Many young jazz saxophonists have won critical acclaim for their recordings in recent years. David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Branford Marsalis are but a few members of this new breed -- the so-called "Young Lions." But as a batch of new albums released by an older generation of sax men attest, there's still no substitute for a lifetime of experience.
Sonny Rollins' "The Solo Album" (Milestone M 9137) is, quite simply, his most audacious release in years. A solo recital recorded last summer at the Museum of Modern Art's Sculpture Gardens in New York, the album contains two nearly half-hour-long performances. Each takes up an entire side of the album, and each is bursting with enough energy and invention to compensate for the saxophonist's failure to sustain one mood or direction for very long.
The ability to quote a seemingly disparate yet familiar melody in the heat of improvisation is a quality often admired in a jazz musician, even though the practice could just as well indicate the musician has run out of ideas and is leaning on a well-worn exercise until he works out a new strategy. No one seems more fond of this technique than Rollins, particularly on these marathon performances, in which he alludes to everything from "There's No Place Like Home" to "Pop Goes the Weasel."
It's too bad Rollins resists the natural desire a listener might have to hear him expand on these and other familiar melodies, since that would allow these performances to flow more easily. In the past, he's used these musical asides to great effect. Like his penchant for sunny calypso rhythms, they frequently temper his performances brilliantly, adding joy and humor to his extremely vigorous improvisations.
Here, however, the musical digressions tend to pile up on one another, become disruptive, and prevent Rollins from swinging freely. Despite all the fits and starts, though, these performances are as visceral as they are virtuosic and will do no harm to Rollins' reputation as the greatest jazz saxophonist alive.
Less daunting but no less welcome is the new release from Benny Carter, the aptly titled "A Gentleman and His Music" (Concord CJ 285). Oddly enough, this is the first recording on which Carter and trumpeter Joe Wilder perform together, though they've known each other since the '40s. As the breezy opener, "Sometimes I'm Happy," illustrates, the combination of Carter's poised alto and Wilder's muted horn makes for splendid musical chemistry. Adding considerably to the enjoyment of this effortlessly swinging collection of standards and Carter originals is Scott Hamilton's velvety tenor sax and a seasoned West Coast rhythm section featuring guitarist Ed Bickert.
Jimmy Heath's "New Picture" (Landmark LLP-1506) also benefits from a stellar cast, including pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Rufus Reid. Even so, no one upstages Heath's marvelously lyrical soprano and tenor saxophones on this recording, or the fetching tunes he's composed that sit alongside the exquisitely arranged Ellingtoniana -- "Lush Life" and "Sophisticated Lady" -- and Charlie Parker's infectious "Dewey Square."
Although the album includes "Keep Love Alive" and "Changes," both original tunes Heath has previously recorded, they sound as fresh and as inviting as ever, if not more so.
George Coleman's "Manhattan Panorama" (Theresa TR 120) and Big Nick Nicholas' "Big Nick" (India Navigation IN 1066) share a genial spirit of pure entertainment. Coleman's recording is an unabashed tribute to the Big Apple and begins with a funky and engagingly sung homage to Mayor Koch before taking in the sights through the eyes of some notable songwriters, including Rodgers and Hart ("Manhattan"), Vernon Duke ("Autumn in New York") and Kander and Ebb ("New York, New York").
Even the latter overworked song proves to be a worthy vehicle for Coleman's gritty improvisations, and when the saxophonist turns to his own tunes, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Idris Muhammad continue to subtly exploit the city's ceaseless rhythms, be it the frenzied pace of "Subway Ride" or the sensuous pulse of "El Barrio." The album concludes on a brash note with "New York Housing Blues," a rollicking reminder of the time Coleman once spent playing in B.B. King's horn section.
As for Big Nick Nicholas, listening to his new album is a bit like cozying up in front of a fire. He has a big, furry tone and probably savors a pretty melody as much as anyone in jazz. In fact, he doesn't perform the opening ballads, "Body and Soul" and "Somewhere," so much as he unfurls them in slow, languorous phrases. Each performance is really an act of seduction, plain and simple, and before you know it, you're hooked.
Though always soulful, Nicholas isn't particularly sure-footed when the tempo quickens, so he sticks to what he does best, charging blues, ballads and the album's jaunty title tune (composed in Nicholas' honor by John Coltrane) with all the personality and warmth he can muster. The results are guaranteed to make you smile.