Even before this album was released Sonny Rollins already had an accomplished career. He just released the classic Tenor Madness and to follow that up with Saxophone Colossus is simply amazing. Saxophone Colossus is arguably Rollins’ best work, but what can’t be argued is this album cemented Rollins’ place in Jazz. With the help of Doug Watkins on bass, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Max Roach on drums, and Sonny Rollins on the sax this quartet is one for the ages. The album is just 5 tracks long and under 40 minutes, but it is timeless. So let us begin with the latin/calypso inspired track “St. Thomas”.
The album begins with the latin jazz standard “St. Thomas” this track is a classic and begins with Max Roach laying down the foundation of the latin groove. The melody has hits throughout with Flanagan landing on chords as the melody is accented. Max Roach plays fills in between the melody this track is a great example of the quartet working together in perfect harmony. Everyone has a role and everyone is executing their job, thus, creating a wonderful tune. Sonny’s solo is a prime example that space and rhythm are just as important as the notes. He starts slow and keeps playing around with a rhythmic idea until he feels he has gotten all he could from it, then off he goes. After Rollins solos the quartet stops playing and Max Roach improvises.This is a nice touch since drums usually solo last and bring the solos to a close. After Max Roach solos Sonny continues to solo and the rest of the quartet accompanies him once again. Flanagan solos next and with a different approach, more notes and it swings a bit more as well, Max Roach keeps the latin calypso feel going. After Flanagan solos we are back to the head. Again, this track is a prime example of the quartet collaborating and working together to not only make this track sound good, but create a standard that is still played and loved to this day.
After that latin tune we take a left turn and the ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” plays. The ballad is given a very somber feel and, if it was my guess, that is exactly how Sonny Rollins intended it. Slow, long, powerful, notes the tracks gloom towers over you. The solos play off of this feel and it sounds hauntingly beautiful. After “You Don’t Know What Love is” the album goes in another direction and we pick up the tempo with “Strode Rode”. This track is played very staccato and faster then anything else on this record. The solos by Sonny Rollins and Flanagan are both pretty fast with lots of bebop licks in their solos. There are also a lot of hits from Max Roach in between solos and they sound amazing. He also interacts with Rollins during his solos and adjusts when Flanagan solos. Max Roach is an elite drummer and this track is a prime example of that. One of my favorite parts of this track is when Max Roach and Rollins solo back and forth each one finishing the other musicians thoughts. It’s collaboration at it’s finest and a great way to end the solos.
Following “Strode Rode” is the standard “Moritat” nice song in a medium swing tempo. Once again more great use of space by Rollins in his solo. The dynamics stay the same throughout except for Flanagan’s solo, every one gets quieter and Flanagan has a wonderful solo. Again, these musicians are not on “auto pilot” they are listening to each other and responding and reacting to what the other ones are doing. This song also has Rollins and Max soloing back and forth which I enjoy very much, the more Max Roach the better. Also if you pay attention Rollins plays a lick he used in “You Don’t Know What Love Is ” on this track as well. This track also contains a solo by Doug Watkins on bass which is very melodic and a nice touch to this song. The album concludes with Blue 7 which, surprise, is a blues. This song is one of my favorites and a perfect way to end this album. Watkins is just walking on the bass, Roach is on the drums, and Rollins comes in cool, laid back, and as bluesy as possible. Rollins continues to play off melodic ideas throughout his solo adding blues riffs in the appropriate places. Flanagan is as bluesy as ever and Roach has a memorable solo on drums playing in a triplet feel and as he concludes his solo Rollins gives his playing a similar feel. We come back to the original melody and Rollins plays around and manipulates it, the track ends with Roach lightly drumming as the album ends.
This album is a classic and arguably Sonny Rollins at his prime. I love this album because it has everything you could want. Want medium swing? a ballad? uptempo swing? some blues? a latin tune? This album has all that. This album has 4 virtuoso musicians playing and collaborating at a high level. Saxophone Colossus, the album title says it all, with this album Rollins established himself as a jazz giant. And now, at 82, Rollins is still among one of Jazz greats. Go see Rollins live if you haven’t already it’s a night you will not forget I assure you. And, as always, thank you for staying in The Jazz Loop.