Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus

Studio: MVD Entertainment Group

Aug 17, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

As the subject of the documentary film Saxophone Colossus, we are treated to an intimate portrait of the jazz giant Sonny Rollins at work and in performance, and it’s a captivating, enjoyable look into the life of one of the more understated legends from the classical jazz era. By the mid-80s, which is when documentary maker Robert Mugge decided to capture Rollins on film, the saxophonist had settled into a comfortable career and life; he had built his reputation both as a sideman and as a bandleader. Though his early years were filled with criminal activity, drug abuse, and prison stints, he quickly conquered his demons and became a better performer because of it, even though he famously walked away from music for several years on  a number of occasions. During his first sabbatical, he took to practicing on a nearby bridge—one that became the basis for jazz gossip at the time, but one that would provide him a legacy; The Simpsons’ “Bleeding Gums” Murphy’s bridge practice spot was a direct homage to Rollins.

Saxophone Colossus is built around two live performances; a late afternoon live show recorded at the Saugerties, New York Opus 40 environmental sculpture and a collaborative one-off performance in Japan. The two performance sets capture both sides of Rollins; the New York set is electric, energetic, and finds Rollins and his band floating in and out of some superb improvisations, with Rollins at one point getting so caught up in the groove, he leaps off of the six foot stage—and winds up breaking his heel in the process. But after about thirty seconds on his back, he starts playing again, and the audience goes wild.

But the really appealing portion of Saxophone Colossus is the time dedicated to his Japanese performance, where he performs Concerto For Saxophone and Symphony, a collaborative piece with Finnish musician Heikki Sarmanto and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. It’s a more meditative piece, but it’s still one that highlights Rollins’ gift for improvisation. Allowing the camera to capture him in rehearsal, one finds a man with a calm, Zen-like approach to performing—one that translates to the stage, as he performs the Concerto with a relaxed, calm, cool continence—even though he admits it’s a new experience for him and he is slightly nervous about how or if it will work.

At 87, Sonny Rollins no longer performs, but his legacy has yet to waver; his records have remained in print—the vinyl renaissance has been particularly kind to him—and his star has yet to fade. Saxophone Colossus is a superb documentation of the jazz titan in the latter part of his career, still a viable musical powerhouse, and a quiet, spiritual wisdom as a reward for those who watch. 


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