Sonny Rollins

Tenor MadnessTenor Madness
St. ThomasSaxophone Colossus
Blue 7Saxophone Colossus
Sonnymoon For TwoA Night At The Village Vanguard
The Freedom SuiteFreedom Suite
God Bless The ChildThe Bridge
Autumn NocturneThe Standard Sonny Rollins
Alfie's ThemeAlfie
Don't Stop The CarnivalDon't Stop The Carnival
A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley SquareThis Is What I Do


Sonny Rollins playlist



Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Let’s just get it out of the way right off the bat that, while Sonny Rollins has done some incredible work on the 25 or so albums he has been listed on as a sideman, I’m going to have enough trouble trimming this list down to 10 pieces while looking at only the 50 studio albums Sonny has recorded in his own name. So while he and Miles did some great work together in the early 1950s, and one of the side effects of the untimely deaths of Clifford Brown and Richie Powell is Rollins and Brown didn’t get to grow together into a first rate horn section within the Roach-Brown Quintet, forget about those albums. At least for the sake of this list as 50 Albums is more than enough to work from.

Sonny Rollins starting playing sax when his age was in the single digits, although he played alto throughout most of his young years, only switching to tenor in his last year of High School. And by that time he was already in a band with Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor. Which was certainly a better line up than was in most of our High School bands.

He wasn’t much out of High School when he signed on as a sideman for a mostly now forgotten singer named Babs Gonzales. What made this an important job was future jazz trombone legend J.J. Johnson did the arranging for the group and quickly introduced Rollins to Bud Powell, who used the young sax man on some recording sessions.

In the early 1950s he began to record under his own name, running off a number of classic albums in the middle part of the decade. During this time he introduced a number of style choices into jazz that stuck and have become part of the genre. His use of calypso and Caribbean stylings have long been part of his music, largely one would guess as both of his parents were born in the Virgin Islands and it was very much the music of his childhood. Those island sounds soon found themselves working themselves into other jazz musicians’ work as well. In the late 1950s he became one of the first to use bass and drums, and more specifically no piano, as the backing group for his saxophone. It was a technique that became know as ‘strolling’; I assume as some of the first efforts within this technique saw Rollins covering some country and western tunes. It was a style he became well known for although he eventually went back to working with pianists a few years later.

While not quite the same kind of stylistic choice, Rollins also became well known for taking standards, some say very boring standards, and stretching them out as long improvisational pieces. Whether he saw it as a challenge or not, it’s obvious and frequent enough not to be ignored. He has always been his harshest critic, to the extent on a couple occasions he dropped out for a couple of years to work on his playing, which he felt wasn’t achieving the sound he wanted.

One such time occurred from 1959-1961. Legend has it he was working on his technique on a bridge near his house because a neighbor was expecting and he didn’t want to bother her. What’s factual is writer Ralph Berton walked by and he realized he was witnessing Sonny Rollins, who hadn’t played or recorded in public for two years, wailing away on a bridge. So he of course wrote an article that was published in Metronome. A year later, Rollins released an album he named The Bridge, and over the years there have been attempts to rename the bridge, which still stands on the lower east side of Manhattan, after him.

The 1960s were full of musical exploration and a side journey into the avant garde genre of jazz before vanishing for another couple of years, and not releasing an album for six years. He spent a good deal of time during this go around in a monastery in India studying yoga and meditation, which he had started practicing during the earlier bridge sabbatical some ten years before.

Like many jazz musicians he found himself drawn to R&B and funk in the 1970s and 1980s, although for a time in the mid 1970s he added bagpipes to his band. He also moved into soloing a lot more, even releasing albums of just unaccompanied solos.

Along the way he has picked up at least ten honorary doctorates, Grammy Awards, National Medal of the Arts, has been elected to every Jazz Hall of Fame available, and of course was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art.

Tenor Madness was from his fifth album, released in 1956, also called Tenor Madness. As with so many jazz albums in the 1950s and 1960s his backing group was full of people who the next week might be leading their own recording session. Red Garland was on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. What made the twelve minute plus piece such a must listen, as well as being historically important, is it’s the only known recording featuring Rollins and John Coltrane. What I find so unique about the piece, and I’m hardly the first to notice or mention it, is in no way does it sound like two young saxophone giants going at it. No competition, no show me what you got, just some really beautiful playing. And they sound so different. Rollins is so smooth, while Trane is clearly going for a more rollicking and almost tumultuous sound, although not quite unruly. And they work together. It’s a must listen just for its historical value. But it’s a good twelve minutes of jazz.

For my money Saxophone Colossus is in the top ten or so jazz albums of all time, it’s that good. When I started making this list out I initially jotted down all five pieces from the album before settling on just two.

It’s also as good a time as any to address a rumor that had been around for years that Rollins was not above stealing credit on some of his early tunes, that were clearly compositions from other musicians that had been just recently recorded. Rollins has addressed this over the years, and on one of the upcoming compositions, explaining the record company insisted he have writing credits on some of the songs. I’d assume as at the time jazz musicians were supposed to be writing their own material.

St. Thomas was originally a traditional English children’s ballad, although some point to a version written and recorded by Randy Weston as Fire Down There the year before as being closer to St. Thomas. But while Weston incorporated some Caribbean music into his earlier work it had nothing of the calypso swing that Rollins used in his version. They are incredibly different pieces. St. Thomas has Rollins attacking in a staccato style using a repetitive rhythmic pattern that really seems the same notes over and over, before breaking out in runs opening up the pattern. In some ways it shouldn’t work but it does. Another must listen.

Blue 7 finishes the album as the first song I mentioned opens it. The song is so significant in Rollins’ history that noted jazz journalist Gunther Schuller wrote an entire article, “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”, on the piece. In his article Schuller points out that Rollins’ way of developing the piece allows the three solos and developing melodic themes within them to come off as a unified piece, and not just three solos connected through different means. Plus, like so much of Rollins’ work from this period, Max Roach was the drummer. And I do love Max Roach (see Toppermost #246).

Sonnymoon For Two, from 1957’s A Night At The Village Vanguard, is one of only two live pieces on my list. Although many have argued that Sonny Live and Sonny in the Studio are two different things. as live he is much more free and unrestrained. The beginning of the composition simply reminds me of trying to climb a hill and continuing to fall back as you make headway.

On 1958’s Freedom Suite, Rollins spent the entirety of side one and a little over nineteen minutes on the composition of the same name, The Freedom Suite. He uses the repeating rhythms he was somewhat know for but it’s also so very obvious why he is considered a cerebral improviser. The directions he heads in aren’t about doing white hot solos in the Bird vein, but instead there are a lot of technical innovations seemingly off the cuff. One gets the sense he is growing as a composer, which may explain why he shortly took a two year break after this recording. He was frustrated he couldn’t create the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Sonny Rollins, as I said, didn’t release a single album in 1959-1961, after releasing 20 as a leader from 1953-1958. He came back in 1962 with The Bridge, playing off the story of being caught practicing on a bridge by a journalist. I’m honestly not the fan of it that some are, and I’ve seen reviews putting it among the all-time great jazz albums. It’s not; it’s good but it isn’t classic good. While most love the title track I’m more a fan of God Bless The Child, a lovely rendition of the classic Billie Holiday song. He’s recorded it numerous times, but this has always been my favorite.

Rollins spent most of the early 1960s in the avant garde before finishing his time at RCA Victor with the album of standards on the well named The Standard Sonny Rollins. Oddly enough, I usually find the least known song on the album, Autumn Nocturne, my favorite. And truthfully I can’t put my finger on why. I love the intro, and he was still playing with the strolling technique using only drums and bass to back him up on the track. It’s just a good listen.

The theme from Alfie rounds out the 1960s, but it is important to point out it was not the film version but the version he re-recorded for his album of the same name. This version features J.J. Johnson, alto saxophonist Phil Woods and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Burrell really makes all the difference as his playing is certainly more fluid that in the original version. It isn’t so much that Rollins played better on the second version as much as the band was considerably better. And it shows.

Don’t Stop The Carnival from the live album of the same name is really his best piece from the late 1970s, on an album that has little else to offer really. Not that Rollins was losing his touch, it’s simply a live album from a night that for the most part shouldn’t have been released. Although this piece, which seems a bit more up tempo than his usual work, is a piece worth hearing.

In some ways 2001’s This Is What I Do was a comeback for Rollins. After about fifteen years of albums reviewed as “pleasant music and good playing, but nothing special” he released a Grammy Award winning album. After not having anything exceptional for years from Rollins, just good, he came out with another exceptional release. I love the slow easy playing of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. In large part, as everything else on this list finds Rollins leading the way with his sax, it’s the first thing you hear. In this instance you have a piano intro and Rollins comes in soft and soothing and doesn’t dominate the piece. It’s really a late favorite.

Obviously, half of my ten songs came from the mid 1950s. This is not to say that the rest of his career is not worth listening to. In fact, I’d argue 40+ of his 50 studio albums are worth a frequent listen. Very few have had his consistent quality, although he still changed a few times over the years.

That said, go buy Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus from the mid 1950s.


Sonny Rollins official website

Sonny Rollins discography

“Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins” by Bob Blumenthal (Abrams, 2010)

Sonny Rollins biography (Apple Music)

This is Calvin’s 35th Toppermost. His fifth book, “The Akron Sound”, will be released by The History Press this fall. In it Calvin will be telling the story of the “Akron Sound” a short-lived period in the 70s and early 1980s when Akron, Ohio was arguably one of the more important regions in the Midwest of the United States in the Punk Rock/New Wave scene. Devo, Chrissie Hynde and the Waitresses, as well as lesser known acts such as the Rubber City Rebels, Tin Huey, Unit 5, Hammer Damage, the Numbers Band and the Bizarros who found themselves on the cusp of stardom, dominated Akron’s music scene. Calvin is also the Archivist and Contributing Author for the Akron Sound Museum, which celebrates the history of Akron Music from the early 1960s to the present.

TopperPost #659


  1. Keith Shackleton
    Sep 26, 2017

    Great job. I don’t know how you managed to commit to ten 🙂 The albums I play most are Contemporary Leaders and Way Out West, so I’d have to choose something from those but.. what a task.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Sep 26, 2017

      Kind of felt it needed to be done, but yes I feel I could have done another set of ten and have been just as satisfied.

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