‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band put it.  Luckily for the multiverse Sonny Rollins Way Out West falls decidedly into the delicious category, there are times when I think this is by far the tastiest jazz LP I own.

I picked Way Out West up in 2005 because I’d heard it was good and it just has that incredible cover photo by William Claxton with Sonny in full Western regalia, trusty sax readied for action.  Rollins was always such an incredibly cool looking guy too, still is in fact.  Miles Davis, never a man to throw out praise lightly, reckoned Rollins was ‘an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas’* and gives him the ultimate praise that he was playing on a level that was close to Bird.  He was also Davis’ real drug buddy as both were mired heavily in smack at the time, around 1954.

By 1957 Sonny Rollins, although far from cleaning up his act, was together enough to get out to the West coast with the Max Roach Quartet and cut Way Out West to celebrate.  At first I couldn’t really understand why he included covers of two country tunes ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’ and ‘Wagon Wheels’ but eventually something inside me clicked and I understood.  Pared down to a trio of tenor sax, bass (Ray Brown) and drums (Shelley Manne), these versions are unfussy, unadorned, melodic reinterpretations of the tunes and their links to the west in the popular imagination.  Rollins cuts in and shows he has as much right to play with this western heritage that he loved, being raised on cowboy movies, as anyone, a strong statement in the America of 1957 and what’s more they’re great tunes he clearly has a lot of fun with.

The trio works so well here because without a piano also playing melody lines everything has a stripped feel to it and you get to see all the moving parts of the music.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how astonishingly great Brown and Manne are as a rhythm section.  That Way Out West was recorded in one marathon stint on 7 March 1957 and produced so clearly, warmly and cleanly by Lester Koenig just beggars belief.

Rollins produces one of my all-time favourite jazz moments on his arrangement of Duke Ellington’s ‘Solitude’, his soloing over the dextrous, supple rhythm section is beautiful and unexpectedly moving, no flashy runs, no showy tricks and pieces, just the tenor used as the most mournful, aching voice of all.  When it hits you in a particularly receptive mood you just don’t need any other music in your collection other than this.

Rollins kicks Way Out West up into a gallop on his own composition ‘Come, Gone’ and again the musically transparent nature of the trio really works in the music’s favour.  At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam you can see/hear all the moving parts perfectly, Shelly Manne’s drumming is particularly great here the rapid groove he flicks into just sounds like the easiest, laziest thing in the world and I enjoy his drum solo too, not a thing I say very often**.

Again, it’s a word I seem to be repeating a bit here but the lyrical, unhurried rendition of the Billie Holiday standard ‘There is no Greater Love’ is a thing of great and subtle emotive beauty.  It is interesting to read that he read the words to his band before he recorded it, saying that the words helped him find the right tone for the piece.  Rollins blows deep and warm for this one, real soul music.  So great is it that you can think you actually hear the words of the song:

There is no greater love
Than what I feel for you
No sweeter song, no heart so true

The titular closer ‘Way Out West’ takes us on a stroll, nice and easy via Brown’s fantastic walking bass line while Sonny Rollins does the hardest jazz thing of all on top; not playing too many notes.  He keeps it gentle, spare and expressive throughout – making for a wonderful kiss off for the LP as a whole.  It is interesting that the, much longer, alternative take provided on the CD/streaming has so many more notes on it, the trio weren’t tired enough to get it right yet^.

Way Out West is a wonderful set, masterfully uncluttered and devoid of any extraneous virtuosity, it is a warm pared down discussion of an album, laid-back and not overwhelming.  Not very New York at all, far more western.

799 (Way) Down (West).

*from Miles: The Autobiography, surely the book I own that has the most swearing in.

**having seen Vixen as a teenager I tend to hit the floor and hunch up into a ball looking for my safe place as soon as someone reaches for their sticks without accompaniment.

^the work schedule of all concerned was punishing even for gigging 50s jazz stars – Brown and Manne had studio calls that day, played gigs in the evening and the sessions for Way Out West didn’t even start until 3AM finishing mid morning before Ray Brown had another afternoon studio call.  Good job jazz musicians in the 50s were all so clean living in their habits, eh readers?

^^sleevenotes!! God I love sleevenotes!!

18 thoughts on “No Sweeter Song

  1. Saxaphone Colossus is probably my favorite Rollins LP. Very good player but his playing was a bit too laid back for me. I was always more of a Wayne Shorter fan myself. I dug Rollins for more his wandering spirit. He always seemed to be on a trip to find himself or some greater purpose in the world.

    This album cover is pretty great, though.

      1. He’s ‘notorious’ among jazz critics for not recording well and apparently has never been totally happy with any of his studio albums, so hard to pin down…but ‘The Bridge’ is generally considered a bit of a doozy. Also ‘Saxophone Colossus’. I’ve enjoyed a couple of these recent ‘Road Shows’ albums too.

  2. Really enjoyed this one… and is that not just one of the greatest LP covers ever?

    Anyhoo, I need to look out for this one – it sounds like the kinda jazz I can get into and I don’t have any Rollins at all.

  3. I quite like 3 things here – that his sax is ready to go at a moment’s notice, that the Lego fellow has his woodwind of choice ready to go as well, and that it was an entertaining read as usual!

  4. Very much enjoyed this rare venture into 1537’s jazz archive. Although I have a few Rollins, this is not one of them. A sax lead trio is quite unusual for the 50s I think. Appreciate what you said about the extra space in that configuration, but I do miss the old goanna for melodic variation and rhythmic underpinning. Anyway, can’t hand around here rapping about jazz all night. I have a 5am call for my kazoo playing skills.

    PS. Miles autobiography is made almost unreadable by his unique prosody, don’t you think?
    PPS. Like the Cowboys and Aliens pic.

    1. Thank you Bruce, I’d really recommend this one as a pleasant, easy listen.

      I heard you used to play kazoo for ‘Trane back in the day. Respect.

      I actually talk exactly the same as Miles Davis did, it’s a Welsh thing, so it was never a problem for me. (insert cuss words here).

Leave a Reply