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Jazz and Country Fusion: The Searchers

The Haden family (clockwise from top): Josh Haden, Ruth Cameron Haden, Petra Haden, Tanya Haden Black, Charlie Haden, Rachel Haden
Wynton Marsalis with Willie Nelson
Jenny Scheinman

When Sonny Rollins released his Way Out West album in 1957, the cover featured the tall tenor saxophonist standing out in the desert between a bleached cow skull and a multi-armed cactus. In the William Claxton photo, Rollins cradled his horn like a six gun, planted his fist by his holster and peered out slyly from beneath a big gray cowboy hat. The cowboy theme carried over into the music as the trio of Rollins, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne played “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Wagon Wheels” and the leader’s title tune.

It was an important record for several reasons. For one, the piano-less format allowed Rollins the harmonic freedom to break with bebop orthodoxy and to follow his melodic inspiration wherever it led. For another, it challenged the assumption that only blues, ballads and show tunes were the proper materials for jazz improvisation. The album proved that country music, even ersatz country music like Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand,” could inspire great jazz performances.

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