© 2024 WSIU Public Broadcasting
WSIU Public Broadcasting
Member-Supported Public Media from Southern Illinois University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sonny Rollins' big-hearted music speaks for itself on newly reissued 'Freedom Weaver'


This is FRESH AIR. Although Kevin Whitehead recently stepped down as our jazz critic, we succeeded in convincing him to still occasionally contribute to our show as a jazz historian. Today, he has some thoughts about saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1959. Early in that year, Rollins took a trio to Europe for a tour documented on a new reissue. Five months later, he withdrew from performing in public for two years. During that hiatus, he practiced on New York's Williamsburg Bridge.

From the new 1959 reissue, here's Rollins in Stockholm playing his anthem, "St. Thomas."


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Early in 1959, Sonny Rollins was a few years into one of the great hot streaks in jazz history. The handful of classic albums he made then include a couple with just bass and drums. That format gave him plenty of elbow room and obliged him to blow at length, which he was happy to do. Rollins took a trio to Europe for three weeks in late winter. Three hours from that tour are heard on the new Sonny-approved reissue, "Freedom Weaver," drawing on seven gigs from five countries. The saxophonist has lung power, ideas and technique to burn in a gloriously unruly sound.


WHITEHEAD: Sonny Rollins comes on like a few jazz greats combined. He has Louis Armstrong's teasing way with a melody, Charlie Parker's high-speed virtuosity and wit, tenor Lester Young's rhythmic obstinacy, the noble tone of Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon's swagger. But it all comes out in Rollins' own brash, self-assured voice.

Listen to him dart around on "I Want To Be Happy," recorded in Holland. Paraphrasing or improvising, he's variously in front of, on top of, behind or way behind the beat. The trio's secret hero, young Henry Grimes, sets the pace on base beside Pete "La Roca" Sims on drums.


WHITEHEAD: As ecstatic as Rollins can sound, he's acutely self-aware. He said that he sometimes felt like he was observing himself from above while playing, as if split in two. He makes that split literal on one take of "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star," where his tenor answers itself off microphone. I make a connection to radio comedians Rollins loved, Bob and Ray, who toggle between different voices in a sketch.


WHITEHEAD: This 1959 music poses an old question with no simple answer - why was this grandmaster on fire so dissatisfied he quit performing for two years in romantic sabbatical on the Williamsburg Bridge? We get clues from a new trade paperback, "The Notebooks Of Sonny Rollins," whose entries begin in 1959. Back then, he's mostly preoccupied with technical matters and shortcomings. The saxophone's pinky and side keys get a lot of attention. And it's true - on the European tour, sometimes a couple of notes in a fast run will sound blurry. There was still work to do. In the '60s, Rollins dreamed of writing a saxophone manual, but his observations were mostly notes to himself.

Later in the notebooks, he gets more philosophical. The musical discussion gets deep in the weeds, and the book's editor supplies all of seven skimpy footnotes when we need more like 70. Where, say, Rollins goes on about interacting with Don, Bob and Billy, the editor might note that's trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Billy Higgins, which makes it 1962. The Rollins notebooks cry out for a crowd-sourced annotations website. His 1959 trio music, my commentary aside, needs no such mediation. His big-hearted music speaks for itself.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, when a nation is so divided that political rivals see each other as enemies, is violence inevitable? Bestselling author Erik Larson will talk about the months following the election of Abraham Lincoln, the months that led to the Civil War. It's a period, he says, in some ways, reminds him of America today. His new book is called "The Demon Of Unrest." I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "LOVE LETTERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
As a WSIU donor, you don’t simply watch or listen to public media programs, you are a partner. By making a gift, you help WSIU produce, purchase, and broadcast programs you care about and enjoy – every day of the year.