March 23, 2018

Sonny Rollins Goes Way Out West


In the 1860s, New York Trib-
une editor Horace Greeley saw the opening and settlement of the American West as an unprecedented opportunity and famously wrote in an editorial “Go West, young man.”

One hundred years later, people were still heeding that call. And in early 1957, up- and- coming New York saxophonist Sonny Rollins would record one of the definitive modern jazz LPs about as far west as he could go at the time.

In early 1957, Rollins found himself touring with the Max Roach group in Los Angeles, where he caught the ear of Contemporary Records producer Lester Koenig. The resulting album, “Way Out West,” proved to be not only one of Rollins’ first masterpieces, but also an iconic hard- bop LP as well as the ultimate “West Coast” jazz album.

Continuously in print since its initial release, “Way Out West” has now been expanded into a two- LP definitive set featuring unissued takes and studio conversation as well as extensive liner notes and rare photos from renowned photographer
William Claxton.

The first LP of Sonny Rollins – Way Out West: Deluxe Edition (Craft 21) presents the original LP stunningly re-mastered from the original tapes recorded in one long overnight session on March 7, 1957.

Rollins chose as his drummer fellow New Yorker Shelly Manne. Manne was in fact already one of Contemporary’s leading stars, having recorded a string of popular albums with his own groups. A master percussionist, Manne could provide support for anyone from Benny Goodman to Ornette Coleman — both of whom would record with him at one time or another.

The equally versatile Ray Brown was chosen for the bass chair. Originally from Pittsburgh, Brown’s first major gig was with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. By the early 1950s the bassist was the go- to bassist for seemingly half the jazz LPs made on both coasts. It’s somewhat ironic that an album that has been called a “West Coast Jazz” record was played entirely by East
Coast musicians.

For the piano seat, Sonny Rollins chose no one. Feeling the need (and the opportunity) to stretch out, Rollins felt omitting the piano meant “I could have the rhythmic support of a drummer and then I could have the harmonic support of the bassist. That’s the thing: it wouldn’t be more intrusive on what I
was playing”

In spite of its title, the LP features only two country/western tunes, neither of which are played in the country music style of the period. On “I’m an Old Cowhand” Manne starts off with a playful and misleading imitation of a horse’s “clip- clop” gait before Rollins and Brown take the tune into as modern a style as one could ask for. Likewise, on “Wagon Wheels” a brief western style introduction leads into a hard- bop rendition of the highest caliber.

Three of the remaining tunes are Rollins originals, which — along with the one standard, Duke Ellington’s ballad “Solitude” — could have easily been recorded for one of Rollins’ New York made Prestige albums. The second LP in this package features alternate takes of most of the tunes on the first LP along with studio chatter between Rollins and the rest of the people involved with the project.

In keeping with the Western theme, the famous cover pictures Rollins in full cowboy regalia — complete with holster and pistol on one side and saxophone under his arm on the other. Initially crit-
icized as being cheesy and com-
mercially motivated, the photo has become somewhat iconic.

A big fan of the old Western movies that played late night TV at the time, the photo was Rollins’ own idea as a way to celebrate the old movies he loved as well as commemorate his first trip west. He later said that “I was really living out my Lone Ranger thing… I wanted to leave the impression that I was the top gun in town… like Ken Maynard” This new package features alternate Claxton photos taken that day.

Later on, Way Out West would be called one of the first “concept albums,” though the phrase did not exist in 1957. With its audiophile re- mastering, extra tracks and photos, Sonny Rollins – Way Out West: Deluxe Edition completes the concept like never before.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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