Sonny Rollins Trio: Live In Europe 1959

The energy and 'strolling' potential of the trios with which the saxophonist toured Europe in 1959 meant that a piano was not entirely missed

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We all know that Sonny Rollins had long been frustrated with his playing in early 1959 and had completed a tour of Europe during which he’d continued to exclude a piano from his trio of sax, drums and bass because its orchestral qualities would have been distracting. Rollins was going home to his famous practice sabbatical on Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, New York. Making do without the piano might have been the supreme example in jazz of hubris, a cocksure display of emphasising that there could be only one principal.

The bassist for all the concerts in Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Germany and France was Henry Grimes, the kit shared variously among Pete La Roca, Joe Harris and Kenny Clarke. Such an arrangement, as these three discs (26 tracks) show, left his two colleagues as goading presences, the ritual swap choruses quickly becoming tiresome, if they weren’t that already. But this was when ensemble playing in contemporary jazz had still to be fully exploited and integrated. Such a trio in a standard setting would normally be missing a piano but the energy of this one and its so-called “strolling” texture was almost designed to bar a pianist entry and make light of the absence.

It’s a commonplace that Rollins had favourite charts, some of them banal, on which he feasted for their extempore possibilities. The self-penned Oleo is taken at a furious pace in Stockholm on 4 March with Rollins almost skimming the head in his impatience to be up and running and La Roca taking the lion’s bite with a solo featuring continuous ride and hi-hat cymbals. The next day in Zurich it’s an all-change Oleo, as Grimes muscles in with a running solo and exchanges with Rollins shared with La Roca. On 4 March, Stay As Sweet As You Are finds Rollins bordering on diffidence, while St Thomas in Stockholm on 2 March is recorded “live” for the first time, its beguiling calypso soon embarked on ferocious swinging.

The European tapes, all privately recorded, have been issued before but are collected here in their entirety for the first time, with a 14-page booklet of notes by Lawrence Steel and photographs. Despite Rollins’s misgivings, he possessed a facility for insouciant improvisation that mirrored Lester Young’s, though in a less relaxed, more battle-charging style: a distorting mirror, then. The dates include three tracks from the final gig – in France – before he went home and out of doors. Unlike Young’s, his tone is bluff and elemental, and always emphasised the “hard” in hard bop with a quirkiness that’s almost eccentric.

The long-unavailable 11 March sessions in Aix with Kenny Clarke are a bonus and offer more than 50 minutes of music on three tunes. The shortest is Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody ‘n’ You, on which Rollins drops in and out of the theme with increasingly complex accents and embroidery and varying phrase lengths prompted by a kerplunking Clarke with such captivating invention that Grimes seems out of it until he rallies with a late solo.

Discography
CD1: (1) St. Thomas; There Will Never Be Another You; Stay As Sweet As You Are; I’ve Told Every Little Star; How High The Moon; Oleo; Paul’s Pal; I Remember You; I’ve Told Every Little Star; It Could Happen To You; Oleo; Will You Still Be Mine? (73.43)
CD2: (1) I’ve Told Every Little Star; I Want To Be Happy; A Weaver Of Dreams; It Don’t Mean A Thing; Cocktails For Two; I’ve Told Every Little Star; I Want To Be Happy; {Sonny Rollins interview}; (2) It Don’t Mean A Thing; Paul’s Pal; Love Letters (52.56)
CD3: (3) Woody ‘n’ You; But Not For Me; Lady Bird (52.23)
(1) Rollins (ts); Henry Grimes (b); Pete La Roca (d). Stockholm, Laren, Frankfurt and Zurich, 2, 4, 5 March 1959.
(2) as (1) but Joe Harris replaces La Roca. Stockholm, 4 March 1959.
(3) as (2) but Kenny Clarke replaces Harris. Aix-en-Provence, 11 March 1959.
American Jazz Classics 99140