JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


So during the 1950s Sonny Rollins emerges as a multifaceted saxophonist known for solos that expanded bop. What are the primary characteristics of his solos and is there one that is particularly important?

Sonny Rollins is one of the magical figures to come around after the war and he remains so. He's had an amazing 60-year career. There are a few things he did and you have to understand them in some context. One: he comes along at the time the LP comes along - long-playing record - which means that he can think in terms of longer solos. And Sonny Rollins figures out a way to do longer solos that aren't just short solos that are long. He comes up with something that came to be known as thematic improvisation, which is that instead of just playing the theme and then going into the core changes and throwing the melody away, work with the theme, either the written theme or themes that you develop as an improviser. And work on them; work them through so that the solos have a certain logic. It isn't just, you know [Giddins demonstrates], you know, it's - we have a motive here, let's explore that motive. You still got the chord changes, you still got the time going on but there is a melodic consciousness. As Thelonius Monk, who really taught him to do this, said, "Why bother playing the melody if you're throwing it away after the first chorus?" What's the point? Especially since - by playing it you're giving all the mechanical royalties to a dead songwriter. So Rollins really helped to figure that out.

He also realized that there is a difference between playing in a studio, making a record, and playing in concert. And he did, more than anyone else, really put a line between them because length is a tricky business. If you're in a concert hall and you're watching a great jazz improviser - and there's no one greater than Sonny Rollins - inventing, because it's live, because you're there, because there's an audience, because there's electricity in the air, because you're watching him onstage - you're much more patient with what he's doing. So if it takes two or three minutes of going all in circles until he finally figures it out, wow, the payoff is worth everything. And if you listen to live recording, the audience always knows when the payoff is because it roars.

That will not work on a recording. If you're sitting at home on a record and a guy's playing in circles for two minutes, it's like, "Where's my remote control?" You just don't have the patience for it. Rollins realized that there's actually a lot of jazz that works live - Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts; those were thrilling, those endless battles. Boy, what a night that was. When you walked out, you really needed a drink. The adrenaline was so high. But you listen to the records - they got terrible reviews. They were all - most of them were recorded live. They would always get one- and two-star reviews at jazz magazines because, you know, who could listen to these two tenor players battling forever? It didn't translate. You had to be there. So Rollins, when he'd make a record, the tracks would be four or five minutes long. He would focus on two, three choruses, solo - every note has to count. But he didn't want to be tied up that way in concert and so there became two Sonny Rollinses. There was the guy who made the albums and there was the guy you went to see for the experience of a Sonny Rollins concert, which really reinvented the jazz concert. And transcended jazz in a way because it became such an experience. The way - I've made this comparison I think in the book - if you went to Central Park to watch the New York Philharmonic play Beethoven's Ninth you didn't have to be a classical person or a Beethoven person to realize that you were - this is an experience, to hear the Ninth Symphony in Central Park with a hundred thousand fellow New Yorkers sitting there. It's not because you're necessarily a Beethoven fanatic. It's something that goes beyond that.

Sonny Rollins can do that in concert. And sometimes they come together. When the concert performances are so right on, are so rigorous that they do work on record. He made a record in 2008 called Road Shows Volume 1, in which he specifically, going over 30 years of concert recordings, picked seven or eight tracks that he felt were up to standard. And they do translate. So you get both the excitement of the concert experience but you also get the rigor and the discipline that make it exciting and satisfying to listen to at home.