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Sonny Rollins + Thelonious Monk

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One of jazz's big turning points came on October 25, 1954, when Sonny Rollins altered the direction of the tenor saxophone at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in his parents' Hackensack, N.J., house. The session for Prestige featured Sonny, Thelonious Monk on piano, Tommy Potter on bass and Art Taylor on drums. Up until then, Sonny's sound was still in development as he apprenticed with Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell (1949) and Miles Davis (1951). In late '51, Sonny led what Prestige dubbed the Modern Jazz Quartet, though he really was fronting a trio, not the MJQ, which would come later.

In January 1953, fresh from a year-long stay in Lexington, Ken., for narcotics treatment, Sonny recorded with Davis and Charlie Parker, followed by the newly formed MJQ in October and with French hornist Julius Watkins in November. Next came the Art Farmer Quintet in January 1954 and Bags' Groove in June, which was more of a Davis-Monk cutting session than Sonny showcase. Sonny's session for Moving Out in August included trumpeter Kenny Dorham, as Prestige stubbornly continued to use one lead horn after the next to chaperone Sonny's sax.

Finally, in October '54, Sonny was alone with Monk, Potter and Taylor, and we get to hear a new sound emerge, a saxophonist unburdened by trumpets and stale bebop riffs. Here, Sonny is confident and fully aware of what he wanted to say on his instrument and the possibilities that lay ahead. Just three songs were recorded that day, but they quickly shaped up to be jazz landmarks: I Want to Be Happy, The Way You Look Tonight and a 10-minute More Than You Know.

Each of the three recordings remains a monumental expression that showcases Sonny's dry tone and gyroscopic improvisational style. Gone are the overtones of Coleman Hawkins in Sonny's sound or the halting approaches. On this recording session, Sonny has plenty of vinyl to swing and unwind, with Monk as the perfect foil. Best of all, Sonny no longer must share solo time with another horn but instead is up against himself and his ideas.

Whether it's the lower-register head-fake during the opening measures of The Way You Look Tonight and the swing that follows, or the fox-hunt feel of I Want to Be Happy, or the pulse tempo of More Than You Know, Sonny's ideas roll out in luxurious ribbons with bold colors and strategic pauses to let the listener catch up.

You can almost hear how eager Sonny is to take his shot and show what he can do alone. It's at this very moment when Sonny wriggles free of his elders and sets a new course. Even Monk, through his piano playing, seems astonished by Sonny's slashing bravado and the new benchmark set. It's at this moment that the tenor saxophone becomes as important as the trumpet. 

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Way You Look Tonight and I Want to Be Happy on Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (Prestige) here. You'll find More Than You Know on Moving Out (Prestige) here.

JazzWax clips: Here's I Want to Be Happy...



Here's The Way You Look Tonight...



And here's More Than You Know...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.

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