‘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!!