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Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation by Eric Nisenson

As he does with the melodies of standards, Sonny Rollins altered the phrase “The sky’s the limit” to “Music is an open sky” to fit his musical style. In Eric Nisenson’s rewarding analysis of Rollins’ career, it’s evident that the saxophonist’s musical motto served as both an inspiration for him to become one of the greatest improvisers in jazz history and a hindrance in his musical self-evaluation: sometimes Rollins would be paralyzed by his musical options. Rollins’ music personifies the “in the moment” aesthetic of jazz; he continuously pushes the limits of improvisation, oftentimes without any chording instruments to support his lengthy musical essays. Always making a conscious attempt to avoid clichés and never to repeat a musical statement, Rollins helped raise the bar for tenor saxophone improvisation. But his daringness is coupled with an obsessive perfectionism, which yields some self-effacing views of his music.

There is more, however, that contributes to the allure of Rollins. He’s almost as known for his early drug abuse that threatened his career, his sharp criticism of America’s race-relations and his wariness of music critics, as he is for his exhilarating solos. All of these facets and others are dealt with honestly and sensitively in Open Sky. While not a definitive biography (nor intended to be), the book captures Rollins’ rise to the upper echelon of jazz-from his early days in Sugar Hill, Harlem, to his woodshedding days with Thelonious Monk; from his recording blitz in the mid-1950s to his legendary sabbatical on the “bridge” in 1959; and, finally, his re-emergence and current status as a living icon. Considering Rollins’ reluctance to talk to the press and his own plans for an autobiography, the cooperation he showed Nisenson in scripting this book is admirable.

Nisenson’s skill at explaining difficult concepts, like the anatomy of Rollins’ improvisations, in an informative, colorful and profoundly accessible way is matched by his intelligent analysis of jazz history. He also shows wisdom in letting Rollins speak on more sensitive issues like the saxophonist’s drug-use history, his sometimes lackluster studio recordings and his views on America.

It’s widely accepted, even by Rollins, that the surging ecstasy of his live performances seldom manifested in the studio. Open Sky, however, brilliantly re-evaluates Rollins’ recordings with both unflinching love and shrewd criticism, putting many of his lesser known albums in greater contexts. Rollins’ albums from the 1970s to the present have been viewed as the most dubious of his career, but Nisenson doesn’t attempt to turn any records from this period into classics; instead, he illustrates Rollins’ commitment to absorbing the rhythmic pulse of the times into his own musical aesthetic.

Probing and honest, without trying to be psychoanalytical, Open Sky is an ideal point of entry to Rollins’ improvisational world.

Originally Published