Monday, December 21, 2020

CD Review: Sonny Rollins - Rollins In Holland

Sonny Rollins
Rollins In Holland

The first Sonny Rollins performance that really knocked my socks off was his version of "Everything Happens To Me" from On Impulse. During my first summer in college, I did an overnight jazz show on the college radio station and discovered that album one night in the library. I figured you couldn't miss with Sonny Rollins and this track was 11 minutes long, leaving plenty of time before the next track needed to be cued up.

The most incredible thing about "Everything Happens to Me" was Rollins' tone. It felt warm and deep, wistful and romantic. The path of his solo isn't what got me - I can't recall it at the moment but I'm sure it was also deep - it was the delivery. That song alone might have been the tune that inspired me to program the 2 a.m. hour with nothing but ballads. On a warm summer night, that's what the world needed to hear.

The opening seconds of Rollins In Holland brought back the same feeling of euphoria. "Blue Room" (another song that from On Impulse) comes from a Rollins recording made at a Dutch television studio with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. His tenor resonates, using the natural reverb of the room to emphasize the richness of the horn. The trio, which assembled for the first just two night earlier at a club, work together like they've been interacting for months. The sound quality throughout Rollins In Holland might not be as powerful as "Blue Room" and the other three tracks recorded at VARA Studio5, but the creative spark makes up for any sonic shortcomings. 

This two-disc set from Resonance Records tells the story of these 1967 recordings in vivid, sometimes repetitious, detail. Sonny Rollins hadn't recorded an album in a year (the last being East Broadway Run Down, the followup to On Impulse!) and wouldn't release another until 1972. He jumped at an offer to play the Academy of Visual Arts in Arnheim in May of '67. Intent of playing in a trio setting, he made arrangements for Jacobs and Bennink to accompany him. Bennink had played with Eric Dolphy in the months before the multi-reedist passed away, and would go on to become one of the most creative, and inventive free jazz drummers in Europe. Jacobs was more of a traditional player, whose track record included work with Louis Armstrong and Bill Evans. Longtime friends, their divergent styles didn't keep them from meshing with Rollins. 

Their May 3 performance at the Academy fills the second disc of this set. The first piece of the set - a 22-minute version of "Three Little Words" - wraps up Disc One, following the VARA Studio 5 television recording and two more tracks recorded live for a television show. According to all parties involved, there were no rehearsals for the performances, nor was there any verbal directions. 

The trio hit the ground running, ears wide open following the saxophonist. To say they keep up is an understatement. After stating the theme on "On Green Dolphin Street," Rollins jumps into "There Will Never Be Another You," his mates right there with him. Throughout the set, Rollins throws in quotes from other songs, including remote selections like Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances" and Chopin's "Funeral March." When he inserts Miles Davis' "Four," it's hard to tell if it's an instruction to trade fours with him or a reference to a song that will come later in the set. As a whole, his paraphrases come off less like a musicians showing off his musical knowledge and more like someone who has the opportunity to muse with depth before moving onto another idea.

Jacobs gets a little lost in the mix of the Academy set, drowned out a bit by Bennink's drums, which swing hard and hint at the freedom he could see coming down the pike. While the bassist might not be felt, he can be heard a bit, and the quality doesn't distract from the music's power. He does comes through clearly on the previous sets, which were actually recorded later, by which time the trio has developed even more of a rapport. 

This being a Resonance package, the 100-page booklet offers almost as much value as the music. Interviews with Bennink together with Jacobs (who died in 2019 after a long battle with cancer) as well Rollins himself are flanked by essays by Rollins biographer Aidan Levy and Frank Jochemsen, the latter who helped unearth and identify some of these recordings.

Sonny Rollins has always been his own harshest critic, never quite satisfied with his performances. He also seems very humble, which might have something to do with his self-examination. Yet, his thoughts in the booklet's interview betray feelings of excitement at hearing this music again. (He also raves about Jacobs' bass tone, which means another close listen is in order, in case I missed something.) That's probably the best endorsement of all.  

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