Notes on Jazz: Favorite CD Reviews #1

Posted by Michael Borshuk On 12:24 PM


[Note: Occasionally, I will feature reviews I've written of some of my favorite jazz recordings of the past few years. This review originally appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Coda.]

Sonny Rollins, Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert) (Milestone MCD-9342-2)


Given the extraordinary context from which this album emerges—recorded in Boston just four days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had forced Sonny Rollins from his Manhattan building six blocks north of the World Trade Center—it’s difficult not to be convinced of its grandeur before even one listen. One might note, after all, how thoroughly (and forcefully) post-9/11 popular culture has tuned us to the sentimental, inviting us to search for deep meaning in extreme home-makeovers or ubiquitous magnetic ribbons affixed to SUVs on the freeway. Less cynically, one might even look forward to a Sonny Rollins performance as the salve for 9/11’s collective trauma. We cling to the hope that art might lift us from the futility of mass violence perhaps. Maybe it takes the enormity of a Saxophone Colossus to fill the psychic gap of so much televised loss.

Rollins’s record succeeds, to some degree, on the latter terms. That is, in performing amidst such disorienting adversity, the saxophonist offers a model of heroism through creativity, and that alone makes this record an uplifting document. But the disc is all the more moving for eschewing a self-consciously epic or elegiac tone. In the face of hysteria, Rollins offers merely a humble set of buoyant standards. This isn’t Rollins the vital improviser of the mid-1950s, but it is Rollins the timeless artist at his most fitting. His weathered, resonant tone suggests strength; the unaffected bounce he brings to familiar standards like “Without a Song” (a reprise from his seminal 1962 album, The Bridge) or “Where or When” distracts from grief in its demonstrative joy.

At one point in the record, Rollins opines between songs: “We must remember, ladies and gentleman, that music is one of the beautiful things of life.” He then adds, more modestly, “Maybe music can help, I don’t know, but we have to try something.” As the crowd roars back with applause in affirmation, Rollins the artist—so wise, ever insightful—brings the horn to his lips and offers a more immediate sign of salvation and understanding than words could ever provide.

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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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