Book Review: Phases and Stages

Sheet Music

Phases and Stages

Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation

by Eric Nisenson

Da Capo, 288 pp., $15 (paper)

"Music is an open sky" is how saxophonist Sonny Rollins refers to the unlimited possibilities inherent in his relentless quest for self-expression through improvisation. Having turned 70 last year, the tenor saxophonist retains his deservedly long-held honor as the undisputed "greatest living jazz musician." His is a story that befits the legendary status, and in attempting to do justice to Rollins' magnificent 50-year career, this book is both an utter delight and a persistent frustration. Remarkably, despite his innumerable accomplishments over the decades and his universally acknowledged towering presence, this is the first biography written about Sonny Rollins. As such, Open Sky could easily have been considerably longer than its slender 288 pages. Nisenson, however, has decided to concentrate almost exclusively on the more important first half of Rollins' prolific career, eschewing most of the last 30 years. That the author was able to interview his subject extensively means the book's narrative is full of the saxophonist's candid, first-hand accounts of his illustrious career. Insights into how the civil rights era affected his career decisions and recording options are particularly interesting. Nonetheless, by relying almost exclusively on Rollins, Nisenson fails to present an in-depth and critical perspective of the saxophonist's life. Surely, he could have spoken to some of Rollins' many living contemporaries -- musicians, producers, writers, et al.; the inexcusable absence of an index serves to obscure the paucity of these references. Overall, this is a fast-paced, informative, and basically first-person-derived account, whose limited scope prevents its from being the definitive Sonny Rollins biography for which we might have hoped.

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