Sonny Rollins: Go West! The Contemporary Records Albums

The saxophonist's West Coast adventures with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown and others are laid out in full in a box set of three vinyl LPs


Rollins arrived on his first trip to the West Coast in March 1957. He is reported to have been impressed by the area, the climate and the people that welcomed him there. It was a time when he produced two very different but impressive LPs over a period of two years. First up, on 7 March 1957, Rollins arrived at the Contemporary studio in LA at 3 a.m. to record for Lester Koenig’s label with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. All three musicians were heavily committed to club and studio appearances day and evening, hence the early morning recording call.

Tired they may have been, but you wouldn’t know it. As the trio recorded the six tracks that were issued as Way Out West, they swiftly achieved a remarkable rapport even though they had never worked together previously. Rollins wanted to record I’m An Old Cowhand, fascinated by his memories of cowboy movies in his youth; he intended to make it a memorable trip west. “I want that cat out on the range all the way,” he told Shelly. “If we can’t get it, we’ll do something else.” They got it. Manne provides a running clippity-clop rhythm on his drum rim through most of the track as required and Rollins plays his trademark staccato lines and turns the track into a gem of improvised choruses in bop mode.

They got it again on Wagon Wheels, with Manne and Brown setting up a gently clacking rhythm for Rollins to improvise over. At this time the tenor man was at a peak of invention as his records back in NYC prove, although this was different. Sonny was anxious to work with West Coast musicians and obtain good results. If the California rhythm section was new to him, on the evidence of this album he immediately adapted to them and they to him.

If you’re looking for an album demonstrating three seasoned musicians at the top of their game playing up a storm, this album is likely for you. Rollins often sounded as good but never better than on his trip to California. His night gig was with the Max Roach quintet and the booklet with this set tells of Max asking Sonny why he didn’t recruit him to play drums on Way Out West. Good question, but I doubt even the great Max Roach could have improved on Shelly Manne’s performance here.

A year later Rollins was back in LA and wanting to record with some of the best musicians in the area. Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders was his second LP on the coast, and it turned out very well. You never get conventional standards with Rollins and this LP was no exception. Listen to I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star and Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody here for a demonstration. Rollins is once again at his choppy, bitty best as he improvises these unlikely themes and makes them his own, ably supported by LA pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel and again Shelly Manne. Even UK emigrant Victor Feldman gets to play on one track. Sonny’s lines are often unconventional and his staccato playing unusual, but he never fazes his LA accompanists for a minute.

The third LP here is another strong set. Three alternate takes from Way Out West and three from The Contemporary Leaders make up a swinging, fascinating programme and provide a chance to compare the different versions. The alternates from Way Out West are much longer than the originally issued takes. Rollins has more time to stretch out and vary the melodies and he takes full advantage. These alternates, originally released in 1986, differ quite a bit from the original album tracks, making this something like a new Rollins record with the tenor man in his prime, as he was on all these sessions for Contemporary.

This boxed set marks the 70th anniversary of Contemporary Records. The vinyl records are produced in the original covers and the all-analogue mastering was by Bernie Grundman. A booklet is enclosed with notes and Rollins’ own recollections of the sessions.

LP1: (1) [Way Out West] I’m An Old Cowhand; Solitude; Come, Gone; Wagon Wheels; There Is No Greater Love; Way Out West (43.12)
LP2: (2) [Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders] I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star; Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody; How High The Moon; You; I’ve Found A New Baby; Alone Together; In The Chapel In The Moonlight; The Song Is You (44.15)
LP3: [Contemporary Alternate Takes] (1) I’m An Old Cowhand; Come, Gone; Way Out West (2) The Song Is You; You; I’ve Found A New Baby (41.47)

(1) Rollins (ts); Ray Brown (b); Shelly Manne (d). LA, 7 March 1957.
(2) Rollins (ts); Hampton Hawes (p); Barney Kessel (elg); Leroy Vinnegar (b); Manne (d); Victor Feldman (vib). LA, 20-22 October 1958.
Craft CR00434