Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2010: Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller

Sonny Rollins:
Saxophone Colossus

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Sonny Rollins is arguably the greatest living improviser in jazz. His muscular, meaty tenor-sax playing and eloquent improvisations have made him an intimidating wonder of jazz.

Rollins is also one of the jazz world’s more interesting people. Three times he has taken a sabbatical from music. His initial break in 1954 was his most desperate, as he spent it at the federal drug treatment facility in Lexington, Kentucky, where he kicked his heroin addiction. Afterward, he spent several months in Chicago preparing to re-enter the jazz scene. Then in 1959, frustrated by what he thought were his musical limitations, he took his most famous break from public performing. To spare an expectant mother in his apartment building in New York’s Lower East Side the sound of his practicing, he took to playing late at night on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. When he returned to the jazz scene in 1961, he called his comeback album The Bridge. Rollins took his last sabbatical in 1968 to study yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophies. By the time he returned to the music scene in 1971, he had become more interested in R&B and funk.

Sonny Rollins’s successes are as well-documented as his failures. In an article about Rollins in the June 2005 issue of JazzTimes, seventeen jazz musicians were polled for their favourite Sonny Rollins performances. Only one mentioned a recording after 1966. His most impressive body of work comes from the years 1956 to 1962 and includes Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, Tenor Madness, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and The Bridge. All demonstrate energy, endurance, and inspiration.

The pivotal recording in bringing about the widespread acceptance of Rollins as a major figure is Saxophone Colossus [Prestige #PRCD-7079-2]. It inspired critics to write scholarly analyses and fans to revel in the hard-swinging invention, humour, and tender balladry of Rollins’s playing. It was recorded in just one day [June 22, 1956] in New York City, while Rollins was still a member of Clifford Brown’s group. The contributions of pianist Tommy Flanagan’s elegant swing, bassist Doug Watkin’s steady lift, and drummer Max Roach’s soloing helped make this a landmark album.

The album includes Rollins’s best-known composition, “St. Thomas,” a Caribbean calypso based on a song his mother sang to him as a child. His rendition of “Moritat” (an instrumental version of “Mack the Knife”) smoulders. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is rich and melodic. Roach and Rollins trade licks on the blues-based “Blue 7” and play off of each other beautifully throughout. Rollins’s compelling and brilliantly played solo on this song helped define his style as an improviser.

Saxophone Colossus showcases the marriage of intellect, wit, soul, and guts that, from the record’s release onward, marked Rollins as a genius of improvised music.

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