by Lang Thompson
When Eric Nisenson's Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest appeared in 1993 it seemed like a major work. (The paperback edition even quotes me to that effect--taken from an Option review, and they could at least have sent me a copy of the book for my unintentional marketing work). So even though his last one (Blue: The Murder of Jazz) was impassioned but both wrong-headed and just plain wrong, news that he had written a biography/study of Sonny Rollins promised another landmark. Instead, Open Sky is such an unfocused, tossed-together botch that I now wonder if Ascension could possibly have been that good. Only a re-reading will settle such a question but for now it's clear that Open Sky should be avoided by anybody unfamiliar with Rollins; die-hard fans might read it out of completeness but they're exactly the ones likely to find little they don't already know.
Let's start on page 2: "Viewing Sonny as he plays, chorus after chorus, growing more and more impassioned and inventive, it becomes clear that every atom of his being is engaged into the production of his music. It is not just Sonny's breath that is being blown through his horn; it is his entire being." Wow, every atom of his being! Gosh, his entire being! These kind of silly cliches go on for pages in the opening as it describes a concert in similarly ludicrous terms. (How about "We follow his solo breathlessly, feeling that Sonny is addressing us directly, speaking of great truths and ironies, reaching us on a level deeper than language itself, exhorting us to awareness of our lives right here in this moment." Pause while you gasp for air.) A page earlier Nisenson wrote, "The great slabs of sound Rollins produces are so viscerally compelling that they seem to have actual physical properties." Odd that a music critic of all people would forget that sound does indeed have actual physical properties; otherwise we would be unable to hear it.
After this jaunt, it's time for a chronological view of Rollins' life and career. Nisenson says this isn't strictly a biography but instead focuses on Rollins' "years of development." Basically this means that Rollins' personal life isn't given much emphasis and that the years after the 70s are covered fairly briefly. The problem is that while the rest of the book is on more familiar factual ground, it tends to be almost as vague as the opening. For instance, Rollins' first recording was as a sideman to vocalist Babs Gonsales (or Gonzales; I'm following the book's spelling). That's mentioned at the end of a paragraph that opens with Rollins graduating from high school in 1947 so it might be reasonable to assume that the recording was made in 1947, though in fact it was in 1949. There's no mention of the actual date (January 20, 1949 if you care) or that two years have elapsed since Rollins' graduation. Want to know how many tunes he recorded or their names? Nisenson doesn't mention either (but I will: two called "Capitolizing" and "Professor Bop"). Admittedly this may be Nisenson's most severe mis-step but it's right near the start and makes you (or at least me) suspicious of any following information.
An example of Nisenson's slack approach to research can be found in the discussion about the genesis of the tune "St. Thomas" which he describes as "Sonny's single most famous and popular piece" so you would expect an attention to detail. In addition to mentioning the origins in a song known by Rollins' mother, Nisenson includes a direct quote where Rollins says, "And there was a Danish song I heard sung by Lauritz Melchior in an old Hollywood movie." Wouldn't you be curious just what Danish song this was? Nisenson never mentions the title or even whether he tried to find out. That might seem a bit odd since Melchior's Hollywood career was so brief that this wouldn't have taken long but there may be a better reason than mere omission. Melchior in fact never sang a Danish song in any Hollywood movie and Nisenson may not have wanted to underline Rollins' slip of memory.
Time and again, these quotes from Nisenson's extensive interviews with Rollins are included but the most striking thing is how much the writer defers to the musician, to the point where it's hard not to wonder whether Rollins in fact is reserving the bulk for a promised autobiography or if he just doesn't have much to say. Nisenson rarely pushes for dates or anything more specific than Rollins' usually general comments but even worse for a critic is that he takes Rollins' statements at face value. The Melchior mention is one instance but there's also Rollins' famous claim that live performance is always superior to recording which sounds like little more than a disingenous way to gain praise: If you always say your records aren't any good when you know darn well they are, then of course reviewers will overrate in compensation. But Nisenson lets that pass without comment or even examination. (I for one think it's dead wrong, though of course I have no idea whether Rollins actually believes it or is pulling a small con game.) He even at one point says that even the live recordings aren't as good because Rollins knows he's being recorded, which is a very clever little Catch 22. Nisenson also gives Rollins much credit for "social concerns" based on a couple of album titles and some liner notes, activities no more politically engaged than Elvis singing "In the Ghetto." Perhaps Rollins actually is very active in fundraising and protests and social organizations but if so they're not mentioned in the book. The final slip is that the book has no index and no discography which if nothing shows a lack of scholarly spirit.
Like Nisenson, I have no question that Sonny Rollins isn't only a major jazz musician but simply one of the most important figures in American culture. Which just makes Open Sky all the more disappointing. If slanted more as an overview or introductory guide then it might have had its place but as an exploration of Rollins' development, music or life you won't find much or at least much reliable worth reading. Indeed, anybody will be better off reading Gary Giddins' 12-page piece on Rollins in Visions of Jazz which covers the basic facts along with an insightful and provocative look at Rollins.
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