It’s no state secret that Sonny Rollins has never been fond of the recording studio. Never mind that he’s recorded his full share of gems there—not only early, celebrated albums such as Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West, but also digital-era efforts such as Old Flames and This Is What I Do. The man often embraced as the greatest living improviser requires too much creative freedom to start playing, as he puts it, “when the red light comes on.” And his perfectionism makes it difficult, sometimes painfully so, to go through multiple takes in search of what he thinks is the least flawed one.
But in Rollins’s preferred element—on stage, in front of an adoring crowd, free to follow his every impulse and dazzle with his inventions—he is fully at home. And that’s not just because in those situations this iconic tenor saxophonist is unencumbered by time restraints and issues in the control booth. The best thing about performing for him, by far, is seeing how happy his playing makes all the excited people who turn out to see him. The next best thing is making some of those performances—ones “that present parts of me I want to have presented”—available on record to his fans. With the expert help of longtime associate Richard Corsello, his engineer at Fantasy during the 1980s, that’s what Rollins has been doing with his remarkable Road Shows series, an ongoing collection of concert highlights being released on his own Doxy Records label. Road Shows, vol. 1, which came out in 2008, was largely drawn from superfan Carl Smith’s tapes, spanning nearly 30 years. It climaxed with a 2007 performance of “Some Enchanted Evening” by a trio for the ages featuring Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. All of the music on the second volume, released in 2011, was recorded in 2010, including highlights from Rollins’s 80th birthday concert, featuring his first-ever encounter with Ornette Coleman. Road Shows, vol. 3—which is being distributed under the terms of a new agreement by Sony Music Masterworks through its revived jazz imprint, OKeh Records—was recorded between 2001 and 2012 in Saitama, Japan; Toulouse, Marseille, and Marciac, France; and St. Louis, Missouri. It features a familiar core band including pianist Stephen Scott, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and Rollins's bassist of a half-century, Bob Cranshaw, with Bobby Broom and Peter Bernstein alternating on guitar; Kobie Watkins, Perry Wilson, Steve Jordan, or Victor Lewis on drums; and Kimati Dinizulu or Sammy Figueroa on percussion.