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How to put the island back in "St Thomas"

2530 Views 8 Replies 7 Participants Last post by  saxphil
Hey folks.

The answer to this question is probably obvious--i.e. the same as how to get to Carnegie Hall--but I've been listening to and working on playing/soloing on "St. Thomas." I've listened to a bunch of versions, but when I go back to the original what always kills me about Sonny Rollins' version is how in each chorus he manages to play something that returns you to the Islands, musically speaking. This is not news, but that solo is really a masterpiece!!

I gather that rhythm/articulation is the key, but I was wondering if there are any basic harmonic ideas that allow you to move from, say, a straight forward bluesy feel, or a Bebop feel, to the...afroCuban?...feel of that song? eg: is there something about the way Rollins uses intervals in that solo that says: Islands!

I can do a decent job of getting the feel on the head, but my solos always sound more like Baffin Island than St. Thomas;)



ps. It's really cold and wet up here, so this may be genetic :)
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Anything like this I try practising very very closely to chord tones, ie just simple arpeggios. That isn't the way I end up playing it, but getting the actual basic chord tones completely in my head is extra important to framing some melodic impro round it that keeps the feel and groove there. It would also be a good idea to learn lots of original calypsos too.

Another Rollins favourite of mine is "Everywhere Calypso", that's also a really cool tune to duck in an out of calypso and jazz ideas.
A couple of things:

Seems like a lot of folks these days play St. Thomas too fast, and the rhythm section goes into "Samba Machine" mode. Max Roach does a lot to set the non-samba feel of the tune by turning the snares off the drum and playing some stuff similar to a typical Rhumba pattern,

But getting back to Sonny: He definitely mixes things up a lot, but when he's in full on Calypso mode it's all about playing melodies and not licks. The combination of dancing rhythms and VERY tonal, diatonic melodies makes it work. Then when he chooses to use some boppish lines with more chromaticism, it stands out in contrast.

So, if you're practicing with an accompaniment track, try playing several choruses using just 1 or 2 different pitches and concentrate on just improvising lots of rhythms (being sure to lock into the time). Think of you and your saxophone as being a "rhythm" instrument, and part of the rhythm section.

Then, maybe without an accompaniment track so you can take your time, play at a slower tempo, and imagine that you're being asked to write a new melody to the song. (Keeping in mind the qualities of the original melody: simple, repetitive, memorable).

Capturing an "island" feel in your solo will happen when you can combine the two activities.

(Also, if you're of drinking age, several rum-based drinks with lots of fruit and little umbrellas might help!!!)

Good Luck and Have Fun!
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Hey guys,

Thanks for the advice--I guess figuring out the difference between Calypso and Afro-Cuban--not to mention Rhumba and Mambo--would be a good start. Sometimes I feel like Sargeant Schultz: I know nothing!!!

As far as the rum goes: this'll probably send me from Baffin Island to the Island of Dr. Moreau, but I think I'll try it anyway. I've got a nice bottle on the shelf from Xmas that I haven't touched.

Besides the other Sonny Rollins tunes, any suggested listening for Calypso 101?

Rollins does St. Thomas on the NOW'S THE TIME recording w/Ron Carter and Roy McCurdy(vinyl, don't know if it's on cd) also. It'll show you exactly what DukeCity is talking about, might give you some ideas.
Go to Amazon and do a search for "calypso" and several sampler CDs will come up. Some of them will be Steel Drums, some will be pop-calypso a la Harry Belafonte. It'll all give you something to check out.

Another calypso that Sonny Rollins has recorded a few times is "Don't Stop the Carnival". If you can find some live recordings of that, you will not be sorry.

Which brings up something else (which may deserve its own thread, if there isn't one already): Check out

On that site Sonny is making available for sale some downloads of live, bootleg recordings of his concerts. For years, many Rollins fans have said that his live performances are a very different animal from his studio recordings. As a result, there are tons of bootlegs floating around (I don't have any, so don't ask). There's a guy who has personally recorded dozens (hundreds?) of Rollins' concerts, and he actually approached Sonny about partnering with him to do some official releases. That's the story behind the "Without a Song 9/11 Concert" CD that came out recently. Started as an unauthorized bootleg, then Sonny gave the OK to release it.

Anyway, on Sonny's site he is offering some mp3's for download, but they're in rotation. There are usually just a handful up at any time, and they only stay up for a few weeks. I seem to recall that the prices vary depending on the length of the cut. Worth checking out!
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Old thread, I know...

I was talking about this with a bass player friend of mine just the other day though. We both really dig the original recording, but neither of us could think of another version we like much at all. There are plenty of classic jazz tunes that there are at least five or six recordings of that are great...In my opinion, not this one. I think in most of the "covers" I've heard; the rhythm section just doesn't capture the essence of the tune as Sonny and the gang played it. Sometimes I even cringe when I hear it.
Fact: to be able to play calypso, reggae, quelbe or fungi you must know the ganja.
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