Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-04-01

2011-04-01

Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1999) This 1957 date is the Rollins virtuoso fanciers fancy: two-plus hours on the Sunday of Sputnik 2, the tenor colossus braving the harmonic void in the closest thing to free jazz a bebop saxophonist essaying Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and his beloved Hammerstein can rev into. Backed by retro-rocketing Monk bassist Wilbur Ware and a young Elvin Jones testing his launching capacity, Rollins is charged with venturing far out from these tunes without severing the harmonic moorings normally secured by a piano. He does it again and again--but not without a certain cost in ebullience, texture, and fullness of breath. Impressive always, fun in passing, his improvisations are what avant-garde jazz is for. The drum solos are a club convention that let him idle his engines a little. A-

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy, 2008) As definitive as the Silver City comp in a different way, this decades-spanning live album, which looked like the first of an endless series of exhumations, remains the most recent release from the still-active 80-year-old, although a second volume is expected in the fall. It's living proof of the truism that his Fantasy studio output didn't do justice to what happened in concert enchanted evening after enchanted evening, and demonstrates in addition that just like Louis Armstrong, Rollins was as invaluable in his audience-pleasing mature period as in his questing youth. Beyond the top-drawer drummers--Al Foster, Roy Haynes, Steve Jordan--are such serviceable sidemen as bassist Bob Cranshaw and electric (!) piano player Mark Soskin. But because the concept foregrounds melody and straight-ahead swing, this may even be a plus, because it leaves the focus on the star of the show. His tenor sound grown huge and warm without a hint of corn syrup, Rollins is more inventive and risk-prone than the older Armstrong. But since his audience expects nothing less, his astonishing cadenzas and unaccompanied improvs are the most generous kind of high shtick. Seven tracks, the shortest 7:50 and the longest 12:26, make you feel that he could do this forever. He can't, of course. But that's where he wants to leave you. A+

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