The early days of Sonny Rollins were a time when jazz was flourishing across the United States. The atmosphere in the music scene was full of excitement as jazz musicians continued to experiment and strive to push the envelope. Growing up in Harlem alongside other soon-to-be jazz greats, Rollins quickly become enamored with such a world full of creative expression, and he began rising through the ranks as an outstanding jazz musician. He played with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. By this time, the stage was set for Rollins to cross the bridge into jazz stardom, and in 1956 he released Saxophone Colossus, an album which would change the perception of jazz saxophone forever.
There are very few records that are more definitively jazz than this one. Saxophone Colossus is an essential part of any jazz collection worth its salt. Despite having been recorded over fifty years ago, it still remains as an incredible album that stands out effortlessly against some of today’s best releases, just as Sonny Rollins still remains as one of the most influential jazz musicians. Sonny Rollins brought about a new method of musical creativity and improvisation to the table; something that made his style truly unique. To this day, it has proven immensely hard for other jazz musicians to copy such a distinct style. He’s frequently been described as a “free player” and a “thematic improviser.” As Rollins himself has put it, he is a so-called “stream-of-consciousness player.” In other words, he has gained the incredible ability to be completely spontaneous in his solos, but also to give such improvisations a cohesive overall structure at the same time. This is not an easy task at all when soloing over fast, complex chord changes.
Rollins assembled a masterful crew of musicians to back him up on Saxophone Colossus. On piano is Tommy Flanagan, who also recorded on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. On bass is Doug Watkins, an original member of The Jazz Messengers. Rounding out the quartet on drums is Max Roach, a pioneer of the bebop style of jazz and arguably one of the most important drummers in history. Although Rollins is clearly the standout on the album, I very quickly found myself in awe of every musician on Saxophone Colossus when I first listened to it.
Starting out with the Caribbean flair of “St. Thomas” sets the stage for forty minutes of playful, emotional experimentation that sends its listeners on a nostalgic journey through the golden age of American jazz. The small-club vibe that the music creates is perfect for a quiet evening of personal reflection, romance, or musical appreciation. This mood is exemplified by the sentimental yet rough ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” which perfectly captures the true nature of a relationship with all of its complexities.
The faster approach to hard bop tune “Strode Rode” brings the energy of the album up a notch, and leaves no doubt that there is outstanding musicianship at work. Every song on this five-track release is both sensational and unique. “Moritat” and “Blue 7” are the two longer cuts on the album, and bring back the intimate vibe to close out Saxophone Colossus with a state of contentment. This is a must-have album for any jazz enthusiast and music lover, and surely an excellent companion for all occasions.