Strolling with Sonny:  Nick Phillips on What Went Right and Right-er, When Rollins Hit the Left Coast

The new box set Go West! The Contemporary Records Albums, collects the two albums Sonny Rollins cut for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records, 1957’s Way Out West, plus 1958’s Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders. Project mastermind Nick Phillips was kind enough to take some email questions.


Seattle Star: What are your earliest memories of hearing Sonny Rollins, live and/or on record–which LPs, shows, venues, years, bands, etc.?

 Nick Phillips: My earliest memory of hearing Sonny Rollins was the legendary Saxophone Colossus album on Prestige Records while I was in high school. His improvised saxophone on the 12-bar blues “Blue Seven” especially stunned me. Although I didn’t have the musical vocabulary at the time to think of it as such, what I was hearing was Rollins’ masterful development of motifs in his solo.
Seattle Star: What immediately struck you about Rollins’ playing?  How did your thoughts on his melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic approaches, grow and change over time?

 Nick Phillips: What immediately struck me about Rollins’ playing were his huge tone, exuberant style, and a seemingly endless supply of fresh melodic and rhythmic ideas in his improvisations. These things have been consistent hallmarks of his playing throughout his career. He has never been a player who recycles stock licks.

Seattle Star: How many times did you see Rollins play live–when, and where? How did those shows compare and contrast with each other?

Nick Phillips: I saw Sonny Rollins play live several times. The shows I remember most were at Slim’s in San Francisco in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, and the last time he performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which would have been circa 2008. He stopped performing live a few years after that. His melodic invention in chorus after improvised chorus was a signature of all of his live performances that I witnessed.  

Seattle Star: What are your earliest memories of hearing the two albums contained in Go West!  Where were you, and when?

Nick Phillips: I heard both Way Out West and Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders when I was studying music at the University of the Pacific. But I remember really digging deep into listening to Way Out West in the late ‘80s when I was housesitting for Concord Jazz founder and then President Carl Jefferson. While his CD collection was mostly Concord Jazz recordings, he also had a CD copy of Way Out West in his collection that I listened to often.

Seattle Star: How, in your view, did the two albums compare and contrast with each other?  How did they reflect Rollins’ compulsion to grow and change?

Nick Phillips: What the two albums have in common is Sonny Rollins coming to the West Coast and playing with some of the top West Coast jazz musicians of that era. But they sound like very different projects, given the repertoire and the different instrumentation.

The concept of And the Contemporary Leaders was one of a few recording concept suggestions made by Lester Koenig in a letter he mailed to Rollins, encouraging him to come back to the West Coast and record a follow-up project for Contemporary Records.

Seattle Star: The Way Out West album demonstrated Rollins’ trio without a voicing instrument, an approach eventually called “strolling.”  How, in your view, did this approach specifically affect his approach, and the trio’s approach generally?

Nick Phillips: Well, I can’t say it any better than what Rollins himself said in his interview with Ashley Kahn that’s published in the booklet of this box set:

“The idea of playing with a trio was not new to me. I had been working in that direction for some time, the concept of being free enough to think up my own motifs and melodic lines was very appealing to me, and I felt that I could do it better if I didn’t have a chordal instrument like a piano feeding me chords…Getting into the trio thing for me was not a criticism of piano players. It was just that what got my fire burning was not having anything there except a hint of the harmonics—which I got from the right kind of bass player—and from the rhythm going on with the drums.”

Seattle Star: What, in your view, are the most crucial differences between the two albums?  What are the similarities?  Is it fair to speak of a specific “Out West” approach for Rollins?

Nick Phillips: The repertoire, instrumentation, and album concepts are the key differences between the Way Out West and And the Contemporary Leaders albums. The similarities lie in the fact that they both paired Rollins—a rising-star East Coast jazz artist—with some of the most talented jazz musicians on the West Coast, as well as the consistency of the high-quality sonics thanks to the talents of recording engineer Roy DuNann.

Seattle Star: How did you get involved in this box set?  Who had the idea for the set initially?

Nick Phillips: I’ve worked as the producer of numerous deluxe jazz reissue projects for Craft Recordings, and the idea for this project came out of one of my weekly phone meetings with Craft’s Sr. Vice President of A&R, Mason Williams. We were discussing various ideas to celebrate Sonny Rollins’ 90th birthday, and if memory serves correctly, I think it was Mason who suggested the idea of a chronologically sequenced complete Contemporary recordings project. For a variety of reasons, the project was delayed and ultimately morphed into focusing on the three Contemporary albums.

Seattle Star: Who remastered the sound?  Where and how was that done, and what do you think are the major improvements of the remaster?

Nick Phillips: Bernie Grundman, a legend in the field of mastering, cut the vinyl LP edition lacquers directly from the analog master tapes. Grundman’s remastering is at once pristine and unhyped. Roy DuNann’s meticulously recorded, intimate, organic soundstage shines through.

Seattle Star: How do the bonus tracks compare and contrast with what was initially released?  Which had been released before, and which had not?

Nick Phillips: While it’s clear from comparing the album master takes to the alternates that Rollins and Koenig made the right choices for the original album releases, the alternate takes are nonetheless compelling and illuminating. Rollins never plays the same tune the same way twice, so the alternate takes also present a master improviser at the top of his game.

Seattle Star: Which do you find the most revelatory of the alternate takes, and why?

Nick Phillips: All of them! Seriously. Rollins’ consistent creativity and melodic invention make them all worthy of repeated listening.

Seattle Star: What does Mr. Rollins think of the reissue?

Nick Phillips: Although I can’t speak for Mr. Rollins, he graciously consented to an interview with Ashley Kahn specifically for the liner notes for this project, and he endorsed the overall concept. You can’t ask for more than that from a legendary artist who’s incredibly humble and doesn’t particularly enjoy listening to his own recordings.

Seattle Star: What are your plans for the future, on all fronts?

Nick Phillips: I’m working on a number of deluxe jazz projects for Craft Recordings featuring such artists as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, and others. I don’t want to get ahead of the marketing and publicity team and divulge any more than that. But please stay tuned. If you’re a jazz fan, you won’t be disappointed.

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