Sonny Rollins- tenor saxophone; Aurell Ray - electric 12 string guitar; James Benjamin- bass; Eddie Moore - drums; Robert Kenyatta - congas
Born in 1930 in New York City, American tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins began his musical career as a young teenager in the early 1940s. Initially influenced by the jump and rhythm and blues sounds of musicians like Louis Jordan, Rollins soon developed a more progressive individual style that utilized the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the lighter flexible phrasing of Lester Young. Drawing these two styles together, Rollins established his reputation as a fluid post-bop improviser with a strong resonant sound. Recognized by piano legend Thelonious Monk when Rollins was still in his late teens, Rollins would prove to be one of the greatest improvisers of the hard bop era, eventually recording alongside contemporaries such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Max Roach, among others. Rollins would outlive all of these legends and continues recording and performing up to the present day, becoming one of the most prolific and influential jazz musicians of his generation.
Frustrated with the business side of the music industry, Rollins began a sabbatical in the late 1960s, where he stopped performing in public and traveled to Japan and India to pursue studies in yoga, meditation, and spiritual philosophy. When he returned to America and began recording and performing again in 1972, he began embracing modern instrumentation, including electric guitar and bass, and his new music now had distinct elements of R&B, funk and pop rhythms thrown into the mix. This transition into an electric context was controversial at the time but like Miles Davis, Rollins ignored the critics and his traditionalist fan base to pursue his own direction. This performance, recorded in 1976 at the State University of New York in New Paltz may not be a major addition to Rollins' impressive legacy, but it is a fine example of this controversial era. Recorded after his earlier electric experimentation on the albums The Cutting Edge and Nucleus, but prior to the sessions for his 1976 album, The Way I Feel, this captures Rollins's celebrated style heading in a more modern fusion direction and finds him performing among a unique and talented lineup of musicians.
In fact, this performance is as much a showcase for the talents of the tasteful 12-string guitarist, Aurell Ray, as it is for Rollins himself. This is particularly interesting as following his tenure with Rollins, Ray dropped out of sight for many years. Those unfamiliar with Aurell Ray are in for a pleasant surprise, as he has a lovely tone, a swinging style, and plenty of versatility. The delicacy of his touch and the precision of his phrasing strongly compliment this music, and he provides a strong pulse that propels these performances as much as Rollins own thematic improvisations.
The performance kicks off with the title track from Rollin's 1974 live album, The Cutting Edge. Devoid of the empty technique that epitomized so much mid-1970s jazz, this is primarily a rhythmic exercise to warm up the group. The performance picks up considerable steam on "Strode Road," a track from Rollins' classic Saxophone Colossus album. This allows the group to stretch out and features outstanding solos from Ray as well as showcasing Rollins' virile tone, harmonic incisiveness, and rhythmic mastery. This is immediately followed by the danceable magic of "Don't Stop the Carnival," a Latin-flavored jazz number fueled by an easy expansiveness that fits well into the electric music context Rollins was now actively pursuing. Another highlight here is a cover of Larry Clinton's "My Reverie," which finds Rollins floating a soft, smoky vibrato over the rhythm section of Moore, Benjamin, and Kenyatta. Based on a Debussy composition, this heads in a more lyrical, subdued direction. The performance comes to a rousing conclusion with one of Rollins most beloved and familiar melodies on the joyous calypso-styled "St. Thomas."
While this performance doesn't represent Sonny Rollins at his best, it does display an adventurous musician moving forward at a time when many jazz musicians were spiraling into cliche and losing direction. Rollin's rich, expressive tone is undeniably compelling and suffused with knowledge, wisdom, humor, and wit. This Sonny Rollins performance is a prime example of the difference between selling out and reaching out.