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Chops: Sonny Rollins on the Way of “Way Out West”

The legendary saxophonist looks back on a groundbreaking LP and the ensemble format he made famous 

Sonny Rollins, circa 1960, three years after Way Out West was recorded (Photo by Burt Goldblatt, c/o Craft Records)
Sonny Rollins, circa 1960 (Photo ©Burt Goldblatt/CTSIMAGES. Used with permission.)

When Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West was released by Contemporary Records in 1957, it got plenty of attention, and not just for its sharply funny cover photo featuring the saxophonist as a mock-cowboy. The album was a departure for Rollins in two major ways: He was teaming with players (bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne) he’d never worked with before, and, for the first time on record, he wasn’t using a pianist. The more harmonically open sound of a “strolling” trio—in other words, a sax/piano/bass/drums quartet with the piano player taking a permanent stroll—would in subsequent years become a favorite option for Rollins and for many of his disciples as well. In a recent conversation sparked by Craft Recordings’ special 60th-anniversary reissue of Way Out West, the Saxophone Colossus, 87, spoke with Lee Mergner about why he likes this bare-bones format and what’s important to keep in mind when you play in it.

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