Book Review: Saxophone Colossus

Cover of Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins - Aidan Levy - 9780306902802

This deep dive biographical book about the legendary jazz artist Sonny Rollins is itself, colossal. Saxophone Colossus, by Aidan Levy, is more than 700 pages long, and Levy uses those pages to explore many elements of Rollins’ life on the stage and in the world.

What comes through clear is how inventive Rollins was as an artist, how he found a way through clean living and philosophical ideals, and how he was never satisfied with his work, always pushing himself, even into his late 70s and early 80s, to find the sound and the “chords” he was seeking.

There’s a famous story of his Bridge Year, when Sonny removed himself from the jazz scene in New York, and spent nearly two years in isolation from other musicians, practicing constantly on a bridge, using the ambient reverb and the quiet space to explore his saxophone and his sound. The sabbatical changed him, and when he re-emerged, he was soloing on yet another level.

Rollins could be a tough leader of bands, firing as many people as he hired, but he could be generous, too, with young musicians, using the stage to show how ideas could float in and out of one’s music, with style and propulsion. Rollins was known to play for hours at gigs, even playing during breaks in sets in the back area of bars and performing spaces.

This book does get a bit deep into the nuts and bolts of Sonny’s days — maybe a bit too much for the casual jazz fan, at times — but the moments where Rollins creativity and imagination shine in Levy’s writing are magical and transformative, and he is rightly hailed as one of the jazz greats, a player who bridged the days into the modern era, and helped reshape American music, again and again.

Rollins, 93, is retired now, removing himself from the music scene in his 80s when health and age made touring too much to handle. I saw him play in Boston about 20 years ago, and his performance still resonates with me, particularly the way he moved across the stage and was playful with his solos, enticing the listener to follow his journey on each and every song.

Peace (Sounds Like Jazz),

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