Sonny Rollins: Tenor Colossus

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Colossus

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Known as the Saxophone Colossus, tenor sax master Sonny Rollins worked tirelessly in the jazz scene for over 70 years. Retired now at age 91, he’s one of the few still with us from the second generation of bebop.

Rollins grew up in Harlem. He started on piano and alto sax, but by the time he graduated high school, he’d settled on tenor. At that point he met trombonist J.J. Johnson, who helped him get his feet wet in the recording studio. Rollins has gone on to make nearly 100 albums, well over half of those as the lead player.

Drug use in the 1950s landed him in and out of jail and rehab. When he was available to play, it was with the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. As he worked more and more as leader of his own ensembles, he invented a sound known as “strolling,” with his tenor sax accompanied only by drums and bass, without piano. He often left piano out of his groups altogether.

Colleagues and jazz fans alike admired Rollins’ ability as an improviser. His particular strength was choosing catchy, well-known tunes and taking them off into a different plane. If you simply look at the track lists on most of his albums, they seem pretty run-of-the-mill. But to hear what he does with those toe-tapping standards is the grand listening adventure. [His 1957 album, Way Out West, is also an audiophile classic. – Ed.]

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Sonny Rollins.

  1. Track: “It’s All Right with Me”
    Album: Work Time
    Label: Prestige
    Year: 1956

When Rollins recorded this album, he had recently joined the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet. Two of the musicians here, Roach himself on drums and George Morrow on bass, followed Rollins to the studio from that ensemble. The fourth player is pianist Ray Bryant.

You can hear how Roach and Rollins inspired each other on “It’s All Right with Me,” the standard by Cole Porter from his Broadway show Can-Can. The band takes it at a hopping pace, which seems even faster thanks to Roach’s double-time brushwork. After the first verse, Rollins is off on a wild exploration of the melody.


  1. Track: “The Freedom Suite”
    Album: Freedom Suite
    Label: Riverside
    Year: 1958

Like his friend Max Roach, who also plays on this album, Rollins was vocal about the social injustice he observed in the treatment of African Americans. In the liner notes of the original pressing of Freedom Suite, he wrote, “How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”

Whereas the second half of the album is jazz versions of Broadway standards, Side A is quite a different beast, dedicated to the 19-minute jam, “The Freedom Suite,” by Rollins. It combines elements of hard bop and free jazz. This is one of the first albums to use the “strolling” texture, eschewing piano. Oscar Pettiford completes the trio on bass.


  1. Track: “Doxy”
    Album: Our Man in Jazz
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1962

Produced by jazz-industry stalwart George Avakian, Our Man in Jazz was recorded at the Village Gate in New York. By this time Rollins had moved to RCA Victor. The piano-less quartet includes Don Cherry on cornet, Bob Cranshaw (who would work with Rollins regularly for decades) on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums.

The tune “Doxy,” written by Rollins, was a favorite of Miles Davis, who recorded it a couple of times. Jazz historians have noted the change in Rollins’ style as he revels in long, elaborate fantasies of improvisation, without being tethered to a recognizable, recurring touchstone.


  1. Track: “On Green Dolphin Street”
    Album: Sonny Rollins on Impulse!
    Label: Impulse!
    Year: 1965

As the album title implies, Impulse! Records was happy to have Rollins in their catalog. For a change of pace, Rollins works with a pianist here, his old friend Ray Bryant. Walter Booker is on bass and Mickey Roker on drums.

By this point Rollins was accustomed to his long-lined exploratory approach to standards, and he chose a great one to open with. “On Green Dolphin Street” was written by Bronislow Kaper for the 1944 film Green Dolphin Street. It’s a terrific swing melody favored by many jazz greats over the decades.


  1. Track: “Skylark”
    Album: Next Album
    Label: Milestone
    Year: 1972

For his first album in six years, Rollins moved to Milestone Records. Next Album was produced by Milestone founder and jazz essayist Orrin Keepnews. The line-up is a sextet, heavy on the rhythm with both drums and percussion on some tracks. There are only five tunes, mostly new works by Rollins. The final track is the only well-known song.

This version of Hoagy Carmichael’s standard “Skylark” is over ten minutes long. The opening couple of minutes are Rollins playing a cappella. It’s an incredibly intimate 61 seconds before the band comes in, as if we’re listening to one of history’s greatest saxophonists noodling around in the privacy of his living room.


  1. Track: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
    Album: The Cutting Edge
    Label: Milestone
    Year: 1974

What could be better than Rollins playing a 14-minute version of a beloved spiritual at the Montreux Jazz Festival? How about the addition of jazz bagpipes?

The combination of these two types of reed instruments, bagpipes and saxophone, yields an alien yet intriguing sound, which Rollins and Rufus Haley explore with abandon, and for its own sake, in the first two minutes of this track before there is any hint of the song. Then Haley plays the melody first; it’s easy to imagine that Rollins loved how the tune’s pitch range doesn’t fit on the bagpipe chanter, so it must be split angularly between two octaves. Rollins lets his guest take the first few choruses and then solos himself starting around 6:00, with impressive textural help from conga master Mtume.


  1. Track: “Joyous Lake”
    Album: No Problem
    Label: Milestone
    Year: 1981

Although critics were in general not too enthusiastic about No Problem, an album produced by Rollins and his wife and manager, Lucille Rollins, it does have some interesting aspects. For one, we get to hear Rollins in a different stylistic context, in a sound influenced by smooth jazz and R&B. It features the vibraphone work of Bobby Hutcherson and some fluid phrasing on electric guitar by Bobby Broom.

“Joyous Lake” is the final track and one of Rollins’ compositions. The hook is tight and pop-like, brightened by Tony Williams’ drumming. The best thing about this track is its humor. Rollins quotes various songs and squeaks way above the normal range of his instrument, as if to remind the curmudgeonly critics that it’s okay for jazz to be fun.


  1. Track: “Tenor Madness”
    Album: G-Man
    Label: Milestone
    Year: 1987

Recorded live at an outdoor venue in Saugerties, New York, this recording was originally part of a documentary by Robert Mugge called Saxophone Colossus.

This track was not on the original LP version but was added when the album came out on CD. Rollins had been playing his composition “Tenor Madness” since the 1950s, so it’s interesting to hear it 30 years down the line. The performance is raw and vibrant, with Rollins still in the top echelon of latter-day bebop players.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/RI-jim.

Back to Copper home page