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Exploring Sonny Rollins In Holland: Resonance Records’ Record Store Day Vinyl

I held off on reviewing this album for a while as there were several details gnawing at me I had to get my head around. But after reading some online comments from fans who bought the album on Record Store Day, I felt compelled to write up my thoughts. 

Why is it so hard,” you ask?  

Well… first off I don’t consider myself even close to being any sort of deep authority on Mr. Rollins’ music to do him the justice he deserves.  I have a few of his albums which I’ve enjoyed and some collaborations he did with other artists which I am into.  There is no question he is one of the jazz world’s greats.  But I have yet to find “that album” which brings me inside his universe… I’m still looking for it, but when it comes to Rollins music, I’ve not yet had that Giant Steps leap… that Kind of Blue period… that Maiden Voyage journey… which will make me want to get all of his recordings…

It is out there, I’m sure! 

When it came to the comments I’d read from others I didn’t actually agree with those who were complaining about the fidelity. This is clearly an archival package and given the rarity of the music, the fidelity should be the least of the issues for fans of the artist. The radio broadcast studio recordings here actually sound quite excellent, especially considering they were made more than 50 years ago without any intention for formal release. And as audience recordings go, those sides are very listenable, albeit a little light on the audibility of the bassist (more on that in a moment).

And true to form with past Resonance Records productions, the quality of the packaging is excellent including a well researched booklet including new essays by noted Rollins biographer Aiden Levy and the musicians themselves. The 180-gram vinyl is thick, dark, quiet and well centered, pressed at RTI and mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio. So there are no issues on that front.

So, no that wasn’t my problem…

I do like Rollins’ playing on this! He’s clearly in his zone and his playing is passionate and fiery. He plays some jazz standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Blue Room” (which sounds especially gorgeous on the VARA Radio studio broadcasts on Side One of this set). Things start well on those radio broadcast tapes especially…

There they also do Gershwin’s “Love Walked In” (and on the live recordings from the Go Go Club later that same day, on Side Two of the LP version). On those recordings from that day the band displays a wonderful sense of dynamics, giving each other room to shine.  “Tune Up” is also a wonderful showcase for this band’s emerging unity.

But, there-in lies the problem I realize that I had with the rest of this album. Now, I just noticed that the performances are presented in reverse chronology. Thus Rollins in Holland opens with a fabulous four song set recorded on May 5, 1967 at VARA Studio 5 in the Netherlands after the band had been playing together for several days. On these recordings the drummer is very much more reigned in and clearly playing in a supportive manner toward other musicians. 

The recordings from two days earlier at the Academie Voor beeldend Kunst are another thing entirely and given that they make up two-thirds of this three LP and two-CD set, it is worth acknowledging their challenges.

Now I have no disrespect for either of the backing musicians because I can imagine the utter thrill it must have been to be playing with someone like Rollins for the first time, by then an acknowledged jazz legend. And these musicians have all my respect for diving into the session — they didn’t even have a set list apparently, so it was very much a go and blow scene in that sense…  From that perspective, it is a pretty remarkable recording!

But, purely as a listening experience, his drummer’s uber-enthusiasm on that May 3rd, 1967 set gets in the way of really enjoying Rollins’ playing. It is like he was trying to impress Rollins (which he may well have been and running on a lot of adrenaline, which was also likely). And I get that this was the era where “free jazz” was happening and that is cool — heck, even in the grand tradition of some of the old Jazz At The Philharmonic sessions where Gene Krupa fired off all manner of pyrotechnics to wow the crowd, so goes it here. But, even that isn’t a fair comparison as Krupa generally seemed to support his musicians (listen for his kick drum here how pushes things forward without derailing the soloists). 

“So, Mark, what’s the problem,” you ask? 

If there is one thing I’ve learned to appreciate about the best drummers is that it is not so much about what they play but what they don’t play. Heck, even the drummer in my old band schooled me on taking note of what he was leaving out — and thus leaving space for the music to breath.  

Especially on the May 3rd live recordings — which seem to be more monaural audience tapes — the drums overwhelm the music much of the time. 

To all this, I found the last four sides of Rollins In Holland a bit exhausting to listen to after a while. I don’t even mind the audience quality of the recording, it is simply the performance. What a difference a couple of days can of playing together can make! Those recordings from May 5th are a night and day experience in many ways. 

In that sense, historically if you are a serious Rollins fan you probably already have Rollins In Holland. If you don’t have it you probably want it as it reportedly fills an important gap in the artist’s catalog before he took a long break from public performance. 

However, if you are still learning about Rollins, you might want to stick with his studio recordings for the moment or find some other live recordings where the group balance is perhaps a bit more in check. I realize I’m going out on a limb here because I admittedly haven’t listened to everything Rollins has put out, so mea culpa to some of you out there who might find this commentary off-putting. It’s not meant with any disrespect but I am trying to just paint a picture with words for the unsuspecting listener/buyer about what to anticipate.

You can still find Rollins In Holland at your favorite independent music stores (there are many copies up on Discogs). It is also online at Amazon in both vinyl formats (click here) and the more affordable CD (click here). 

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