Sonny Rollins has left Milestone, his label for almost 35 years, and started his own record company. Thus has the newly entrepreneurial saxophone colossus taken control of his own destiny. Lest one worry that starting his own label is a bad sign—that Sonny is perhaps laid low by the well-documented troubles afflicting the record industry—rest assured. Doxy’s first release is being marketed and distributed by Universal Classics & Jazz International, an arm of Universal Music Group, which also owns Verve and a passel of other big-name labels. Given that Universal dominates the global music market like the Republicans have dominated U.S. politics for the past six years, there’s a better-than-even chance that Sonny’s record will find its way into your local record shop, assuming your town still has one.
Sonny’s a record company mogul now. That’s a big change. However, at least two things have stayed the same. Sonny’s still great—his band, not so much. The sidemen (Clifton Anderson, trombone; Bobby Broom, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Steve Jordan and Joe Corsello, drums; Kimati Dinizulu, percussion) are solid professionals, but none lift the bandstand. That chore is left to Rollins. They provide nominal support, Sonny supplies the thrills and chills. The repertoire is typical late-career Rollins: a couple of standards and a few pleasant if not especially memorable originals, with a jazzed version of a light classical tune thrown in for good measure. As ever, the frame is less important than the picture, the background less important than the foreground. Rollins’ improvisations provide the substance, and that substance is considerable.
Rollins was always more venturesome than most of his contemporaries. On Please, Sonny he’s more intrepid still than a vast majority of musicians half his age. Qualities that have long defined his playing—the questing lyricism, the physical and emotional tenacity, the Shakespearian imagination—remain objects of wonder. His solos are ingenuous in the best sense of the word, combining a childlike joy of discovery with grown-up passion and wisdom. His tone is brighter and more brittle than it once was; burnished oak is now brushed platinum. The edgier tone throws his expressive devices into stark relief. Every nuance is felt. We’re reminded that Sonny is the antithesis of the polished technician, and how that’s a very good thing, indeed. Rollins has always been far too intent on exploring his creative unconscious to worry about refinement. There’s an educated uncertainty to his playing that comes from improvising on the cusp of what one knows and what one knows is possible. Today Rollins seems, if anything, even less concerned with surface. He’s trying to reach the core. His playing here is raw. It is imbued with the essence of what makes jazz great.
If any track here gets to the marrow, it’s his performance of “Someday I’ll Find You,” a Noel Coward tune that Sonny must know better than the back of his hand. Rollins takes small liberties with the melody, playing it mostly straight with just the faintest hint of a smile. The theme remains an idée fixe in his solo, a skein of improvised song that unfolds with a sort of capricious logic that begets singular beauty. Although harmonically based, Rollins’ playing on it is as free as any jazz I’ve ever heard. It’s a freedom borne of his mastery of the idiom and a compulsion to create something that’s never before existed. It’s the freedom of a consummate artist. From a listener’s perspective, it’s a freedom I hope we’re allowed to experience and admire for many years to come.