April 17, 2007

Louis Jordan and the Third Sonny Rollins

Louis Jordan and the Third Sonny Rollins

In a very real sense there are three Sonny Rollinses. First is the giant of the bebop and early post-bop eras who made great recordings like Saxophone Colossus, Way out West and The Bridge. Second is the Sonny Rollins represented by recordings released over more than thirty years by Milestone Records, many of which cemented the view among Sonny’s fans that his artistry had gone downhill . . . But then there is this third Sonny who comes to life in front of an audience and who on a good night can play at what can only be described as a nearly superhuman level, both in terms of his technique and his level of creative inspiration.

Carl Smith, in a email to Open Source, April 12, 2007.

Carl Smith, who introduced himself to us by commenting on last week’s Sonny Rollins show, has collected almost 400 privately-made recordings of Sonny Rollins’s live performances over the past sixty years. While he says that he admires Rollins’s famous early work, his favorite recordings are the ones that capture this elusive “third Sonny.”

The third Sonny has never appeared on a commercially released recording, though there was a taste in a 1978 Milestone live concert release called Don’t Stop the Carnival. “Autumn Nocturne” and “Silver City” are two tracks on that two LP set that gave some idea of what Sonny live is all about.

Carl Smith, in an email to Open Source, April 12, 2007.

This side of Rollins, Smith says, emerged in the 1970s, after Rollins returned from a sabbatical from jazz to explore a looser, more extroverted kind of performance.

He first entered this phase in the seventies, when he was in his forties. I can play you things from 1978 up to the present time that are absolutely wild. It’s as if he discovered his true calling, which was to sweep people away and pull them along with him into this ecstatic state. As opposed to the measured, classic bebop he had played before, by 1978 he had developed a style that was more extroverted and much more openly swinging. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t just as sophisticated in terms of his harmonic language and the subtlety of his melodic and rhythmic gifts. All those things were as strong as ever. But in his live concerts during this later period the “third Sonny” started playing with an energy and force that would blow the doors down.

Carl Smith, in an email with Open Source, April 12, 2007.

Rollins’s transformation didn’t come out of nowhere. Smith says that he was inspired by one of his idols, Louis Jordan, a 1940s bandleader, singer, and saxophonist who was famous for his showmanship and energetic style.

Jordan was also an outstanding musician, playing both alto and tenor sax, and I think it is both his musicianship and his ability to connect to an audience that lies behind Sonny’s repeated references to Jordan as one of his important early influences, along with Coleman Hawkins. Anyone who has witnessed Sonny in concert or seen a videotape of one of his best live performances on YouTube will easily recognize Jordan’s influence.

Carl Smith, in an email to Open Source, April 12, 2007.

We’ll take Smith up on the challenge by putting Rollins and Louis Jordan next to each other. Do you see any resemblance between Jordan and Carl Smith’s “third Sonny”?

A young Sonny Rollins playing with Jim Hall in 1962:

Louis Jordan:

Smith says this recording of Rollins in 1986 is a glimpse of the third Sonny:

Another third Sonny sighting, of Rollins playing “Global Warming” at a jazz festival in Finland in 1998:

Related Content