This is one of Sonny Rollins best albums he ever recorded among the hundreds he has made over a long lifetime that still continues today. Recorded in 1956, every song feels so sophisticated yet soulful and smooth. It only has five songs but each one is a hit and Sonny’s playing never fails. Sonny plays complex bebop that is very accessible because he plays every note with conviction and has a great sense of melody. – 25 Greatest Jazz Albums, The Jazz Resource.
From his website: “Theodore Walter Rollins was born on September 7, 1930, in New York City. He grew up in Harlem not far from the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the doorstep of his idol, Coleman Hawkins.
After early discovery of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, he started out on alto saxophone, inspired by Louis Jordan. At the age of sixteen, he switched to tenor, trying to emulate Hawkins. He also fell under the spell of the musical revolution that surrounded him, Bebop. During the years 1956 to 1958 Rollins was widely regarded as the most talented and innovative tenor saxophonist in jazz
He began to follow Charlie Parker and soon came under the wing of Thelonious Monk, who became his musical mentor and guru. Living in Sugar Hill, his neighborhood musical peers included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor, but it was young Sonny who was first out of the pack, working and recording with Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Miles Davis before he turned twenty.”
In the later Forties, he began making a name for himself working with pianist Bud Powell, alongside trumpeter Fats Navarro and drummer Roy Haynes. In the early to mid-Fifties, he recorded with Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
In 1955, after overcoming a heroin habit with the then-experimental methadone therapy Rollins briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet.* Later that year, he joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet. He then proceeded to release a series of solo albums, most notably Saxophone Colossus (1956.) His band included pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Doug Watkins, and the mighty, mighty drummer, Max Roach.
I already featured the kick-off song, “St. Thomas,” in my post on my own ill-fated jazz career. We’ll go here instead with “Strode Rode,” a Rollins-penned tune.
Appreciating Jazz says, “A piece’s energy can be gauged by how much it makes you want to tap your foot along to the beat. “Strode Rode” … demands from its listener more than just quiet appreciation — it’s a torrent of jumpy rhythms, saxophone virtuosity, and an almost religious adherence to swing; there’s no way one can be still!” Sonny Boy walked in while I was playing this and immediately fell into the groove. And I would hardly call him a jazzer!
“I was getting very famous at the time,” says Rollins,” and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way. I wasn’t going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time.”
In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote that he “Sonny had a big reputation among a lot of the younger musicians in Harlem. People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thing–he was close. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas. I loved him back then as a player and he could also write his ass off…”
I’ll give you one more tune here and if you dig both of these can only encourage you to listen to the whole album on the Spotify link below.
“Moritat” is a famous tune from the Weill/Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. You will doubtless recognize it as “Mack the Knife,” but this version was released fully three years before Bobby Darin’s vocal interpretation. (And in fact the song goes back to the 1920’s.)
Wikipedia: “In August 2010, Rollins was named the Edward MacDowell Medalist, the first jazz composer to be so honored. The Medal has been awarded annually since 1960 to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field.
Yet another major award was bestowed on Rollins on March 2, 2011, when he received the Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. Rollins accepted the award, the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence, “on behalf of the gods of our music.””
On December 3, 2011, Sonny Rollins was one of five 2011 Kennedy Center honorees, alongside actress Meryl Streep, singer Barbara Cook, singer/songwriter Neil Diamond and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Rollins said of the honor, “I am deeply appreciative of this great honor. In honoring me, the Kennedy Center honors jazz, America’s classical music. For that, I am very grateful.”
In 2017, Saxophone Colossus was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”
*Near as I can tell, Miles and Rollins recorded together twice – 1951 recording Dig (released 1956) and 1954’s Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.
Sources: Sonny Rollins’ website; The Jazz Resource; Wikipedia.