Sonny Rollins’ “Way Out West” Remains Essential

Few musicians are as prolific and innovative as the “Saxophone Colossus,” Sonny Rollins. As a true visionary and one of the most influential tenor players in jazz, every Sonny Rollins album is a milestone that captures a distinct moment in his ongoing artistic evolution. His 1958 LP Way Out West is no exception. For the New York-born Rollins, it was his first record date as a leader in California, as well as his first to utilize the piano-less “strolling” format of only bass (Ray Brown) and drums (Shelley Manne) to accompany his rich tenor. The result was a giant conceptual leap forward for Rollins as an improviser, melodist, and bandleader. Craft Recordings’ 60th-anniversary reissue of Way Out West lovingly exalts this classic album, both as a historical document and as an essential work of 20th century American music.

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As was the case for many other American pioneers, “going west” signified expansion and the search for new frontiers. Sonny Rollins’ own pioneering spirit, as well as his unique ability to fuse disparate musical elements together, make Way Out West a truly rewarding listening experience six decades after its release. He approached the “western” concept with a bit of dry humor, posing for William Claxton’s cover photo in the Mojave Desert wearing a 10-gallon hat and a holster. But his 360-degree musical sensibilities are in full effect as he handles “old-fashioned” cowboy melodies “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels” with the nuance and sophistication of any classic bebop tune. He also breathes new life into some old standards; it’s a thrill to hear him stretching the melody of “There Is No Greater Love” like salt-water taffy that never breaks. The Way Out West session famously began at 3 am to accommodate the busy schedules of Brown and Manne, and Rollins couldn’t have picked a more rock-solid rhythm section for his first piano-less date. The excitement is palpable as the trio finds their groove in the early-morning hours; if you listen with headphones, you can hear Rollins’ horn moving across the stereo image as he walks the studio floor.

Craft Recordings’ deluxe edition of Way Out West commemorates the album with well-deserved respect and reverence. The two 180-gram vinyl discs contain audio that has been sourced from the original analog masters, presenting a crystal-clear sonic picture that puts you right in the room with Rollins, Brown, and Manne at the break of dawn in LA. In addition to the full original album, there’s a second disc of revelatory bonus material that showcases the evolution of this iconic LP. Highlights include an alternate take of “Greater Love” that features an even more exploratory solo from Rollins, as well as some insightful studio dialogue between the band and producer Lester Koenig. Also included are rare William Claxton period photos and excellent liner notes from Grammy-winning writer Neil Tesser that detail the album’s historical significance (without being too academic). The entire set is meticulously packaged in a hinged box, a real treat for physical media snobs like myself.

If you have an appetite for great jazz and want to hear one of its shining stars at a peak moment of his creativity, the Sonny Rollins Way Out West deluxe reissue is a must-have. If you’re someone who balks at the price tag of “deluxe re-issue” sets, consider the cost of your last smartphone and how long it lasted; this music is over 60 years old and still sounds as fresh and vital as something recorded next week! Do yourself a favor and invest in something that will fill your home and your soul with rich American music for decades to come.

John Montagna

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

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John Montagna is a bass guitarist, singer, songwriter (but not a “singer-songwriter”) and Brooklyn Native. He has toured the world and elsewhere with Alan Parsons, Todd Rundgren, The Turtles (featuring Flo & Eddie) and many other legendary hit makers, and he created the theme music for the top-rated comedy podcast “WTF With Marc Maron.” John prefers to view his all-consuming obsession with The Beatles as an asset, rather than a liability.

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