Listening to a single-disc set ‘best of’ of the music of Sonny Rollins can be a very unsatisfying experience. It’s kind of like trying to eat just one potato chip. A small taste fuels the desire for more. That is definitely the case on this new Prestige Records release, "The Best Of Sonny Rollins." Even though this particular disc only focuses on the Prestige tracks recorded between 1951 and 1956, there are still many great tunes (such as "Oleo", "Airegin" and "Doxy", to name just a couple), that, for lack of space, were excluded. But none of that changes the fact that the music that did make it to this disc is some of the greatest - and most significant - jazz ever recorded. You have to look no further than the list of personnel to know that: Tommy Flanagan, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Milt Jackson, and the list goes on.
Born Theodore Walter Rollins on September 7, 1930 (or September 9, depending on who you ask) in New York City, Rollins grew up in Harlem, around the corner from the famed Savoy Ballroom. He started playing alto sax at the age of 11 but switched to tenor at 16. He was situated in both the time and place that the music that became known as bebop was being formulated and he picked up on the new innovations with an amazing quickness. By 1949, at the young age of 19, he was already recording for the legendary Blue Note label with the likes of such luminaries as Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and Roy Haynes.
Rollins has always had a unique style all his own. Though he was heavily influenced by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, he played with a rich, husky tone and his solos displayed a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh ideas. He quickly developed a reputation as one of the ‘purest’ improvisers in jazz, avoiding the crutch of regurgitating pre-learned ‘licks’ in his solos, as was often the case with many of his contemporaries. Rollins, as a true jazz pioneer, has without a doubt been a great influence on every sax player that has ever touched the instrument since he came on the scene. But beyond that, he has also greatly influenced jazz in general. He is credited as inventing the idea of ‘thematic improvisation’, which consists of the spontaneous reworking of an initially stated theme or motif during a solo. He was also one of the first horn players to record without a piano or guitar, forming the sax/bass/drum trio (as on his ‘Live At The Village Vanguard’ recording of 1957). This lack of a harmonic instrument gave the soloists freedom to explore territory that would have been difficult to navigate if played over the typically prescribed standard chords.
During the mid-50’s Rollins was generally regarded as the top tenor saxophonist of his time (at least until the emergence of John Coltrane). But in 1959 he shocked the jazz world by withdrawing from public performance and recording altogether, due to personal and musical frustrations. Two years later he emerged from seclusion with renewed focus and vigor, picking up right where he left off. He spent the next few years continuing to record some of the greatest albums of the era, but took another hiatus from the public from 1969 to 1972. Since ’72 Rollins, now almost 75 years old, continues to play and record, though far less frequently than in his younger days.
This album contains tracks that present a very well-rounded view of the Sonny Rollins of the early- to mid-50’s. There are standards ("More Than You Know", "In A Sentimental Mood"), originals ("St. Thomas", "Tenor Madness’) and his take on some of the pop show tunes of the day ("It’s Alright With Me", "On A Slow Boat To China"). This is wonderful music, exquisitely played, recorded and remastered (by Joe Taratino). A complete joy.