The creative acquisitiveness of improvisation sounds boundless in the work of jazz sax master Sonny Rollins. He turned 90 in September. Every timeless theme and every long-forgotten one, every pop hit or fragment of an aria, every quirky mannerism he has heard in the jostling soundtrack of the world seems to have been filed somewhere in his head. These fragments make warped reappearances live, sometimes in apposite places, sometimes in provocatively oppositional ones. That’s what put the phrase “the greatest living improviser” on the flyers to Rollins’ gigs.
He became less wilfully idiosyncratic in later years. But in the 1960s, Rollins often travelled the world with no band of his own, and his instant responsiveness to often unfamiliar partners became legendary. These previously unreleased recordings (one studio session and two live ones) date from a 1967 Netherlands tour, accompanied by young Dutch bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, the latter set to become a one-off of the European avant garde.
Rollins carried with him a handful of improv-sparking tunes, including the staccato hard-bop hooks Sonnymoon for Two and Miles Davis’s Four and Tune Up, the ballad theme Three Little Words and the standard On Green Dolphin Street. These performances seamlessly segue breakneck bebop drive, old-school romanticism and a probingly inquisitive phrasing that offers suggestions to Jacobs and Bennink and lobs back rejoinders. The studio set’s sound balance is warm and spacious, the live takes less so (Bennink’s irrepressible energy sometimes overdominates). These tracks catch the saxophone colossus in gale-force form with partners right on his case, and the accompanying essays and images expand on that fascinating story.
Also out this month
The influence of Rollins and much else drives contemporary saxist and multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter – input from all over the globe contributes to his fine lockdown solo album, There Is a Tide (Edition), in which he overdubs reeds, keys, basses and percussion with a warmth that such techie methods often miss. Innovative British jazz and fusion harpist Tori Handsley emerges as a leader influenced by the current genre-fluid London jazz underground (the Mercury-nominated Moses Boyd is on drums and Ruth Goller on bass) with As We Stand (Cadillac), while meditative Manchester trumpeter/composer Matthew Halsall’s Salute to the Sun (Gondwana) introduces a punchy and vibrant new young band. Resonance Records’ tireless archive-digging reveals Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s, by the freewheeling piano star’s superb 1968 trio with drum dynamo Jack DeJohnette.