Sonny Rollins was 25 when he recorded Saxophone Colossusand had recently been a member of the Max Roach band with trumpet great Clifford Brown, born only a month after Rollins. Brown lived drug-free and served as a lifelong example to Rollins that he could live clean. Only days after Saxophone Colossus was made, Brown died in a car accident. It’s easy to hear “St. Thomas” and think of Brownie dancing in heaven and reminding Rollins he could succeed.
I pull this LP off the shelf when I need an antidote for poorly recorded music, which happens with great regularity.
Saxophone Colossusis too life-affirming for film noir, too subtle and refined for Samuel Fuller or Sam Peckinpah. I see it fitting in well with something a little offbeat like Pedro Almodovar’s Volver. I hear “You Don’t Know What Love Is” as Penelope Cruz disposes of her husband’s body, or “Moritat (Mack the Knife)” as the widows dust off gravestones in the opening scene.
Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus was recorded during June 1956 in Rudy Van Gelder’s “studio” that that time was in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey and released later that year on Prestige Records, bearing its yellow label with a 446 W. 50thStreet address. Beat-up originals fetch hundreds of dollars. Near-mint copies are extraordinarily rare and come with sky-is-the-limit costs. In addition to the rarity and great music, many jazz fans feel the early Hackensack recordings sound better than anything Van Gelder did later.
Saxophone Colossus is easily among the greatest sets recorded by Rollins, accompanied here by pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Max Roach, and bassist Doug Watkins. And what’s a Sonny Rollins set without a rendition of “St. Thomas,” and this version is as good as it gets. I’ve heard Rollins play it many times live, but never with more magic than he conjured in 1956. Each of the five tunes here proves equally astonishing.
Indeed, while “essential” jazz recordings abound, Saxophone Colossus rides somewhere close to the top of the list. Rollins stands as one of the greatest improvisers in all recorded jazz and constantly worked on changing his music, intensely aware of John Coltrane coming up fast on his stature as jazz’s premier tenor saxophonist. You can hear it in this record as a nervous energy, yet his tone and style remain completely accessible. Even when he explored a more “out there” approach on some of his RCA recordings, he was still immediately recognizable. Rollins remains beloved by both listeners looking for beautiful sound as well as the snobbish jazz aficionado for whom only “new” jazz will do. His marriage of spirituality with terrific discipline and technique ensure his sound will never go out of favor.
Prestige jazz recordings from the 1950s—especially from the middle of the decade, and like Van Gelder’s recordings for Blue Note—define what most jazz record collectors expect a great recording to sound like. Who needed stereo recordings when a mono recording can sound so three-dimensional? Saxophone Colossusstands as one of the best from the period. It was hard to believe it would ever sound better than an original yellow-label pressing. Such thinking was shattered when Analogue Productions introduced its first wave of two-disc 45RPM sets of Prestige titles in 2002. Followed a few years later by Music Matters reissues, the series demonstrated there was more on the tapes than was made evident from the vinyl original pressings. The LPs show more soundstage depth, better instrument separation, and more detail. Not detail in the digital sense, but detail that makes instruments sound more like the real thing. Once again, I was convinced Saxophone Colossuscould never sound better, and once again, I was wrong.
Since 2002, mastering facilities like those helmed by Kevin Gray have improved. Analogue Productions’ 33RPM mastering produces an even larger soundstage with better depth. Add to that the fact that the new packaging is far superior to the 45RPM issue, and this one-disc package is Sonny Rollins nirvana. Hold on to your original pressing if you must for its value as a talisman, but play the 33RPM AP edition. And forget about the OJC pressing. The bass sounds like it’s under a blanket, the drum sounds synthetic, the instruments bleed into each other, and Rollins’ horn distorts when he blows hard.
Last chance to change your mind...