Sonny Rollins - tenor sax; Larry Nash - electric piano; David Amaro - guitar; Chuck Rainey - electric bass; Eddie Moore - drums
Tenor titan Sonny Rollins was in particularly strong form in this brilliantly recorded 1976 concert at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. Backed by his working band at the time, consisting of guitarist David Amaro, pianist Larry Nash, electric bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Eddie Moore, the spry 45-year-old Rollins unleashed with unparalleled authority on four originals and one well-chosen cover tune. The quintet opens this first GAMH set with Rollins' easy-grooving "Lucille," one of three originals from his 1975 Milestone album, Nucleus. Named for his wife and manager, it carries an earthy Crusaders-type feel that Rollins' sails over with nonchalant aplomb, embellishing the melody with his powerhouse tone and double-time flair. Nash also turns in a soulful electric piano solo on this buoyant opener.
The next tune opens with an extended, whirlwind a cappella intro by Rollins in which he playfully tosses off quotes from such ditties as "Three Blind Mice," "There's No Place Like Home" and "Without a Song" before the band settles into his buoyant calypso flavored original, "Don't Stop the Carnival," which would later become title track of Rollins' 1978 Milestone album. Aurell Ray contributes a lengthy, heavily-effected guitar solo in the middle of this bouncy dance number which has remained in Rollins repertoire to this day. Following another extended tenor intro, Rollins delivers a moving rendition of the ballad "My Reverie," a 1938 popular song with lyrics by Larry Clinton and based on the 1890 piano piece "Rêverie" by the French classical composer Claude Debussy. Rollins had previously recorded this lush number on his 1956 Prestige album Tenor Madness. On that version, he played it breathy and in the low register, a la Ben Webster, but here his playing has that inimitable Rollins rasp as he sings vocal-like tones through his horn in a higher register and with far more bite. The funky and electrified "Gwaligo," from Nucleus, again carries a distinctly Crusaders vibe (think of it as a kind of predecessor to "Street Life" minus vocals). Soskin stretches out on his Fender Rhodes solo over Chuck Rainey's bubbling electric bass groove while Ray adds some stinging guitar licks to elevate the proceedings. And they close out their smokin' GAMH set in high flying fashion with Sonny's swinging "Cosmet," another of his tunes from Nucleus.
Born Theodore Walter Rollins on September 7, 1930 in New York City, he 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 and came up through the bebop ranks playing with such jazz giants as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron and Thelonious Monk. In 1955, Rollins 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 (with fellow tenor titan John Coltrane), 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. He celebrated his 80th birthday with a gala concert at the Beacon Theater in New York on September 20, 2010 that featured guest appearances by guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Roy Haynes and avant garde pioneer Ornette Coleman, which yielded 2011's acclaimed live album, Road Shows, Vol. 2. Recognized today as the greatest living jazz saxophonist, the revered elder is still going strong at age 82. -- Bill Milkowski