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Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins Revisits Past Performances With 'Holding The Stage'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of a new album by jazz legend and saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who is now 85. The album collects live recordings made between 1979 and 2012. Kevin says the best of it is choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "PROFESSOR PAUL")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sonny Rollins in concert in 2012. He seems to have given up on studio recording in favor of live compilations. The new "Holding The Stage" is volume four in his Road Show series.

Rollins is very self-critical, doesn't enjoy listening to himself and doesn't spend too much time deliberating over what to put out once he finds enough music he doesn't hate.

There are a couple of real gems here. "Disco Monk" from 1979 is the earliest entry he had in the Road Shows series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "DISCO MONK")

WHITEHEAD: That's classic post-1970 Sonny Rollins. He surfs over the band, taking rhythmically-charged solos that may not be so melodically complex. You can hear why the Rolling Stones wanted to record with him. Episodes like that are why people turn out to hear him now.

Still, the album "Holding The Stage" is a mixed bag. The sound isn't always good, and as in concert, he doesn't always sound highly inspired. On a tune from 2001, Sonny's staccato bounce and the iffy recording can make his tenor sax sound like a bassoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "DON'T STOP THE CARNIVAL")

WHITEHEAD: Stephen Scott on piano with Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, building a launching pad for the boss. When Rollins steps up, he and drummer Harold Summey conduct a dialogue in rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "KEEP HOLD OF YOURSELF")

WHITEHEAD: Sonny Rollins tips his hat there toward the model for that blues, John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." I hope we hear more from that '96 Paris concert.

"Holding The Stage" also has a meandering solo improvisation and Rollins' modern style where he flips from one theme to another without alighting anywhere for long. He touches on nursery rhymes, the French national anthem and the hit of 1968, "The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "SOLO")

WHITEHEAD: We jazz listeners pretty much all revere Sonny Rollins, even those of us who prefer his more intricate early works. He does know how to stay the course. He's been in what I think of as his late phase for his last 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "H.S.")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "Holding The Stage," the new album of live recordings by Sonny Rollins.

After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new memoir by Betsy Lerner about trying to understand her 80-something-year-old mother. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.