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Sunday, August 28, 2005
Boston Globe > First Carl Smith built an archive of Sonny Rollins recorded live. Then he decided to capture the magic himself.
By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff | August 28, 2005
Carl Smith wore a plaid shirt that night, the dark pattern hiding the $700 microphones sewn into the fabric. He bought four seats in the second row of the Berklee Performance Center, and told his son and two friends to merely pretend to clap. Their presence would provide a sound buffer for his digital recorder.
It was Sept. 15, 2001, and Smith's mission was to capture jazz legend Sonny Rollins as he's rarely heard on record -- live and uninhibited.
As the lights dimmed, the retired Maine attorney placed the machine, just slightly bigger than an iPod, in his lap to monitor noise levels. Rollins opened the 80-minute first set with ''Without a Song," from his famous 1962 album, ''The Bridge." When Rollins approached the front of the stage, the horn was no more than eight feet from the hidden microphone. At intermission, Smith watched security eject a man trying to record the show. But the 62-year-old grandfather would not be caught.
After the concert, driving home, Smith used an adapter to connect the Digital Audio Tape machine to the car stereo.
''We got it," he remembers telling the others. ''It sounds wonderful."
Four years later, after a steady campaign to earn Rollins's trust, Smith is moving closer to his greater goal, which is to reveal a different side of the last living jazz giant. On Tuesday, Fantasy Records releases ''Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert," a CD documenting the show that took place four days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
Not only is this the first of Smith's live recordings to go on sale, it also signals a breakthrough in the once icy relationship with the Rollins camp, which has historically frowned on collectors.
And for jazz fans, the release offers a tantalizing proposition that cuts to the heart of the Rollins conundrum. His greatness, some contend, is best heard during his live shows. But of the few Rollins concerts legitimately released, none captures the energy and excitement of the jazz improviser on a great night.
''The best of Carl Smith's stuff is staggering," says Stanley Crouch, the writer who long urged Rollins to trust Smith. ''It actually creates a kind of a reevaluation of what we consider musical creativity. When you hear this, these chumps in hip-hop and rock, they're jokes compared to Sonny Rollins."
A sound collection
Carl Smith, now 66, doesn't call himself a bootlegger. The Sept. 15 concert would be just one of four he recorded between 2001 and April 2003. His main job is serving as a self-appointed archivist who has, over time, acquired more than 350 live recordings of Rollins. They range from a 1949 tape of a 19-year-old Rollins trying a sax at Seymour's Record Shop in Chicago to a concert this past June in Rochester, N.Y.
Smith is part of a small, passionate group of fans who believe that Rollins is at his best on stage, particularly when he doesn't think somebody is recording him.
Hence, the surreptitious tapes. The archive is in Smith's house, which is next to a golf course in South Portland. The space is as neat as an operating room. Correspondence with collectors is filed alphabetically, his list of recordings organized by date.
The Harvard graduate has been a practicing attorney, real estate developer, and, since the early '80s, one of the owners of a high-end stereo company, Transparent Audio. But these days, he's become the ultimate superfan, with the time, money, and ambition to serve his hero. And he doesn't want a cent for his efforts.
There is more than a hint of the obsessive streak that drives all collectors. As a lifelong fan of Bud Powell, Smith acquired every known recording of the late jazz pianist then wrote and paid to publish a book, ''Bouncing With Bud," to document them.
His Rollins fixation began in 2000 on the night Smith saw him in concert for the first time. Going in, Smith respected the artist without feeling particularly passionate about him.
''We got there and about five minutes into the concert I was absolutely transfixed," says Smith. ''I turned to the guy next to me and said, 'We are in the presence of greatness.' And I meant not past greatness. What I was hearing then, in the year 2000, was beyond what I had ever heard before. It was truly a life-changing experience. I went home from that concert as if I had stumbled upon a continent nobody knew about."
As soon as he got home from that first show, Smith sent out e-mails to the network of collectors he had developed during his Powell phase. Send me anything you've got on Rollins, he wrote. Within two months, Smith had 50 tapes. They kept coming. Those he couldn't convert -- such as 11 reels of New York club dates from the early '70s sent by Florida collector Martin Milgrim -- Smith paid to have copied by a local studio.
He also had Bob Ludwig, the Portland-based sound engineer famous for his work with Bruce Springsteen and virtually every modern-day hit maker, remaster a 1980 performance tape from Sweden. The results were stunning, and encouraged Smith to take the next step.
''I wanted to capture the best possible audience recording that had ever been done," Smith says.
During the spring of 2001, Smith chose his target: He would come to Berklee to tape Rollins's September show.
None of this would have pleased Sonny Rollins -- had he known about it. His wife and manager, Lucille, also had strong feelings about bootlegs.
''My wife's reaction was that somebody's taking your work," Rollins said in a recent phone interview from his home in upstate New York.
From the start, Smith had tried to get his message to Rollins, contacting Fantasy Records, Rollins's label, to let it know he would give Rollins the archive so it could be released. He never heard back. So Smith started lobbying different critics. He e-mailed Gary Giddins, an accomplished author and columnist who had pleaded with his readers to see Rollins live. He contacted Crouch, the MacArthur ''genius" grant winner and confidant of Wynton Marsalis.
Smith made each of them sets of highlight discs. Could they help get this stuff released?
Crouch, who was working on a New Yorker profile of Rollins, flew to Maine to hear some of Smith's stash. When he returned, he talked to Rollins.
''I just told him that he was an honest man," Crouch says. ''It was kind of hard for Sonny to believe because, like most musicians of his generation, he's accustomed to people just trying to cheat him. Sonny has no precedent for this. See, it's not like here are a bunch of Carl Smiths running around."
Giddins didn't feel comfortable advocating for Smith with Rollins. But he would write about him. Last August, in Jazz Times, Giddins featured Smith in a column called ''The New Benedettis," referencing the Charlie Parker fan who recorded the late saxophonist's solos during the '40s.
The move backfired. Right after the column, Lucille Rollins sent Crouch an e-mail, which he forwarded. Lucille chastised Giddins for calling Smith ''noble." She warned Smith that she would have people looking for him at concerts, and his tapes would be confiscated. Disappointed, he hung up his microphone.
''I didn't want to do anything to upset the Rollinses," says Smith. ''I went back to just collecting."
Last winter, life changed for Sonny Rollins. Lucille, who had been ill, died of complications from a stroke in November. The studio album he had promised Fantasy wasn't done. Smith still doesn't know how or why Rollins came to approach him. But one day, Richard Corsello, Rollins's engineer, contacted Smith. He asked for his tape of the 2001 Berklee show. Rollins was thinking of fulfilling his contract with a live recording.
For Rollins, the performance had been a dramatic experience. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, he was only six blocks away in his Manhattan apartment. Coming downstairs, he saw people on the street starting to panic. He headed back inside and began to practice. The next morning, National Guardsmen came to get Rollins. He clutched his saxophone as he walked down 39 flights of stairs. He did not want to go to Boston.
''I felt shaken up," he says. ''I had gulped a lot of toxic fumes when I stupidly tried to practice that day. I was unsteady on my feet. I was just mentally and physically out of it. But my wife convinced me we should do it. I felt a little rough but once I'm playing, that usually takes precedence over everything else."
Today, the saxman and the archivist are both pleased the concert recording is being released. But neither claim it is Rollins's best.
For the musician, a notoriously tough judge of his own work, there's more practicing to do and future gigs, including next weekend's performance at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Lenox. For Smith, there's the growing relationship with Rollins, who he recently visited in upstate New York to begin talking about future projects.
And there's always the next day's mail, which thanks to word-of-mouth brings new treasures -- a 1978 set from a shrink in Switzerland, a Chicago concert from an English translator in Norway.
On a recent weekday, Smith shares one of his latest finds. He's just had lunch at a favorite spot, on the Portland waterfront.
He pops a CD into the car stereo and the melody starts. Smith pulls into a parking space so he can concentrate. With Casco Bay before him, he turns up the volume knob until the sound of the saxophone fills his Chevy Impala. Carnegie Hall, 1989, he announces. The bootleg recording, which arrived from Belgium this summer in a padded envelope, has never been released to the public.
On the CD, Rollins shares the stage with Branford Marsalis, the former Sting sideman. But this is no friendly duet. On ''Three Little Words," Rollins turns the gig into a ''cutting contest," buzzing the younger player with a series of intense solos. Giddins, writing in the Village Voice, would describe Rollins's playing that night as ''the thunder of Mount Sinai."
''Branford's doing all right," says Smith, starting to narrate the almost 14-minute performance. ''But you'll see what happens when Sonny comes back."
About six and a half minutes in, that moment arrives.
Smith smiles. ''He's just getting started."
I have seen Sonny Rollins perform many times but one performance stands head and shoulders above the rest. It was a performance in Brooklyn, New York at "The East", a black nationalist cultural center which was located off of Fulton Street at 10 Claver Place in the Bedford Stuyversant neighborhood circa 1972-1973. Rollins was on fire that night. It seemed like he was spitting sparks out of his horn on his tune "The Cutting Edge". The audience was on its feet screaming, like they were at an old fashioned, country church revival meeting. I saw Sonny Rollins' greatness that night and I will never forget it -- John H. Armwood