Sonny Rollins, Way Out West

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 08.31.11 in Reviews

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.”