Sonny Rollins - tenor sax; Yoshiaki Masuo - guitar; Nathan Page - guitar; James Benjamin - electric bass; Robert Kenyatta - conga; Eddie Moore - drums
One of the most recognizable voices and perhaps the most brilliant melodic improviser in the history of jazz, tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins has enthralled fans for more than 60 years. Back in 1975, he was a spry 45-year-old in the midst of making yet another transition in his famously chameleonic career. After going through the '40s such bebop pioneers as Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and Miles Davis, he became a vital force in hard bop with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet of the mid '50s. By 1959, he dropped out of the music scene altogether to pursue a more spiritual path that brought him to India and Japan, where he studied zen and yoga. Rollins re-emerged in 1962 with his groundbreaking album, The Bridge, and subsequently collaborated with such adventurous, like-minded musicians as Don Cherry, only to leave the scene again in 1968. Upon returning in 1971, he began courting a new muse with a series of Milestone releases that bridged the gap between straight ahead jazz, fusion and contemporary music.
With the addition of two electric guitarists to his working ensemble, it was clear that Rollins was in full-tilt experimental mode for this 1975 Newport Jazz Festival concert. Joined by electric bassist James Benjamin, conga player Robert Kenyatta, drummer Eddie Moore and the six-string tandem of Nathan Page and Japanese guitarist Yoshiaki Masuo, Rollins proceeded with his usual mix of ballads, calypsos and all-out swingers, to the delight of this Avery Fisher Hall crowd. The opening minor key ballad is a classic example of Rollins' ability to imbue a melody with passionate, vocal phrasing. And his lengthy coda at the end of that piece is nothing short of stunning. Shifting gears, Rollins and his mid '70s crew delve into some off-kilter funk that provides him with a platform for some heroic soling by the great tenorist. Masuo and Page also each get ample room to stretch out on this slowly simmering number. Moore, who fuels this jam throughout, also unleashes a formidable drum solo and is followed in order by a solo statement from Kenyatta on the conga. "The Cutting Edge," the title track from Rollins' 1974 Milestone album, is an energized modal number that opens with the tenor great holding a mesmerizing drone before taking off on a whirlwind solo on top of the heated undercurrent. Rollins and his crew then launch into standard swinging mode on an unidentified number that also prominently features both Masuo and Page on extended solos that sound informed by the lineage of jazz guitar greats like Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and George Benson.
Rollins next summons up the infectious spirit of the islands with his catch calypso, "Don't Stop the Carnival," which remains an audience favorite and a staple in his repertoire to this day. The slow grooving "Lucille" (from 1974's Nucleus and named for Rollins' wife and manager) carries a kind of Jazz Crusader feel while "Keep Hold of Yourself" (from 1972's Next Album) is a prime example of Rollins and the band in uptempo burn mode. Kenyatta even steps forward with a smoking conga solo before Rollins puts a capper on this closer with his peerless, swinging chops. This 1975 Newport Jazz Festival concert is a superb document of a living legend at the peak of his powers.
Born Theodore Walter Rollins in New York City on September 7, 1930, he began on piano and later took up the alto saxophone in high school before switching to tenor after high school. He first recorded in 1948 with bebop vocalist Babs Gonzales and went on to engagements with Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson. After making the rounds and recording in 1951 with the likes of Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, and Miles Davis, Rollins made his own first recordings as a leader with Kenny Drew, Kenny Dorham and Thelonious Monk. After gaining some notoriety with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet in 1956, he formed his own pianoless trio with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummers Elvin Jones, Donald Bailey and Pete La Roca for a series of live Blue Note recordings at the Village Vanguard which are regarded today as legendary. Other important recordings in the Rollins' canon include 1956's Tenor Madness (with John Coltrane) and Saxophone Colossus (with Tommy Flanagan), 1957's Way Out West (with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne), 1962's The Bridge (with Jim Hall) and 1966's Alfie (with Oliver Nelson arrangements). While his '70s and '80s output may not be as highly regarded as his earlier classic recordings, there were many sparkling moments on albums like 1972's Next Album, 1978's live Don't Stop the Carnival (with Tony Williams and Donald Byrd), 1983's Reel Life and 1986's G-Man. Rollins continued to make important statements over the next two decades, particularly on 1998's Global Warming and 2005's Without a Song (recorded in Boston in 2001, four days after being evaculated from his apartment near the World Trade Center when the Twin Towers fell on that fateful day of 9/11). In 2006, Rollins formed his own record label, Doxy, and released Sonny, Please. His most recent recording, Road Shows, Vol. 2, is a document of his gala 80th birthday celebration and concert in 2010 at the Beacon Theater in New York with such special guests as drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Jim Hall. (Milkowski)