The musical power of Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West may have been eclipsed by its most famous component – that famous William Claxton cover photo, depicting the nattily-attired saxophonist in a ten-gallon hat, with holster, gun belt, and yes, saxophone. All joking aside, the New York-born Rollins was way out west, having recorded the LP on his first trip to California. The cover was shot in the Mojave Desert, which could have stood in for the setting of any of the cowboy films he loved as child. The inclusion of two tunes from those old westerns – “Wagon Wheels” and “I’m an Old Cowhand” – underscored the double meaning of the title. Craft Recordings has just paid tribute to this 1957 jazz classic with a lavish double-LP box set celebrating its 60th anniversary. This alone would be reason to rejoice, but the new Way Out West has been expanded with two never-before-heard alternate takes and priceless studio chatter, making for its most complete presentation yet.
Bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, both of whom had never played with Rollins before, joined him for Way Out West. Both men were born way out east, but unlike the tenor saxophonist, would become west coast jazz mainstays. The makeup of this group alone might have made Way Out West a landmark recording. Though there had been other piano-less groups (most notably Gerry Mulligan’s quartet in 1952), Rollins’ idea of forming a trio without a chord-producing instrument such as piano or guitar was almost completely unthinkable at the time. He was inspired by his time in Miles Davis’ quartet when the band would “stroll” without the piano. This utterly liberating approach would inspire the free jazz movement in the years to come.
There was sly humor as Rollins introduced the album with Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand,” complete with Manne’s clip-clopping percussion as if to accentuate its western movie origins. Rollins’ effortlessly swinging lead on the tune is as supremely confident as a swaggering gunslinger in action, while Brown’s bass lines are driving and rooted in melody. Ever generous, Rollins gives space on this very first number for Brown and Manne to solo. A sweltering, languid day in the desert is conjured on Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” with Manne at his most subtle in support of Rollins and Brown. Each side of the original LP had one Rollins composition: the rollicking hard-bop “Come Gone” on Side One (with a propulsive Manne solo), and the easygoing, melodic shuffle “Way Out West.”
“Wagon Wheels” returned the trio to the milieu of “I’m an Old Cowhand,” with Rollins brash and bright in his improvisations, tightly attuned to Brown’s bass as Manne expertly anchors the performance of even grander scope. Isham Jones and Marty Symes’ “There Is No Greater Love,” a more traditional standard, offers a creative twist on a straight ballad, with Rollins veering from straightforward lyricism to a gripping, harsher tone. On Way Out West, Rollins, Brown, and Manne managed to make an album both compellingly intimate and filled with widescreen vistas – pushing forward to the new frontier, while remaining completely accessible to those just discovering Rollins or jazz.
The second LP of bonus material kicks off with a delightful fly-on-the-wall monologue from Rollins in the studio, in which he recites the lyrics to “I’m an Old Cowhand” as if to place the band in the proper state of mind to reinterpret the tune. That leads into an alternate of the song, almost twice the length of the take issued on the original album and a fascinating listen for those familiar with the originally released take. It’s one of three alternates reprised here from a 1988 CD reissue which are debuting on vinyl, along with different takes of “Come, Gone” and “Way Out West.” Prefacing the spirited take of “Come Gone” is another newly-released bit of studio chatter in which Rollins, sounding dead serious, queries why his composition couldn’t be titled “After You’ve Come.” (The inspiration for the tune was the standard “After You’ve Gone,” after all.) The previously unreleased alternate of “There is No Greater Love” is less subtle and a bit brighter than the take chosen for the original LP; Rollins’ playing is equally virtuosic, but perhaps he felt that the more reflective version better suited the milieu of the song. Finally, the bonus disc offers the previously unissued Take 1 of “Way Out West.” As the song was only performed three times for the album, this means that all three versions are on this new edition, making for a revealing comparative listen. Take 1 was the longest of the three versions (clocking in at over 7-1/2 minutes) with Rollins experimenting to find the right balance of blues, East coast cool, and western bravado.
The sound on the new remaster by Joe Tarantino is full and warm, with stereo separation and clarity for each instrument. (The mono version of the album is not included in the box.) Both heavyweight 180-gram vinyl LPs are housed in sturdy tip-on jackets and adorned with vintage period-style Contemporary Records labels. The box itself is a classy, clothbound case. A foldout insert is also enclosed with Neil Tesser’s informative notes. Tesser provides a history and appreciation of the album and this reissue, and puts Way Out West into the context of where Rollins had been and where he was going.
Sonny Rollins has revealed in recent interviews that he can no longer play his horn. But fans can take solace in the fact that his timeless oeuvre only grows more impressive with each listen; there’s always a new element to be mined. Craft’s anniversary edition of Way Out West celebrates one of his most inventive, fun, and exuberant long-players in high style.