Sonny Rollins -- tenor sax; Walter Davis, Jr. -- piano; Yoshiaki Masuo -- guitar; Bob Cranshaw -- electric bass; David Lee -- drums
For his appearance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, tenor titan Sonny Rollins brought a new lineup consisting of pianist Walter Davis, Jr., guitarist Yoshiaki Masuo, longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer David Lee into New York's prestigious Philharmonic Hall. The band had just recorded Rollins' latest Milestone album, Horn Culture, and was in the midst of a worldwide tour that would take them to Europe and Japan following this appearance at George Wein's annual clambake, which had relocated from Newport, Rhode Island to New York City the previous year.
Rollins, who a couple of months shy of his 43rd birthday at the time of this concert, opens with some astonishing acappella horn playing in which he stretches out heroically before segueing to a buoyantly swinging interpretation of the Victor Young-Edward Heyman tune from the 1940s, "Love Letters." Imbuing popular songs and show tunes with improvisational flair and an irrepressible swing factor had been Rollins' stock in trade since interpreting Johnny Mercer's "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" on his 1957 classic, Way Out West. Likewise, he puts his inimitable stamp on "Love Letters," which also features a swinging and harmonically hip solo from Japanese guitarist Masuo and a potent solo from pianist Davis. And the leader closes the piece in as dramatic a fashion as he opened it, with another spell-binding, extemporaneous a cappella showcase. "Sais," a composition by Rollins' former percussion player, James Mtume, is a modal vehicle propelled by Cranshaw's grooving bass lines that features the leader stretching out in a rare turn on soprano sax. Masuo's fleet-fingered solo is another highlight of this probing piece. The crowd instantly responds to Rollins' soulful interpretation of Burt Bacharach's "Alfie," the title track of his 1966 Impulse! album. And he closes out this Philharmonic Hall concert with a robust reading of "There Is No Greater Love," which he had first recorded on the aforementioned Way Out West. (Try to catch the quotes from other tunes that Rollins tosses off at the a cappella intro to this Tin Pan Alley chestnut).
Recognized today as the greatest living jazz saxophonist, the revered elder is still going strong with frequent concert appearances at age 82. Born on September 7, 1930 in New York City, Rollins received his first saxophone (an alto) at age 13 and switched to tenor sax in high school. He was first recorded in 1949 on a session for jazz singer Babs Gonzalez. He subsequently worked and recorded with such jazz giants as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. In 1955, he joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet and the following year began his career as a leader. Several of his recordings, including 1957's Saxophone Colossus (in which he introduced his best-known composition, the buoyant calypso "St. Thomas"), Tenor Madness, the aforementioned Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard and The Bridge are now considered jazz classics. Rollins won Grammy Awards for 2000's This Is What I Do and for 2005's Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, which was performed five days after he had to evacuate his apartment near the World Trade Center following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Rollins celebrated his 80th birthday with a gala concert at the Beacon Theater in New York that featured guest appearances by guitarist Jim Hall and avant garde pioneer Ornette Coleman. (Bill Milkowski)