Featured Album – Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins

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!


Spotify link

“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.)

Spotify link

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.

19 thoughts on “Featured Album – Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins

  1. I looked in on this take this morning and promptly took this album for a stroll. What a beautiful stroll it was. Sonny is a CB staple. I’m getting around to my Jazz takes and Sonny with be featured. ‘Strode Rode’ is a perfect example of his playing. “America’s classical music”, damn rights Sonny. If there was ever an example of being your own man it’s Sonny Rollins. I love the guy and his music. Princess Falda treated her old-man a few years ago and took him to a SR night of music. I love that girl. Takes like this keep me coming back Doc. Good stuff.


    1. I needed some jazz after all that Zep. (Sonny Boy and I saw the tribute band last night and they were excellent.) I find jazz puts me in a totally different space. As to being America’s classical music, yeah. I missed that quote when I first read it and had to think about it.

      Never saw Sonny even though he’s come this way a few times. My bad. He’s pushing 90 and I suspect he won’t be touring much anymore if at all. And this album is a classic for a reason. I wasn’t kidding in the piece when I said Sonny Boy came in – no jazz fan – and immediately dug it. I’ll let that seep into his brain and play it again when he’s around.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cool thing is you’re enjoying music and exposing it to the offspring. My gang all have their own tastes but they have picked up some of my habits. Big Earl is the Jazz guy and in turn he has turned me onto some solid stuff. Your son is going to be in for a great trip if the jazz seed takes.
        So much music from Rollins. All his great solo work and all his guest and sideman work. A living American treasure. One of the first guys to wear a Mohawk and look cool. He even made me like the Stone more with his solo on ‘Waiting For a Friend’


        1. Yeah, they absorb stuff for sure but definitely have their own tastes. I was glad to see his reaction to Rollins. And as to the post, I wanted to push myself out of my Miles rut.

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  2. You’re right, I should be writing more about horns. If only we had more saxophone players of the level of a Rollins around. This was my first Rollins album now 25 years ago. Two other albums that are must have are “Tenor Madness” and “Way Out West” by the way.

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    1. I’m fairly familiar with “Tenor Madness,” not so much the other one. Both, I think, deserve a spin. Agreed that there aren’t too many Sonny Rollins’ around. But then again there aren’t too many Clapton’s or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s but that doesn’t stop me from listening to, appreciating or writing about another generation of blues guitarists. I think I’ll take my own advice and keep my ears out for newer sax talent while still digging the older.

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        1. Well, that explains something. I listened to ‘Colossus’ on Spotify and it immediately rolled over to ‘Cowhand’ and I thought wha? But now I get it. Thanks.

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  3. Well, I can very well relate to your son’s reaction. I rarely listen to jazz, but based on sampling the first track, this is just friggin’ awesome!

    It probably helps that I generally dig horns and the saxophone in particular. I’ll be listening to the remainder of that album for sure!


      1. I know, shocker, right?😀

        While I doubt I’ll all for a sudden turn into a jazz/all-instrumental fan, I find this particular music pretty accessible. I probably wouldn’t listen to more than one album at a time, but, hey, I guess you could call that progress!😆

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        1. Next thing you know you’ll be hanging out in Greenwich Village cafes wearing a beret, listening to smoky jazz and beat poetry and snapping your fingers and saying “Yeah, Baby. Fuck that rock and roll shit. This is real cool, man.” Just like a ’50’s beatnik.:-)

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  4. Great choice for a record profile, Jim. I bought the Prestige double-LP “Saxophone Colossus and More” back in the late ’70s. I was more into Coltrane’s dark explorations then, so this one didn’t get played much, but I’ll give it a spin tonight. Nice to see he’s still around, and was recognized by Obama and the Kennedy Center.


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