In 2017, Saxophone Colossus was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant."
There are five tracks on the album, three of which are credited to Rollins. "St. Thomas" is a calypso-inspired piece named after Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The tune is traditional and had already been recorded by Randy Weston in 1955 under the title "Fire Down There". (In the booklet provided with the boxed set, The Complete Prestige Recordings, Rollins makes it clear that it was the record company that insisted on his taking credit.) In any case, the piece has since become a jazz standard, and this is its most famous recorded version.
Finally, "Blue 7" is a blues, over eleven minutes long. Its main, rather disjunct melody was spontaneously composed. The performance is among Rollins' most acclaimed, and is the subject of an article by Gunther Schuller entitled "Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation". Schuller praises Rollins on "Blue 7" for the use of motivic development exploring and developing melodic themes throughout his three solos, so that the piece is unified, rather than being composed of unrelated ideas.
Sonny Rollins recorded many memorable sessions during 1954-1958, but Saxophone Colossus is arguably his finest all-around set. Joined by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Max Roach, Rollins debuts and performs the definitive version of "St. Thomas," tears into the chord changes of "Mack the Knife" (here called "Moritat"), introduces "Strode Rode," is lyrical on "You Don't Know What Love Is," and constructs a solo on "Blue Seven" that practically defines his style. Essential music that, as with all of Rollins' Prestige recordings, has also been reissued as part of a huge "complete" box set; listeners with a tight budget are advised to pick up this single disc and be amazed.
Rollins remains one of the most popular draws on the international jazz circuit, and the qualities that have led to him being dubbed "the greatest living improviser" are still abundantly audible. Last November, at London's Barbican Hall in the city's annual jazz festival, Rollins played without a break for an hour and three-quarters. He rolled through characteristically rough-hewn ballads, blearily soulful blues, unquenchable uptempo bebop runs in double-time full of mocking, police-siren warbles and boneshaking low notes, and wound up on his signature calypso, Don't Stop The Carnival. It was the kind of tour de force this saxophone colossus has been delivering for half a century.
The phrase "saxophone colossus" regularly comes up when Rollins is discussed – not just because he continues to be one, but because the album of that title was the high point of the astonishing creative breakout he made in 1956. Through a succession of improvisational masterpieces that year, his torrential inventiveness began to inspire sax-players everywhere, including John Coltrane. Though he had been the dominant partner in recordings with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk that had begun several years before, it was from early 1956 that Rollins really took off. The saxophonist's personal merging of tenor-founder Coleman Hawkins's big-toned gravitas and harmonic sophistication, Charlie Parker's uptempo intensity, and Lester Young's lyricism opened a new chapter of jazz soloing possibilities on a saxophone. During this period Rollins had joined trumpeter Clifford Brown, pianist Richie Powell, bassist George Morrow and former Charlie Parker drummer Max Roach in a group that, under Roach's and Brown's joint leadership, became one of the standard-bearers of a pungent new jazz style dubbed "hard bop". In the clip above, you can hear that band in March 1956 on the Rollins original, Valse Hot.
Rollins's powers seemed to be expanding by the week in this period, and in May he made the Tenor Madness album with fellow saxophonist John Coltrane and Miles Davis's rhythm section of the time. Then in June came Saxophone Colossus. The most thematically interesting and improvisationally unfettered Rollins recording of that year, it featured the calypso St Thomas (the saxophonist's parents came from the Virgin Islands, and calypsos remain a feature of his music still), a reworking of Mack the Knife as the drily eloquent Moritat and a long, steadily-building, tonally colourful and intricate improvisation on a mid-tempo blues (Blue Seven) that came to be widely regarded as one of the great recorded jazz solos.
This eruption of spontaneous music didn't come from nowhere. Rollins had immense natural gifts, but he also grew up in Harlem in the 1930s with some of the most famous musicians of the day - including Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins - living around the corner, and pianist Thelonious Monk was a childhood friend who opened his ears to unusual melodies and harmony. Rollins led a high school band that included the Charlie Parker-ish alto saxist Jackie McLean, and Miles Davis was a regular playing partner between 1949 and 1954. After that, the saxophonist was ready to run his own show, as he has done ever since - though the tragic deaths of Clifford Brown and Richie Powell in a car crash, just days after Saxophone Colossus was recorded, undoubtedly brought a shattered Rollins's career as an ensemble sideman to an end sooner that he could have imagined.
1 St. Thomas 6:45
2 You Don't Know What Love Is 6:28
3 Strode Rode 5:13
4 Moritat 10:04
5 Blue Seven 11:17
Sonny Rollins — tenor saxophone
Tommy Flanagan — piano
Doug Watkins — bass
Max Roach — drums