Sonny Rollins – Colossus (1956) – Prestige Records/Analogue Productions CPRJ 7079 SA mono SACD, 39:58 [5/30/14) *****:
Sonny Rollins – tenor saxophone; Tommy Flanagan – piano; Max Roach – drums; Doug Watkins – bass)
When you are declared a legendary tenor saxophone jazz artist, you are in hallowed company. By the time he was a teenager, Sonny Rollins was an urban legend in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood. By the age of twenty, he had played with J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Miles Davis. His initial foray into jazz was bebop. His early influences included Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. Thelonious Monk was his mentor and like many other veterans of the jazz scene, he had great respect for Rollins. Nicknamed “Newk” (because of his physical resemblance to Brooklyn Dodger Don Newcombe), performed in the fifties with Monk, Davis and Modern Jazz Quartet.
Rollins moved to Chicago and joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, and became a brilliant, improvisational presence. He had the capacity to interpret diverse styles of music, from ballad standards to calypso. In 1956, he began a solo career that would last over five decades. From 1956-1958, Rollins released an unforgettable catalog of material that established him as the greatest tenor saxophonist of this era. He experimented with ¾- time bebop structures and thematic improvisation. Even more impressive was his groundbreaking trio (tenor sax, double bass and drums) work. In addition to lead work on melody, Rollins introduced a way to utilize the sax as a rhythm instrument. Then a series of unaccompanied solo recordings stretched the innovative boundaries of music. Incredibly, this musical titan received his first performance Grammy in 2000, and a second in 2004. He was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2013, and released a live album in 2014.
Analog Productions has released a re-mastered SACD of Colossus (which is also a film). Regarded by many as his masterpiece, Rollins is accompanied by a stellar ensemble (Max Roach/drums; Tommy Flanagan/piano and Doug Watkins/bass). This upgrade is dynamic in its musical contexts and recording technique. The opening track, “St. Thomas,” is an inventive West Indies/calypso groove that is kicked off by Roach’s cool phrasing. Rollins’s solos are festive and rich as he surrounds the group with a melodic flourish. Roach contributes a world-class solo at the 2:30 mark that encompasses a variety of drum accents that are vibrantly inventive for a full minute-and-a-half. Flanagan’s steady, fluid piano leads into the swing finale. There is a propulsive chemistry in the quartet and Rollins’ compositional skills are on display in this infectious tune. The tenor saxophone has always been an ideal vehicle for soulful ballad interpretation. In “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, Rollins infuses the melody with emotion.
Reverting to upbeat swing, “Strode Rode” (homage to a local Chicago jazz spot) percolates. Rollins solos backed by the quartet and at times bass and drums. Flanagan shines on a fluid solo and Max Roach is brilliant on several fills and breaks. He and Rollins sustain a flawless, rhythmic timing. The final two cuts represent the essence of Sonny Rollins. “Moritat” (the central theme from The Three Penny Opera – “Mack The Knife”) is introduced in the familiar melody structure by Rollins. Then the jam takes off. Sonny injects a creative, jazzy exploration before handing it over to Flanagan’s steady hand. Roach raises the art of drumming as he utilizes numerous stops and fills that drive the bebop musical energy. Rollins has an innate awareness of song arrangement. His version of “I’m An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)” from Way Out West would offer further proof of this. “Blue 7” is quintessential bluesy jazz. Sonny inhabits the solos with assurance and nimble dexterity. Roach’s complex tempos underscore the complexity of jazz improvisation.
The re-mastered mono mix is vibrant, enhancing the original Van Gelder recording (considered progressive at the time with its use of reverb and recessed sound on certain instruments like the piano). And this mono-re-mastering does not attempt to reposition the instrumentation. Rollins’ saxophone and Roach’s drumming are prominent. The sax tonality is smooth, but captures the sharper lower-register notation. Included are the original liner notes (printed in customary reduced print on the back cover, and thankfully, in magnified print inside the gatefold) and a safe mesh disc sleeve. The album comes in a mini-LP package with the original Prestige artwork.
Sonny Rollins has referred to jazz as “American classical music”. Colossus is nothing short of a symphony!
TrackList: St. Thomas; You Don’t Know What Love Is; Strode Rode Moritat; Blue 7