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  The Saxophone Colossus: A True Living Legend  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

        January 2005:

      One of the best jazz records of all time is Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus (Prestige, 1956).  All five tracks on this album are classics.  Newk opens the session up with St. Thomas, which features the wonderful drumming of Max Roach.  If you want to hear a great contemporary version of this track, try the second disc of Joshua Redman’s Live at the Village Vanguard album (which has an exceptional series of drum solos by Brian Blade).  Next, Rollins covers the beautiful jazz standard You Don’t Know What Love Is, which is equally as impressive as Coltrane’s version on his Ballads album for Impulse! Records.  My ‘Theory and Performance’ teacher at the New School- Dave Schnitter (the longest member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Mesengers)- has a thought provoking version of this song on his 2004 album Sketch (Sunnyside Records).  The middle track of Saxophone Colossus is the upbeat Strode Rode, which features Sonny steaming on tenor sax.   Strode Rode is followed by Moritat, a renamed old-time composition covered by a wide variety of jazz men. Rollins saves the best for last though: he closes the sessions with a phenomenal version of a standard blues form titled Blue 7.  Sonny and Tommy Flanagan give close to perfect solos on this piece.   I used to try to imitate Rollins solo on this track as a youngster jamming out with Jammey Abersole’s “music minus 1” tapes.

       I recommend buying The Complete Sonny Rollins Blue Note Recordings- all five of his albums for the label are classics.  I especially dig the 2nd Volume of Live at The Village Vanguard.  These tracks were recorded when the Vanguard was just some “hole in the wall” establishment, a “dive” that featured poetry and some music. Rollins brought his trio into this hang out and jammed all night long.   The trio features a young Elvin Jones and Peter LaRocca swapping the drum chair over a few nights.  Wilbur Ware holds things down on bass each evening.  It was daring for a horn player to walk into a club in the 1950’s without someone playing chords (on either piano or guitar) in a small jazz combo.   Only Sonny Rollins could make a corny composition like Old Devil Moon groove so hard.  He introduced his own Sonnymoon for Two on these nights and Wynton Marsalis honored him in 2000 by playing the composition with his big band for President Clinton’s White House Jazz Concert.  Striver’s Row is another original that made me want to go to Harlem and hang out on the gorgeous section of Upper Manhattan’s neighborhood (the townhouses on those two streets are completely stunning). One of the reasons that Charles Gayle covered I’ll Remember April on his 2001 Jazz Solo Piano album is most likely because Newk chose the classic for his Vanguard sessions. What is This Thing Called Love is performed as fast as I have ever heard it before, and like always Sonny makes the changes well.   The swing on Get Happy is exceptional and the tenor player’s performance on the ballad I Can’t Get Started is a perfect example of strong melody and improvisation (for the jazz novice to start imitating and practicing with.)  Yet the highlights of the evenings are the two takes of Softly as a Morning Sunrise and A Night In Tunisia.  Ware and Rollins make elegant statements on both versions of Softly. Elvin and Pete offer two very different interpretations of A Night in Tunisia- If you want something cool go for La Rocca’s version…if you want something hot try Elvin’s take.   It should be noted that Elvin Jones sounds much differently with Rollins than he does with Coltrane (there is a 5 or 6 year time gap between his work with each of them).  

       The highlight of the album Newk’s Time is Rollins version of Kenny Dorham’s Asiatic Raes (played in the odd 6/8 time meter). Miles Davis’ Tune-Up is another dazzling element of the album.  Rollins had worked with both K.D. and Miles in the earlier stage of his development as a jazz legend.  Sonny Rollins Volume 1 features the cool opener titled Decision while Volume 2 has two different pianists trading off on Monk’s Misterioso- Horace Silver and Thelonious! (All of Sonny’s work with Monk is magnificent.  The same is true for Bud Powell too; check out his solo at age 19 in 1949 on The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 1’s Bouncing with Bud.  While you’re at it, also check out Powell’s hornless trio versions of Un Poco Loco.) The cover art on Volume 2 is especially striking- its hip photo can be purchased as a poster by Mosaic.

       1957’s Tenor Madness (Prestige) features Newk playing the title track (which Kenny Dorham recorded the year earlier under the title Royal Roost- a famous 52nd Street night club) with stablemate John Coltrane.   Rollins had some personal problems soon after this, yet he was found making music on the road in Chicago and then practicing daily under Delancey Street’s Williamsburg Bridge (hence the name of the Impulse! album East Broadway Rundown).  Newk hired Ornette Coleman’s bandmates (Don Cherry and Billy Higgins) and started touring abroad.  I have a nice bootleg tape of a concert of his band during this period titled Without a Song, which could probably be purchased on Ebay.  His band was adventurously reinterpreting bebop charts like 52nd Street Theme. The Rollins band was also giving the European audiences a little durable piece of Americana by playing The Star Spangled Banner on their overseas tours.  They would end their concerts by either playing St. Thomas or playing rhythm changes under the name Cleo or Oleo.  During this phase, Rollins sported a Mohawk haircut that was a symbol of his new, reborn radical approach to modern jazz.  He was given the opportunity to write the score to the Michel Caine movie Alfie, which was arranged for a big-band.  Alfie’s Theme has a catchy melody played by Rollins and then leads to a groovy solo by Kenny Burrell (this was the track chosen for use in the trailer to the movie, and was used again in the 2004 remake of the film staring Jude Law).  Next Rollins found himself paired with his idol Coleman Hawkins on the Sonny Meets Hawk album for RCA records. This session features Henry Grimes in wonderful shape, and I find the two tenors (back to back) sound the best on Summertime and Loverman.  Although you can make the argument that Rollins’ sound comes directly out of the Coleman Hawkins tradition, I believe his music is the next logical statement of the fringe ‘Rhythm and Blues’ sound of Louis Jordan.      

        The Standard Sonny Rollins album, also on RCA, has Newk playing classics such as Night and Day and My One and Only Love (the latter was also chosen for the Johnny Hartman/ John Coltrane pairing on Impulse!... Joshua Redman chose to include it on his Vanguard date because both Sonny and Trane approved of it).  Some of Rollins work from the 1970’s and 1980’s is captured on the Silver City release from Milestone (I really like the track Darn that Dream because it provides the listener with a fresh alternative to the classic Dexter Gordon version; his improvisational opener to Autumn Nocturne is the top element to the double disc release).  Today he is also an activist promoting eco-awareness and named one of his albums Global Warming (which was recorded 50 years after he first started playing music professionally).   

       Rollins is our greatest living legend.  I have followed in his path throughout my entire adolescent life: I caught him in concert at the University of Florida at age 16 (John Scofield opened up for him), I tracked his student David S. Ware down in New Jersey at age 18 and asked for lessons, then I caught Newk live again at the Montreal Jazz Festival at age 19 (in 2000), then one more time in New York City at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park at age 20 (in 2001). My New York apartment was just a few blocks away from the Harlem Hospital he was born at; one summer I lived on the Lower East Side right near where he used to practice.    We all should be obsessed with Sonny Rollins; I really hope he lives forever!