour de force. He then toured as a soloist, using local rhythm sections (European tours in 1965, 1966 and 1967). In 1966 he recorded East Broadway Rundown with the Jimmy Garrison / Elvin Jones rhythm section from Coltrane’s classic quartet. The music, with its blistering title track and tremulous version of ‘We Kiss In A Shadow’, was superb, but it was indicative of Rollins’ problems that it was a one-off group. Rollins found it difficult to deal with the possibilities opened up by the assaults on form of the avant garde. That same year he wrote and recorded the soundtrack music for the Michael Caine movie masterpieceAlfie. As film soundtracks go this was a surprisingly excellent outing.

Rollins again took a two-year sabbatical (1968-71), this time studying in India and Japan. In 1973 he recorded Horn Culture using electric accompaniment. On electric bass Bob Cranshaw lacked the fire he had shown on Our Man In Jazz and despite Rollins’ self-overdubs and characteristically ambitious solos, he seemed to be mired in pedestrian jazz rock. The Cutting Edge (1974) had a bravura a cappella rendition of ‘To A Wild Rose’ but a similarly subdued band. In 1978 he toured with the Milestone All Stars. Here, a band of the stature of McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Al Foster could not fail to spark him, but these musicians were all leaders in their own right and could not work with him regularly. At this point Rollins refused all further nightclub performances and resolved to play festivals and concert halls exclusively. In 1985 he attempted to do without rhythm sections altogether in The Solo Album and then toured Europe with a band featuring ex-Weather Report bass player Victor Bailey and drummer Tommy Campbell. In 1986 his Concerto For Saxophone And Orchestra was premiered in Japan. 1988 saw him linking up with some of the new names of the jazz revival: Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith provided him with ferociously good drumming at live appearances. However, a rather tight and commercial sound made Dancing In The Dark unsatisfactory.

Rollins is a soloist par excellence. His indecision about the form of his music - whether it is to be free/electric/acoustic - reflects the general quandary of jazz in the 80s and beyond. He is still capable of the solo flights that caused Davis to vote for him as ‘greatest tenor ever’ in a poll conducted by Leonard Feather at the end of the 60s.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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