Sonny Rollins is universally acknowledged as one of the most important and influential musicians in the history of jazz. During a professional career of seven decades, Rollins has recorded over sixty albums as a leader, and many of his original compositions are jazz standards, among them “Oleo,” “Doxy,” and “Airegin.” One of a handful of jazz giants of his generation still alive, Sonny Rollins is in fact still out there, burning it up.
Among the dozens of albums Sonny has recorded over these many years, the one we feature today, Saxophone Colossus, is the one that is considered to have helped launch Rollins’s legendary career and is, in fact, considered by many to be one of just a handful of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded.
Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956, in the Hackensack, New Jersey, home studio of Rudy Van Gelder, the pre-eminent recording engineer whose death was mourned by the jazz world in August of this year. Along with Rollins on the date were an all-star lineup: Tommy Flanagan on piano; Doug Watkins on bass; and the legendary Max Roach on drums.
An aside: Saxophone Colossus was recorded for producer Bob Weinstock’s Prestige label. Weinstock, like his competitors at Blue Note, namely Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf, recognized the great talent of Rudy Van Gelder to make their artists’ music sound its very best, and he therefore almost always brought his recording assignments to the Van Gelder studio. One big difference, though: Lion and Wolf, intent on producing the best product they possibly could, always built into the budget significant rehearsal time, an expensive commitment. Weinstock, on the other hand, not so deep-pocketed, allowed for no rehearsal time. So Blue Note’s releases were consistently polished productions (refer to any of the early Miles Davis recordings on Blue Note for the evidence), while the Prestige output was not always without flaws. In the case of Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus, however, the lack of rehearsal time obviously had no deleterious effect on the quality of the end product. In fact, the spontaneity of the circumstances may very well have enhanced the quality of music that was recorded that day.
The album—a 33 rpm LP—includes five tunes. Just one of them, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” is drawn from the Great American Songbook. Another, “Moritat,” is from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and is better known as “Mack the Knife”—a tune that was enjoying popularity in the United States in 1956, having been recorded that year by Louis Armstrong. Also on the album were two Rollins originals, “Strode Rode” and “Blue 7,” the latter an 11-minute performance. Also on the album is the tune for which Sonny Rollins is probably best known, “St. Thomas.” Interestingly, while Rollins is almost always given credit for having written “St. Thomas,” the tune is in fact a traditional song, composer unknown.
Saxophone Colossus is a tour-de-force of Rollins’s musical concept, his virtuosity, and his improvisational creativity. Envy the new listener who is hearing Sonny Rollins for the first time.
Producer: Bob Weinstock with Rudy Van Gelder
Recording Date: June 22, 1956
Studio: Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ