Stolen Moments

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Sonny Rollins
By John Abbott

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One of the most important jazz albums of the new millennium was released at the end of 2008: Sonny Rollins’ Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy). Critics such as Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch have long told us about a Rollins who has been heard only by people who caught him live on a really good night in the last 30 years. Giddins has said that this mature Rollins could give a concert that was “a musical séance that transcended jazz,” full of “magic” and “exultation.”

This Rollins has never been available on a commercially released recording—until now. Road Shows, Vol. 1 contains tenor saxophone solos of unprecedented vastness and spontaneous complexity and formal wholeness. It won Record of the Year in the third annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, topped the Historical/Reissue list in this publication’s critics’ roundup, and should be nominated for a Grammy or two (the recording missed eligibility for the 2009 awards by a month). But Road Shows has issues, or, rather, one issue: its sound.

Its seven tracks were recorded between 1980 and 2007, but not by any normal professional process. Three tracks are “air checks” (home cassette recordings taped from radio or television broadcasts of concerts), and four are soundboard tapes (direct feeds onto DAT from the mixing board at a live concert). Road Shows sounds weird. It is hard and harsh and airless and flat.

What are people who care about sound supposed to do about Road Shows? If audiophiles ran the world, would not all jazz recordings get made in great studios like Systems Two and Avatar in New York and Rainbow in Oslo, Norway, by great engineers like Joe Marciano and Jim Anderson and Jan Erik Kongshaug?

Perhaps not. The natural habitat of jazz is clubs and concert halls. Bill Evans’ recordings at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, are not sonically superb, but they are more loved by more people (including audiophiles) than any of his studio albums. If we did not have Miles Davis’ recordings at the Blackhawk and the Plugged Nickel and Keith Jarrett’s at the Blue Note and in Köln, we would have no documents of their working creative lives.

But it gets more complicated. Those Evans and Davis and Jarrett recordings may not be audiophile quality, but they were made on professional equipment by professional engineers. There is another genre of jazz albums that comes from stealth recordings made on portable devices by people at concerts, and from airchecks, and from soundboard tapes. Like Road Shows.

When you consider where it came from, Road Shows is surprisingly listenable, and Rollins’ tenor is relatively clear. Richard Corsello, who has been Rollins’ sound engineer for 30 years, spent many hours assembling and editing the seven tracks in his home studio. “Someone bangs into a microphone, or the drummer accidentally hits a hi-hat mic with his stick. I have to pull that stuff out,” he says. The final mastering for Road Shows was done by Mark Wilder, whose equalization provided “sweetening.”

Strictly speaking, soundboard tapes are not quite “private.” But they belong with the genre because they are wildly unpredictable and unreliable as sources for albums. As Corsello explains, “In a concert, the function of the guy at the soundboard is to make it sound good in the venue. The perspective of every venue is different, because of acoustics. In Carnegie Hall, a saxophone is already loud without being mic’ed. The live mix will obviously allow for that. A soundboard tape might have hardly any saxophone in it.”

Soundboard tapes present challenges, but it is more amazing that old cassette recordings of broadcasts can be turned into albums. “Modern technology is helpful,” Corsello says. “A cassette recording with a warble can now be corrected in the digital domain. But it’s a tedious process.”

One rationale for stealth and private recordings is the belief that jazz musicians play better when they don’t know they are being recorded. After soundboard taping became standard procedure at his concerts, Rollins says, “I was much less intimidated. When the tape was always rolling, I stopped thinking about it.”

Orrin Keepnews has said that Mike Harris’ famous “secret recordings” of Bill Evans reveal “a relaxation and spontaneity never captured on his professional recordings.” They were released in 1996 as The Secret Sessions, an eight-CD set on Milestone.

Bill Evans would probably agree with Keepnews. Evans once said, “You’re never going to hear on a record what you may hear live. Our best performances are gone into the atmosphere.”

Like most surreptitious recordists, Harris was a fanatic. For 15 years, between 1966 and 1980, he taped Bill Evans from a front row table in the Village Vanguard. He used a Uher portable and a Sennheiser mic sticking out of a hole in his wife’s oversize purse.

Many private recordings are so sonically wretched that no one would bother with them if the performances were not rare and historically significant. John Coltrane’s wife, Naima, made a tape on a portable recorder that is the only known live recording from Coltrane’s legendary five-month gig with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot. (It was released as Live at the Five Spot on Blue Note.) There are very rough stealth and aircheck recordings of Charlie Parker, such as the Dean Benedetti tapes (released as a seven-CD set on Mosaic) and The Complete Live Performances on Savoy.

But certain private recordings possess an appeal that is both paradoxical and profound. Not only do we appreciate them because they preserve invaluable music otherwise lost; their sound has a mysterious fascination, a raw “audio verité” quality. The sound compares to that of a studio recording in the way that a candid snapshot compares to a professionally posed studio portrait: more real, more visceral.

A man who is an authority on this subject is Carl Smith. He is a Rollins fanatic. (The three aircheck tracks on Road Shows, Vol. 1 come from his huge collection of private Rollins recordings.) He is not only an audiophile, he is a co-founder and vice president of one of the most prestigious audiophile cable companies in the world, Transparent Audio. And he is an enthusiastic stealth recordist. He says, “I love the best audience recordings in my collection. They often include crowd noise, loud applause, and sometimes you can even hear people talking. I hope that someday many of these recordings can be made available to the world at large through commercial release. I believe there will be an appreciation of how exciting these recordings can be—however ‘non-audiophile’ they might sound.”

The music on Evans’ The Secret Sessions is distant and out of balance, and it is shocking to hear how much talking people did in the Vanguard while Evans was playing. But it is exciting, and positively spooky, to be there at all, eavesdropping on history. These are stolen moments. Miraculously, they let us hear Evans play “My Foolish Heart” at the Vanguard three more times.

Another example is the archive of recordings made by Vernon Welsh on a home Akai reel-to-reel tape deck at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore in the 1970s. A tiny fraction of Welsh’s archives were released on six CDs on Joel Dorn’s Label M in 2000. Four of them have been reissued on Hyena. The concerts feature artists such as Cedar Walton, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt: out on the circuit, playing Baltimore, just one more town, music for the ages. There is some tape saturation. Who cares? In this lost time and place, we are there. We snuck in.

Recommended Listening:

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy)

Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions (Milestone)

Freddie Hubbard and Jimmy Heath: Jam Gems: Live at the Left Bank (Hyena)

Freddie Hubbard: Fast Ball: Live at the Left Bank (Hyena)

Stan Getz: My Foolish Heart: Live at the Left Bank (Hyena)

Sonny Stitt: Just the Way It Was: Live at the Left Bank (Hyena)

Bud Powell: Birdland 1953: The Complete Trio Recordings (Fresh Sound)

Sal Mosca: Thing-Ah-Majig (Zinnia)

Sal Mosca: You Go to My Head (Blue Jack)

Originally published in April 2009

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