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Listening Post: Two great tenor saxophonists – Sonny Rollins and Ernie Watts


Sonny Rollins, “Holding the Stage: Road Shows Volume 4” (Doxy/Okeh)

At first glance, you might be forgiven for any involuntary OMG reactions, you might have. Sonny Rollins may be 85 and still performing, but the idea of the octogenarian Rollins putting out a fourth volume of “Road Show” live recordings is indeed close to stupefying.

What has to be understood is that the most recent of these previously unreleased live performances are two from a 2012 European tour – “Professor Paul” named for Paul Jeffrey who died last year and one of Rollins’ favorite Dinah Washington songs “Mixed Emotions.” The earliest performance is from a 1979 version of a tune called “Disco Monk” which, aside from references to Monk’s “Nutty” in Rollins solo, has precious little to do with either disco or Monk.

On the other hand, his Horace Silver tribute “H.S.” is given a winning performance in Toulouse, France from 2006. The disc ends with a 2001 medley from Boston of “Sweet Leilani” (who but Rollins could turn “Sweet Leilani” and “Poor Butterfly” into blues-drenched arias?), a five and a half-minute quote-filled agenda and then one of his favorite Calypson hoe-downs “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”

Does he allude to the “Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in that solo cadenza? And yes, Albert Ayler as well as “I’ll Take Romance?” He sure does.

What you’re hearing on these phenomenal “Road Show” anthologies is both the essence of jazz-as-improvisation and the joy of it. Such things for Rollins seem to be beyond the mere corporeal limitations of age.

3.5 stars (out of four)


Ernie Watts Quartet, “Wheel of Time” (Flying Dolphin)

There was little question who the greatest jazz musician was in Doc Severinsen’s band for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” It wasn’t Severinsen, that’s for sure, phenomenal technician that he is. It was the great and utterly inimitable Clark Terry.

After that, the subject gets tricky. Some might nominate pianist Ross Tompkins who played in the band for a while. Some might say saxophonist Pete Christlieb. I think the most obvious answer, by far, is Ernie Watts, a jazz tenor cohort of Christlieb’s whose sound on his horn is as inimitable as Terry’s always was on his.

No saxophonist you’ve ever heard sounds quite like Watts and no saxophonist you will hear either. That’s why his horn was the sonic signature of Charlie Haden’s “Quartet West” for 30 years.

This is a 2015 disc from Watts’ label with his European Quartet. They’re no match for Haden’s but the disc’s title tune is an “anthem for Charlie,” a tribute by Watts to his longtime friend and musical partner for so many decades.

I have always loved Watts’ playing. There is an emotional songfulness about virtually everything he does which is as indefatigable as Johnny Hodges’ used to be with Duke Ellington. He doesn’t sound like Hodges but what they both bring to jazz performance are so many of the same qualities, no matter what Watts is playing here – an elegy for Haden or Joe Henderson’s barn-burner “Inner Urge.”

A great musician, Ernie Watts, whether he’s playing is Los Angeles or Darmstadt.

3.5 stars (out of four)

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