Published as part of the series of reissues that began two years ago to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the renowned California jazz label Contemporary, this respanable anthology brings together Sonny Rollins’ only two studio albums for the label (Way Out West and Sonny and the Contemporary Leaders) as well as a collection of alternate takes of both sessions. A compilation that documents an exciting and decisive moment in the saxophonist’s career.
The album Way Out West was recorded in Los Angeles on the 7th of March 1957 with an extraordinarily stimulating rhythm section consisting of two West Coast jazz stalwarts, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne. This would be the first step in a long and intimate journey, as much conceptual and aesthetic as it was spiritual, that was to lead Rollins to question and reinvent himself at the turn of the 1960s.
Considered by his peers as the undisputed leader of the new saxophone school since the release of his album Saxophone Colossus, an authentic manifesto of the conquering hard bop, Sonny Rollins shakes up his own codes on Way Out West by abandoning the harmonic support of the piano to launch himself without a net into the initiatory ordeal of the trio - a formula that could not have been more unusual and “avant-garde” at the time.
The result is a masterpiece of freshness, control and invention in which the saxophonist spontaneously brings the trio formula to a form of balance that will never really be surpassed. This formation was in some ways extended and shaken up in an equally brilliant way just a few months later in a concert at the Village Vanguard with Wilbur Ware on double bass and Elvin Jones on drums, immortalised in another legendary album, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note).
Haunted by the advent of a new tenor saxophone monster, John Coltrane, and both fascinated and disturbed by the libertarian eruption of free jazz, whose emancipating power he sensed but was still struggling to integrate into his music, Sonny Rollins experienced a significant crisis that gradually led him to silence. Before going into retirement, which lasted until 1961, he went into the studio in October 1958 for a final session in the company of a few of the Contemporary label’s leading lights (pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel, double bassist Leroy Vinnegar and Shelly Manne still on drums) where they recorded explosive, joyous music, irresistible swing, apparently sounding a world away from the identity issues that tortured him.
This record, somewhat forgotten and underestimated compared to the great masterpieces that spaned his “return to business” (The Bridge, Our Man in Jazz), is essential today when reflecting on the trajectory of Sonny Rollins, an anachronistic celebration of a kind of lost innocence.