Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

“Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins” by John Abbott and Bob Blumenthal (Abrams)

There have been a great many tributes in celebration of Theodore Walter Rollins’ 80th birthday this year, but few may prove to hold as much permanent value as this absolutely gorgeous book.

There are relatively few jazz musicians whose importance to the world at large is so great as to justify the publication of a photographic coffee-table art book. What’s more, there are very few photographers who have devoted as much time and skill to documenting an individual jazz musician as John Abbott has with Sonny Rollins. When you couple dozens of beautifully composed, shot, and printed photographs with Bob Blumenthal’s eminently readable, consistently insightful, and thoughtfully conceived series of essays on Rollins, the result is a book to peruse and to treasure.

Sonny Rollins is indeed a colossus of the tenor saxophone, but jazz-astute readers will have already made the connection to Rollins’ classic 1956 quartet LP, “Saxophone Colossus.” Blumenthal has structured his text after the album, with each chapter/essay being thematically inspired by one of the five tracks on the LP.

Thus, chapter 1 of the book is entitled “St. Thomas”, a tune which at one time was credited to Rollins, but which he readily acknowledged many years ago was an adaptation from a Caribbean tune, meant to represent his family ties to the Virgin Islands and Haiti. Blumenthal uses the tune as an example of Rollins’ “assertive” approach to rhythm. Though he first recorded with singer Babs Gonzalez in 1949 while still a teenager, It was Rollins’ assertiveness which attracted attention while playing with Miles Davis in 1951. In an era in which the initial fire of bebop was mellowing down to the cool approach introduced by Davis in 1948, it was Rollins who, along with such musicians as Horace Silver and Art Blakey, opened the door for the more aggressive “hard bop” sound which eventually established itself as the jazz mainstream for many years to come.

Though Rollins’ surprisingly names Fats Waller as his earliest influence, Chapter 2, “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, delves into the far greater impact Coleman Hawkins had on Rollins’ big tone and improvisational choices. (Secondary influences included Ben Webster, Don Byas, and Lester Young.) Blumenthal notes also that Hawkins was the first jazz musician to achieve and maintain a high level of popularity without having to resort to the trappings of show-biz, thus acting as the role model for all subsequent jazzmen who saw themselves as dignified, serious artists, rather then entertainers. By recording the pop ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, Rollins was in a sense showing the effect of Hawkins, jazz balladeer extraordinaire, on musicians whose primary concern was their music, rather than catering to the whims of a fickle audience.

Chapter 3, “Strode Rose”, leads Blumenthal to consider “Saxophone Colossus” as a “well-made jazz recording.” Due to the relative lack of sales potential, many of the jazz LP’s of the 1950’s were ill-rehearsed blowing sessions. Musicians who did not play together regularly were thrown into a studio for three hours, often without prior rehearsal. A series of tunes and/or chord sequences (often “borrowed” from other tunes) was agreed upon, and the tape started rolling. Recording sessions were a chance to pick up some quick money by blowing extended improvisations without a great deal of forethought. It’s a small miracle that so many of these blowing sessions are still entertaining, and indeed strike many people (such as myself) as far more listenable than over-produced, carefully arranged, yet bloodless modern recordings. Certainly, Rollins played on his share of blowing sessions. Still, “Strode Rode” stands apart from the average tune on this sort of album in that it IS, like so many of Rollins’ originals, actually “original”, i.e., a fully-realized, carefully considered composition. Blumenthal’s analysis of the tune is as fascinating as it is effective.

In chapter 4, “Moritat” (the original U.S. title, shortened from the German, for the Kurt Weill song better known as “Mack the Knife”), Blumenthal tells us that Rollins chose to record the piece out of personal preference, rather than as a nod to the commercial market. Indeed, he points out that Rollins has often chosen to record tunes that many other musicians of his caliber would consider trivial, simply because he likes them. He also credits Rollins’ frequent quotations of well-known melodies within his improvisations to his sense of humor, as well as to their “suggestive and melodic shapes.”

Chapter 5, “Blue 7”, is built around a tune that was instantly composed (improvised) on the spot by a combo that existed solely for a three-hour recording session. However, it has transcended its blowing session origins to become a cohesive, fully unified jazz classic. Blumenthal connects “Blue 7” to the subsequent “Freedom Suite”, which thus allows him to get into a discussion of Rollins’ political views, as expressed in his music. He also talks about Rollins’ infamous unannounced sabbaticals, during which he spent his time practicing and reflecting on both his music and his life.

There is much to ruminate on in Blumenthal’s text. But despite my emphasis on the musical aspects of the book, I must once again commend John Abbott for his photos, which dominate the book as a whole. He has an exceptional eye for color coordination (a sense I am sorely lacking, which is why I am so impressed when I see the work of someone who has mastered color). He also has a finely developed sense of line, posing the saxophone as carefully as he poses Rollins himself in the studio portraits. He also is skilled at capturing facial expressions (even at a sideways glance) in the live-performance shots.

The photographs, the text, and of course the man and the music under consideration all combine to make this an exceptional book of its kind. Highly recommended.

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