Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Sonny Rollins’s “Way Out West”

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been 60 years since the first stereo release of Sonny Rollins’s iconic album Way Out West. To celebrate the anniversary, Craft Recordings, an audiophile reissue wing of Concord Music Group, has released a 2-LP, 180-gram vinyl deluxe edition. The box set includes previously unreleased alternate takes as well as rare photos by renowned jazz photographer William Claxton, who had shot the cover photo.

Recorded in 1957, the landmark album broke from established conventions in jazz with a group that excluded piano (or any instrument that produced chords). It was just Rollins on tenor sax, Ray Brown on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. The piano-less trio suited Rollins’s “less is more” style. He had always liked playing solo ever since he picked up the sax when he was 7 years old. As Rollins explained in the reissue liner notes by Neil Tesser, “I could have the support of a drummer, and then I could have the harmonic support of a bassist. But that’s the thing about it: it wouldn’t be more intrusive on what I might be playing. It’s still very freeing to just have the bass providing harmonic content.”

I’ve always liked Rollins best in the trio format. He indeed played more freely and could stretch out. Ray Brown’s deep, authoritative bass lines, coupled with Shelly Manne’s light and elegant touch, provided a perfect backdrop for Rollins’s tenor inventions.

Way Out West’s amusing western concept originated from Rollins’s childhood love of old cowboy movies. It starts of course with the unforgettable William Claxton cover of Rollins posing in the Mojave desert near a cow’s skull, sporting a ten-gallon hat and holding his sax instead of a gun. The western theme extends to the album tracks, with a couple of songs from the 1930’s cowboy films Rhythm on the Range and Wagon Wheels. The clippety-clop rhythm of horses’s hooves is how drummer Shelly Manne introduces Johnny Mercer’s classic “I’m an Old Cowhand.” On the second LP’s alternate take of the song, you hear Rollins sing the lyrics to set the mood, “I’m a cowboy who never saw a cow, never roped a steer ‘cause I don’t know how.”

The recording session for Way Out West started at 3 a.m., probably because the musicians had other gigs. The alternate takes LP includes some fun in-studio conversation between Rollins, Brown, and visionary producer Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records, who started the label after being black-listed by the Joe McCarthy’s House of Unamerican Activities in the early 1950’s. Rollins tries to make the case for naming a track based on the melody of “After You’ve Gone” as “After You’ve Come.” Given the rather suggestive title, Rollins pleads to Koenig, “It doesn’t have to be suggestive if you don’t think that way.” Ray Brown then provokes laughter all around by asking, “Are you going to give this to your pastor?” Listening to this, I’m reminded that I’ve always loved Rollins’s fog-horn voice.

I enjoyed reading Neil Tesser’s informative liner notes, which include a 2017 interview with Rollins done specifically for this reissue. I didn’t know that Rollins liked playing alone by the ocean to strengthen his sound or that he used to practice at the beach with Ornette Coleman while both musicians were in Los Angeles recording for Contemporary. Later, back in New York City, Rollins would also go to the Williamsburg Bridge to practice solo at night, honing his chops.

This new reissue box set edition sounds very good indeed. Roy DuNann, the recording engineer at Contemporary, produced some of the best sounding vinyl records ever made, and it would be hard to mess it up. The 180-gram LPs are well-pressed and quiet, making the drums, bass, and sax come alive. And for those of you who listen digitally, the audio is also available at streaming outlets, mastered for iTunes and in Hi-Res digital.

I do wish that Craft had sourced the tracks from the original Contemporary Records master tapes, so carefully engineered by DuNann, instead of using digital copies of the original recordings. For most people, this probably doesn’t make a difference given that the box set is so cool and nicely done. Audiophiles, however, are a different breed and would likely object to using any digital artifacts to create an analog reissue. One can only imagine how phenomenal it would have sounded.

Banner image of Sonny Rollins courtesy of Craft Recordings, carousel c/o wikipedia