Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard (Complete)

As a composer of some of the best-known hard bop tunes of the middle and later 1950s and, especially, as an improviser with immense technical skill and creatively fresh approaches to harmony and melody, Sonny Rollins was in a class all by himself.  From his early work with such luminaries as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Miles Davis, to his first solo records, including the 1956 album Saxophone Colossus and the amazing Way Out West and then his courageous Freedom Suite, Rollins created one of the great bodies of work of the era.

For a variety of personal and professional reasons, Rollins quite suddenly withdrew from the scene in the early 1960s and was never quite the same in terms of recognition and accolades, compared to, say, John Coltrane, perhaps because jazz transformed so radically during that decade.  Yet, all these years later, the master is still very active, regularly touring and recording, generally to much acclaim.

But, if jazz is largely built on the framework of what is experienced in the live setting, then Rollins' 1957 recording of sets at the famed Village Vanguard club in New York, his first as a leader, really set a standard for how concert performances were to be recorded and regarded.  The first track featured the little-known Donald Bailey on bass and the somewhat under-appreciated drummer Pete La Roca (who worked with Coltrane for a time) and is an interesting version of the great bebop standard, "A Night in Tunisia."

But, with the tremendous rhythm section of bassist Wilbur Ware (known for his work with Monk) and drummer Elvin Jones, who really got his first serious attention as a result of this gig and went on to be Coltrane's poly-rhythmic dynamo, this album really took off.

With the complete two-disc version, released by Blue Note in 1999, a total of eighteen pieces showcase the greatness of this small combo, as Ware and Jones were supremely effective sidemen and Rollins came into his own as an improviser of amazing facility and invention (as well as a charming host introducing some of the songs in the coolest way possible.)

Highlights are so numerous, it's hard to pinpoint some over others, whether it is the evening take of "A Night in Tunisia," the excellent "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," the surprising use of the old chestnut, "Get Happy," Miles Davis' "Four," Rollins' own masterpiece, "Sonnymoon for Two," or other standards like "I Can't Get Started," Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," or Hammerstein and Kern's "All the Things You Are."

It's amazing to hear Rollins work his way through complex, powerful, inventive and alternately humorous and clever and then heartbreaking and serious soloing with what seems to be the most effortless ways imaginable.

Then, to have the solidly reliable and pliable Ware and the emerging force of nature that Elvin Jones was on his way to becoming as his bedrock, it's no small wonder that A Night at the Village Vanguard, presented here in the original sequence and with the leader's intros, is one of the great live recordings of jazz and a signal achievement for Rollins, one of its greatest musicians.

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