Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (1957)
The original liner notes for Saxophone Colossus refer to the Colossus of Rhodes, leading me to believe that writer Ira Gitier saw visual parallels in Sonny Rollins’ chiseled features and statuesque bearing, as much as he heard colossal talents worth praising.
Prior to the sessions for his sixth album as a leader, Rollins had spent some quality time with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown quintet (*), the latter of whom was unfortunately killed in a car crash, along with pianist Ritchie Powell, less than a week after these five tracks were cut.
Meaning that Sonny didn’t realize he was soon to be out of work when he entered Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack, New Jersey studio with producer Bob Weinstock, well-travelled pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Doug Watkins (of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers), and the legendary Roach.
Which is neither here nor there, I suppose ...
Anyway, though it’s credited to Rollins, first cut “Saint Thomas” (named after one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, from whence hailed Rollins’ parents) is actually a calypso-based traditional number, already recorded by Randy Weston, among others, under the title “Fire Down There.”
But it was Rollins who turned it into a jazz standard with his distinctive main theme and fluid virtuosity -- also apparent in the sultry “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
“Strode Rode” (named after a Chicago jazz lounge) is another one of those be bop staples you already knew and simply didn’t realize you did, while “Moritat” is basically Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife,” hiding behind its original German title: “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer.”
And eleven-minute closer “Blue 7” has so much going on, including three separate Rollins solos, that scholar and composer Gunther Schuller devoted an entire article to dissecting it, entitled “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation.”
So there you have it: that rare jazz LP that can simultaneously entertain visiting neophytes and enthrall knowledgeable devotees, and that’s why it’s stood the test of time since its recording 65 years ago and subsequent release in 1957.
Also, though the Colossus of Rhodes was toppled by an earthquake centuries ago, the saxophone colossus, Sonny Rollins, is still standing tall, having celebrated his 90th birthday last year!
Here’s to many more ...
* Before that, Sonny had apprenticed with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and other jazz titans.
More Jazz: Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights, Count Basie’s Basie at Birdland, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Penthouse Serenade, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, Roy Eldridge’s Little Jazz, Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, Stan Getz & co.’s Getz/Gilberto, Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Flies High, Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D., Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, Duke Pearson’s Sweet Honey Bee, Nina Simone’s Nina at the Village Gate, Various Artists’ Jazz Abstractions.
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“My contract for the film specified I would not play with Charlie Mingus, because I knew how demanding Charlie could be and I just wanted to avoid it. It was out of respect,” Brubeck said.
“And fear,” he added.
Mingus, who had also been hired to score certain scenes, kept bugging the director to play with Brubeck. Finally, Brubeck relented – with three stipulations: no rehearsal, no synching and no overdubbing. Everything had to be live and off-the-cuff.
With those rules in place, the pair decided upon a Mingus composition. “Non-Sectarian Blues” begins with Mingus thumping borrowed bass, walking the beat as Brubeck joins in on the piano. Mingus can be heard grunting and shouting encouragement to Brubeck as the pair play off each other with staccato piano riffs and pulsing, aggressive baselines. The result is so natural and engaging it’s hard to believe these men came from such seemingly disparate camps.
Although the song was recorded in1962, the performance remained unheard outside theaters until the Brubeck collection “Summit Sessions” was released in 1971.
“When it was over, Charlie picked me up off the floor and gave me a bear hug,” Brubeck said. “It was wonderful.”
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