Graded on a Curve: Sonny Rollins,
A Night at the Village Vanguard

Sonny Rollins’ name met the marquee of The Village Vanguard in the fall of 1957, and by November 3rd the saxophonist had honed his group to basic rudiments and figured out exactly what he wanted to do. With drummers Elvin Jones and Pete La Roca and bassists Wilbur Ware and Donald Bailey, he delivered one of jazz’s core documents, the undyingly superlative A Night at the Village Vanguard.

According to Leonard Feather’s liner notes for the original 6-track LP documentation of Sonny Rollins’ ’57 Vanguard stand, the saxophonist first hit the stage for a week with a quintet including trumpet and piano. Not happy with the results, he ditched the other horn and grabbed a new rhythm section for week two. Dissatisfied with the quartet lineup as well, Rollins then decided upon a sax-bass-drums trio.

And that’s what we hear on the still startling A Night at the Village Vanguard. If Rollins’ rapid-fire retooling seems odd for a concert engagement, understand that he was basically using the bandstand as a live laboratory, experimenting loosely and approachably for proprietor Max Gordon’s hip urban clientele.

Though the Vanguard opened its doors in 1935, based on Feather’s notes, through the ‘40s and well into the next decade most live jazz had moved uptown, and Gordon’s club had then only recently underwent a substantial return to its now legendary intersection of serious jazz and bohemia. In attempting to steer his joint back in the direction of the cutting edge, Gordon casually inviting Rollins to spontaneously create in his spot was an extremely bright maneuver.

For at this point in his career Sonny Rollins was at an early peak. Frankly, the previous sentence is understating the case almost criminally; from ’56-’58 he cut 17 LPs as a leader, and by my count (and I’m far from alone in this arithmetic) at least ten of those recordings are classics. The performances corralled on A Night at the Village Vanguard arrived in the midst of all that activity, and the vinyl configuration’s slim but thoughtful annotation of the significant invention presented by these group’s (there are two, each with individual characteristics) remains an absolute masterpiece.

In the decades since, the amount of music has grown considerably, the songs taken from both the afternoon and evening sets to eventually fill up two compact discs (Vol. 2 followed and with the discovery of new material in ’76 the expansion progressed further with the 2LP More from the Vanguard), and it’s all essential. However, I will add that the original record’s wise assemblage, by nature of format a stream of ideas unrelentingly captivating, mirrors the brilliance, uniqueness, and speed of Rollins’ breakthrough.

Starting out with a broad and traditional canvas, in this instance a quintet, no time was wasted in stripping things down, beginning with the four-piece and then the decision for a pianoless trio; at the time, post-Gerry Mulligan’s groundbreaking sans keyboard West Coast group but pre-Ornette Coleman’s even more revolutionary quartet, this was still a non-trad lineup.

It wasn’t the first (or the last) occurrence of Rollins using it, though. Earlier that year, while visiting California, he cut Way Out West for the Contemporary label with just himself, Ray Brown on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. The term employed by Rollins for his band’s sound on that LP was “strolling,” and it aptly described the loose, laidback intensity of the trio.

Just a smidge over seven months later and his pianoless group is striving for something quite distinct. No longer strolling but searching; A Night at the Village Vanguard is accurately assessed as a main ingredient in the formulation of the New Thing. The level of accessible abstraction found here is striking, and it’s also legitimately post-bop.

Rollins the edgy romantic took his penchant for standards, tossed in a pair of solid originals, and came up with not only a sound but an atmosphere, or even better said an environment; perhaps the closest comparison from the era would be to the substantial late-‘50s/early-‘60s work instigated by Charles Mingus.

There’s certainly a big difference between the bassist/leader’s efforts and what Rollins is doing here, with Mingus’ workshop bands in particular occasionally emitting a didactic, stern directive and this disc’s aura of experimentalism fairly relaxed; while certainly more than a gig, it follows the parameters of that longstanding ritual (one of the coolest aspects of the complete recordings, along with getting to hear the music unwind chronologically, is Rollins’ introductions to the crowd).

The day didn’t begin with the warm run-through of the chestnut “Old Devil Moon,” though choosing to open the platter with that tune continues to make total sense; it not only quickly establishes Rollins’ old-fashioned side, but just as swiftly highlights his love for these well-worn songs as a platform for improvisational developments that were very much of the nonce. Furthermore, the saxophonist’s choice of young, promising collaborators was especially astute.

The second most famous name here is obviously drummer Elvin Jones, though if noted at this point it was for playing with trombonist J.J. Johnson and big-time sax-man Stan Getz, though he also appeared on his brother’s Blue Note LP The Magnificent Thad Jones Volume 3. Those who know Elvin only through his subsequent work with John Coltrane shouldn’t be struck by his adaptability to unusual scenarios, though it’ll be possibly surprising how good Jones actually was at this juncture.

If Elvin was in his formative period, bassist Wilbur Ware was hitting his stride with what might be his most productive year. A Chicago transplant in NYC, prior to arriving Ware served in an early lineup of Sun Ra’s Arkestra before joining up with drummer Art Blakey. In short order he joined the staff of Riverside Records and played in the band of pianist Thelonious Monk; in June of ’57 alongside Coltrane and sax vet Coleman Hawkins he participated in the sessions that resulted in Monk’s Music.

For the afternoon set, Rollins’ cohorts were different. Obscure bass player Donald Bailey (please don’t confuse him with the drummer of the same name who played with organist Jimmy Smith) was a Charm City guy celebrated almost entirely for this recording, though he did play extensively in the mid ‘60s as a part of gigs sponsored by Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society.

Drummer Pete La Roca is thankfully much better known. Based on a recommendation to Rollins by his frequent associate Max Roach, La Roca made his wax debut here (Feather mentions he was discovered through a New York Jazz Unlimited session), though he went on to a prolific career that included a handful of swank leadership dates. Those include ‘65’s Basra for Blue Note and ‘67’s Turkish Women at the Bath for Douglas; one of the few non-Arkestra appearances for sax man John Gilmore, it was issued a year later by the Muse label under pianist Chick Corea’s name as Bliss!

What these musicians achieved is amongst the very greatest jazz ever laid to tape. Surely no release in Rollins’ discography ranks higher, with the horn solos in “Old Devil Moon” alone more than justifying the full cost of this LP. And as he plays, Jones and Ware are in constant communication with the saxophonist and each other. Rollins is still clearly the leader; he called the tunes and was the one who chiseled the marble of this splendid audio sculpture down to a three-piece in the first place.

But all it takes is a listen to the vibrant elasticity, the assured balance of the rhythmic imperative in tandem with the desire for melodiousness, in Ware’s opening bass-line on “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” to comprehend that in the creation of this music, hierarchy was on nobody’s mind. So logically Ware’s solos are ceaselessly interesting and never in service to formula, with this feature easily extending to Jones’ responsive work at the kit.

Over half a century later it’s Rollins that impresses most though, mainly because few have sounded this nervy while unfurling so naturally, his improvising free-flowing but reliant on vital swing. But while he was always connected to a savvy classicism, he also wasn’t chained to it. For example, by imbuing the concise “Striver’s Row,” the first of Rollins’ tunes, with increased freedom, the group simultaneously references bebop and transcends it.

Opening the second side with a bang is the album’s other original composition, the bluesy “Sonnymoon for Two,” which features over five minutes of Rollins’ fluid yet biting improvising, and as his ideas gush forth the rhythm section rolls sturdily in unison. And it’s Jones and Ware who get the majority of the space on the LP, but with the centerpiece reading of the Dizzy Gillespie bop warhorse “A Night in Tunisia,” Bailey and La Roca make their presence emphatically known.

The late-‘80s CD issue began with this track (though not with Sonny’s introduction of the band); the inaugural piece played that day, as one of the first full-length jazz recordings absorbed by this writer, it provided an epiphany. Rollins’ initial lines are highly aggressive, with grit in his swinging (yes, Fire Music was just around the corner) and yet constantly in contact, at least implicitly, with Dizzy’s melodic origin. Along the way Bailey’s like a man desperately trying to get someplace, and La Roca is bursting at the seams to eventually explode in one of the most unpredictable drum solos these ears have heard.

Some might say they are giving the song the blitz, and that’s not necessarily untrue, but what’s crucial to the understanding of why A Night at the Village Vanguard is a canonical classic amid classics is that nothing insensitive is occurring. And as if to make that unmistakable, the LP ends with a tidy take of Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started,” with Rollins’ in full romantic mode as Jones offers some fantastically atypical ballad playing and Ware brings the required pulse.

In the most succinct terms possible; this is the cream of the crop, people. Jazz simply doesn’t get any sweeter than A Night at the Village Vanguard.


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