Last May, Branford Marsalis walked away shell-shocked after a tenor-saxophone duel with Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall. Despite some brilliant playing by Marsalis, Rollins nearly blew him off the stage with a display of rhythmic vitality and refined harmonic inventiveness.
Falling in Love with Jazz includes a studio rematch between the two sax men on the standards “For All We Know” and “I Should Care.” But while a sense of danger characterized the Carnegie Hall concert, the recorded showdown has the air of a congenial one-on-one basketball game. Although Marsalis shows some classy moves, Rollins leaves no doubt who is the true master of the tenor saxophone as he weaves his way around melody lines with both delicacy and muscular exuberance.
In concert, Rollins feeds off the live-wire energy of an audience. On many of his previous studio recordings, however, he has shown a strange tendency to tighten up. Falling in Love with Jazz, which was recorded at three separate sessions with a shifting array of sidemen, has a loose-limbed feel throughout.
When he’s going head to head with Marsalis, Rollins draws some special inspiration from the presence of pianist Tommy Flanagan, one of the handful of musicians alive who can match Rollins lick for lick as an improviser. And on four of the five remaining tunes, veteran drummer Jack DeJohnette challenges Rollins with quiet fire and subtle changes in the rhythmic pulse.
Few other jazz musicians would dare attempt a bathetic tune like “Tennessee Waltz.” Yet Rollins sashays through the melody with a tenderness that will leave you wondering whether to cry or get up and take a turn ’round the floor with your darlin’. By contrast, he turns the sentimental Rodgers and Hart standard “Falling in Love with Love” into a swaggering, blowing tune.
Reconfirmed: No one is better than Rollins when it comes to transforming a familiar melody into an occasion for utter astonishment. (Milestone)