Constantly having to live up to a nagging reputation for being "the world's greatest living improviser" must weigh heavily on anyone's shoulders, even if those shoulders be as broad as Sonny Rollins. For more than 40 years, Sonny's unequaled way with melodies and rhythms has been lauded by scores of writers, but for at least the last 20 years he has also been castigated for having abandoned the style of his youth. But what's a jazzman to do? Those who are fortunate enough to continue playing after the age of 50 or 60 must ultimately face accusations of either coasting on past glories, selling out to fashion, or trying to fix what ain't broke.
However, what many of Sonny's detractors have overlooked is that the intensity of swing and purity of thought characteristic of his work in the 1950s have not only remained intact, but have broadened in scope. While it is obvious that he no longer cares to limit himself to bop alone, this does not automatically mean that his essential gifts have become tarnished. For example, on ballads and medium tempos, as well as those controversial Caribbean tunes, Sonny still comes the closest of any other saxophonist to compounding the double- and often triple-timed internal syncopations that were the essence of Charlie Parker's rhythmic genius, and this is not even to mention his voluminous, vocally inflected sound, his ferocious swing, his unsurpassed sense of structure and thematic development, and his rich sense of humor.
Although "Best Of"-type anthologies are not usually the preferred fare of these pages, this collection of previously issued 1972-95 performances is another matter altogether. Based on selections independently arrived at by both Rollins and producer Gary Giddins, 19 straightahead jazz tracks were chosen from 12 albums, and there is not one of them that will fail to captivate the listener's attention from start to finish. After digesting this undiluted dose of heated improvisation, the natural instinct would be to revisit the source albums in their entirety, an endeavor that just might work to leaven the disapproval that some critics registered upon their initial release. In addition to offering a number of excellent color photos, the attractive accompanying booklet contains an intelligently written essay by Chip Stern and complete personnel listings for each track.