Colossus in California: Sonny Rollins, Way Out West, in the High Desert
DESERT Magazine, May 2018
The music was done, captured in a single, inspired early-morning session. As jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins walked the streets of Los Angeles, his creativity was ablaze. Twenty-seven years old, with a tenor sax that swung muscled grit and subtle beauty, the New York City native shook the walls of dark, smoky clubs across the boroughs. But now, in sunny California, Rollins was looking to push the boundaries once again. It was March 1957.
Climbing into the Porsche of photographer William Claxton, he was thinking about images: open landscapes, Western films, cactuses and cowboys. The two men, along with record producer Les Koenig, were now on a new kind of trip, way out to the high desert.
Claxton hit the gas and LA dissolved in the rearview.
On tour with the Max Roach Quintet, it was Rollins’ first visit to the West Coast. The year prior, his hard bop classic “Saxophone Colossus” was released to critical acclaim. Koenig was a fan and invited the young musician to record at Contemporary Studio in LA. Rollins recruited two talented session men: bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne. Recording time for the six-hour session began at 3 a.m. in order to accommodate the two musicians’ daytime commitments. Thematically, Rollins knew what he wanted before the first note was played.
“I immediately thought of my movie experiences and chose to record songs like “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels,” Rollins said through a publicist. “These song titles reflected my early admiration of the cowboy genre and led to Les Koenig’s titling the album ‘Way Out West.’ ”
In Koenig’s original liner notes to the album, he quotes Rollins wanting “a loping along in the saddle feeling” to the country and western songs. Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the album’s release, Craft Recordings reissued the album in February as a double vinyl box set, including the full album, song outtakes and studio banter between the band and Koenig.
The second disc of the vinyl reissue includes snippets of Rollins’ studio banter, capturing some of the delicious slang from the late 1950s, as he riffs on the lyrics and snaps his fingers, getting the band into the vibe of the Western frontier.
“You gotta dig the lyrics to these songs to really dig it,” he says. “I’m an old cowhand on the Rio Grande … I’m a cowboy who never saw a cow. That’s me! Never roped a steer ‘cause I don’t know how. … You dig it?”
Rollins’ musical approach to “Way Out West” was innovative for its time. He created one of the jazz world’s first power trios, choosing not to include a musician on piano to round out the group. In the reissue liner notes, jazz critic Neil Tesser describes Rollins’ choice to record without a chord-producing instrument such as piano or guitar, as “unthinkable” at the time.
“Jazz had evolved into a genre in which the sequence of chords that underlie the melody – the harmonic backbone of a song, a.k.a. ‘the changes’ – would supply the structure for the improvisations that followed,” Tesser writes. “Because of their capacity for playing chords, the piano or guitar carried the weight in this process. Who would ever consider jettisoning that?”
Rollins had no fear taking risks in his music and this experimental spirit extended to the album’s design. Driving out to Joshua Tree, jazz photographer William Claxton was well-suited to help assist in Rollins’ vision. Born in Pasadena in 1927, Claxton placed many of his jazz subjects in atypical settings, such as the California outdoors. Working for LA-based Pacific Jazz Records in the 1950s, Claxton took photographs and designed album covers for the label, and is widely credited with helping launch photogenic LA trumpeter Chet Baker to worldwide stardom.
Inspired by western movies, Rollins chose to dress as a cowboy holding a sax, and wearing a large Stetson hat, a gun belt around his waist and a holster.
“The whole thing fit into the fact that I was a big cowboy fan,” he says. “I knew all the cowboy heroes of the time when I was growing up, from Tom Mix on.”
Unlike the cool, modern design of most jazz albums, the cover of “Way Out West” is considered to be one of the most creative and unusual covers in the genre. Posing in the Mojave, surrounded by desert scrub and Joshua trees, with a sly, side-eye gaze and a tiny smirk, Rollins quietly lets us in on the joke: He’s the “old cowhand” who never roped a steer.
It wasn’t all fun; there was a socio-political message in the western theme. To Rollins, the contributions of African American cowboys in the development of the American West had long been overlooked, and the cover was a quiet nod to history.
One can imagine Kerouac’s hipsters, baffled at the sight of a New York jazzman standing in the hot, dry desert (“On the Road” was released in 1957, the same year as the album). But change was coming. People were hitting the road, going way out west.
“[The album cover] was a big thing,” Rollins says. “It was as striking then as it is now. The fact that I’m answering questions about it 60 years later speaks to its appeal!”