East Meets West, or, Sonny and Trane
Every person or thing with a claim to being the greatest of his/her/its kind has a rival nearly as great. The question with each pairing is: which is the greatest, and which is the rival? There are Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky . . . Coke and Pepsi . . . The Beatles and The Rolling Stones . . . Martin Luther King and Malcolm X . . . Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday . . . and, speaking of jazz –
As with The Beatles (who broke up in 1970) and The Stones (who are still with us), there is no comparison in terms of longevity between the two saxmen: Coltrane died in 1967, at age 40, and Rollins is somewhere blowing right now. (He turns 79 on September 9! Happy birthday, man!) That has not stopped fans from comparing them. Sonny and Trane are the greatest tenor saxmen of their — possibly any — generation. Of the two, I have a preference. It’s just that my preference depends on what day it is.
I find a pair of metaphors helpful for describing their styles and the different moods they create, the different sensibilities they convey: the big, bad city vs. the wide-open West. Trane is the city: intense, a million notes like the million people on any street, and vertical, leaving a harmonic audio trace whose visual equivalent might be the Manhattan skyline. As for Sonny, is it an accident that one of his best records is called Way Out West? With just a bassist (Ray Brown) and drummer (Shelly Manne) as accompaniment, Sonny is free to let his great big tone roam, spread out horizontally like a herd of something wild.
Sonny is cool. Trane is hot. What’s your pleasure?