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JJ 08/60: Sonny Rollins, analysed

In the August 1960 edition of Jazz Journal, Max Harrison gave a musically literate analysis of someone's playing style - something rare in jazz journalism - and one that functioned in part as a blow-by-blow listener's guide

Charlie Parker’s innovations in many facets of jazz left the music with a degree of freedom it did not have before. The result of this loosening-up was that more diverse approaches became possible, as is shown by the contrasting paths now being pursued by such men as Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis. Cecil Taylor, John Lewis and Sonny Rollins. Such varied endeavour would hardly have been possible before the bop era.

To meet his own needs he has worked out a method of deliberate thematic development

Rollins is one of those concerned with the further development of the impro­vised solo, most particularly in creating solos in which the greatest possible musical freedom is reconciled with formal cohesion and balance. A few men like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor may surpass Rollins in the freedom with which they handle musical material but his success in imparting overall form to really lengthy solos is almost unique. Jazz recordings show us a fair number of short improvised solos, such as Armstrong’s stop-time chorus on Potato Head Blues or Beiderbecke’s on Jazz Me Blues, which have virtually perfect form, but in such relatively brief passages the shaping of a balanced linear design is largely a matter of apt placing of the climax and leading up to and away from it as effectively as possible. It is not suggested that this is easy – solos as satisfying as the two cited are not common – but such a method would obviously be inadequate for Rollins building a solo over many choruses’ duration. To meet his own needs he has worked out a method of deliberate thematic development.

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A few of his early records give us some slight indication of what was to be his goal. For instance I Know, recorded at the beginning of 1951, con­tains in the first sixteen bars of the third chorus a striking paraphrase of the theme that suggests he was already interested in developing melodies, not just in running lines on their harmonisa­tions. The conception of the first half of the second chorus is enterprising though not really successful, but the slurred notes towards the close, and the coda, hint at the fervour that was to become characteristic of him later. However, it is not intended to trace Rollins’s early development here. Sufficient to say that he seems to have found himself, to have found his direction, by the time he joined Max Roach’s group in 1956. By then, inspired perhaps by Parker’s virtuosity, he had developed an impres­sive command of the tenor saxophone. His harmonic vocabulary was, and has remained, conventional enough, not going beyond the usual elevenths and thirteenths. Such comparatively limited resources may seem surprising in view of the musical richness of his best solos, but these are all he needs for he is adept at using only the notes within each chord that are most telling, both melodically and harmonically. Most remarkable, however, was his ability to think of a performance as a whole. With this equipment – and with a highly individual melodic and rhythmic imagination – he faced the problem of how to make a long solo something more than just a string of twelve or thirty-two-bar sections. Success in this was hardly to be achieved by ‘playing safe’, and indeed Rollins’s music is among the most vivid in contemporary jazz.

He will begin, of course, by stating the melody. This is often done, as in What’s My Name, for example, with surprising simplicity, for when playing a thematic line almost straight Rollins can, by varying the timing and inflection of the notes, both communicate his musical identity and give the melody an inner tension that aptly prepares for what is to follow. He gradually departs from the melody, first with short lines, slowly building into longer ones with shorter note values and double-time runs. When the melody has been thoroughly explored this process is in effect reversed and the original line returned to. This may sound obvious, as some musical processes do when described in words, but the ordered use of imagina­tion and equipment often produces impressive results. And in practice, too, the gradual increase then decrease in complexity is not so smooth as the above suggests. Thus in the middle of a simple chorus may occur a rapid run, or a simple phrase or a reference to the melody may appear in a complex pass­age, or – a device reminiscent of Parker – short phrases may be mixed with long. However, if the solo can be heard as a whole – and the gramophone with its facilities for repetition and therefore for memorisation helps us in this – such cross references from one part of the solo to another can be seen as hints of what is to come or as reminders of what has already happened. There could hardly be more impressive evidence of Rollins’s ability to think over long stretches of musical territory and, at his best, to conceive an improvisation as a whole.

When Rollins improvises in this way he gives the performance a kind of superior coherence of its own that is hardly implicit in the original melody and in no way dependent on the repetitive harmonic framework. What happens is that he takes fragments of the melody – analyses it, we might almost say – and uses these fragments as his thematic material. In this way he need only treat the parts of the melody that he thinks will be most fruitful. He is concerned not with retaining the mood of the original – the results might be rather odd if he did try to adhere to the mood of some of the pieces he uses, such as I’m An Old Cowhand or You Were The Only Girl In The World! — but with the development of these frag­ments. Occasionally he will base almost a whole solo on just one fragment, as in The Surrey With The Fringe On Top. Here, almost perversely one feels, he builds a solo on what would seem to be the least stimulating portion of the melody – the repeated dominant note.

This happens to be a good instance of his ignoring the character and mood of a melody, for the element of repetition becomes the central idea of the solo (used on other notes besides the domi­nant) and its original purpose of imitating horses’ hooves on the road is left far behind.

Rollins’s method of taking the melody as his starting point has certain advant­ages over the approach favoured by most jazz musicians who use only the chord sequence and construct lines quite unrelated to the theme

Rollins’s method of taking the melody as his starting point has certain advant­ages over the approach favoured by most jazz musicians who use only the chord sequence and construct lines quite unrelated to the theme. Whatever the character of the melody over them, two roughly similar sets of chord changes may well suggest similar melodic ideas to a player, but fragments of a melody are less likely to do this. This is because a chord sequence does to some extent ‘set’ the direction of any melody built upon it whereas a melodic fragment may be proliferated in any way the improvisor desires. Thus each tune is a real challenge when tackled Rollins’s way. The distinction between him and the average improvisor is underlined by the fact that he does usually need to have a theme of real substance if he is to obtain the best results. His failure to make anything of Tune Up, the theme of which is little more than an uninteresting sequence of cadences in descending keys, illustrates this.

Occasionally the form of Rollins’s solos is remarkably well-defined. For example that on Blues For Philly Joe (reviewed in JJ in 2019 as part of Jazz Images’ reissue of Saxophone Colossus and three other Rollins albums) is in effect a simple rondo. He states the theme twice, embellishing it the second time, then improvises, then returns to the theme briefly. There is another passage of improvisation, a longer theme statement, a final short improvisa­tion and he closes with a fragment of the theme. Again, verbal description may make the solo sound a little too neat but in fact Rollins is able to pro­duce this kind of result without loss of spontaneity, and there are several reasons for this. Firstly, he is not limited to rapid execution to sustain the listener’s interest as certain soloists appear to be. He will scoop up to or slur notes, bend, delay or sustain them as appropriate. He seems able, too, to employ almost any melodic device in an endless number of ways, for instance the frequent but always varied use of trip­lets in the third movement of the Freedom Suite. Among all this variety he knows the value of restraint – indeed, it is unlikely that he would achieve his particular kind of formal balance if he did not. Thus in Mambo Bounce he plays just one rapid run but it is perfectly placed as the climax of the fourth chorus. Similarly in the version of I’ll Remember April recorded with Clifford Brown – he begins with quarter notes instead of the usual eighths. and gradually increases intensity until his full power is unleashed after the drum solo.

The greatest tribute to Rollins’s success is that he is able to retain and take full advantage of such a degree of freedom as he is while at the same time keeping formal considerations intact. A notable instance of this can be found, appropriately, in the fourth movement of the Freedom Suite. Here, while a simple harmonic frame is gener­ally adhered to, there is no feeling of set phrase lengths, of chord changes coming in the same places each time, or even of bar lines at all. It is just free music in which form and content, imagination and technique are indissolubly one. A different and more particular kind of freedom is demon­strated in the first movement of the same work – one that requires a very good ear indeed. Rollins anticipates each chord change by a whole bar – in effect moves the melody four beats out of line with the accompaniment. This disloca­tion is maintained and results in a tension between the improvisation and its setting which implements the urgency of Rollins’s playing.

Other points of this kind could be made but a style is more important for its power to communicate than for the technical devices it incorporates. Although I have dwelt mainly here on its very considerable ingenuity, it should be emphasised that Rollins’s music has, in its finest moments, a passionate, un­compromising intensity that is unsur­passed in the jazz of our time. Its distinction is that the emotional impact is lent maximum power by the discipline which controls it.

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