Six Degrees of Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 08.31.11 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

Way Out West

Sonny Rollins

Growing up in New York City, Sonny Rollins was addicted to cowboy movies. Asked to cut an LP on his first trip to Los Angeles in 1957, he thought, "Let's make a western," picking Ray Brown and Shelly Manne to flank him on bass and drums. They played some full-blooded ballads, but thanks to the title and William Claxton's iconic sepia-toned portrait of the tenor saxist as gunslinger, folks mostly recollect "I'm an Old Cowhand" with Manne's horse-y woodblock clip-clops, the Tin Pan Alley oater "Wagon Wheels," and maybe Rollins's Monkishly witty title track. Way Out West was a cultural statement a reminder there were black cowboys, too and a transcontinental rapprochement between supposedly antithetical East and West Coast jazz scenes. (Manne was from the Bronx, but had become the L.A. cool drummer.) It was also a stunning display of jazz saxophone playing. Rollins's gloriously garish tone epitomized Monk's concept of "ugly beauty."

The Back Story

Bing-His Legendary Years 1931-1957

Bing Crosby

By 1936, fake cowboy songs like Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" were so rampant, songwriter Johnny Mercer spoofed them with "I'm an Old Cowhand": "We know all the songs that the cowboys know/We learned them all from the radio," mocking/exploiting faux-folkiness like some ur-Dylan. (As Sonny Rollins knows, the song's sarcasm is baked in.) Mercer wrote it for Bing Crosby's film Rhythm on the Range, and the great pop singer's light touch as a comic and baritone fits it as neatly as "San Fernando Valley," a postwar saga of suburban pioneers. Sagebrush-wise, this Crosby round-up also has "Pistol Packin' Mama" with the Andrews Sisters, Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose," and 1942's "Deep in the Heart of Texas." Plus Bing's 1944's hit "Swinging on a Star," which Rollins must have dug: He quotes from it in the melody of "Way Out West."

The Hollywood Version

Rollins wasn't the first jazz instrumentalist to go cowpoke (or the last: hear Lawson & Haggart's 1960 Dixieland Goes West, with tenor sax frontiersman Bud Freeman). The Dave Pell LP first issued as Swingin' in the Old Corral, recorded in L.A. six months before Way Out West, has its own arch takes on "Cowhand" and "Wagon Wheels" never mind that Pell's as West Coast cool as Rollins is New York hot. (Those tunes also turn up on easy-listening champ Ray Coniff's '56 debut, S'Wonderful! Odd versions were in the air.) There are nice touches here, including a loping happy-trails beat for bassoon on the opener, and a "South of the Border" that grows increasingly cartoony. Makes sense: Pell and some sidemen had already invaded Hollywood studios. Guitarist Tommy Tedesco, pre-Elvis movies, steals the picture.

The (East) Broadway Version

East Broadway Run Down

Sonny Rollins

Way Out West was the first of Rollins's classic trio albums with just bass and drums no piano to fatten up the texture, sound the harmonies, or spell the saxophonist out front. (The bass player had to really step up.) The more open setting gave the saxophonist more harmonic leeway, and he never seemed to run out of ideas, or wind. Sonny's trio streak continued through the equally essential Night at the Village Vanguard and Freedom Suite, a few isolated album tracks and some live bootlegs. Bookending the authorized series is 1966's swaggering East Broadway Run Down with John Coltrane's rhythm men Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. (The long title track adds trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.) After this Sonny rode off into the sunset. It'd be six years till his Next Album.

The Remake

Back East

Joshua Redman

Over the decades, Way Out West has cast a long shadow. Afterwards, any modern jazz musician's "Wagon Wheels" or "I'm an Old Cowhand" was apt to reference Sonny's. The homage is plain on saxophonist Joshua Redman's 2007 album Back East, whose central episode pays homage to that 1957 epic: fresh takes on those two warhorses, plus Redman's title track, all for trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. (Players elsewhere include guest tenors Joe Lovano and dad Dewey Redman.) Other trio tracks evoke Sonny too; "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" is a good-natured caricature of his rhythmic displacements, stretching the timing like taffy. Redman can't equal Sonny's expressively rubbery sound or amazing resourcefulness, but the inspiration's not lost on him either.

The Iconic Image

William Claxton's Way Out West cover shot is as scrutinized as the music nowadays. The cover of rising tenor star Jon Irabagon's Foxy is a sandy mash-up of that famous Mojave photo and the beach-and-bikini covers gracing other '50s West Coast LPs as if Claxton had shot it later that day, dragging that prop skull from the car. The titles play on Sonny Rollins's tune "Doxy," but that track list is a fake-out: the album's a continuous power-blow over a medium-fast swing groove, with free jazz hero Barry Altschul on drums and Peter Brendler on bass. It starts and ends with wailing tenor and doesn't let up in between, and the marathon improvisation is occasionally punctuated by glimpses of standard melodies, kinda like Sonny on his Solo Album. This go-for-broke trio music is a gloss on what he started in 1957.