100 Jazz Profiles
1930 - present
Tenor saxophonist. The career of Sonny Rollins began in the bebop era of the 1940s, and stretches into the 21st century. He is one of the great innovators on tenor saxophone, with a restless improvising imagination that has often led him to play very long solos that wring every ounce of variety out of a tune.
He is also a great communicator on stage, with many of his pieces building on the West Indian calypso heritage, and grabbing the attention of his audience, in even the most complex improvisations. He grew up in New York, and was already playing at the highest professional level before he left high school. His first discs - including a blistering session with Bud Powell from 1948 - are remarkable, but he went on to even greater heights with Miles Davis in the early 1950s.
He replaced Harold Land with the Clifford Brown - Max Roach quintet, and continued to work with Roach after Brown's premature death. In 1956-7, as well as briefly rejoining Miles Davis, Rollins made an extraordinary sequence of albums that show the brilliant range of his creativity, as well as his utter rhythmic confidence, either sparring with Max Roach or (live at the Village Vanguard) with Elvin Jones.
After a retreat from public appearance in which he was often to be found practising outdoors on a Manhattan bridge, he returned to prominence in the 1960s, notably in a quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, but also in a recording group with Herbie Hancock. During this period he also began playing long unaccompanied improvisations, and this was to become a feature of his subsequent club and concert appearances.
After another period of retreat in the late 1960s (this time he went to India) Rollins returned to front his own group, which he has continued to do ever since. A typical concert includes many of his own calypso compositions, such as St Thomas or Don't Stop The Carnival, his extended workouts on well-known standards (a recent favourite is A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square) and fiery interaction with his other bandmembers, including long-serving bassist Bob Cranshaw, and trombonist Clifton Anderson.
Eric Nisenson: Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World Of Improvisation (New York, Da Capo, 2000)
Saxophone Colossus (Prestige CDJZD 002)
Suggested track: St Thomas
The Sonny Rollins Page
With biography, photos, discographical information and links
on radio 3
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