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Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Volume 3

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Our greatest living jazz musician has not made many great records in recent years. That’s why the first two volumes of Road Shows, in 2008 and 2011, were important. They contained previously unavailable confirmation that the rumors and legends were true: that, on occasional magical nights when the muse was with him, Sonny Rollins concerts could become (in the words of critic Gary Giddins) “musical séances that transcended jazz.”

Volume 1 attains towering heights, but it is a miscellany. It comes from air checks and soundboard tapes over a 27-year period, and is sonically compromised. Volume 2 comes mostly from soundboard tapes of a monumental concert on Rollins’ 80th birthday in 2010 at the Beacon Theatre in New York. It is a revolving door of all-stars-including Rollins’ only recorded meeting with Ornette Coleman-at a one-off event.

If you are able to own only one of the Road Shows albums (which would be a pity), make it the newly arrived Volume 3. It contains six performances that took place between 2001 and 2012 on three continents. There is some variation in personnel, but the core is Rollins’ working band, with Bob Cranshaw on bass, Clifton Anderson on trombone and either Bobby Broom or Peter Bernstein on guitar. Rollins’ long-term collaborator, co-producer/engineer Richard Corsello, meticulously blended the beginnings and endings of tunes using applause tracks. His sources were soundboard tapes and recordings he made using a portable 24-channel Pro Tools rig. Mastering engineer Allan Tucker was able to overcome the “enormous differences” in the board tapes. Volume 3 has the clearest, most balanced sonic quality of the Road Shows albums. It sounds like one concert-a concert for the ages.

Rollins has always made surprising song choices. On “Why Was I Born?” (Marciac, France, 2007), he ignores the sadness of this 1929 Hammerstein/Kern relic and uses its lush melodic and harmonic content as a launch pad. Broom goes first, in a bouncing, teasing holding pattern preparing for the leader’s entrance, which occurs at 4:21. Rollins’ solo careens, feeding on the song, feeding on itself, feeding on his churning percussionists (Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu). At 10:30, a series of exchanges with Jordan commences. Every drum break jolts Rollins anew, propelling him onward. Unlike many of his marathon solos, this one is not so much an ascent into ecstatic catharsis as a 24-minute dissertation, a vast compilation of ideas derived from Hammerstein/Kern, formulated sequentially and released torrentially.

Rollins has said that he remembers the words to tunes as he improvises. The lyrics to “Someday I’ll Find You” (Noël Coward, 1930) are “Someday I’ll find you/Moonlight behind you/True to the dream I am dreaming.” Such sentiments might seem incongruous with a tenor saxophone language so dark and gnarly, but Rollins is committed to the song. A great Rollins improvisation is a window on a unique artistic mind considering a concept from every angle. For 15 minutes, again and again, thinking of the words, he returns to Coward’s melody, obsessed with it, exhausting it, always with tough love.

There are two Rollins originals. “Biji” is a simple phrase blown into a tempest. “Patanjali” is an orgy of energy from the most recent concert here (Marseille, France, 2012) that would test the rhythmic creativity, not to mention the stamina, of any 25-year-old saxophonist. Rollins is 82. The band is a thrusting, hammering riff machine, on which Rollins triumphantly rides.

“Solo Sonny” is a wild stand-alone eight-minute cadenza, a stream-of-consciousness of quotations, a fantasia of the American experience: “Tennessee Waltz,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the songs of your life, flying by. “Don’t Stop the Carnival” is one of Rollins’ theme songs. It closes the album but fades after three minutes. You don’t want it to stop. You want Sonny Rollins to play all night, forever.

Originally Published