Sonny Meets Hawk!

A new post is overdue and this one, about an important inter-generational meeting between two of the greatest tenor saxophonists has been slow to materialise.

It was a remark made by Thelonious Monk that led me to seek out and listen to this recording. Whilst doing the the background reading to underpin my recent look at Monk’s Music, his comment delivered as an admonishment:- “You’re the great Coleman Hawkins, right? You’re the guy who invented the tenor saxophone, right?” caused me to reflect on how little I actually know about Hawkins, perhaps the first great exponent of the jazz solo on an instrument I used to play (very badly).

It is strange to learn that it took until Hawkins recorded a version of Body and Soul, almost as an end of session afterthought in 1939 for an improvisation on tenor saxophone to be heard widely. The version became a jukebox hit that retained its popularity into the 1950s and led to Hawkins becoming regarded as the musician who pioneered the tenor as an instrument that solos could be played on.

Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins played together for the first time at the Newport Jazz Feztival in 1963 and it is not difficult to imagine that this session was first mooted at that stage. In any event, posterity was subsequently gifted with a meeting of the two in a studio to record their interpretations of a collection of jazz standards which offers the opportunity to compare the playing of these two giants.

I’m not sure how often Coleman Hawkins is listened to these days. Perhaps many current explorers make the mistake of assuming that he belonged to an earlier era and has nothing to contribute to their appreciation of modern jazz. Certainly, as we will see from this album, there is often an underpinning element of swing to his playing style an some may regard that as archaic. However, Rollins had a very clear view of Hawkins’ playing and he stated in the sleeve notes: ‘Hawkins is timeless and what he plays is beyond style and category. In fact it’s a shame that people tend to categorise music. A fine musician can play with anyone, just as a fine person can get along with anyone.’

Only mono recordings will do for some purists, but this session lends itself to stereo, with Rollins inhabiting the right hand speaker (stage left) and Hawkins helpfully playing from the left speaker. Without further ado let’s leap into the music.

Yesterday’s opens with a trill from Rollins before Hawkins takes up the tune from the left speaker. He plays his solo in the tenor’s lower register with a full luxuriant sound. Rollins then takes over and plays with more stuttering trills. Hawkins then follows up with his own solo with his own slower trills.

All the Things You Are swings along with reedy lower register playing from Hawkins and Rollins introducing some spicy discord in the early stages before sitting out. His own solo is more freely interpretive and considerably more harsh on the ear. Indeed, Ted Gioia writing in ‘The Jazz Standards- A Guide to the Repertoire.’ states that on this recording ‘Sonny Rollins delivers some of the most avant-garde playing of his career.’

On Summertime Sonny Rollins starts with an oblique bittersweet exploration of the theme with Hawkins providing a more lyrical statement, closer to the head tune. The superb Henry Grimes adds an enjoyable plucked bass solo.

On Just Friends Hawkins opens before Rollins comes in with a lengthy exploration ahead of a short solo from Bley and a further swinging statement from Hawkins.

Lover Man presents a beautiful and sensitive statement of the theme by Hawkins before the two horns trade ideas. As perhaps we might expect, Hawkins is the more conventionally crafted voice of the two with Rollins pushing the composition’s possibilities towards rather different territory. You can listen via YouTube by clicking on the following link:-

At McKie’s is reminiscent of Rollins’ St Thomas and offers him the opportunity to play a lively solo on this closing track.

Sonny Meets Hawk is a worthy purchase which repays repeated listening and it remains available on CD at moderate cost. Although from an earlier generation, Hawkins was revered by many of the great figures of modern jazz who followed on from him and it is a shame that he is not more widely heard and praised these days.

The band etc: Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone); Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophone); Paul Bley (piano); Bob Cranshaw (bass- tracks 1,2,&5); Henry Grimes (bass- tracks 3,4 &6); Roy McCurdy (drums). Produced: George Avakian. Recorded: RCA Victor Studio B, New York City. 15 & 18 July 1963. Cover Design: Unknown. Released: 1963. Original release: RCA Victor LPM or LSP- 2712.

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