Carl Smith isn’t technically a bootlegger, but until a few years ago he had a hard time convincing Lucille Rollins and her husband, Sonny, the famed titan of tenor saxophone, of that fact. Smith’s activities throughout much of his adult life–he’s 70–contributed greatly to the Rollinses’ perception of him; Smith’s home in Portland, Maine, contains an extensive library of Sonny’s live performances dating back to the late 1940s, before the budding musician had left his teens or the family home in Harlem. The recordings were made in venues all over the world–some surreptitiously, others by Smith.
Fortunately for the Rollinses–Lucille, who died in 2004, was her husband’s manager and producer–as well as those members of Sonny’s audience interested in purchasing music the conventional way, no matter what the format, Smith is more a munificent fanatic than an outlaw. He is one of thousands of individuals who were sharing contraband music long before digital technology made that possible with a simple mouse click. But unlike the Gen X-ers, Y-ers and Z-ers who banded together as much out of resentment with the fat cats of the Recording Industry Association of America as for cost-free musical pleasure and convenience, Smith never aimed to bring the music biz to its knees. Commerce is strictly prohibited among his fellow collectors, so Smith’s principled difference from traditional bootleggers and other would-be profiteers has always been plain. “Lucille and I were leery of Carl at first…but after some research I found out he’s part of this closed network of collectors who only trade performances,” Rollins told me not long ago. “If you sell anything, no one will trade with you.”
One of Smith’s prize recordings, a 1986 Rollins concert in Tokyo, leads off Road Shows, Vol. 1, Rollins’s most recent album, released this past fall. The music is imbued with all the qualities that have earned Rollins the nickname Saxophone Colossus: the tone as weighty as marble yet as rhythmically fleet and fluid as mercury, the double- and triple-timed phrases that fill the toolkit of Rollins’s fine art of melodic deconstruction. Two other gems, from Umea, Sweden, and Warsaw, Poland (both from 1980), also grace the seven-track disc, and while they’re not the first Smith recordings to make their way into the commercial marketplace–that distinction falls to 2005’s Grammy Award-winning Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert, the disc that ended Rollins’s thirty-three-year association with Milestone Records–they do take the saxophonist, a self-described Luddite, further into the Wild West of digital possibility (peruse the offerings). All of this came about because Smith, with the blessing of fellow traders, made his personal archive available to Rollins’s Doxy Records, a self-run imprint launched in 2005. “Everyone knows that it’s a musician’s dream to own their work,” Rollins told me at the time. “This seems to be the right vehicle for mine, without trying to be a mogul or anything.”