Sonny Rollins' worst enemy is Sonny Rollins. The recorded Rollins can never compete with the "live Rollins. The tenor saxophonist can blow you away in concert, at least if you're luckyand more times than not you will be, since there are tens of thousands of jazz fans and scores of critics out there who have had the epiphany of hearing Rollins in person.
So let's not fight it. Let's just admit that nothing on record compares to the visceral experience of hearing Rollins in person, when he is on. But does that make the records all so much chaff? Hardly.
For a case in point, take this "best of drawn from the six LPs Rollins which recorded during the two-plus years (1962-64) he was contracted to RCA, immediately after his first famous hibernation, when he could only be heard by those venturing out onto the Williamsburg Bridge, where he famously practiced at night. There's some very fine Rollins here, some great Rollins.
Some of the very best music here is not anything like his live marathon performances, although some of it actually is. What is not should be considered exquisite miniatures, relatively short, definitive recordings of ballads done as only Rollins can do. As the tenor with the most fully realized sound on his horn in jazz, Rollins doesn't have to do much more than play the melody of a ballad to make it a definitive statement. For proof listen to "God Bless the Child, "'Round Midnight, "Afternoon in Paris, "My Ship, "Love Letters and "Travlin' Light here.
But these two CDs offer a lot more than definitive ballads. This was one of the last times in his career that Rollins experimented and attempted to engage other players in musical colloquy before becoming a dominant leader more renowned for his solo intros and cadenzas than his band. Here we have the quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, definitely a musical equal and exquisite foil; and the quartet with cornetist Don Cherry and drummer Billy HigginsRollins' attempt to come to terms with the musical developments of Ornette, not very successfully. Then there are three tracks with Coleman Hawkins, Rollins playing almost perversely outside at times but just as often trading wonderful solos with his early influence.
And then there are such Rollins trademarks as two infectious calypsos, a muscular workout on Miles "Four in Rollins' favored sax/bass/drums format and, best of all, an eleven-minute rhythmic excursion on "Jungoso with Candido's congas and occasional bass from Bob Cranshaw. All in all, unless you've caught one of Rollins' legendary live performances, these recordings are about as good as it gets.