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Sonny Rollins Plays His Heart Out In A Newly Discovered Live Recording


This is FRESH AIR. In September, FRESH AIR celebrated jazz giant Sonny Rollins' 90th birthday. Now comes the first issue of some prime 1967 Rollins music. It comes from a period when the saxophonist stepped back from recording for six years, disillusioned with the record business. But he still played some, as on the quick trio tour commemorated on the new collection "Rollins In Holland." Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's like his birthday gift to us.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In spring 1967, when Sonny Rollins played some dates in England, an enterprising promoter lured him across the North Sea for a few gigs with a Dutch bassist and drummer. They did a couple of one-nighters, plus a TV appearance and a studio recording for radio. There are bootlegs of their concert in Arnhem, but the lost TV and radio recordings only recently turned up thanks to the tireless detectives at the Netherlands Jazz Archive. "Rollins In Holland" on two CDs or three LPs from the reliably ethical Resonance label is out with Sonny's blessing. It's pretty terrific, vintage Rollins in a freewheeling setting playing his heart out. This is "Blue Room."


WHITEHEAD: Sonny Rollins liked that trio format, using it on previous European tours. It gave him room to move, and it was economical - only two musicians to pay. Bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink had backed a few visiting American stars together and separately, and they revered Rollins's trio classic "A Night At The Village Vanguard," where bass and drums really push, not that Rollins needed pushing. As Bennink says in the notes, he pulls the wagon.


WHITEHEAD: The more than two hours of music on "Rollins In Holland" was recorded over just three days in May '67. The package sensibly presents its three sessions out of order, starting with the tamest and best recording in a Hilversum radio studio, then moving on to the TV taping at a club in nearby Loosdrecht that night. The set ends with the trio's incendiary first gig two nights earlier in Arnhem. This amateur recording is an hour and a half of the trio stretching out, burning hotter and free associating - playful, high-level improvising. Rollins's invention reminds me of live Charlie Parker bootlegs - the flood of ideas, the stream of consciousness musical quotations, the Ruud mix of the sublime and slapstick - but with a quieter audience.


WHITEHEAD: This trio's a race car - fast, maneuverable, high horsepower. Pick-up rhythm sections are rarely so assertive. Dynamic drummer Han Bennink already had a reputation as inspired but unpredictable, a fearsome swinger, an unfettered improviser who might run you over. That wasn't a problem for Rollins. He could turn up the volume, too.


WHITEHEAD: The trio spin out onto any number of unscheduled side trips within their loose jams on standards. The Dutch guys knew Rollins liked his calypsos, and the Netherlands has its own Caribbean immigrant beats. So a rangy, 20-minute romp on Miles Davis' "Four" eventually winds around to a West Indian groove.


WHITEHEAD: There you can hear coming the riffing energy Sonny Rollins brought to his post-comeback style in the 1970s, but he never had a band half so willful later on. This 1967 unit also looks back, capping the string of audacious trios. "Rollins In Holland" presents a jazz master in an ideal setting, where everything seems within reach at any moment. Decades later, when Han Bennink had become a star on jazz festival circuits, at least one festival programmer tried to engineer a Rollins-Bennink rematch. But Sonny didn't take the bait. He wasn't 36 anymore, for one thing. Sometimes getting lightning to strike once can be enough. Not every great story gets a sequel.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Rollins In Holland" on the Resonance label.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with chef and restaurateur David Chang, or with Dr. Peter Hotez about the latest developments with COVID-19 vaccines and about the anti-vax movement, check out our website. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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