The Blue Note 4000 Project: 4001 – Sonny Rollins, Newk’s Time (1959)

Catalog Number: Blue Note 4001 – Next

    Musicians
    Sonny Rollins (ts), Wynton Kelly (p), Doug Watkins (b), Philly Joe Jones (d)

    Cover photo: Francis Wolff
    Liner notes: Joe Goldberg

    Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, September 22, 1957

    Originally released Mid-March 1959


    Date first heard: January 23, 2021 (Apple Music)

      My Take

      Let me get one thing straight: I consider Sonny Rollins to be one of the handful of greatest improvisers who has ever drawn breath. Endlessly creative. Witty. Funny. All delivered with the tone and articulation of a master. A true genius in a world where that term is t0o lightly bestowed.

      But.

      Wait. Did he just say, “But?” There are NO buts with Sonny!

      Please allow me to explain.

      All things being equal, the Jazzopath’s taste runs to:

      • jazz compositions over popular standards
      • minor key ballads over major key ballads
      • rhythm sections with piano over pianoless combos
      • uptempo tunes over ballads
      • almost any sound imaginable over show tunes

      Given these preferences, the sharp observer might understand why I have never been a huge Sonny Rollins listener [ducks]. His unapologetic love for both popular standards and tunes others might consider downright hokey has probably been the biggest factor. Unlike most of my favorite artists from the ’50s and ’60s, Sonny was never really part of the hard bop, post-bop, or avant-garde scenes. He was his own man and played the music he loved. Unfortunately, it often ran counter to my personal preferences. (And as a guitarist myself, I’ve never cared much for Jim Hall’s jazz sensibilities [ducks again].)

      So imagine my surprise upon checking out Newk’s Time while walking my dog. I will get to the point immediately: This is as fine an example of ’50s mainstream jazz as I have ever heard or likely will ever hear. State of the art in every respect.

      One of the things that makes Blue Note such a great label is that when you put on one of their titles, almost with exception, you know you are listening to some of the absolute greatest musicians who ever played their instruments. And never truer than on this one. The rhythm section includes both Miles Davis’s drummer at the time, Philly Joe Jones, and a future sideman, Wynton Kelly, on piano. Rounding it out is bassist Doug Watkins. (In 1962, Watkins would become the last of three of the brightest talents of his generation to die tragically in a car wreck, following Clifford Brown in 1956 and Scott Lo Faro in 1961.)

      Sonny plays with such confidence and authority throughout that he sounds like a man who could play literally anything you threw at him. The embodiment of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. (Sorry about that.) Psychological constructs aside, this is indeed one of Rollins’ great early sessions.

      And although I am not able to describe the nature of saxophone tones with an insider’s vocabulary, I have always thought Sonny’s tone was j-u-s-t on this side of Coleman Hawkin’s. I mean that in a good way. Obviously, Sonny is not as showy as the Hawk, possessor of the most quintessentially old-school vibrato that punctuated the end of each phrase, a common device in the 1930s. But to these ears, it sounds like someone took the Hawk’s vibrato and dialed it way down, to nearly nothing. What you’re left with is Sonny Rollins. Not quite as unadorned a tone as Trane’s or even Dexter’s. Perhaps it’s just an auditory illusion? Regardless, that’s how I hear it, and part of how I can identify him when I hear him.

      TL;DR: Where have you been all my life? An album that would have been at home on the Voyager discs as an example of earthly culture at its best.

      Best track: “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” The irony is certainly not lost on me. No piano accompaniment. A goofy tune from “Oklahoma!” Sonny’s ability to imply changes merely through melody is pretty astonishing and there are few if any who have ever done it this well. He consistently entertains throughout this six-minute rendition, hinting at the song’s tune more than playing it outright. For mortals who are transported by his singular virtuosity, it’s hard to believe that in 1959, he felt so dispirited by his own playing that he took a two year sabbatical from music so he could hit the woodshed.

      Miscellaneous

      “Newk” was Sonny’s nickname at the time, because of his resemblance to Brooklyn Dodgers star, Don Newcombe, also known by that sobriquet. At the time the album was recorded, Newcombe was a superstar and would have been a household name, just one year removed from winning both the Cy Young and MVP. But his career soon took a nosedive and he was out of the majors by 1960. Maybe they should have started calling him “Sonny”!

      Don Newcombe, the original “Newk”, circa 1956. Or is it Sonny?

      What’s your favorite record by Sonny?

      3 thoughts on “The Blue Note 4000 Project: 4001 – Sonny Rollins, Newk’s Time (1959)

      1. You were right about so much here and dead wrong about the best track haha, it’s “Blues for Philly Joe”! My feelings about it are already on my blog. “Surrey” might dazzle musicianship-wise, but I think it feels empty without Kelly and with Rudy seemingly adding a double-dose of reverb for that track in particular. Sonny is very compressed on this album (and other Blue Note albums) and that track is no exception. I’ll listen again and try to get past the less-than-ideal engineering and minimalist arranging on that track.

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        1. Good to hear from you. It was a toss-up for me. I really loved hearing that blues for the first time. So melodic and it sounds more like an actual composition, not just the perfunctory head that lots of blues have. I probably weighted Surrey because it’s usually not the kind of track I like, and I was so surprised!

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