Thursday, 22 August 2013

Saxophone Colossus

My tenor-playing compatriot Alan Breen, now located in Phnom Penh, sent me the link to this noteworthy article about Sonny Rollins. Rather lengthy in this short-attention-span world, but definitely worth the read.

One of the first jazz LPs I bought when I was a college student was Saxophone Colossus, and I remember playing it sparingly because it was so great I was worried about wearing it out. Sonny is just the best ever. Imagine jamming with Bird while still a teenager and keeping up, and now at age 82 still having the urge to practice every day – to get better. One of the only times Bird recorded on tenor was alongside young Sonny on Serpent's Tooth in 1953 (try to pick out who is who on that record). Sonny has produced just too much good music through the years to credibly say that one piece, or one era, or one band, or one album is his best. I particularly love the story about the classic Tenor Madness session with John Coltrane in 1956 where Trane reputedly grumbled that Sonny was just messing with him.

Reviews of Sonny’s 1960s RCA recordings – including the article in the link above – usually focus on his comeback album The Bridge, which is a jewel but ultra-conservative for 1962. I prefer the band from later that year with Don Cherry on trumpet, and the album from the following year alongside founding father Coleman Hawkins, which I find incredible. Sonny took some unique approaches during that session – some reviewers describe them as odd – merely to emphasize that he was not Hawk. Not long ago I came across some bootlegs from Ronnie Scott’s in the mid-60s that are undiscovered fun, where Sonny shares the stage with Ronnie himself (recently-discussed master Stan Tracey is on piano).

I've had the chance to see Sonny live twice through the years; once in 1981-82 in Philly in a club where I sat so close I could have shined his shoes. That night he was smokin’. In the mid-90’s I caught Sonny at Symphony Hall in Chicago. The venue was just wrong, the sound was bad, and the tickets were expensive. That gig was a disappointment, an off night.

2011’s Road Shows Vol. 2, where fellow octogenarians Sonny and Ornette Coleman have their first-ever meeting, is notable because Sonny mirrors Ornette’s style when they play together. Unbelievable that they never performed on the same stage before this.

There is a wonderful photo of Sonny on Ellery Eskelin’s blog from about a year ago where Ellery met Sonny sitting in the waiting lounge of Detroit airport. Here is the living link to every major jazz player since Coleman Hawkins and a player who is on absolutely everyone’s best-tenor-saxophonist-in-history list flying coach class and sitting on a hard seat in the public area. This man should be up in First Class and in the VIP Room. A sad commentary on the economics of a playing horn for a living, even at the top.

According to Mark Jacobson’s article, Sonny is suffering from a lung ailment and hasn't touched his Mark VI for a couple of months. Not good news at age 82. Here’s a prayer that he makes it back. We can’t do without him.

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