Each year-end list, it seems, has its anointed jazz artifact of the year, a release of lost tapes that had been sitting in a closet or attic of bygone performances. In 2020, that honor seemed all but sure to go to Palo Alto, a recording of Thelonious Monk’s quartet performing at a Bay Area high school, recorded by the janitor. But a late contender has arrived and run away with the prize.
Sonny Rollins’ Rollins in Holland almost shouldn’t exist. It chronicles three dates on a last-minute 1967 tour of the Netherlands, which are played on a last-minute saxophone that Rollins had just bought. The majority of the reel-to-reel tapes that make up the set sat on a shelf for over 50 years, untouched and barely labeled or not labeled at all, before being discovered and issued.
So not only is Rollins in Holland historically important—filling the gaps, as it does, in the middle of Sonny Rollins’ six-year hiatus from studio sessions—but on certain sets like a mid-day performance from Hilversum, its sound quality is breathtaking. Rollins’ tenor reverberates from the stage’s high ceilings, and the rhythm section comes through crisp and clear, as if you’re right there in the room. The thrill of resurrection in pressing “play” is undeniable.
What the lower-fidelity recordings lose in warmth, they more than make up for in the trio’s inventiveness. Rollins is joined by the avant-garde drummer Han Bennik, who pushes the saxophonist into the outer planes of improvisation, and the very traditional bassist Rudd Jacobs, who pulls him back down to Earth. This results in Rollins dashing off cascading swells of free jazz one minute, and then blowing a melody from the Broadway hit Guys & Dolls the next.
This sort of musical thrill ride is sustained throughout, with an element I realized I’d been missing in 2020: it’s fun. Let’s have more of that in 2021.