Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Sonny Rollins, William Parker Quartet

Sonny Rollins

Road Shows, Vol. 1

William Parker Quartet

Petit Oiseau

Saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins and bassist/composer William Parker were born a generation and perhaps even a jazz lifetime apart.

Rollins remains the weary perfectionist, a product of bop tutelage who, at age 78, continues his lifelong search for the perfect — or, least the most befitting — tenor sax tone he can summon.

Like Rollins, Parker hails from New York. A frequent collaborator with two free jazz greats (David S. Ware and Peter Brotzmann), the bassist has been equally at home working in orchestra-size ensembles, dance projects and smaller combos. There also is a pronounced West African influence in his music. Parker, 56, has developed into one of the bravest jazz journeyman and instrumentalists of recent decades.

On two new and seemingly polarized albums, each adheres to his strengths even as each modestly and briefly muscles into the other's stylistic turf.

Rollins' Road Shows, Vol. 1 is a compendium of concert recordings cut over 27 years in seven cities around the globe. Such scrapbook style assembly is unorthodox in most jazz contexts. Yet there is astonishing consistency in the music. With few exceptions, Road Shows sounds as if it could have chronicled a single performance.

The commonalities can be traced, to a degree, to the personnel. Guitarist Bobby Broom and trombonist Clifton Anderson are present on more than two decades' worth of the Road Shows recordings. But it's the manner in which Rollins interacts with both, especially Anderson (the only other horn player on the album) that is most telling. In their company, for better or worse, Rollins' playing is tempered. His tone is warm but assertive. When a brief, boppish outburst settles into More Than You Know, two tenor sax ages of Rollins' performance life converge. His playing initially is rustic and a little dangerous in a way that recalls his fabled '50s records. But when the band enters, the sound of today's Rollins — skilled, lyrical but sometimes cautious — enters. The tone simply glows.

The finale is the real treat — a reading of Some Enchanted Evening from the famed 2007 Carnegie Hall performance that Rollins presented with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes. There still is a playfulness to Rollins' soloing, but McBride seriously nudges Rollins on with sly, rubbery and powerfully soulful support.

Now, switch to Malachi's Mode, a merry requiem for the late bassist Malachi Favors on Parker's sublime Petit Oiseau. You hear what might just be his closest recorded approximation of Rollins' music. Trumpeter Lewis Barnes is a vital presence that helps shape the tune's sunny stride, but Parker uses longtime percussionist pal Hamid Drake and a sweet alto sax solo from Rob Brown to design profound yet subtle swing. The communication is just as flexible as what Rollins attains on Some Enchanted Evening.

Petit Oiseau was recorded a mere six months after Double Bass over Neptune, a large-scale band and vocal piece that debuted at New York's Vision Festival. That's a braver work, although a more difficult listen. Petit Oiseau, with its quartet intimacy and muscular bass foundation, is more welcoming. As is the case with Rollins' newer music, it might be viewed as a touch safe by longstanding fans. But for ears owing less allegiance to the past, Petit Oiseau is a joyous listen by an underappreciated jazz giant.

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