At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
The first larger-than-life story anybody learns about Sonny Rollins is his decision to drop out of circulation in 1959, at the height of his career, and pursue a private regimen of near-daily practice on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. This ascetic self-improvement sabbatical, which lasted the better part of three years, has been upheld as a model of discipline and integrity — so much so that there's a movement afoot to rename the bridge in his honor.
If you keep up with more contemporary Rollins lore, the second larger-than-life story that might come to mind is his experience of, and response to, the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Sonny and his wife, Lucille, had a longtime apartment in Lower Manhattan, six blocks north of the World Trade Center. When the towers came down, they found themselves in the thick of the action, debris raining down around them. A few years ago, for a profile in JazzTimes, Sonny told me about how they were waiting for an official evacuation when he picked up his horn, as was his lifelong custom, to practice. "I took a deep breath and felt that stuff down to my stomach," he recalled, describing the toxic "snow" in the air. "I said, 'Oh, wow, no practicing today.'"
Sonny and Lucille retreated to their home in the Hudson Valley, and like many of us in that precarious aftermath, wondered precisely what to do. Rollins had a concert scheduled in Boston on Sept. 15, and initially thought about canceling. At the urging of Lucille, he kept the engagement, and ended up delivering one of the earliest and most life-affirming artistic responses to that tragedy. Recalling it later in the Boston Globe, Bill Beuttler described how the concert promoter nearly broke down giving his opening remarks.
Rollins opened the concert with a songbook standard, "Without a Song," that he said he associated with a memorable performance by Paul Robeson. Its message alluded both to a general sense of speechlessness and to the life affirming power of music. "I think everybody feels this way," he mused from the stage.
"With that," noted Beuttler , "Rollins and his band — nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone, Stephen Scott on piano, Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, Perry Wilson on drums, and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion — began a buoyant run through the tune that set the tone for all to follow."
I remember hearing about this performance through word-of-mouth, because the healing that Rollins delivered in that moment was palpable: as a New Yorker in Boston, bridging two cities bonded by tragedy; as a witness to the destruction outside his door; as a spiritual conduit and an embodiment of reassurance, relaying a conviction that life can and will go on.
All of this context surges just beneath the surface of Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), an album released on Fantasy in 2005. There's a raw emotional power to this concert recording, inextricable from its historical context but also fully sublimated in the music. Rollins is searching here, for connection and for a foothold, and that feeling is shared by many in the audience. You can hear it throughout the five full tracks on the album — and on three more later included on Road Shows Vol. 4: Holding the Stage.
Along with the title track, I hear a particular resonance in another song originally published in 1929: the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein ballad "Why Was I Born?" An existential cry with lyrics rooted in romantic desolation, it accrues another layer of meaning in these circumstances. Rollins is, famously, one of those improvisers who keeps lyrics clear in mind as he plays a song. He must have given some special consideration to this passage:
Why was I born?
Why am I living?
What do I get?
What am I giving?
In his onstage introduction to the members of his band, included on the album, Rollins strikes a note of encouragement in the form of an exhortation: ''We must remember that music is one of the beautiful things of life, so we have to try to keep the music alive some kind of way. And maybe music can help. I don't know. But we have to try something these days, right?"