At age 87, Sonny Rollins is still with us. He’s one of the last remaining links to jazz history, having played with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. And although he’s mostly retired these days, most of his lengthy discography isn’t just in print, it’s been reissued time and time again.
The newest of these reissues is Way Out West, which was originally released over 60 years ago on Contemporary, but was given the deluxe treatment by Craft Recordings earlier this year. Spread over two vinyl discs, it’s been given the treatment it deserves: the original record’s on one disc, with all the bonus material on the second. It lets the album speak for itself, then offers a new look into it.
The original album came about when Rollins, primarily a New York guy, went to the west coast to record with a LA-based rhythm section.
At the time, the west coast was home to a scene featuring Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Dave Brubeck, much like how Miles, Rollins and Monk had New York. A slight change of scene often resulted in a record (for example: Chet Baker’s In New York).
But really, all it really means was Rollins sat in with two excellent musicians he otherwise probably wouldn’t have: drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown. Manne would have a lengthy career, both as a sidesman and as a bandleader, while Brown has played on, well, almost everything. At one point, he was the most cited player in the Penguin Guide to Jazz. No mean feat, since those books literally covered thousands of records.
The record opens with Rollins reworking “I’m an Old Cowhand,” taking a cowboy singalong into a nice slice of bop. With Manne proving a clip-clop kind of rhythm, Rollins riffs off the vocal melody before launching into a spirited solo. In a piano-less trio like this, it’s up to Rollins to carry the melody of the tune, and he never strays too far from it, pausing only to let Manne or Brown solo.
Meanwhile, “Solitude,” slows things down and lets Rollins show off a little.
His playing here is full of nuance, taking little twists and turns and almost sounding like the cool jazz stuff that came out of LA around this time. Almost, anyway, because by “Come, Gone,” him and the band are back to a hard swinging vibe; here Rollins cuts loose, pushing the music along. Manne, meanwhile, gets to drop into a crashing solo of his own, which builds up to a nice peak for Rollins to kick into.
The back end of the album’s no slouch, either. “Wagon Wheels” goes back to the same cowboy-ish vibe, with a similar cloppy rhythm, but at over ten minutes gives everyone room to stretch out. Rollins is more than up to the challenge, but here Brown gets in a nice solo, too. It closes with “Way Out West,” where Manne breaks out his brushes and Rollins finishes the set off with some nice soloing.
The second disc shines a light into these sessions.
There’s studio dialogue, where Rollins guides them through the lyrics to “I’m An Old Cowhand,” or discusses song titles. And the alternate cuts show a little more into the sessions, too. “Cowhand” is presented in a take that almost doubles it’s length and lets Rollins really stretch out; “Come, Gone” is also present in a much longer alternate. Neither are more interesting than the album cuts, but are nice to have.
At the end of side D are two alternates of “Way Out West.” A first take shows them taking a harder-swinging approach to the song, while the alternate has Rollins putting a little more power into his playing. Again, neither are essential, but it’s interesting to hear three ways the lineup tackles the same tune. Especially in how little Rollins repeats himself.
As a whole, Way Out West is not the best album any of these three played on.
But it’s certainly the best one that features the three of them together, and it’s a nice document of two jazz schools working in the studio. A Rollins’ East Coast grittiness meets Manne’s laid back West kind of thing. Rollins’ playing meshes well with Manne and Brown, making this an enjoyable album, This expanded reissue, which helps show how the record came together and what each of them brought to the session, only makes it more interesting and a must-own for any jazz snob. Recommended.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.