During this, the week we lost Dave Brubeck, you might be thinking that I should devote this space to him. It was a tempting thought, believe me. Dave Brubeck’s contributions to humanity, both as a musician and simply as a man of integrity, are unmatched.
But several months ago, in a moment of weakness, I almost gave up writing these weekly columns. In fact, some of you may remember that I posted a resignation. You may also remember that I retracted that resignation the very next day after listening to a certain album released in 1978 by Sonny Rollins.
In my retraction, I mentioned that I would, one day, write about that album here. By the time the world received the news that Brubeck had died, I had already made up my mind that it was time to fulfill my promise and tell you about this wonderful vinyl LP that helped me see beyond my own petty concerns and instead see things, including this column, in a new light.
That is why, in the same week that Dave Brubeck died, I am going to talk with you about Sonny Rollins instead.
Okay, I can hear you now: “What are you going to tell me about Sonny Rollins that I haven’t heard or read elsewhere a hundred times already?”
Since you insist, I can tell you that Sonny’s birthday is the same as one of my best friends, Bob Bushnell. Let me hasten to add that Sonny was a already a teenager when Bob was born, so Bob has not quite reached Sonny’s advanced years. (You’re welcome, Bob.) Bob should hope, however, that when he does he gets around as well as Sonny does!
Beyond that, there is nothing I can say that you don’t already know. The man many believe is the greatest tenor sax player ever was born on September 7, 1930 in New York City. His birth name was Theodore Walter Rollins. Eighty two years later he is still alive and kicking and playing great jazz.
Don’t Stop The Carnival, Milestone, 1978
The album I want to discuss this week was recorded live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on April 13, 14 and 15, 1978. It’s title is “Don’t Stop The Carnival”.
The personnel included Rollins’ regular bandmates at the time, plus special guest Donald Byrd on the last half of the album.
Sonny Rollins, tenor sax
Donald Byrd, trumpet & flugelhorn
Mark Soskin, electric and acoustic piano
Aurell Ray, electric 12-string guitar
Jerry Harris, electric bass
Tony Williams, drums
On “Don’t Stop The Carnival”, the group gives us nine songs on two vinyl disks. Three songs were written by Rollins and two by Byrd.
The opening number is the title track, and is from Rollins. As you might expect, “Don’t Stop The Carnival” the song has a strong calypso feel to it. Normally I’m of a mind that a little calypso goes a long way, but this performance is too good to cut short, and producer Orrin Keepnews wisely let it run its course, all 8:43 of it.
This song is mostly Rollins and Williams, working the daylights out of their instruments and giving us a dynamic piece of music that the audience loved and you will too.
I was not able to find this album’s version of any of the songs presented, but here is Rollins performing “Don’t Stop The Carnival” at the Umbria Jazz Festival in July of 2012:
Up next is another Rollins tune, “Silver City”. This one starts out being considerably more restrained than the previous song, and at first we have just Rollins and Williams. Then a couple of minutes in, Soskin and Harris step up and the pace picks up some. I have never heard of this song before, and I think you’ll find this to be a pleasant surprise.
“Autumn Nocturne” follows. The title gives the expectation that this will be a quiet, mellow piece, something for the slow dance crowd to enjoy. Instead, it begins with a bit over four minutes of Rollins soloing so magnificently that it draws an appreciative reaction from the audience two or three times and an exclamation or two from Rollins himself. When the other guys finally join in almost four and a half minutes along, they are greeted like conquering heroes. The final minute and a half or so sounds like a triumphant celebration that seemingly has little to do with the song title. It’s a great piece of music.
The next piece in the set is another song I had never heard of until I acquired this album, and that is another Rollins original called simply, “Camel”. This one opens with the entire group in a catchy head designed to lure you in and keep you enthralled. “Camel” is the shortest song on the album, running about four minutes and fifteen seconds. It may be a little-known composition, but I think you’re going to really enjoy it. The audience seemed to, even if the abrupt ending caught them by surprise.
At this point, the album takes a break for a minute to allow Rollins to introduce the band. Then they resume, joined now by Donald Byrd. At the time, Byrd was trying to restart his career. Rollins hired him specifically to help him with that endeavor, and had Byrd listed on the album as “his very special friend”, which of course he was.
After the introductions, Byrd takes the opening of “Nobody Else But Me,” written by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, Rollins and the others soon join in. There is a nice solo from drummer Williams, not too short and not too long. As I’ve mentioned before, unless you are a drummer yourself or watching and listening to the music really live, long drum solos can quickly become tedious. This one does not.
Writing on the allmusic.com web site, reviewer Scott Yanow said of Byrd’s performance here: “Byrd was beginning his comeback and sounds rusty and is only in so-so form.” That may be, but Donald Byrd’s rusty is better than just about anyone else’s spot on performance.
The final song I’m going to write about from “Don’t Stop The Carnival” is the Kevin Toney composition, “Non-Cents”. This is a grand song, and the two horns cut a swath through it at the beginning, slicing a path to the heard of the melody. Then Byrd steps back a bit and Rollins and the rest of the crew take it. Soskin takes a solo with the electric piano that sounds good, lending a sound that an acoustic piano never could give us. Then Byrd takes a run at it and, no pun intended, flies away with it, resulting in a nice round of applause when he finally steps back again. This is a great big, long song, running almost nine and a half wonderful minutes.
This is also a great big, long album, with a total time of just over 70 minutes. It’s available in CD format on amazon.com and other places. Because they compressed two vinyl LP’s onto one CD there was no room for extra tracks, but at least they did not delete any either.
Needless to say, I think you’ll find that “Don’t Stop The Carnival” by Sonny Rollins will make a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
You can read more about Sonny Rollins and his music at his web site.
Also, in 1978, the same year “Don’t Stop The Carnival” was released, Bob Kenselaar interviewed Sonny. It appeared in The Aquarian Weekly issue for December 13-20, 1978. You can read that interview on the allaboutjazz.com web site today, right here.
And, Michael G. Nastos has written a nice bio of Rollins for the allmusic.com web site, and you can read it here.
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Copyright © 2012 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.