Tenor Madness: Sonny Rollins in 1956

Sonny Rollins’ saxophone playing is courageous, relaxing, humorous and impeccably strong all at once. You’ll find these aspects in a single solo. Remarkably consistent not just from note to note or track to track, but throughout his entire career, Rollins was making great albums in the ‘50s and he continued making great albums into the ‘80s.

He’s one of the rare musicians in American history — a select pantheon that consists of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and maybe that’s it — who never once lost a step their entire life. And even Sonny never had a dry spell like mid- ‘60s Davis or ’76 – ’89 Dylan.

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His ascension to superstardom began in 1956, with four now-classic LPs that represented everything he was capable of. Moving Out explodes off the tee like Tiger Woods in his prime, the energy never abating from fiery title track to Monk-collab closer “More Than You Know.” Like Tiger, Rollins wasn’t just an unstoppable force, he could do everything well — putting, chipping and scrambling when need be.

Peak Tiger dominated any course you threw at him, from Pebble Beach to Bethpage Black. Likewise, Rollins was comfortable in any lineup, able to carry the load and then share the spotlight like a true team player. He carves it up with the Max Roach quartet on Work Time and trades solo lead-offs with Clifford Brown on Sonny Rollins Plus 4.

But it is his seminal Tenor Madness LP in which Rollins’ star burns brightest.

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Famous for the title track collaboration with a budding John Coltrane, Tenor Madness features Rollins and his cohorts firing on all cylinders. Playing with Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet (Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones), Rollins leads a tight ensemble brimming with energy. The recording is vibrant, and the tenor saxophone tones are full of warmth and full-bodied color, as if the instrument is gently whispering in your ear.

This isn’t madness, this is serene beauty. Which is madness, in a sense, I guess. Rollins’ talent is insane, and he scores birdies (if not eagles) on every one of the five Tenor Madness tracks. Consider this to be his ’97 Masters.

*Disclaimer: for whatever reason, I was listening to Saxophone Colossus on my way to play golf one time, and now I always associate Sonny Rollins with golf. Hopefully the references weren’t too forced*

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