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Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge by Richard Palmer

Richard Palmer first published Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge in 1998. However, Hull University Press, which only two years earlier made Palmer the editor of its Eastnote Series in Jazz, shut down in 1999. In 2004, Bayou Press Ltd. reprinted Palmer's book, with the beneficial result that it received distribution in the United States as well. Palmer also perceived the opportunity to update some sections of the earlier edition. After speaking with some interested parties, particularly Peter Keepnews, Palmer was able to correct some errors in the first edition and expand upon some sections, particularly the Coda. This refinement of information results from Palmer's diligence and determination to seek the truth and to make The Cutting Edge as accurate as possible.

Having studied English at Cambridge University, Palmer is a thoughtful writer whose studies of Sonny Rollins' recorded career is highly organized. In addition, it's obvious that Palmer is enthralled by Rollins' music, not only because of his painstaking descriptions of Rollins' recorded music, but also because of his inspired response to hearing Rollins perform live. As Palmer recalls from a 1998 Rollins concert at London's Barbican: "Rollins' sound had the force of a tidal wave. I'm sure I was far from alone in feeling light-headed for hours afterward."

Conveniently, Rollins' recording activity allowed for compartmentalization. Palmer divides the saxophonist's career into several distinct periods, which provide organization for the structure of the bookù1949 to 1959 before Rollins's famous two-year sabbatical; 1961 to 1969, when Rollins entered another phase of recording activity before dropping out again; and "the 1970's and Beyond," which Palmer describes with accelerating speed and dismissal compared to Rollins' earlier recordings.

Even though Palmer comprehensively covers track-by-track analysis of Rollins' major recordings, one could never assume from the evidence of Palmer's book that Rollins had a life outside of the recording studio or off the concert stage. Indeed, Palmer admits that the book "is not a biography in any real sense." The result is that Rollins becomes an object of study, as one would admire a jewel or describe the pleasures of a novelist's artùan intellectual subject rather than a person whose life experiences come through in his music. Palmer marvels at Rollins' apparent diffidence and lack of confidence, particularly in the recording studio. Palmer believes that Rollins saves his best performances for venues where recording equipment is not present, thereby ironically never documenting his musicianship at the height of its power. By why?

Palmer doesn't know. But he speculates. And he quotesùextensively through exhaustive footnotingùother journalists who have written about Rollins or interviewed the musician. In fact, some of Palmer's footnotes, somewhat like Vladimir Nabokov's in that respect, are as entertaining or as informative as is his text in some cases. After a while, the technique is comparable to situations wherein doctors talk to each other about a patient's condition while the patient is present. Palmer relies on other journalists' articles to describe Rollins to the point that even Palmer is forced to choose a version of the truth. "There is less unanimity about the year when [Rollins] first saw the light of day. Anything from 1928 to 1931 has been put forward; if for now I have chosen to accept the one cited in Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazzù1929ùthe choice is arbitrary, for we all await definitive proof."

Choice of the truth? Well, there can be just one birth date, which would be a fact, not a choice.

Palmer spends much time and expends much energy in discerning a reason for Rollins's sabbaticals. "During 1959-61, rumors abounded as to what Rollins was up to. One of the few that was true concerned his celebrated visits to New York City's Williamsburg Bridgeà. Other gossip was less reliable. Rollins was back on drugs (untrue), was working out strenuously (overstated), recovering from a nervous breakdown (nonsense), and re-thinking and refashioning his entire approach to music and style of playing." Rollins' reasons rely on gossip for authentication? Footnotes don't explain Palmer's parenthetical reactions to the rumors. Throughout The Cutting Edge, the reader is left with one overriding question:

Why didn't Palmer even once talk to Rollins?

"I have never met Sonny Rollins, let alone interviewed him."

And why not? Shouldn't the author of an exhaustive study of Rollins' work go to the source to put to rest misinformation and speculation?

It's not that difficult to set up interviews of jazz musicians, believe me. And why does Palmer quote writers almost to the exclusion of other musicians who recorded with Rollins (except when their remarks appeared in books and magazine articles)? Literally 259 footnotes within The Cutting Edge quote the works of other writers. Even though the footnotes may help to form a sense of uniformity of opinion about Rollins' recordings, they do not definitively settle the nagging questions about Rollins' career.

Still, for the Rollins enthusiast, Palmer's study contains large amounts of information chronologically organized, as well as some overriding observations of Rollins' technique and behavior that have remained consistent throughout his career. In addition, Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge contains a "skeletal discography" and a bibliography of material describing Rollins' career, proving that Palmer is an exhaustive reader about the subject.

Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge thoroughly examines the saxophonist's recordings, with an emphasis upon his early albums, and it's written by an unabashed admirer of Rollins's genius. While the book adds relatively little new information about Rollins, it does compile much of existing information and opinions about his recordings in a well-written and well-organized style that elevates the book above many others.

Additional Info

  • Book Title: Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge
  • Author: Richard Palmer
  • Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group
  • Year Published: 2004
  • Book Type:: Biography
  • ISBN: 826469167
  • Rating: Three Stars
  • Number of Pages: 213
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