Six Degrees of Sonny Rollins’s The Bridge

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 07.18.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

The Bridge

Sonny Rollins

Once upon a time, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins — still riding high when The Bridge turned 50 in 2012 — was jazz's most notorious dropout, taking long and much-lamented sabbaticals from the scene. His well-publicized 1959-62 break was partly in response to lavish praise for his improvisational depth; it made him self-conscious, more aware of his shortcomings. He took to practicing on the walkways of the Williamsburg Bridge, so's not to disturb his Lower East Side neighbors. (The location was loud and windy; playing there built strength.) Word had it he was grappling with ideas raised by the Coltrane/Coleman avant-garde. Yet The Bridge, Sonny's comeback, was a set of vigorously swinging standards and originals — reaffirmation, not revolution. The lemony tang of Jim Hall's guitar, in place of piano, offset Sonny's garishly lush sound, with its echoes of East River tugboats. Hall gave everything a lighter feel, the relentless thrust of Ben Riley's or Harry T. Saunders's drums notwithstanding. (Bassist Bob Cranshaw? Still with Sonny, 50 years on.) No one deconstructs and reassembles every aspect of a tune like Rollins, refurbishing — and breaking your heart with — shopworn oldies like "Where Are You?"

Vanishing Giants

Town Hall 1962

Ornette Coleman

Not all sabbaticals are voluntary. Having shaken up jazz with his late-'50s freebop quartet, Ornette Coleman was mostly invisible in the early '60s; clubs and labels wouldn't meet his price. In December 1962, Coleman rented out Town Hall with money quietly advanced by friend Irving Stone, to present his colossal new trio, with big-eared classical bassist David Izenzon and crackling Texas drummer Charles Moffett. (The trio sat out the roughhewn string quartet "For Poets and Writers," precursor to Coleman's symphonic Skies of America.) Ornette's new group was even rawer than his quartet, his crying alto sax more exposed. (The trio would sound even better by 1965, At the Golden Circle.) His ideas and Sonny Rollins' cross-pollinated; Sonny'd had his own pianoless trios, and not long after The Bridge he drafted two ex-Colemanites, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, into the wild quartet heard on Our Man in Jazz.

A Sideman Steps Out

Concierto (CTI Records 40th Anniversary Edition - Original recording remastered)

Jim Hall

When Rollins hired guitarist Jim Hall for The Bridge, he may've already heard him as saxist Paul Desmond's accompanist, when Desmond was on leave from Dave Brubeck's band. Hall was so good in support he barely recorded as leader before 1975's Concierto, which raised his profile, showing off his attractively muffled hollow-point tone and slingshot-swing phrasing. The album was glossy, if less so than other CTI releases, even factoring in the contemporary touches of Ron Carter's rubber-band bass sound and Steve Gadd's ba-da-boom fusiony drumming. Arranger Don Sebesky's marathon take on Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" didn't cut Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain version, but it's great to hear altoist Desmond mull over that and two other tunes. Understated, lyrical, he's a perfect fit for the guitarist. Trumpeter Chet Baker, so-so on the "Concierto," sounds surprisingly lithe and sunny on "Two's Blues."

The Unkillable Father

Today And Now / Desafinado

Coleman Hawkins

Jazz guitarists may've been busier than usual in 1962, when strummy bossa nova was the rage; even Cannonball Adderley made a Brazilian record. Rollins's idol Coleman Hawkins, the tenor's grand old man, recorded Desafinado with two shuffling guitars, but self-sufficient Hawkins could play anything with anybody and sound good. That album's now paired with Today and Now, waxed the same week. There Hawkins à la Rollins delights in resuscitating improbable relics like "Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," alongside trademark rapturous ballads. (On Desafinado he does "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.") The following year, on Sonny Meets Hawk, Rollins and crew did their best to confound the master, who gave as good as he got, sounding almost avant-garde himself. But Hawkins had been keeping the competition at bay since 1922.

It’s A Wonderful Town

New York, N.Y.

George Russell

The title The Bridge was part metaphor — Rollins in transition from the hardbop '50s to the freewheeling '60s — but also referred to one very specific interborough landmark. New York's sights, pace and bustle have inspired rafts of tunes; Duke Ellington wrote more than a dozen for Harlem alone. In 1958 and '59, composer and jazz theorist George Russell arranged "Autumn in New York" and wrote new pieces that take you around Manhattan, up to Spanish Harlem and down the East Side. Hip improvisers had all checked out Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept, a fresh way to think about balancing scales on chords, and his orchestra boasted New York celebrity soloists like Art Farmer, Benny Golson, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Max Roach and fast-talking tour guide Jon Hendricks. When the charts get busy, Russell's intersecting vectors mirror midtown traffic; the ballads are the park after dark.

The Next Sabbatical

Sonny Rollins' Next Album

Sonny Rollins

In 1966, Rollins began a six-year recording break, disillusioned with the business and the world. He still worked some — at an odd Town Hall gig his band had seven bass players — but he also went to India to study meditation. Rollins' comeback was formally announced by 1972's Next Album, anticipating pretty much everything he's done since. His tenor tone had become more brittle and metallic, but it suits one of his patented, irrepressible calypsos. (On "Poinciana" Sonny's on soprano, axe he'd abandon a few years later.) Bob Cranshaw was making a permanent transition from acoustic to electric bass; an extra percussionist embroiders the edges. The rhythms are more relaxed and populist, the band less interactive, even with George Cables on piano/electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette drumming on two tracks. Some claim Rollins now played better than ever. His long solo intro and cadenza to "Skylark" alone are essential. But his '50s and '60s were hard acts to follow.