Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation

Craig Jolley BY

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Open Sky
Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 0312253303

Because of the time required and because of his reservations about the music establishment Sonny Rollins has been reluctant to discuss his career publicly. Lately he seems to be easing up due to the influence of his wife/business manager Lucille Rollins. Rollins, who plans to write an autobiography, allowed Eric Nisenson to interview him for Open Sky. The book is flavored with excerpts from the interviews framed with the author’s explanations. It can be read quickly—it took me about two hours. There are no pictures, discography, or index.

In his introduction Nisenson explains this bio is not intended as comprehensive. It focuses on the first part of Rollins’ career (1949 - 66)—the “development” years. The discussions of Rollins’ early records sound familiar—they are close to the takes of other writers. Beginning in 1962 (The Bridge) Nisenson presents a more fearless, personal approach, treating many of Rollins’ sessions differently from the norm. He convincingly describes the early 60’s (RCA) records as more musical than the mid 60’s (Impulse) records when the reverse is generally accepted. Rollins feels his recordings do not accurately represent his artistry, an opinion Nisenson [and I] concur with. Still, they are better than nothing (Actually they are better than almost anything.), and they form a reasonable basis for discussion of his music.

Fittingly the book is fact oriented with names, recording dates, and thumbnail sketches of other musicians. Some of the thumbnail sketches and other incidental information could have been omitted or presented more artfully. Much of it comes off as misleading or even irritating. Nisenson re-enacts the well-known Miles Davis - Thelonious Monk feud during a recording session Rollins did not play on. Describing Charlie Parker's death he recites the familiar story of the coroner’s report stating that Parker appeared to be in his 50’s when he was actually only 34. These passages and others evoke an air of tabloid journalism. It gets worse. When Nisenson wants an expert opinion on Miles Davis he quotes (and cites) himself—while he has the reader’s attention there is a sense he is promoting his other books. He calls Dizzy Gillespie an "elder statesman" (He was 40.) at the time of his 1957 recording with Rollins. Other embarrassments:

"Hard bop made the blues central to jazz expression again."

"Although he struggles valiantly Watkins is clearly hampered by the limitations of his instrument."

"Powell became inarguably the most influential pianist in jazz. "

"Miles Davis was a key figure not only in the advent of cool jazz but also in hard bop."

Nisenson depicts the modern day Rollins as philosophical, pessimistic, and increasingly concerned about the environment. He can still play at a high level but not as consistently as in his early career. As an artist he hopes to influence a more humanistic, less technological world. The later sections of the book are similarly more thoroughly considered and better written.

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