Swinging Like Sonny

It’s amazing how ferociously one can swing with one note.

Witness the Sonny Rollins composition “John S.” on his 1962 record The Bridge. Rollins, a consummate practicing and soul-searching musician, was fresh off a self-imposed three year exile, during which he spent evenings practicing his tenor sax on the Williamsburg Bridge. The Bridge is a triumphant return: Rollins playing is explosive and expansive. And on “John S.” he proves that pitch is not so important, without a solid foundation in rhythm.

The song begins with a gentle free-time intro played in unison by Rollins and the great guitarist Jim Hall (the band also features Bob Cranshaw on bass and Ben Riley on drums). After the intro, the band launches into the head at about 120 beats per minute, with an accented double-time feel.

The band is playing double-time, but Sonny Rollins is having none of it.

Rollins launches his solo with a triplet figure that lands on the down-beat. The triplet is a D minor arpeggio – A, F, D – and with the D landing on first beat of each measure, Rollins is basically swinging one note. This goes on for eight measures, and then he really goes to town, rhythmically altering that D from a legato slur to a staccato dack-a-dack-a-dack-a-dack-a Morse code signal for the next four measures. Then back to the triplet, and onward.

For all intents and purposes, one note for fourteen measures.

And that one note SWINGS like crazy. The effect is to slow down the feel of the song, despite the double-time accents. UnTIL the staccato figures in measures ten and eleven, that is, and then the feel of the solo catches up to the propulsive beat of the rhythm section.

One note, in the hands of a rhythmic master such as Sonny Rollins, can drag a song into the mud, or pull it ahead, often in the space of two measures. That is swing, and it can be absolutely ferocious.

If I haven’t bored you to tears with this post,



  1. Much like a blues lead where one note is hammered over the rhythm again and again until it transcends itself.

  2. Sonny is one of my heroes.Began playing sax right after piano, at about age 11. Still have some of his vinyl, along with a lot of other fave sax players.
    Brian, you are the bestest. Know that you write exceptionally well. Your interest, and knowledge, belies a serious knowledge of music. Confess: what instrument do you play?

    • Man, I would love to play, six or four strings, with you one of these days. 😉

      • Next time I’m in the Mysterious East.. you live in Boston? am a NYC’/LA gal. LOTS of Friends in Bean Town and The Big Apple. Next summer is my guess. Have a hardcase for the DX-7 and D-10… can you dig the old school synths -grin-. Better if you have a piano. Have small Peavy and SM-58 mic can travel as well 😉
        Sounds like a blast… depending on your speaker system 🙄

  3. John S said:

    Writing as John S, I like this! iIm not that good on the technical side, but I know when I iike a good jazz beat, and Sonny Rollins is definitely one of the masters!

    • You popped up on something or other last night as I was writing/listening to this piece, Sir. Cue up the Twilight Zone theme!

      • John S said:


  4. clownonfire said:

    Are you trying to seduce me with some Newk? It’s working.
    Le Clown

  5. Nice little pleasure to help me wind down after a 14 hour day, another 14 hours expected tomorrow and to finish up (or me off) a 7 day week. I feel like crying, but I keep visualizing my paycheck to keep the tears at bay. Now the music you posted is easing my tension quite nicely. I’m in total commiseration with the ending. Thanks!

  6. You didn’t bore me at all with this post! You write about music the way an artist would describe a painting. Love it!

  7. Bored me to tears?!? Are you kidding? Good grief, Brian! You’re giving me the music education I always craved, but never got! You are really good at introducing information in a way that invites your reader into a new world. Thank you for this!

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