Sonny Rollins: The Complete Prestige Recordings

Robert Spencer By

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The Complete Prestige Recordings1999 AFIM Indie Awards (Association for Independent Music) nominee for best Mainstream Jazz recording: Sonny Rollins's Global Warming. Lifetime Achievement Award winner at the Second Annual Jazz Awards, held in New York in mid-June: tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Top tenor saxophonist in Down Beat's 47th annual International Critics Poll: Sonny Rollins.

Subject of two forthcoming books: Sonny Rollins. Hugh Wyatt and Eric Nisenson have both penned Sonny studies. According to Fantasy Records, "though neither is an 'authorized' biography, Rollins cooperated extensively with both authors (Wyatt is a longtime personal friend of Sonny's). In The Bridge, Wyatt explores 'the beauty of the man and his music — I believe Sonny is the greatest improviser in the history of American music.'"

Sonny Rollins is nearly 70, but he just keeps going. There isn't a tenor saxophonist alive who doesn't pay him homage, however indirectly, whenever he picks up his horn. (Coltraneites sometimes forget that their man revered Sonny.) This outstanding box set from Fantasy records shows why, from his first confident three-minute sides to the sprawling and magnificent improvisational edifices of Saxophone Colossus.

This seven-disc set abounds with highlights: Rollins running circles around a weakened tenor-wielding Charlie Parker on a Miles Davis date. Rollins navigating with aplomb the brilliant but tricky corners of Thelonious Monk tunes like "Let's Cool One" and "Friday the 13th." The beguiling themes Sonny wrote that have now become jazz essentials: "Oleo," "Doxy," "Airegin," "Vierd Blues," "Pent-Up House," "Valse Hot," "St. Thomas," "Blue 7," on and on. The staggering virtuosity of "B. Swift" and "B. Quick," which anticipated Coltrane's "sheets of sound" and Eric Dolphy's keening outcries. The celebrated "duel" (to a draw) with Coltrane, after which Trane complained to me, "Aw, you were just playing with me." He may have been. Kings regard challenges with less enthusiasm than do challengers: they have less to prove.

But all over this set, Sonny proves that he is rightfully the King. The rich and varied landscape of the Saxophone Colossus session alone is enough to prove it: from the joyful calypso of "St. Thomas" to the brooding mournfulness of "You Don't Know What Love Is," the muscular combustibility of "Strode Rode," the menacing admonishments of "Moritat," and the experimental architectonic of "Blue 7." This classic alone should be in every jazz fan's collection - but really, that can be said of the whole box.

If you have missed Sonny, you have missed a motivic improviser of the highest order. His much-remarked ability to construct a solo with a craftsman's attention to how each segment fits with the others is abundantly in evidence throughout this box. Listen to "Oleo" or "Soft Shoe," "Pent-Up House" or "Paul's Pal." Or any of them.

What's more, you can't beat the cast of characters: Miles Davis brings his inimitable (though much-imitated) spare style to "Oleo" and other tracks. Monk turns in a characteristically inventive solo on "Friday the 13th." Coltrane burns bright on "Tenor Madness."

All in all, here are seven of the most essential discs in jazz.

Title: The Complete Prestige Recordings | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Fantasy Jazz


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