Music Review: Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

My Better Half Music Review

A casual fan of Jazz will likely know the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.  By casual I mean someone like me who, at one point in time, felt obligated to like jazz because of the inherent Cool that comes along with membership in the elite club of knowing music Gods who hear the beat and changes that mere mortals cannot.  Sitting next to “Kind of Blue” on your CD rack or iTunes Jazz Genre list may be Rollins’ 1956 magnum opus “Saxophone Colossus.”  I have selected for review what most causal fans have already come to accept as a masterpiece.  This one is a no-brainer but I recommend it highly because it helped me graduate from casual fan status who wanted to like jazz for all the wrong reasons to rabid, frothing at the ears Jazz fiend looking for his next melodic surprise, chasing the incendiary sax solo dragon….

I won’t pretend to write like a real critic or one who lasted more than one season of piano lessons as a kid, but if this piece makes it to one jazz burn-out who, upon reading this purchases “Saxophone Colossus” and gives Jazz another whirl, I’ll be delighted.  This is an accessible album and a joy from calypso start to blues finish.
I had the pleasure of seeing Sonny Rollins live in San Francisco in 2005 and by then was familiar with his biography; one time convicted robber cum heroine addict that like so few Jazz greats, kicked the habit and honed his craft.  In 1959 after achieving critical acclaim Sonny disappeared from the music scene, disappointed that he may have reached the limits of his talent.  That he could be found many nights blowing his saxophone on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge striving for something transcendent and new is the stuff of jazz legend.  I try and stay away from that kind of romantic and distracting view of the tortured jazz artist but listening to the third track on “Saxophone Colossus,” “Strode Rode” (a tribute to trumpeter Freddie Webster) it becomes evident you are listening to a musician truly pushing the limits and less than a minute into the track you get a sense of the battle raging between fierce, improvisational solo and the important silence and timing between his playing and the rat-a-tat-tat drumming of the immortal Max Roach and the equally passionate piano playing of Tommy Flanagan.  The opening track “St. Thomas” is perhaps the most familiar song if not melody (“Moritat,” the fourth track and “Mack the Knife” in English will also be instantly recognizable) and contains effortless playing and an extremely contagious melody.  Simply put, this album can light Saturday night on fire and ease you into Sunday morning in the same song.  It’s hard for me to pick a stand out track but if you have 11 minutes before your next stop and it’s raining out, play “Blue 7” and by the time you arrive at your destination you will have taken a step closer to at least the self-perception that you are more hip than you were when you started your trip.
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