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WWSRD? (What Would Sonny Rollins Do?)

The title of this post is a question every tenor saxophonist asks himself or herself at some point, and I think it belongs on a T-shirt. I’d buy a few of them for myself, to be sure!

Anyway, what led me to come up with this expression is that my homework this week in my Jazz Improvisation course at Coursera involved recording the head (the pre-existing melody) and one chorus of (imporvised) solo on Keith Jarrett’s tune, “Memories of Tomorrow.” I actually have a relationship with this tune going back to high school: my saxophone teacher at the time, Mike Spindloe, loaned me a copy of the Köln Concert CD (which disappeared, I have no idea to where, and I think I had to give him money since he’d replaced it by the time I gave up on trying to find it… I think I gave him cash, anyway).

Anyway, on that album, the track isn’t named, but it’s the same tune, and a very beautiful one. Check it out:

But the problem is that it’s hard to play it in a way that doesn’t cross the line from sentiment to sentimentality, from sweet to saccharine. (To the point where I actually felt sad not having my soprano sax on hand; “Memories of Tomorrow” is a very soprano-sax-ish tune.) Keith Jarrett is kind of a brinksman when it comes to that line, though, and others, when they play some of his tunes, can’t walk the razor’s edge line as well as he does.

Myself included: my first few tries, I played the tune the way I imagined someone like Stan Getz or Zoot Sims might do it. And since I don’t do a very good Getz or Sims, it sort of defaulted into breathy subtoning, and ended up being sort of gloopy oversweetness. This is the least offensive of those takes, but it still has a little too much sugar:

But after recording a bunch of takes of the solo that way, I stopped and thought about it for a second, and remembered how Sonny Rollins had, in his career, often played tunes that were noticeably very sweet, without crossing that line. This version of Tennessee Waltz even came to mind:

So I listened to that performance, asking myself the question, “What DID Sonny Rollins Do?” And I found that what he did was play the thing, not fighting against the sweetness, but playing it with enough balls and guts and fire that it couldn’t descend into the depths of nutrasweet glop. So then I tried to do the same. And, crappy studio mastering skills aside, this is what I got:

My results are far from perfect, and obviously I’m no Sonny Rollins, but I like the unapologetic forcefulness, brashness, and, well, let’s just be straightforward and call it “masculinity,” in the second version much more. (I was feeling awkward about using that word, since female saxophonists can play that way too, but my wife said, “No, it is more masculine.” So let’s go with that word for now, and sort out the implications and complications later… I’m interested in that discussion, just not today.) Sort of a road sign that tells me I’m on the right track.

This week is the last week of the course, by the way. I’ll post about the class as a whole once it’s done, but it’s a busy week: we’re moving tomorrow, but I also have submit recordings (and analyses) for two different tunes by the end of the week!

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