In his autobiography, Miles Davis remembers taking a New York cab with Sonny Rollins: “the white cabdriver turned around and looked at Sonny and said, ‘Damn, you’re Don Newcombe!’”, confusing the saxophonist with the Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher. Davis goes on: “Man, the guy was totally excited. I was amazed, because I hadn’t thought about it before. We put that cabdriver on something terrible. Sonny started talking about what kind of pitches he was going to throw Stan Musial, the great hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals, that evening”. Rollins’ resemblance to the player became the origin of a nickname ‘Newk’, by which he was known by Davis, Charlie Parker, and the wider jazz community.
Newk’s Time, a Blue Note album recorded on this day in 1957, was Rollins’ third album for the label and anticipates his landmark live recording Night at the Village Vanguard that November.
The album opens with ‘Tune Up’, a spin on the familiar Miles Davis tune from Steamin’ (1957). Rollins and Philly Joe Jones play call-and-response, while Wynton Kelly’s piano solo is bright and precise. Other highlights include the building tension of ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’; the bold, stripped-down arrangement of the Rodgers and Hammerstein number ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ featuring only saxophone and drums; and the colourful variations on a theme of‘Blues for Philly Joe’, which includes another great solo from Kelly. For me, the latter is the most personally satisfying tune on the record. Newk’s Time ends with the short Johnny Mercer ballad ‘Namely You’, to which Rollins brings a gentler tone brimming with restless energy and invention.
While critics remain divided on the merits of Newk’s Time, it belongs to an unprecedented sequence of records that demonstrate an improviser at the height of his creative powers.