June 22, 1956: Prestige, PRLP 7079/PRCD-8105-2
St. Thomas (6:42)
You Don’t Know What Love Is (6:24)
Strode Rode (5:11)
Blue 7 ((11:12)
Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone
Tommy Flanagan: piano
Doug Watkins: bass
Max Roach: drums
As I have just discovered that the legendary Sonny Rollins LP Saxophone Colossus has been selected this year for preservation in the National Recording Registry by (USA) Library of Congress, I thought it would be fun to review the album for you (if you have not had the pleasure of knowing/hearing it yet). The Library of Congress preserves such recordings for their cultural, historical, and/or artistic significance, and in the case of Saxophone Colossus, it is completely worthy of being preserved for all three reasons.
First of all it is has been a major favorite of jazz and other musicians and listeners since it was released 61 years ago. Like Miles Davis’s classic LP Kind of Blue, or Time Out! by Dave Brubeck, Saxophone Colossus almost immediately became a touchstone for musicians of all stripes, due the technical and improvisational excellence of all musicians involved though the music itself is not particularly complex. In fact the compositions featured are a mix of straightforward standards and originals that provide the quartet the opportunity to shine as creative, tasteful, and highly supportive of each other’s contributions. Thus, it is an excellent example of both individual excellence and ensemble playing, made that much more remarkable considering Rollins was only 26 years old at the time.
Combining the adventurous harmonic playing of Coleman Hawkins with a hint of Lester Young’s breathy tone and melodic sense, Rollins made the influences of these two founding tenor giants something remarkable and new by adding his own unique rhythmic approach, playing a highly syncopated, “behind-the-beat” style which made him sound like he was always slightly behind the tempo of the rest of the group. This unique combination of skills and style, applied to such songs as “St. Thomas” and “Blue 7” made Saxophone Colossus an instant classic, and sonic textbook on how to play what you might call “perfect” jazz: swinging, bluesy, groovy, fun, exciting, and so on.
“Blue 7” for example, on paper, can be accurately described as a simple mid-tempo standard 12 bar blues, with a minimalistic riff-like melody. But it is thoroughly glowing and numinous in its reticent, teasing swing. This may seem like hyperbole: the overwrought praise of a fascinated amateur hearing it for the first time. But like all classic of jazz, rock, pop, and other such music, this song has “it”, that indescribable feeling/thing that makes it colossal like the LP’s title suggests. If less is more, then “Blue 7” is a whole meadow contained in a single flower, it is really that good.
Of course, a now iconic and standard song in all jazz musicians’ repertoire is the LP’s first track “St. Thomas”: a melody originating in the traditional English song “The Lincolnshire Poacher” before it becoming a Virgin Isle nursery rhyme, a folk tune called “Sponge Money” and so on down into Rollins’ take by the 50s. But in Rollin’s particular hands, he turns it into a tropical jazz romp thanks to the help of bebop legend Max Roach, whose tom-tom playing gives the song the its calypso-like flavor. In fact, Roach “hi-hat” cymbals sound very much like a beaded gourd (shekere) being shook on the off beats, a highly pleasing effect that contributes significantly to the overall mood, even when the song shifts into standard swing feel.
“St. Thomas” is also an excellent test piece for young jazz musicians, not for its complexity but for the musical maturity it takes to not over-syncopate the melody or over play while improvising. As it is also played with great frequency at jazz jam sessions, St. Thomas also often ends up being a social indicator of how well one interacts with and supports the other musicians onstage. If playing “St. Thomas” with taste gains you excellent marks in music school, playing it with taste at a jam session can end up being economically rewarding as well, as mature musicians will know they can trust your musicianship and your sense of over ensemble sensitivity.
Less often performed (but equally beloved) by musicians is the minor “Strode Rode”, and Rollins’ sober, unsentimental take on the ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. “Strode Rode” (partially named after Chicago’s Strode Lounge) – dark and dramatic – is made glorious by Roach and Rollins’s anxious and ebullient interplay. It is also an excellent example of then fellow 26 year old pianist Tommy Flanagan’s cooler, more florid approach to the tune providing an excellent contrast to Roach and Rollins, a colorful shift from “You Don’t Know What Love Is” – the previous track on the LP. Openly with arpeggiation on what is known as a minor-major 7th chord (the classic “late night in the city” jazz sound), Rollins immediately sets the mood on “You Don’t Know…”: love has been lost and things are not looking up. But as always, Rollins’ larger than life tone and rhythmic chord outlining creates a wonderful sense of conflict, keeping the song from being maudlin and cloying.
So much more could be said about Saxophone Colossus, but it speaks for itself, and speaks extremely well even after countless listenings. I HIGHLY recommend you buy it on iTunes or in your local record store today.