"Hey Jazz fans," as Bob Dorough sang a long time ago on a version of Yardbird Suite. So nice to be beckoned back to the forum.
There is a lot of good writing about jazz, most of it in small magazines and books, some in blogs, and some buried in forums surrounded by a lot of uninteresting subjective approval and, more often, disproval. For some reason, Rollins, like most artistic geniuses, has produced more hagiography than interesting criticism. Critical analysis of his early career, before he had attained permanent status as the latest in the line of jazz saviors, was more nuanced and interesting. It also coincided with the final divorce between jazz and popular music as third stream, "new thing" avant-guard, retro soul jazz, and various other branches of jazz, each very creative and interesting, emerged from the lull between the death of Parker and the perculating musical world of a few years later. Gunther Schuller's oft cited but rarely read analysis of Rollins thematic improvisation in Blue 7 marks the apogee of this treatment along with, perhaps, George Russell's offer to provide a new framework for improvisation, modal jazz (noting Mingus's sense that modal jazz was, to put it in a typically Mingus manner, bullshit) and so on. As is the case in cultural analysis in general, by the time an art form needs a savior, let along the nominating and proclaiming of one, it is already too late.
Those of us who worry about why Sonny's music lost it's nerve, notwithstanding the at times infectious and rousing performances of the post 60s work, tend to fall into bitter diatribes, more revealing of our own cultural estrangements or, perhaps more generously put, more indicative of our own utopian hopes for some aspect of genius we have heard and responded to in Rollins music, to find an appropriate contemporary frame in which both the setting, the side men, the project, the ambition: in short, the Gesamtkunstwerk, would be accomplished. The utopian dimension of this longing is intensified since we have been in this mode for more than 2/3 of Rollins career. It's not going to happen, clearly. The other option is just to do some jujitsu on our critical faculties. You can see this in the liner notes to Silver City, but even, I think, in Giddens' work on Rollins, which gets stuck in all the pitfalls of hero worship, however superficially critical he at times writes.
I think I mentioned in the previous post the work of Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, and Lee Konitz. I mentioned these musicians for their contrasting musical and artistic visions and projects. But for the sake of space, consider again Henderson's work during the last 15 years of his life. Everyone always played above themselves on his projects and, to judge from the several times I saw him, live as well. But he never had to wrestle with the burdens of genius that Rollins did, to Joe's everlasting benefit, as it turned out. He formed great sympathetic groups and worked with his label on facinating and ever changing projects (Strayhorn, tribute to Miles, Big Band, music of Brazil). Perhaps a closer example to Rollins would be Stan Getz during the last decade of his life. If there was a tenor player who had a similar aura of mastery and invention these last 30 years it would have had to have been him. And yet, he formed magnificent, collaborative groups with Victor Lewis, Jim McNeeley, Kenny Barron, Rufus Reed...Those groups framed and highlighted the great mastery of the leader, Getz, but the best records and performances always displayed the mastery of each and every one of the other men of the group. This has never happened with Rollins. Oddly, Getz, with his addictions and personality disorders was the more sensitive and receptive musician while Rollins, who is seemingly beloved by many (not the Getzian epitath) and often described as a decent and generous guy, has never had an ear for his fellow musicians. If Sonny is "on" his shows may inspire in a problematic way I will have to deal with at length in another forum, but what they don't do is give a sense of music and musicians attuned to each other in some phantasmagoric ideal world of sound and sensibility. When Sonny stops the music loses its cohesion. (This reminds of the descriptions of Miles's electric groups to play together without Miles. It didn't work. Davis is an interesting case here since he did in fact, at least until the late 60 put together the kind of groups that Rollins never could or desired to put together. ) It is just this failure that disappoints us and usually leads to the either defenses of Sonny's greatness (great despite the group or the group's work deemed irrelevant to the greatness discerned) or bitter disappointment at the purile overall group acomplishment made more acute by the great man at the center of it all. Perhaps we need another definition of genius. The one hung around Rollins's neck doesn't do us any good, makes us dumb in trying to assess his music, and clearly hasn't done him any good, either. There's a lot to ponder here.
Anyway, much too soon, I must break off. Thanks for the comments, everyone.