Sonny Rollins Way Out West

By: Natalie Weiner via Pitchfork

Recorded in Los Angeles in 1957, the jazz legend’s classic album—the first to use the now-standard saxophone-bass-drums trio—looks like a novelty and sounds like transcendence.

John Abbot Photography

Sonny Rollins doesn’t fear the familiar. He’s persistently original, yes—those lucky enough to see him live before his deteriorating health prevented him from playing remember a “limitless” improvisor, one of jazz’s best. It only takes a cursory listen to what we now know were his final albums, the live Road Shows series, to hear how inventive the now 87-year-old jazz legend could be. Even now, unable to blow the horn that made him a colossus, he told Vulture last year, “I can’t get rid of [musical ideas]. It’s just a little trial that I have to endure.”

But even in his last concerts, he was still performing some of the same standards he injected so much life into throughout his seven-decade career—including those that appear on 1957’s Way Out West, an album that looks like a novelty and sounds like transcendence. The project, one of Rollins’ canonical recordings, has gotten a 60th-anniversary reissue in the form of a two-LP box set which includes previously unreleased outtakes and some in-studio dialogue. (A digital version is also available.) All these years after its release, Way Out West still shows Rollins’ unique ability to revere his musical heritage without losing his edge. Old songs, new sound.

At 26, the New York native was visiting California for the first time while on tour with drummer Max Roach. When Contemporary Records asked him to put together an album during his visit, the inspiration was obvious: the wide open spaces of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Westerns Rollins had grown up watching. “I was really living out my ‘Lone Ranger’ thing,” he remembered later.

There’s certainly a literal level to the album’s Western theme: “I’m an Old Cowhand,” Johnny Mercer’s 1936 ode to city slickers, “Wagon Wheels,” and “Way Out West,” an original by Rollins, all offer some degree of country shuffle and even a few woodblock horse-hoof clip-clops from drummer Shelly Manne. The cover, an instantly iconic study in subverting kitsch (Rollins had an explicit interest in the oft-overlooked history of black cowboys), shows him heeled with his horn instead of a Winchester.

But this half-concept album gets more significant inspiration from the idea of the frontier than from shootouts and Stetsons. This was the first jazz album to use a saxophone-bass-drums trio, a now-established ensemble that Rollins concocted to allow for a more liberated approach to improvisation. Without the accompaniment of a piano or guitar, suddenly even the most conventional song is just wide-open space. It didn’t hurt that the rhythm section Rollins assembled was bassist Ray Brown and Manne, two of the best of their time, and ever.

Everyone in the band had other studio dates and gigs, so there wasn’t time to rehearse before the now-legendary 3 a.m. session. They started with a standard, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”—though it would have been familiar to everyone in the band, the original liner notes suggest that Rollins might have supplied the lyrics. (In some of the audio from the reissue, he’s reciting “I’m an Old Cowhand.”) You can hear them, somehow, in his opening notes, which swoon without schlock: “In my solitude, you haunt me…” He’s both vocalist and accompanist, never straying too far from the melody while garnishing it with soaring, distinctively Sonny arpeggios and squawking, virtuosic runs. It’s a feat of evocative improvisation, and was effectively the warm-up for the session itself.

From the driving hard bop of “Come, Gone” to the pleasantly off-kilter title track, the band seems to exist as one organism: Sonny and Ray in seamless contrapuntal motion supported by deep, driving swing from Manne. Their collective restraint leaves plenty of breathing room, both for each other and for the listener, which helps temper each tune’s inherent sentimentality. Rollins’ brash tone, somehow bluesy and sensitive and modern at once, also adds some acidity without ever losing the thread of the original composition. The same is true of “There Is No Greater Love,” where he lopes along with an easy lyricism that’s punctuated by asymmetrical gurgling and emphatic honking, giving the timeless melody a gutsy new twist.

The best part is that the listener might as well be in the middle of the studio: You have Rollins on your left, his horn wailing in your ear, and Brown and Manne on your right, each bass rattle and heat-of-the-moment vocalization jumping out of the speaker. It’s a remarkably intimate, casual aesthetic for such timeless performances—add some applause and it could be live. The instrumentation may be an exercise in understatement, but Way Out West’s 45 minutes go by all too quickly once its beautiful details begin to emerge. Brown’s beefy, fluid basslines are worth a separate listen, as are Manne’s almost imperceptible embellishments.

With Rollins’ melodies, there’s something new to hear every time. The variations in each song—fleshed out with the newly released alternate takes—offer an ever-more-complete portrait of an artist who was completely earnest in what became a lifelong quest for authentic expression. The listener is privy to ideas being worked out, experiments taking place, and mostly, endless creativity. There’s the sense that the band could have kept playing forever, if only they’d had enough tape.

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