Pivotal Sonny Rollins Moment: Bridge to a Satisfying Tension

Sonny Rollins, the greatest living tenor-saxophone player, recorded some of his most thrilling—yet strangely neglected—music from 1962 to 1964, the brief era that’s captured on a new two-disc compilation called The Essential Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years.

It was an amazingly experimental time in jazz—in American culture generally—and Mr. Rollins’ probings were especially intense. Just a few years earlier, Miles Davis had broken free of his mentor Charlie Parker’s exquisite stranglehold on modern harmony; John Coltrane was taking Miles’ musings into a whole new orbit, feverishly scouring every crevice of a chord for some new spirit of expression; Ornette Coleman blew down structure altogether. There was an excitement about the new for its own sake. Mr. Coleman’s style of free jazz was called “the new thing.” A sudden craze for Latin rhythms was dubbed “bossa nova.” Even in politics, John Kennedy was heralding a “New Frontier.”

In this hothouse atmosphere, at the peak of his powers and popularity, Mr. Rollins—self-consciously lacking a new thing of his own—dropped out. A magazine writer saw him practicing his horn one night on the Williamsburg Bridge and published a short story about the spectacle; Mr. Rollins’ self-exile took on a mystique. As he prepared his return to the jazz scene, RCA offered him a record contract, on the condition that he call his debut album The Bridge.

That album starts off with a tune of the same title—as does this two-disc collection—and instantly we hear a new Rollins: fierce in tone, blowing fragments of melodies in staggered cadences with abrupt shifts of tempo. There’s a rebellious restlessness in his playing, sharpened by its contrast with the rhythm section, which included Jim Hall plucking skylark lines on guitar in place of someone pounding chords on a piano—at the time, a novel substitution. On a slow ballad like “God Bless the Child,” Mr. Rollins would bark abbreviations of the melody, then embellish it with dense, Pollock-like swirls and zigzags—yet, at each step, retain and deepen the song’s romance and lyricism.

Some regarded this new Rollins as conservative, even stodgy, compared with the rocket flares that Mr. Coleman and Coltrane were sending up. For one thing, he was still playing songs, mainly standard ballads. But heard in retrospect, on its own terms, Mr. Rollins’ music from this era sends a jolt. There’s a satisfying tension to it—a tension that serious jazz musicians have confronted and worked their way through ever since—between freedom and structure, improvisation and melody, innovation and form.

The magical thing about Sonny Rollins has always been his ability to stretch this tension to a point that would exhaust the imagination (not to mention the lungs) of most horn players—and then to stretch it even further. In live concerts, even now at the age of 75, he can improvise on a tune for chorus after chorus—first on its chords, then on its scale, then on its mood, then just on something about it that reminds him of some other tune—without repeating a single idea, sometimes veering wildly off-course but always touching base at the end of the phrase.

He’d developed this knack well before the RCA years (Gunther Schuller wrote his famous essay, “Sonny Rollins and the Art of Thematic Improvisation,” back in 1958), but it was on these recordings that he pushed the technique into new terrain, fused it with new forms of music and played it off against new musicians—sometimes, seemingly, just to see how the mix worked out.

Three months after the sessions for The Bridge, he recorded an album devoted entirely to bossa nova (What’s New, the weakest of the bunch, and my only complaint about this compilation is that there’s too much from it). Three months after that, in July 1962, he formed a new piano-less, guitar-less band with two of Ornette Coleman’s bandmates—trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins—and took them into the Village Gate to lay down a live album (Our Man in Jazz) that’s still hair-raising. The following year, he fulfilled a fantasy of recording an album with his longtime idol on tenor sax, Coleman Hawkins (Sonny Meets Hawk) and, in the process, gave no ground, flinging startlingly out-there phrases at his hero—even on “Lover Man,” Hawkins’ trademark tune—almost as a challenge, to see how he’d strike back. The album doesn’t quite jell, but it’s a fascinating clash, not least because Hawkins was one of the few swing-era veterans who embraced new sounds; several years before, he’d adapted fluently to Charlie Parker’s bebop, and gleefully played as both leader and sideman with the archly angular Thelonious Monk.

Mr. Rollins waited a half-year, until February 1964, before recording another album (Now’s the Time) with a band that included pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter, just as they were also auditioning for Miles Davis (who was a closer match for them, it turned out), and then got back together with Jim Hall and bassist Bob Cranshaw (who’s still playing with Mr. Rollins) for the last RCA project (The Standard Sonny Rollins).

After leaving RCA, he signed with the Impulse! label and recorded East Broadway Rundown, his freest album yet or since, with two members of Coltrane’s path-breaking quartet (drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison). In 1967, he took another sabbatical—this one lasting four years—before coming back for good.

The music of the subsequent three decades has been less turbulent and engrossing—for jazz and for Sonny Rollins. He has seemed less interested in formal experimentation and less keen to play with independent young musicians. With few exceptions, his studio albums have been drab compared with those from 40 or 50 years ago. But his live concerts—and the best tracks of his live albums, especially “G-Man” and, most recently, “Without a Song”—are riveting and adventurous, his solos streaming through the stratosphere yet locked onto some fundamental pulse.

Next time Sonny Rollins comes to the city, see him at all costs. Until then, this two-disc collection will do.

Pivotal Sonny Rollins Moment:  Bridge to a Satisfying Tension