Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Way Out West: I Wanna Be a Cowboy

Virtually everyone comments on the album's cover and I am no exception. Most remark on how funny it is which, in light of some of the all-too serious cover photos of the age (Mile Davis' Round About Midnight being the prime example), is indisputably true. When Thelonious Monk attempted to look quirky on the cover of Brilliant Corners it looked forced; when Charlie Mingus put on face paint and a red nose for The Clown it was done only to heighten the bassist's feelings of being a serious artiste trapped in the guise of an entertainer. In the Way Out West photograph Rollins looks at ease and sincere. Yes, sincere. I suspect more than a few fans and critics think the cover is meant to be ironic, that a black jazz musician would never in all seriousness want to be a cowboy. The truth is pretty much every North American boy of Rollins' generation - egged on by the many Roy Rogers films of the thirties and forties - loved wearing a Stetson, carrying around a toy hand gun and playing Cowboys and Indians with their friends (and, indeed, so did the Baby Boomers, particularly after Gunsmoke became a hit; Generation Xer's never had an any similar cowboy idols barring the odd Yosemite Sam).

The cover, to me, also reinforces Rollins' tacit approval of West Coast jazz, which in many circles at the time had been taking a beating - despite the fact many of these very same individuals were perfectly happy recording and listening to it when it was labelled "cool". I say reinforces because the music itself is the first sign of such an attitude, so much so that the comparatively swift 'Come, Gone' sounds out of place (did Rollins and producer Lester Koenig intend to pull a reverse Blue Note?*). The relaxed drumming of Shelley Manne could not have suited Rollins’ new strolling technique better. One might be forgiven for assuming that the slick rhythm section would compromise the great tenorist's virtuosity but it seems to complement it better than a contemporary hard bop unit would have. There's something nice about the threesome being such a rag tag bunch, seemingly ill-suited to meshing with one another. At a time when Davis' famed Rhythm Section was being courted by jazz soloists on both coasts (including Rollins himself on the vaunted but less interested Tenor Madness) and with units such as the Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet in the picture it's refreshing to discover that perfection could come at a cost.

Far from the perfect album, Way Out West is a success precisely due to its failings. The material chosen isn't exactly first rate but allows Rollins ample space for some solo pyrotechnics. The soloing itself, however, is frequently restrained which suits the West Coast feel. And working as a trio has its obvious failings as well - how isn't a fuller sound preferable to something so sparse? - but it's never as dull as many piano trios of the day. Lighthearted yet never throwaway, funny but never corny, Rollins struck a nice balance of art and entertainment. Look once again at the cover: what really makes it so funny is that he means it. And real artists always mean it, right?

* Virtually every Blue Note album in my collection features one token, frequently unwanted ballad shoved in the midst of a collection of fast, catchy numbers. Way Out West seems to have taken the opposite tack.


Stephen said...

Was Rollins the most iconic jazz musician of his generation? Yes, we all have the image of Davis in his immaculately tailored Italian suits, or Monk in his eccentric hats, or Gillespie in beret and horn-rims. But Rollins moves from cowpoke to the pioneer of the mohawk to the solitary figure playing on the bridge in the moonlight. Perhaps the image of Rollins is inseparable from Rollins the musician in a way unique to him?

Paul Margach said...

Yes, I'm beginning to think he was, Stephen. I suppose the difference was he never feigned it unlike the rest of them. Certainly Davis and Mingus believed their own press and bought into the mythology created around them. In Monk's case I suspect he created the mythology himself so no wonder he believed it. Coltrane may have had an allure comparable to Rollins but it's probable that as soon as anyone recognized it, he began to lose it. Perhaps the white jazz musicians of the time had their black counterparts beat in this regard: they simply couldn't create a mythology surrounding them and this may have in fact only added to their mystique. Actually it's probably only Chet Baker and Art Pepper we could apply this too; a figure like Herbie Mann fronted and posed with the best of them.