A TOP JAZZ RECORD OF 2014. They say Sonny Rollins still practices three hours a day, and I wouldn’t doubt the stamina of this jazz nobleman who at 83 continues to perform at sold out concert halls all over the world. He still plays faster and with more finesse than players half his age. If you’ve been fortunate enough to see Rollins in concert, you’ve experienced that charismatic energy radiate from the stage. A live setting puts his legendary reputation in context. For the last decade, he’s been remiss to produce a studio recording for a reason common to all great artists – there’s nothing comparable to playing to an audience. For Sonny Rollins, the rewards that flow from listeners far outweigh the concern that you or your band will hiccup on stage. As fans, we appreciate the 21st century Rollins, ushered in with his This Is What I Do (2000, Milestone) and continuing a golden age with Road Shows, a documentation of collected live performances. RS: Volume 1 (Emarcy, 2008) was a breathtaking selection spanning shows over a 27-year period, while and RS: Volume 2 (Emarcy, 2011) culled astonishing dates just from 2010. Both volumes give us some of the most satisfying recorded music of Rollins’ career and the best music he’s made since the defining, heady days of the late 50s and early 60s when Saxophone Colossus (1956), Bags’ Groove (1957) and The Bridge (1962).
Road Shows, Volume 3 offers revelatory music from Rollins. In addition to being the most important recording released so far on the recently revived Okeh Record label under the Sony Masterworks umbrella, this collection gathers tunes from Rollins’ post-2000 concerts, four from various shows in France, another from St. Louis, Missouri and one from Japan. With each successive volume of Road Shows, there’s a strong argument that every one is good enough for “best of the year” status and Volume 3 achieves that by offering up the most expressive jazz I’ve heard this year.
The sheer joy that comes from mixing melody, rhythm, harmonics, of performing – it’s all there on the opening track, “Biji,” recorded in November 2001 in Japan. You’ll recall this is after the events on 9/11, an event that Rollins witnessed from his home in downtown Manhattan. For Rollins, the music seems to represent hope that triumphs over despair. At the outset of the theme, Rollins’ tenor and Clifton Anderson’s trombone sing in unison with an alternating key change that Rollins makes for emphasis. It’s a rollicking tune with a groove and a sharp kick that goes from a stunning turn by pianist Stephen Scott’s solo to something greater as Rollins rolls out his own astonishing solo in a blizzard of notes played as fast as you can hear them.
Guitarist Bobby Broom possesses bluesy chops on the ¾ time swing of Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You,” a delicious standard that Rollins first recorded in 1958 on Freedom Jazz Suite and here turns it into a tone poem that he fills with rounded notes and unabashed romanticism. His tenor sound is plainly beautiful with an elongated solo that renders every bit of happy emotion from the tune. Bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Victor Lewis hold down the rhythm section with equal passion. At the song’s conclusion, you’re swept along with the audience and their soaring applause as if you were there.
The Afro-Caribbean beats and bass that hold down the groove on Rollins’ “Patanjali” lift the saxophonist’s playing to soaring heights with feverish contributions from guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Cranshaw and a ferocious Kobie Watkins on drums with Sammy Figueroa on percussion.
The 22 minute-long exploration of “Why Was I Born,” one of the most identifiable tunes in Rollins’ repertoire, is spring loaded with another variation on a pulsating groove, in part supplied by drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. Cranshaw’s elastic bass is like a rubber ball that bounces out and richochets off the walls. Combined, the rhythm team’s blissful bounce is contagious and Rollins is in high spirits throughout – it’s a long tune where every minute can be savored.
It’s a fact that a Rollins concert is incomplete without a calypso, a song form that Rollins has owned forever and “Don’t Stop The Carnival” serves as a fitting encore for this exemplary recording. Undoubtedly, Sonny Rollins is a jazz master of exceptional fortitude and endless invention and the superior Road Shows, Volume 3 is likely my desert island disc for 2014. (6 tracks; 73 minutes)