Listening, Party For Two: 'I'm An Old Cowhand'
by Patrick Jarenwattananon
Sonny Rollins. Photo Credit: Pannonica de Koenigswarter/Courtesy of Abrams Image
My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week, she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.
Last week, I was asked to come up with a distinctly American tune for a little NPR Music Independence Day feature. I pulled The Freedom Suite, by Sonny Rollins, for reasons you can read (and listen to) here.
That was a little much for the Boss Lady. So this week, I told her I'd find some Sonny Rollins that she would like. Same piano-less trio format: different tune. Here's the first cut from the album Way Out West:
"I'm An Old Cowhand," from Sonny Rollins, Way Out West. Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Ray Brown, bass; Shelly Manne, drums. Los Angeles, Calif.: March 7, 1957.
Boss Lady: Is that the sound of horses hooves I hear on that drum kit?
me: Well, not exactly
But Shelly Manne does a clever imitation, no?
Boss Lady: In a jazzy sort of way
me: Very cheeky
You know, this tune is called "I'm An Old Cowhand"
Familiar with it at all?
Boss Lady: Sounds familiar, but I would never have been able to name it
me: It's an old Johnny Mercer song, I believe premiered by Bing Crosby
This is not from that
But I think it reflects the novelty/comic spirit in which it was originally written
Boss Lady: They're hamming it up.
So here's what I'm thinking about why Sonny Rollins chose this tune...
me: Do tell
Boss Lady: First, that it's a simple, catchy tune that he can easily play around with and elaborate on
me: I'd assent to that
Boss Lady: Second, that there's an ironic undertone with the choice of the song....as in, here's an incredibly powerful and skilled black saxophone player performing a song about a back-water hick. Maybe expectations are being set on their head? When did he make this recording?
I detect a little irony too, but not necessarily in the way you're describing
Boss Lady: Do tell
me: So Sonny goes out to California for the first time. Born and bred New Yorker. It's 1957.
Boss Lady: OK
me: He's kind of excited, like, 'hey, I'm in the West' sort of thing.
Look at the album cover -- that photograph is his idea
Title of the record, you'll note, is Way Out West
Boss Lady: He's having fun
And if you listen to the lyrics of "I'm An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)," they're sort of a cute little joke about a modern cowboy who knows nothing about being an actual cowboy
Boss Lady: So he's making fun of himself ...
me: "I know all the songs that the cowboys know / 'bout the big corral where the dogies go / 'cause I learned them all on the radio"
So yes, he's taking this funny little piece with this fake Western motif
And dressing it up, tongue in cheek, as a vehicle for Serious music
Boss Lady: I notice it gets more intricate and complicated as it goes along
me: His soloing? I'll say
Boss Lady: And he lets the drummer and the bass player take a good long solo too
me: I don't want to say he's trying to build something out of nothing, but maybe more like something out of less-than-something
Boss Lady: OK you may be getting too smart for your own good. What's that supposed to mean?
Do you mean that he's taken a light-hearted song and given it heft?
me: More or less, sure.
Boss Lady: By the way, I think I hear some "moos" in there.
me: Like a saxophone imitating a cow?
Boss Lady: Yup. Do you hear that? There are a few low "splats" on the sax. Gotta be a cow!
me: I don't hear it that way, but it wouldn't surprise me if that was what he was intending
There's a long history of making barnyard noises in jazz -- some of the very first jazz recordings, for example. Of course, that's a different story ...
Boss Lady: I guess it's hard to resist when you've got a horn ...
Sonny Rollins has a really strong, robust, confident tone
me: I like Sonny Rollins' tone a lot
It's brawny and burnished, and you always feel like he has a game plan
I hear confidence too, is what I'm saying
Boss Lady: Yes, he sounds authoritative.
Now, I was worried when you told me we were going to listen to Sonny Rollins because last time you played him for me I couldn't get into it. But I'm really enjoying the bounce of this
me: Which is funny, 'cause you know when they made this recording?
Like, what time of day, would you guess?
Boss Lady: Late morning?
me: Try somewhere between 3 and 7 in the morning
Boss Lady: Really? They planned it that way?
me: It was the only time they could all meet up and book studio time
Not that jam sessions didn't happen at that time anyway, but you know ... odd time to be doing business
Boss Lady: Because they all had other gigs that night?
me: I presume so, yes
Boss Lady: Well, if you would work more in the early morning hours, you might get more done. If Sonny Rollins did it, you can do it too!
me: You first
1:15 PM ET | 07-10-2009 | permalink