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Sonny Rollins Goes to the Movies
Revisiting the tenor saxophonist's classic score to Alfie
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions,’ and an especially warm welcome to those who have recently subscribed to my Substack. I am pleased to share that I recently got over the 700-suscriber hurdle—ever onward and upward to 1,000! Thank you to one and all for your interest in my work, and for being here.
This time around, I’ve turned the spotlight on one of the giants of the tenor saxophone, Sonny Rollins, and the album he made of the score he primarily composed for the 1966 picture Alfie. It’s one of many highpoints in Rollins’ recorded legacy and also stands out when compared against the more minimalist recordings he made in the sixties of standards and jazz warhorses like ‘St. Thomas,’ ‘Oleo’ and ‘Doxy’—all written by Rollins and part of the music’s working repertoire.
I hope you enjoy it and will fire off a comment to share some of your favourite Sonny Rollins records.
Coming up next will be a look at a 1969 recording spearheaded by Lou Adler that found the common ground between Bob Dylan and gospel music. It’s a great hidden gem that was reissued almost a decade ago by Light in the Attic Records. Up soon, as well, will be a long-promised review of Sail on Sailor, a box set of the music the Beach Boys made in 1972.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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There’s the theme to the 1966 picture Alfie that everyone knows. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it’s Cher who sang it over the movie’s end credits. Bacharach muse Dionne Warwick recorded it soon after as did Cilla Black. The melody is pure Bacharach impressionism—the opening phrase forming a motive from which the rest of the song flows. The lyrics, perhaps a tad too preachy and specific to the arc of the character upon which Michael Caine built an everlasting persona, don’t hit with the gut punch and profundity as, say, ‘Being Alive,’ the concluding number of Stephen Sondheim’s Company—compare, for example, “without love, we just exist” with “but alone is alone, not alive.” Night and day.
But there’s another theme to Alfie. It’s focus is not on imparting life lessons; instead, it sets a mood, a frame of mind, an outward perspective of existential, abiding cool. One listen to it and the contours of the line, a crystallization of how jazz is often equated with hipness, begins to take permanent residence in the brain of the listener. It was written as part of the score that tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins composed for the picture.
Recently, on the Instagram account for Smalls Jazz Club, a New York institution, there was a letter posted from Rollins that he sent, along with a donation, for the fundraiser for drummer Victor Lewis (speaking of NYC jazz institutions) as he battles a neurological issue. It’s a reminder that while Rollins has retired as a player, he continues to loom large over the music at the ripe age of 92, a patriarchal link to the explosion of bebop in post-war America and of jazz's constant evolution and reinvention ever since. Put plainly, Rollins is a giant or, more appropriately, a colossus, the leader of the tenor players who emerged in the wake of the holy trinity of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster. Only John Coltrane matched him in seeking to transcend his instrument, pushing it to the breaking point and in the process, melding the tenor with the mind, the body and the soul.
Coltrane in the sixties progressed from the static nirvana of his epochal reading of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘My Favourite Things’ to the transcendence of A Love Supreme to eventually abandoning terra firma altogether in an embrace of energy and spirituality as the organizing principles of his music. Rollins, on the other hand, in the sixties, after his self-imposed sabbatical—the image of him practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York during that time is both deeply romantic and emblematic of his uncompromising integrity as an artist—made a collection of recordings that includes some of the most original and exciting albums of the decade.
The Bridge, his return to the scene in late 1961 and the first of six records he released on RCA, remains a bracing listen with Rollins’ robust, rhapsodic tenor (especially on the recording’s two ballads, ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘Where Are You?’) balanced against the lightness and delicacy of Jim Hall’s guitar. The fire may often be quiet on The Bridge but it burns nonetheless. His flirtations with the avant-garde, documented on Our Man in Jazz, recorded live at the Village Gate in the summer of 1962 with his short-lived quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Billy Higgins and Sonny Meets Hawk!, a summit meeting with Hawkins, never abandon the rigour of time keeping yet still stray beyond anyone’s conception of conventional jazz. On Our Man in Jazz, it’s in the sheer length of the performances—the opening version of ‘Oleo,’ one of Rollins’ major contributions to the music’s repertoire, stretches over 25 minutes—and the way the band intuitively shifts and morphs throughout the recording.
Sonny Meets Hawk! is of another matter entirely. Its experimental ethos is the result of the sheer daring of pairing Hawkins with Rollins and also having the fierce modernist Paul Bley on piano—his solo on ‘All The Things You Are’ is justly celebrated, full of sharp angles and with only a tenuous connection to the harmonic framework of Kern and Hammerstein’s famous tune. Hawkins’ presence inspires Rollins to play at a level of daring invention, casting away all clichés for statements of originality and sophistication, the apex of which may be on ‘Lover Man’ in which at one point, he begins to play a sustained note at the top of the tenor’s register, lost in it as Hawkins returns to caress a variation of the song’s indelible melody, a moving statement on the common ground between Hawkins—always a deeply modern player—and Rollins at the peak of his powers.
At that time, it was almost impossible to predict what he would play on any particular recording. Each solo, each thematic statement added to the sui generis of Sonny Rollins. From the Hawkins album to his first release on the Impulse! label in mid-1965, Rollins took as his mission a deep deconstruction of jazz’s standard repertoire, both the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook as well as the sustaining originals of the post-bop era. On Sonny Rollins on Impulse!, he barely skims the surface of ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’ gliding from one reference point to the next and continuing that approach in a solo that if played by a lesser player may have been construed as coasting or noodling, but in Rollins’ hands, is radical in its disregard for how it may be received.
On the LP that preceded it, The Standard Sonny Rollins—his last for RCA—it’s safe to assume that few, if any, tackled the repertoire as Rollins did. The only shame is that most tracks fade out just as he was revving up, including a deeply hazy ‘Travelin’ Light’ (an alternate version ambles on for almost 13 minutes). ‘My One and Only Love’ is a complete performance thankfully. Rollins stretches each line, wringing the longing embedded in the lyrics dry and after a short, dreamy solo by Herbie Hancock, gets even further into the song and at one point, plays with a delicacy and fragility that seems almost too personal to put on record.
Now’s the Time has, among other things, Rollins blazing through ‘Four,’ maybe the iconic post-bop line which, while typically credited to Miles Davis, was most likely penned by tenor saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Rollins begins his solo by playing half time against bassist Ron Carter and drummer Roy McCurdy prior to charging through the tune’s changes and after the repeat of the theme, playing a languid, lingering cadenza.
Nine months after ‘Four’ was recorded in April 1964, Rollins was in London performing at Ronnie Scott’s and was approached by Lewis Gilbert, the director of Alfie, to write the music for the movie which he was to make later in the year. In the fall of 1965, Rollins recorded the music to be used in the picture with a group of London musicians, including Ronnie Scott as well as pianist Stan Tracy—it’s actually Tracy who came up with one of the score’s main themes, ‘Transition Theme for Minor Blues,’ through Rollins is credited as its composer.
On January 26, 1966, Rollins taped a version of the music for Alfie for the movie’s soundtrack album at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Joining Rollins was an expanded ensemble to play Oliver Nelson’s arrangements for ten musicians: one trombone, five reeds and a rhythm section of guitar, piano, bass and drums. Nelson, a composer as well as a tenor player of distinction, was no stranger to providing the charts for larger-group records: Wes Montgomery’s Goin’ Out of My Head and Stanley Turrentine’s Joyride! immediately come to mind, both examples of the emerging movement to try to broaden the audience for jazz in response to the growing dominance of youth-oriented rock and soul. Rollins’ Alfie is of a different matter entirely, however. The opening ‘Alfie’s Theme’ makes that crystal clear.
Starting with drummer Frankie Dunlop’s introduction—immediately reiterating how Dunlop brought a modern dancer’s touch to the kit, especially during his time in Thelonious Monk’s quartet in the early sixties—Rollins plays the theme with swagger and then is joined by the other horns. The bridge has guitarist Kenny Burrell playing some sharp punctuations and then after the final A section, he digs in to solo. Burrell’s four choruses (the framework for improvisation is solely the theme’s A section) has a natural build and are all oriented around Rollins’ theme. The guitarist is deeply engaged by its contours as is pianist Roger Kellaway, especially on the final three choruses of his solo centred on a rising sea of chords. Rollins then takes over for a masterful, extended solo.
Beginning with just bassist Walter Booker and Dunlop, he settles in with a series of discursive phrases, favouring variations well beyond the obvious. Just over two minutes into his statement, Rollins switches gears for more straightforward thoughts. Two choruses later, Kellaway begins to comp softly in the background and then soon after, Rollins edges back off into the margins—his level of invention never fading, the momentum never stalling. At the solo’s five-minute mark, he starts a series of riffs, all burning with a seemingly insouciant tone and a casual, snarky vibrato that leads to his final chorus, a glorious turnaround in which his tenor thrusts into the theme with authority, creating the impression that the past five-plus minutes have all been the journey to get to this point. A final repeat of the bridge is invigorating and the band ends where it started, with Rollins strolling the A section before the conclusion, an amen with Dunlop whipping the ride cymbal and concluding with a press roll.
‘He’s Younger Than You Are’ is of a different mood—wistful and candlelit. Altoist Phil Woods leads on the opening ensemble passage. His tart phrasing bringing sophistication, not syrupiness, and then Rollins takes over. His solo is both romantic and questioning. He breaks up his lines with brief parenthetical asides like a burbling tremolo or a quick scoop into the tenor’s upper range. Here again is Rollins demonstrating how personalized his playing had become; it may be cliché to note perhaps, but nobody was playing tenor quite like this in 1966. Kellaway picks up Rollins’ last phrase in his improvisation to begin his statement, employing the lightest of touches as he moves, Tommy Flanagan-like, over the upper reaches of the piano. The conclusion of ‘He’s Younger Than You Are’ has Rollins playing a rapturous cadenza and after the final note, the tape continues to roll for him to offer a sigh of deep satisfaction.
‘Street Runner With Child’ starts with a wild gallop before settling into a softer theme, a preview of the aforementioned ‘Transition Theme for Minor Blues’ that then ratchets back up to the earlier stampede. Rollins rides alone here, playing phrases on the outer edge of the harmony before the softer theme re-emerges which is followed by an emphatic reprise of ‘Alife’s Theme.’
That softer theme—‘Transition Theme for Minor Blues’—is gentle, offering another chance to luxuriate in the sound of Phil Woods’ alto (a shame he wasn’t given a chance to solo on the album). The music resolves into a walking tempo for Burrell to solo, his statement plumbing the richness of his tone—so woody, so full-bodied—as well as his alacrity with single-line runs. Kellaway is again a taste-master in a short solo. Rollins’ solo illustrates how the great jazz recordings often became so due to the contrasts between their primary soloists.
‘On Impulse,’ a waltz, is further proof of this maxim. Rollins’ and Kellaway’s improvisations offer two distinct approaches to the song’s Ferris wheel milieu. The album ends with a reprise of the main theme titled, and naturally at that, ‘Alfie’s Theme Differently,’ and Rollins goes even further out here, his final recitation of the theme has him switching octaves from note to note as if it were nothing.
Alfie remains an invigorating break in the minimalism of Sonny Rollins in the sixties. It’s a bit more approachable, a bit more considered even and yet, he doesn’t sacrifice the rarified place he was in when playing and soloing. Rollins remains jazz’s Saxophone Colossus, and that’s what it’s really all about.