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The Sounds of Jazzman Sonny Rollins

Six-CD box features depth and versatility of saxophonist in 1960s

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins continues to wow jazz audiences internationally through his innovative artistry in concert, so much so that many critics call him "our greatest living jazzman."

But when Rollins began recording for RCA Victor in 1961, many jazz lovers wondered whether Rollins would ever equal his brilliant recordings of the 1950s. High points included inspired interchanges with pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis, which have been collected in the six-CD box, "The Complete Prestige Recordings."

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What triggered that line of speculation was the fact that Rollins disappeared from the recording studio and concert scene totally between 1959 and 1961. New Yorkers reported seeing him playing his sax by himself on a bridge in Brooklyn late at night. What would this career hiatus bring to a player on the rise?

Included in the box set is Rollins's first RCA album, tellingly titled, "The Bridge," which revealed the growth that occurred during those two years. What made Rollins sound unique in his first recordings - the booming, dramatic, speechlike sound - had deepened. No hornman in jazz history had ever sounded so intimately conversational.

"The Bridge" deepened the sense that Rollins was talking to us in an excited, jumpy, witty, cosmopolitan way. The herky-jerky, rhythmically dynamic sax improvisations of the album's title tune deliver that flavor.

And Rollins could also converse with us in a dryly hoarse, blues-inflected cry. The heart-tugging version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" spectacularly offered here reveals that vocal style. The remastered sound offered in this set allows us to hear nuances never before so sparklingly revealed.

Listen to all six albums' worth of Rollins's music, running nearly six hours in this CD box, and you're overwhelmed by just how many voices the saxman can project by the early '60s. "Jungoso" finds Rollins wildly screaming with carnival abandon over Afro-Caribbean drumming, yet "When You Wish Upon a Star" is soothing enough to serve as a lullaby.

Within the framework of small bands, often relying upon corny and sentimental Broadway ballads, Rollins and his talented groups from the RCA Victor years (1961-1965) created jazz bursting with humor and passion. Rollins offered an enduring sense that the greatest sax solos exist in an enchanted realm, somewhere between wordless and loquacious lyricism.

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