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Sonny Rollins: In Holland, 1967

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In 1967, Sonny Rollins was restless. Everything in the U.S. was changing fast. As an artist, Sonny was changing, too. Just as he had was reaching the apex of his playing prowess, jazz seemed to be sliding as a valued art form at home. To find truth, Sonny toured extensively in Europe, particularly Scandinavia and the Netherlands. There, he found emotionally open fans who understood his history and fully accepted his art and heritage. Back in the U.S., what seemed like an endless battle for freedom and justice, was raging, and the stress of earning and surviving was wearying. Abroad, the countries where he performed were intellectually liberated and liberating, free from America's violent past and negativity.

In the spring of '67, Sonny was touring in the Netherlands. Included on the trip were stops on May 3 in Arnhem and on May5 at a radio taping in Hilversum and a gig that night at the Go-Go Club in Loosdrecht. Now, all three performances are available for the first time on Sonny Rollins: Rollins in Holland (Resonance). Because Zev Feldman is the new release's co-producer (with Frank Jochemsen and David Weiss), there's a great yarn behind how Zev came to hear and procure the tapes and an equally engaging story behind winning Sonny's support for release.

Sonny's tone, inventiveness and improvisation are all tops here. The Dutch rhythm section—Ruud Jacobs on bass and Han Bennink on drums—can be grinding in places. But it's their relentless energy and rough-housing that sets Sonny ablaze. And Sonny clearly is on fire on many of the album's tracks, releasing long loving rivers of improvisation. He never shows signs of exhaustion or compromise. As Sonny has remarked in an interview for the album, they all just went for it.

In truth, I needed about six or seven listens to fully decipher what Sonny was expressing and to comprehend the artistic messages. This isn't free jazz or avant-garde but Sonny's freewheeling, spiritual approach expressed from a zone that is attainable only when he has the right musicians in the right location and they all have a special feeling. When this happens, the resulting music becomes a muscular animal with a beating heart and fluid pounce. It's wild and unconventional music within the boundaries of traditional, familiar songs.

Highlights here include a 22:25 Three Little Words (with about two dozen references to other songs, such as Pent-up House, St. Thomas, Lullaby of Broadway and If I Were a Bell); a sensual, straight-ahead Blue Room, a supersonic On Green Dolphin Street, a pair of Fours and a roaring Tune Up.

For me, what required an adjustment was getting used to the absence of a piano. While the missing, critical rhythm-section instrument was at first jarring, I became used to the sound of Sonny in constant motion to fill the space normally occupied by the keyboard. The bass and drums, of course, have to do all of the background work here to support Sonny and provide additional abstraction. Instead of keyboard color, though, it's percussive heat. Once my ear stopped yearning for the sound of the piano, I focused on Sonny and his search for meaning.

A year later, Sonny would leave for India to spend time at an ashram in Powai, an area of Mumbai (then known as Bombay). There, he found what he was searching for—the meaning of life and his purpose and place in the universe, despite what was going on culturally and politically at home. What he learned in India remains with him to this day.

And here's a minidoc on the story behind the album...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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