Sonic Liberation

Veteran sax man Roger Carroll explores the music of Pharoah Sanders, Tom Waits and Carla Bley at Gallery5.


After four-plus decades of performance, in blues, rock, swing, and jazz ensembles, saxophonist Roger Carroll is focusing in on the adventurous music he always loved. This Friday at Gallery 5, his new ensemble, the Sonic Liberation Ensemble, will debut new interpretations of a set of songs celebrating women, grounded in the Chicago Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) scene, a seminal 1960s-to-present reinvigoration of modern improvisational music.

Affably gruff, and moderately larger than life, Carroll has a voice full of character, like a Tidewater-washed Tom Waits. The first concept for the show was a Waits tribute set, but an ear infection prevented sufficient practice, which opened the door for an exploration of equally adventurous but more open-ended arrangements. (A Waits cover still remains part of the planned set list.)

“I know I should be doing this project, because I have always wanted to,” Carroll says. “Especially after the political and COVID upheavals of 2020. In my career I have always played it safe, with music people could dance to and all that. That’s okay, but I am getting older. Now I just want to do what I want to do.”

He has assembled a first-rate sextet with the adventurous rhythm section of drummer Scott Clark, bassist Adam Hopkins, and pianist Michael McNeill, augmented by Rattlemouth saxophonist Danny Finney, and Jouwala Collective percussionist Kevin Johnson. In a practice session upstairs at Martin Johnson’s Forinstance Gallery on Cary Street, the group sketched out the outlines of the songs, leaving the coloring for the actual performance.

It has been a long road to this point for Carrol, starting as a Mechanicsville high school student who dis covered music was a socially acceptable educational alternative to the academic grind. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University in the early years of the jazz program, then went on the road for a decade as a sideman to various blues legends.

He returned to Richmond to raise his daughter, working a day job repairing accordions at Hohner and continuing to perform and record as freelance musician. He met and married his wife, corporate attorney Sharon Glover, and moved with her to Chicago in 2015. Carroll welcomed the opportunity to meet and play with longtime heroes. But things didn't pan out there and, in 2016, Glover took a job with Capitol One back in Richmond.

“We’ve been together for 15 years,” Carrol says. “Sharon’s such a strong, powerful woman. Her stories over the years made me really aware of what BS women go through in the workplace. And with the Supreme Court overturn of Roe vs. Wade, it is not getting better.”

Hence the feminist theme of the upcoming program on Friday.

“That is one of the things that draws me [in], it’s music with a meaning,” Carroll explains. “It has roots in caring about the world. I feel it more than hear it. I see colors. I love bebop and all that, but this kind of jazz is my true love. It’s protest music, but it has it all, the beauty and the tension.”

He says the music has become more important the older he’s gotten, adding that “music needs to encompass social awareness. We can only try to bring light to the darkness, to comfort someone, or motivate them, or whatever they need.”

While it may be a different facet of a familiar player, it maintains Carroll’s long-honed ability to charm an audience. For decades, most recently at regular small group gigs at The Savory Grain and Lady N’awlins, the saxophonist has engagingly delivered the songs people love to hear. This Friday, it is all about the songs he loves to play.

Roger Carroll's Sonic Liberation Organization, featuring the music of Pharoah Sanders, Fred Anderson, Carla Bley, Tom Waits, and many more, plays Gallery 5, Friday, Sept. 23. Doors open at 7 music at 8 p.m. Admission is free.