Happy 87th, Sonny Rollins

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

I recall sitting in my stale, marijuana smelling bedroom in college with a stack of Sonny Rollins albums thinking “This is the greatest musician on earth or anywhere else.”  And I still think that today.  I recall what records I was listening to at that moment; “Sonny Rollins Volume 2,” Sonny Rollins: A Night At The Village Vanguard,” “Saxophone Colossus,” “Worktime,” “Way Out West,” Freedom Suite,” “Thelonious Monk-Brilliant Corners,” The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet: On Basin Street,” and Kenny Dorham’s “Jazz Contrasts.”  Every humorous burst of smeared notes or hipper than hip long tones Sonny played on his tenor saxophone swung harder than anything I was accustomed to.

What struck me most about Sonny’s playing, whether it was on a solo recording or a project with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Babs Gonzalez or John Coltrane was the humor he incorporated in his solos.

 

 

Sonny Rollins Performs
Sonny Rollins

There is the Buddhist like teacher/master student side to Sonny and there’s the jubilant, jokester who would quote “Camp Town Races” during Monk’s blues classic “Misterioso” and make it cook as much as the “serious” stuff.

Listen to “Sonny Rollins Plus Four” with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I can’t think of another modern jazz album that celebrates the joys of life as much as that record. It’s uplifting the way great gospel music is uplifting and this was during a time when many modern jazz players took themselves a tad more seriously than they should have. It’s a powerful testimony to the origins of jazz in a highly visceral sense.  I think of Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory when I listen to that recording.

Although I’m primarily a blues guitarist, Sonny Rollins has always been thee example of the most perfect musician in any genre of music.  A man, who at 87 years young still probably practices more than most musicians a third of his age.  An artists who knew what was hip before the media caught on.  Sonny played with Monk when critics dismissed  him as “some eccentric” for the beatnik crowd.  Sonny played in Miles Davis’ first solo bands, long before “Kind Of Blue” or “Sketches Of Spain” dazzled young baby-boomers.

We all know that romantic and timeless image of Sonny practicing on The Williamsburg Bridge in New York City.  That image stays with us because it exemplifies the greatest devotion a mere mortal can give to his music and how it must sound to the world around him.  Sonny has always reinvented himself, even if it meant taking long hiatuses from the cookie cutter music business.  I’ve had lengthy conversations with musicians all over the world about Sonny’s greatness.  We love you, Sonny Rollins.  With all of the turmoil happening in today’s world, I’m so happy to celebrate your 87th Birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Becker Remembered

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

It’s seldom that people like us have anyone to talk to.  Wives, no, girlfriends, no way, the jivers and movers in the music industry, not a chance.  Too often we have to keep our feelings about that great live Charlie Parker album with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Art Blakey to ourselves.  And that’s just fine. Who needs any kind of approval or attention when it comes to taste?

Then one or two persons tops comes along and they get and share our humor, our taste in movies, books and music and not much has to be said.  That’s what Walter Becker and Donald Fagen found in each other when they first met at Bard College in 1967.  And that’s what I found in both men in the 1990’s during my apprenticeship at Donald Fagen’s recording studio on the Upper East Side of New York City.

 

Walter-Becker
Walter Becker

 

I never got to know Walter the way I did Donald but there was this now mythical symmetry between them that doesn’t exist between most people.  Walter was very funny. I remember him entering the studio office, putting on a heavy Brooklyn accent and mocking one of the ultra-right winged engineers at the studio who drove everyone nuts. He’d then riffle through the plethora of CDs I’d bring on a daily basis during the production of Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature.”  Although Becker and Fagen were always extremely kind to me, I could sense at times an antagonistic side, one that I could relate to and I enjoyed witnessing when they’d unleash it on a fellow engineer, musician or record company exec was wasn’t on the same page or trying to pull some bullshit. It was a way of warding off outsiders and dopes. It reminded me of the way Bob Dylan could cut someone down but more thoughtful and not as vicious.

Like Fagen, Walter knew everything about every recording I’d bring into the studio. We might disagree at times but it was enjoyable. To be slightly antagonistic myself, instead of throwing on a CD by Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Monk or Bird, I put on The Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” album. Walter flinched and said “I saw them when they first formed in some shithouse club in the village and they were  worst band I ever heard.” I laughed and slowly turned the music off and opted for some Sonny Stitt. Walter chided “Stitt was better on tenor than alto.”  I agreed, most of all, I had someone to talk to about this music who had a passion for it and could play it.  I had two people, Donald and Walter which is unheard of.

Despite the stresses of working for two perfectionist geniuses, I enjoyed the reaction I’d get during those breaks when Donald and or Walter would venture out of the control room, down the hall into the office. I carefully selected the music of the day from my vast collection at home each morning. If there was an artist we didn’t agree on, they would always recommend I check out another.  I didn’t have this with the often overly arrogant rock n, roll engineers who mostly hated jazz and blues.  “Buddy Guy is overrated and plays out of tune!” Walter and Donald said one hot summer afternoon as I blasted some of Buddy’s early Chess sides.  I was pissed off for a minute tops. I’ve always loved Guy’s frenetic energy and fret board abuse.  Walter then suggested I check out Fenton Robinson’s playing.  Robinson is a lesser known, more jazz-based blues guitarist and singer.  And so the next time I was in Tower Records, I grabbed as many Fenton Robinson records as I could afford. I studied those albums and my guitar playing got jazzier and more complex.  I thanked Walter as we listened to Robinson’s staccato laden arpeggios wailing through the studio halls.  I would often practice on a Gibson 335 that Larry Carlton donated to the studio with a hole punched through the body left in the office to keep my chops up.

During VH1’s “The Making Of Aja” documentary in 1997, I sat right outside of the live room as Donald, Walter, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Paul Griffin and John Harrington played instrumental versions of “Peg,” “Black Cow,” and “Home At Last.”  Walter’s guitar playing was so soulful, funky and economical yet complex.  Every note he played was perfect and swung hard. Mixed with what Donald and the other cats were laying down, this was thee Steely Dan sound.  I knew a moment like this may not ever happen again and I’ll always be grateful to have been there.

I found my comrades in jazz nerdiness at last.  I wouldn’t call myself a friend of Walter’s per say the way I still call Donald a friend. He’d be in town to work on a project and then back home to Hawaii. But he left me with a ton of memories, lessons and laughter that I’ll take with me the rest of my days. Goodbye Walter and my deepest condolences to your family.