Weekend sound like the accompanying music to a wiry, slightly disheveled figure walking briskly down a crowded afternoon sidewalk, all outward slouch and internalized stress, as a slight drizzle intensifies the surrounding urban grey. If that description feels a bit Anglo, well yes. Comparisons have been made to My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus & Mary Chain, Joy Division and Killing Joke, so it feels appropriate to liken their full length debut SPORTS to the soundtrack for a bleak, overcast city scene. If I were forced to sum them up with a brief current comparison, I’d say Weekend feel like a more experimental, noise friendlier version of their label-mates Crystal Stilts. What label, you say? Slumberland Records, which began at the dawn of the ‘90s as one of a handful of quality upstart indie concerns dedicated to assorted strains of underground pop, with many quite important bands registering in the matrix of their early discography, including but not limited to Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, Swirlies, Stereolab, Lilys and Lorelei. After a long dormant period the label has refocused and resumed operations, with Weekend being one of their latest discoveries. It’s worth noting that Slumberland always had an overt streak of Brit-derived influence, at times feeling like a younger US-bred sibling to the excellent Sarah Records. Weekend’s flashes of Kevin Shields-like influence might reframe the lines of comparison to the Creation imprint, but in the end that’s a minor shift in emphasis. The larger point is that Slumberland are no Johnny-Come-Latelys to these strains of Brit-styled damage, and the type of quality control that grows out of experience is part of why Weekend have risen above the chaotic whirlpool of contemporary names. The biggest part of their success would be the band and the record of course, and at this juncture Weekend’s development is far more about sonic texture than skillful songwriting. This shouldn’t be perceived as a slight. After all, Sonic Youth had three records in the racks before anybody really started talking about their ability at smithing a tune. And speaking of the Youth, they lead me to another observation. Weekend conjure up the sort of heavy density that was a huge component of ‘80s American underground rock, specifically the stripped down and blunt analog anathema directed toward the era’s sterile corporate production model. This helps a track like “End Times” to amplify its Joy Division-ist qualities (in particular a strong Peter Hook-style bassline) without the risk of pale imitation. Instead it sounds agitated, chilly, aggressive and rocking. A listen to SPORTS’ opener “Coma Summer” will tell you all you need to know regarding the band’s potential though, combining submerged vocals, chiming strings, layers of buzz-saw feedback and insistent rhythmic chug into an inspired package. It even opens with a drum bit ripped straight from Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia”. ¡Qué cojones! The best of the rest of SPORTS features promising flashes of high quality typified by the sort of powerful, well-considered sonic construction that will always deliver best in the live setting, inspiring visions of a small but tightly packed and heaving club on a brutal winter’s night, the air so cold that upon exiting the building the perspiration in the show goers’ hair immediately turns to ice. Wow. I’m starting to think the best descriptor for Weekend isn’t Anglo, but rather cinematic. It’s almost like they named themselves after a Godard film on purpose…..
Sonny Rollins impact on Modern Jazz might sound like a fable if it weren’t indisputably true. In 1956-58 he recorded seventeen LPs as a leader, of which at least ten are classics, and then took a three year break to hone his chops and get his head right before coming back strong as a major factor in the tumultuous ‘60s scene. These days his enduring achievements are often boiled down to just a few of his most powerful statements, and it can be a bit of a pain seeing him take what’s probably a permanent back seat to the majesty of John Coltrane, but Rollins’ stature as one of the true greats of the tenor sax is secure. One of his most immediate and positive qualities is a warm, old-fashioned, romantic sensibility that might seem on paper to be at odds with his historical role as improvisational innovator. Upon listening however it becomes sweetly obvious that he’s so much more than a mere throwback, and there is really no better source for evidence of his vast brilliance than what’s probably his most famous album, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS from 1956. Many canonical selections can inspire deep jazz heads (like me) to sneer and stump for a lesser known entry in a performer’s discography, but in this case I can’t work up much disdain. Surely there are many other Rollins records from the period that are ripe for the choosing, but upon deep listening and consideration, I doubt there exists a document that better exemplifies the seemingly disparate poles of the man’s magnificent artistry. One major factor in the record’s success is how it so deftly mingles progressive tendencies with honest accessibility while one eye remains solidly focused on the past. I’m wondering if Rollins has ever released a record of all original material. I could check but won’t since in this case the question doesn’t really require an answer. COLOSSUS opens with “St. Thomas”, a wonderfully conceived and delivered calypso tinged tune that’s very much of its decade, the sort of musical cross-pollination that’s chronologically well-placed between the Afro-Cuban work of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie and the Bossa Nova excursions of Stan Getz. It’s shortly followed with “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, a ballad standard taken at an appropriately brooding pace sharply opposite from the stately fire of “Strode Rode”, an up-tempo blower (and tribute to the great athlete and actor Woody Strode) that closes out the first side. These are all superb statements, but the largest sum of greatness is savvily weighted to side two, which features just a pair of cuts, an extended reading of Kurt Weill’s “Moritat” (aka “Mack the Knife”) and the beautifully approachable abstraction of “Blue 7”. The increased exploration of the second side develops naturally, never feeling disconnected from the session’s thematic thrust, and much of this relies on Rollins’ sturdy, impeccable tone. Unlike Coltrane, whose use of standards was often a launching pad for improv-fireworks, Sonny seems to take extreme joy in lingering over the inherent beauty of the tunes he chooses, with this emphasis often reenergizing the hackneyed to the level of the sublime. His delivery is never fussy and always in control, so when his bands broke new ground it was achieved with apparent ease that often proved deceptive. But probably Sonny Rollins’ most valuable attribute is his heightened sensitivity; even when he blows hard he’s never disconnected from his romantic inclinations. He’s also an amazing communicator with an unerring eye/ear for collaborators with which to speak, and this ultimately brings SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS to its current level of distinction. Bassist Doug Watkins was an inaugural member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and pianist Tommy Flanagan was part of an influx of in-the-pocket post-bop keyboardists that included Wynton Kelly, Kenny Drew, Hampton Hawes and Sonny Clark. Needless to say, a bum note is impossible to find. Watkins’ walks the rhythm and promulgates the agenda as well as anybody ever has, and Flanagan is given ample opportunity to display his crisp, advanced solo construction. Drum giant Max Roach was working regularly with Rollins at the time and it really shows, the interaction attaining the telepathic feel that can come only with intense familiarity. Additionally, Roach’s solo on “Blue 7” is simply one of the greatest ever recorded, lacking even a trace of cliché. SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS isn’t the only masterpiece Rollins cut in the 1950s, but it is perhaps the most well-balanced and concise, frankly a flawless record, and any jazz collection without it is shamefully inadequate.