The more Rollins I hear - before and after - the more I think this 'schism' in 'before and after' Rollins just doesn't hold up. I heard a live recording on radio the other day that was 'pre' (somewhere in the late 50ies, unfortunately I don't know the exact date and place) but it had lots in common with the 'post' Rollins, in his sound, the way he goes through his solo, and the lenght of the solo. Listen to these clips of Rollins in
New York 1957
I find that the recording values change (and I do love that wonderfully warm sounding recording technique that we know from the 50ies), but that the big difference is that there is more of the 'live' Rollins present in the 'post' years - also when he was recording in a studio. Rollins was and is famously unhappy with recording in a studio. I can imagine that he managed to get more of a 'live' feel in his studio recordings from 1961 on - indeed, starting with The Bridge. There's of course the opinions of how his sound changed with different mouthpieces (Berg Larsen being responsible for the 'post' sound) but I don't think his sound changed THAT much - it varies quite a lot throughout his career, both 'pre' and 'post'.
For the longest time I felt that Sonny reached a pinnacle of sorts with his European tour of 1959 -- the recordings (pretty much all bootlegs, but still making their way to CDs) from that tour continue to astonish and inspire me...
To my mind, they represent Sonny at his "Sonnyest" -- not worrying about what Trane or Ornette were doing, just doing HIS thing at the highest possible level.
However, Sonny *was* worrying about what Trane and Ornette were doing -- Branford Marsalis has said something along the lines that it's as if Sonny never realized just how ding-dang great *his* thing was, and thought that those other guys represented something more important than his stuff that he should somehow "take on," so that after that 1959 tour he went on another of his famous sabbaticals ... and was never the same again.
THAT was sort of my narrative for Sonny, and for me 1959 demarcated "pre" and "post" Sonny, with the idea that the post Sonny output missed some fundamental joy and magic of the pre Sonny.
Nowadays I don't think my formulation entirely stands up. Check out the Jazz Icons DVD: it includes a 1964 performance that's just flat out GREAT Sonny, pre, post, or whatever! Even Next Album from 1972, which really captures a transformed post version of Newk, has a glorious cadenza on Skylark that would be a desert island track for me (along with some stuff that doesn't grab me very much...).
And I've heard Sonny live of several occasions, all "post" Sonnys since I wasn't around for the "pre" version, and more often than not those performances were thrilling.
[I wrote this before seeing Rennie's post -- I think she makes some great points, and I'm looking forward to checking out those YouTubes...]
Yeah, Kelly, Aix-en-Provence! I got thrown in a similar way by the very experimental Impulse album and the Don Cherry collaboration - it really seemed that Sonny wanted to hook up with the avant guard. Which could imply a perceived deficit in his playing. Certainly he added an even looser approach to his playing. More Ornette Coleman than Coltrane though. Anyway, looking back across this very long period that Sonny has been playing since then (that's 50 years!), it seems not that important anymore. And this Aix-en-Provence concert seems to prove that. He is as free and out as he could be in his 'post' period.
That's really what makes me come back to mr. Rollins again and again. This wonderful ability to play a tune and grab it the neck like a playful cub. Shake it a little bit, toss it. Run with it. Let it escape for a moment and catch it again. Great inventive and exciting timing. His very own kind of humor. And his wonderfully flexible sound.
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