Thursday, May 12, 2016

CD Review: Sonny Rollins - Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4

Sonny Rollins
Holding the Stage: Road Shows, Vol. 4

The recording studio can psyche musicians out. Not necessarily because it can be a relatively sterile, dry place, as compared to the stage, where everything lives in the moment, including the reactions of the audience. The problem with recording studios (if you can call it a problem) has to do with the fact that it allows musicians to overdub and or remove anything from a whole chorus to a series of notes, creating the perfect recording through technology. Or it can trick a musicians into thinking that way. "I began to think, 'Gee, maybe it could come out better,'" Sonny Rollins says in the notes to Holding the Stage. "That had a big influence on why the studio became an inhibiting factor."

That is also why the Great Sage of the tenor saxophone has released a fourth album of live performances. The Rollins that sets foot onstage doesn't have the chance to think about redoing anything. He simply hits the ground running and does what he does best.

Holding the Stage contains a wide span of time, with one track going back to 1979 and winding up with a couple from 2012. (Six months later, health issues required Rollins to take a break from performing, and he has yet to return.) Four tracks come from a September 2001 Boston concert just four days after the World Trade Center attacks, a show which has already been documented largely on Without A Song: the 9/11 Concert. At nearly 30 minutes of the disc, this newly released material serves as the album's foundation, also proving that at a time of uncertainty and sadness, Rollins was there to guide his audience through intense times and start the healing.

The biggest surprise might be the 1979 track, "Disco Monk." The title and the time period might imply a desperate attempt at relevancy, but hold onto your hats. The rhythm section of Jerome Harris (bass guitar) and Al Foster (drums) don't come close to four-on-the-floor, going instead for an elastic groove that acknowledges the serious funk of the time, without forsaking the serious swing of jazz. The tune itself continually breaks away from the upbeat groove to let pianist Mark Soskin get a bit introspective, making it too clever for the dance floor anyway. Rollins, as he does on most of the tracks, exhibits a full-throated sound with some references to songs that he recorded with Monk.

"H.S" pays homage to another collaborator, pianist Horace Silver. The tough blues (recorded in 2006) features trombonist Clifton Anderson adding to the boss' tone, and a tenor solo that gets delightfully gruff in all the right places. "Professor Paul" salutes the late saxophonist/arranger Paul Jeffrey, and suffers from an accompaniment that sounds utilitarian. Chalk it up to a recording quality perhaps, but the seemingly solid group that includes Peter Bernstein (guitar) and Sammy Figueroa (percussion) sounds stiff and unexcited. Rollins can't be deterred though, throwing in a quote from "Old Devil Moon" and making it work.

Several quotes pop up in "Solo," essentially a five-minute cadenza between "Sweet Leilani" and "Don't Stop the Carnival" from the 2001 concert. Rollins' classic "St. Thomas" pops up, as does "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" (he also could make the ridiculous sound sublime) and a few others. Lesser musicians may throw in quotes for yucks, Rollins does it to prove the legitimacy of the material. And I'll be doggone if he doesn't pull it off.

In closing, special mention should be made of "You're Mine You," which comes from the same concert. It might be reading too much into the situation, but Rollins' solo, full of blunt accents and muscular tone, comes off like his way of pulling us out of our fears and reassuring us that, since we are his, things are not too far gone. Even if that isn't the case, he can make you believe. And that's one of many reasons that makes this disc mandatory.

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