Bluebird's Best: Rollins and Desmond
Despite his popularity as a performer, an unsatisfied Sonny Rollins took a three year hiatus from performing and recording to hone his technique. The image of him practicing on the Willimsburg Bridge during this period is one of jazz’s enduring reference points. Once he returned, Rollins signed with RCA and released a series of albums that document uneven years of growth where he experimented with lineups and adopted the techniques of Ornette Coleman to his own style.
The recording of “All The Things You Are” with Coleman Hawkins points to the trouble with Rollins during this time; Hawk solos beautifully, but is crowded out by Rollins’ obtrusive noodling. What we really want to hear is Rollins sounding more like Hawk, not deliberately trying to overwhelm him in abstraction. Rollins also picked up guitarist Jim Hall instead of a pianist, but Hall is simply too delicate to deal with the bullish tenor, and Rollins comes off sounding undermanned. The set also features a few tunes recorded with Don Cherry, again with no piano, in a very Coleman-like setting (but will make most people reach for “The Shape Of Jazz to Come” instead) and some mediocre dabblings with a choir.
Despite the growing pains of these recordings, there are a few highlights; a trio recording of “St. Thomas” and a lovely version of “God Bless The Child” with Hall hearken back to the classic Prestige years and are perfect examples of why Rollins is hailed as one of the greatest improvisers in jazz. Rollins eventually found a happy medium between his avant-garde leanings and his post-bop past, but much of Rollins’ RCA work is inferior to his substantial body of work. Pick up any of the Prestige records instead.
Anyone remotely familiar with “Take Five” will recognize Paul Desmond’s dry, feathery alto instantly. However, Desmond often lived in Brubeck’s shadow, and many may not know that Desmond also recorded several fine albums as a leader as well. Brubeck and Desmond had an unwritten contract that the altoist would not play with any other pianist, and Desmond was lucky enough to enlist guitarist Jim Hall as a sideman. Hall has a light, nuanced style more suited to Desmond’s approach than Rollins’ on the previous album, and the two crafted five albums of excellent understated cool jazz.
Cool Imagination is probably all the Desmond that anyone will really need, although the devoted will want to seek out the excellent RCA set that collects all of Desmond’s recordings with Hall. If there’s a fault to this compilation, it’s that the selection leans too heavily on the ballads and the whole thing comes off as a bit maudlin and sentimental; only “Alone Together” documents Desmond’s ability to swing at a faster tempo. Also, the selections from the over-represented Desmond Blue, saturated by orchestration from Bob Prince, sound like the soundtrack to Disney movies and may not be to everyone’s taste. Also included are two fine tracks featuring Gerry Mulligan, off of Two Of A Mind, a disc not included in the RCA box.
Despite its faults, Cool Imagination demonstrates how Hall’s shimmering chords and Desmond’s cool alto were a great match. Fans of Brubeck will definitely enjoy this collection, as will anyone who enjoys the cool school of jazz improvisation.
Sonny Rollins-Tenor Titan
Tracks: 1. St. Thomas 2. Four 3. Long Ago And Far Away 4. All The Things You Are 5. The Bridge 6. God Bless The Child 7. Dearly Beloved 8. Blue ‘n’ Boogie 9. Bluesongo 10. Don’t Stop the Carnival.
Personnel: Sonny Rollins-tenor sax; various others.
Paul Desmond-Cool Imagination
Tracks: 1. Imagination 2. A Ship Without A Sail 3. Desmond Blue 4. Glad To Be Unhappy 5. That Old Feeling 6. Out Of Nowhere 7. Samba Cantina 8. Here’s That Rainy Day 9. Alone Together 10. Bewitched 11. Autumn Leaves 12. My Funny Valentine 13. Samba de Orfeu.
Personnel: Paul Desmond-alto sax; various others.
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