The most recently recorded track on Sonny Rollins’ new album, Holding the Stage: Road Shows, Vol. 4 (Doxy/OKeh), is a ballad called “Mixed Emotions.” On its face, it’s the latest manifestation of the sublime way that Rollins-jazz’s preeminent tenor saxophonist and most heralded improviser, as well as its most admired living master-can extract truth and beauty from a mawkish, minor piece of the American Songbook, as if spinning straw into gold.
“Mixed Emotions,” composed by Stuart F. Louchheim, was a moderate hit in 1951 for Rosemary Clooney, who recorded it with Percy Faith and His Orchestra. Rollins first heard a version of the song recorded by Dinah Washington, with backing by musicians like the Lester Young-ish tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette. Washington does her regal best with the song, a cry of romantic ambivalence that bends toward fond resignation: “But if you were perfect/It wouldn’t be the same,” she sings. “To a tiger, a tiger’s not a tiger if he’s tame.”