Rollins is perhaps the most logical and purely intuitive improviser in American music.
Before there was an east coast/west coast rap beef, jazz had its opposing coastal camps: the east was hard and funky while the west was cool and soft. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the epitome of hard-edged east coast playing, recorded Way Out West in 1957 in Los Angeles with drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown. Unlike many sessions that put together opposing camps as a kind of gimmick, this one became a classic, firmly establishing Rollins as the leading tenor player of the era. It is now being reissued on LP, with alternate takes and some charming studio conversation to boot.
Two of the tunes were chosen for their cowboy themes. “I’m an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande)” was written by Johnny Mercer for Bing Crosby to sing in Rhythm on the Range. It was a comic tune about a twentieth-century cowboy who doesn’t have any old cowboy skills and, in studio conversation included on the reissue, we hear Rollins explain to Brown and Manne that he is that guy: it was his first trip to the west coast. Rollins also explains, singing the lyrics, how he wants the tune to swing. And it does. Manne starts it off with a cliched “clip-clop” pattern on wood block and snare rim, then the whole affair quickly shifts into elegant, deep swing.
Sonny Rollins is perhaps the most logical and purely intuitive improviser in American music. Celebrated for not merely blowing over the chord changes but for playing with the song’s melody and developing motifs with invention and emotion, Rollins was at his best on “Cowhand.” On both takes included here, he plays the theme twice as if he were a singer and then launches into an improvisation that is deeply connected to Mercer’s original melody, teasing various elements of what was written, spinning them like a yo-yo at the end of Rollins’ amazing string of speed and tone. The originally-issued take is concise, but all fans of the saxophone will want to indulge in the alternate take, which contains a Rollins solo that is twice as long, giving the master a chance to stretch out. With Rollins, that does not mean he goes farther afield but, rather, that he digs more deeply into the tune’s DNA, returning several times to its key licks and phrases. Brown and Manne provide solid solos on both takes as well.
Way Out West is important in the Rollins discography for a second reason. It was the first time that Rollins recorded with just bass and drums and no piano or guitar to fill out the harmonies. This leaves him a bit more room to demonstrate his own mastery of bebop harmonic development and allows us to hear the beautiful counterpoint Rollins improvises against Ray Brown’s always elegant bass lines. Evidently, Rollins enjoyed the experience so much that his next major recording was the landmark A Night at the Village Vanguard, perhaps his greatest work and again with just a trio.
The other “western” tune is “Wagon Wheels,” also written for a ‘30s film, and the format is similar to that of “Cowhand,” with Manne beginning with a drum part suggestive of a cowboy tune but the trio turning to “strolling” for Rollins’ solo, with Brown playing four bass notes to the bar. Manne shows his “west coast” chops by staying spare and clean on brushes against his snare. Rollins responds with an improvisation that is never in a hurry and demonstrates his understanding of the importance of silence and tone. After bass and drum solos, the theme returns, followed by another Rollins trademark: a mostly unaccompanied cadenza at the end that find him playing thrilling, fast runs over a set of chords that finally resolve.
There are two standards on the program, the Ellington ballad “Solitude” and a mid-tempo take on “There is No Greater Love.” Rollins also gets in two originals. “Come, Gone” is an up-tempo bop tune that sounds improvised on the spot, beginning with a stop time figure that shoots Rollins’ saxophone out of a cannon and then lets him fly over Cadillac-clean swinging from Manne and Brown. “Way Out West” was penned by Rollins for this date, a snappy little theme with a witty line that allows Manne and Rollins to interact. There are three different takes on this reissue, each with its charms. This composition seems to give Rollins one of his best avenues for demonstrating rhythmic prowess, going from on-the-nose tempo playing to suddenly triple-timed bebop blowing that sounds like it is part of a logical flow nevertheless. Manne gets a cool little set of solos—typically sly and clean—as he trades fours with Brown and the leader.
It’s impossible to write about Way Out West without mentioning the witty album cover photograph: Rollins at the age of 26, wearing a Stetson, jeans and ammo belt, his tenor saxophone cocked at his left side like it was shotgun, leaning backward slightly on a desert landscape. It was supposedly Rollins’ idea, and it is marvelously cocky and swaggering. The guy was the best tenor saxophonist on the planet at the time, and he played like someone who had a full understanding of the majestic history of his instrument even as he pressed it forward.
Sonny Rollins, born in 1930 in New York City, is still with us, and he only recently gave up performing. As you listen to Way Out West you are thankful that the history of great music is ours to enjoy in so many forms, including these kinds of reissues. An old gunslinger like Rollins is well aware of how he connects forward to the young musicians, the way his legacy paved the way for free blowing, for hip-hop, for the kinds of encounters and triumphs that Way Out West so deftly modeled.